To Do List
To Do List

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.

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