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What do you do every day that's holding your organization back?

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Somebody shared this article in one of the fundraising LinkedIn groups in which I participate. The authors lead with this story that I suspect all of you can relate to:

According to military folklore, shortly before World War II the US and British armies conducted a joint exercise and came to a strange realization: The American artillery team fired just a little bit faster than the British squad every time. They analyzed the process and found that just before the British would fire, several soldiers would step back and pause for a second. They would wait until the gun fired, and then rejoin their team to reload.

No one was certain why this hitch was part of the process. When asked, the soldiers simply explained, “That’s how we were trained to do it.” The military asked several experts to get to the bottom of the slowdown. But no one could figure it out until a veteran from the Second Boer War finally provided the answer. He watched the process, thought about it for a minute, and then explained: “I know what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re holding the horses.”

Because back when teams of horses pulled the guns to the battlefield, if no one stepped back to hold the horses’ reins, the animals would bolt at the sound of the shot. Amazingly—decades after horses were no longer involved—the practice carried on.

Having set up this powerful metaphor, the authors go on to ask questions about what orthodoxies philanthropic foundations are really just "holding the horses." And they're good questions. But they could just as easily be applied to the organizations those foundations fund.

What "holding the horses" procedures are in place in your organization?

  • Do your fundraisers spend a disproportionate amount of time on things that do not ultimately bring in a significant amount of money? Maybe they are writing grants (or reports after grants) 60% of the time when 90% of our budget is paid for by individual donations. Maybe they're constantly being distracted by involvement in parts of the organization that are outside their core capacity. Maybe they spend all year trying to juggle fundraising with other work when a three-month focused blitz would get better results.
  • Do your development and communications teams operate in separate silos? It's an open question whether these should even be distinct teams; some larger organizations I've worked with have opted to combine them into a single constituent engagement team that's focused on starting, developing, and maintaining strong relationships using every tool in the organization's arsenal. Others, though, would improve drastically if the two separate teams simply worked off the same calendar and touched base once a month.
  • Where are you finding your new donors, and how are you approaching them? Are your entry points, awareness funnels, and development pipelines actually working, or are you relying too much on a more or less stagnant donor base that could eventually get burned out?
  • Do you personally spend a lot of your time on things that detract from your ability to do your job well, or feel fulfilled at work? Not to sound too Gen Y or anything, but I know very talented EDs and development directors who spend literally 80% of their time doing things that detract from both, either by holding them back from accomplishing things that would give them a win that day or by keeping them away from the part of their job they are best at. And those things tend to go together. When a development director whose core skill is people spends all her time in a CRM or calendar or spreadsheet, she doesn't enjoy her job, and rarely does anything that makes her feel she's doing it well. End result over time: dramatically diminished productivity and a smaller budget--but she sees no way out. Consider reviewing what's really necessary vs. what's just "holding the horses," and creatively rethinking the parts that are really necessary--who should do them, how can they be done more efficiently, etc.

Try spending half an hour mentally reviewing how your organization operates. What areas might be "holding the horses," and how would you know whether they really are (or whether they make sense but need to be tweaked)?

Sometimes we find an outside perspective is helpful for seeing these kinds of areas accurately--please feel free to get in touch if my team can help with that.



Is donor retention on the rise?

The Fundraising Effectiveness Project (FEP) has released the findings from their latest survey. I found the results on the blog of the awesome folks at Bloomerang, so kudos to them. The 2014 report summarizes data from 3,576 survey respondents, covering year-to-year fundraising results for 2012-2013. A few things to notice:

  • Respondents raised over $2.44 billion from 2.2 million donors
  • For every $100 gained, $92 was lost from lapsed donors and smaller gifts from current donors (up from negative $19 in 2009)
  • For every 100 new and returning donors, 102 lapsed (a +3 improvement from last year’s report)
  • 43% of 2012 donors made gifts to participating nonprofits in 2013 (up from 39% in last year’s report)



The scary people who frighten your donors away


At the Nonprofit Marketing Guide, Claire Meyerhoff has a great piece on the scary people who are frightening your donors away. Spoiler: it might be you.

Claire describes some "gory scenes." Here are two that especially made me bang my head against the table because I've seen them too many times:

  • The newsletter that initially had a heart-warming front-page photo of a volunteer and child planting flowers in your hospital’s community garden – but then your boss told you to swap it out for a photo of five board members lined up like smiling soldiers.
  • The end of year appeal that was succinct, upbeat had a clear call to action and engaging ask until it was over-edited and your Executive Director dealt the final blow – he added a paragraph at the top. It “explained” what you do and gave the letter “context,” he said.

The ED happens to be the bad guy in both these examples, but a more useful takeaway is to make sure you have good communications people on your team, and make sure you listen to them.

I'd add this: the goal is to get communications people who understand fundraising--still better, lose those distinctions and combined those old-school departments into a single constituent relations team that uses everything in the book to manage donor attraction and relations (social, email, snail, ads, events, conversations, etc.).

Off-topic side note: when you hire a photographer for events, beg and plead for him/her to get candids. If you can get a photographer who specializes in photojournalism, so much the better. Those shots of people "lined up like smiling soldiers" almost never end up getting used by a competent communications director.



What nonprofits could learn from LEGO

the_lego_movie2014 If you're like most nonprofits, you haven't asked your donors for ideas recently. If ever. Maybe a major donor in conversation if you know him really well. But if you think about asking your whole list--well, either you worry about the deluge of criticism, or you figure you know your business better than they do.

And yet, as Anna Pikovsky Auerbach writes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

A few years ago, a Harvard Business Review article explained that customers want a shared purpose with corporations, not be bystanders. They want to feel like they are important, are a part of something, and have influence. In fact, customers are now integral to product development and innovation, and crowd-sourcing has become a commonplace method of gathering solutions, ideas, and funding. For example, one way that LEGO innovates is through its LEGO Ideas portal, which allows enthusiasts to submit ideas and share feedback, accelerating the company’s product-innovation cycle.

One of my clients has a very loyal core donor base that the client has done a great job keeping engaged socially. That means the donors know each other and interact with each other (generally they met through the organization). I've noticed that when I spend time with them, especially in twos and threes, ideas tend to get generated. But how many of those work their way up so the decision makers hear about them?

Things to think about:

  1. Do your donors know each other? If not, how could you be creating opportunities for friendships to be built so that your organization is a hub of creative energy rather than merely a source of it? (That's a lot less pressure on you!)
  2. Are you asking them for input? Not just "how are we doing," but actual creative input. Where should we be looking for new donors? Are we communicating our identity and our story in a way that you think works? How could we improve our programs? Are there ways in which you'd like to feel more a part of the picture--and what can we do about that?
  3. Is there a mechanism for getting and implementing new ideas from outside? This could be as simple as an occasional email or Facebook post asking for ideas. It could be a webform on your site that invites input. Or it could be built into your organizational DNA so that it's a part of every conversation everybody has with everybody else. Regardless, think about how an idea would turn into reality if you liked it--who would need to see it, who would need to sign off on it, how would the process keep moving?

Are there things you've done in this arena that you recommend to others? Consider sharing them in the comments or tweeting them to @BrianBrownSF.