I launched this effort with the help of previously incarcerated people, their family members, and leading voices in the movement to improve the criminal justice system. In 2020, this group led a Kickstarter to publish the book, launch this Web site, and form the foundation of the DTO community.You can learn more about the project at DaddysTimeOut.com.
The book itself was co-created with children’s therapists and family counselors who deeply understood the challenges facing these children, and it has been endorsed by both progressives (Equal Justice USA) and conservatives (Charles Koch Institute). To see more of our endorsements and testimonials, click here.
I am proud to share that the book is now available on Amazon here:
I have pledged to take $0 from the project. Proceeds from sales will be used to provide copies to children who could not otherwise access the book, including donating them to prison visitation rooms for families who are seeing their loved ones in prison.
This week, as my dear friend Salah Boukadoum wrote here, our community lost its most ardent champion for social innovation … for equity … for humanity in its most basic form: unfiltered, unselfish, unquestionable LOVE.
“Serena Simmons Connelly, beloved wife, mother, daughter, and sister, died on April 22, 2020 in Dallas, Tx at the age of 50. “
The Dallas Morning News’ Obituary
I was texting a friend that Serena’s loss carved a big hole in our community. (See my prior blog on her work here.)
My iPhone autocorrected ‘hole’ to ‘hope.’
I like to believe that Serena took over Siri for that second.
May we each honor her legacy as she would challenge us to do: by putting our shoulder to the wheel of justice, and pushing as hard as we can.
Rest in the most beautiful peace, Serena Connelly. My life, my work, and my community are better and brighter because of you.
Daddy’s Time Out is a children’s book that aims to improve the futures of the estimated 2.7 million kids who currently have a parent in prison. Such children are up to six times more likely to end up in prison themselves, and our research has revealed that a significant contributing factor is the negative self-identity that these children develop due to an inability to understand their parent’s incarceration.
Using the metaphor of a “time out” to explain incarceration, the book equips these children with an appropriate understanding of what is happening in their family. The book was co-created with the insights of formerly incarcerated parents (as well their co-parents), child therapists, criminal justice professors, as well as leading voices in the movement to transform mass incarceration (ranging from the politically progressive leaders of Equal Justice USA to the politically conservative leaders of the Charles Koch Institute, both of whom have endorsed the book).
Our goal is to donate at least 1,000 printed copies of the book to nonprofits that work with such children. Our premier partnership is with Big Brothers Big Sisters, whose “Amachi” program provides mentors to children with a parent in prison. Additional partnerships include the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, Prison Fellowship, and other organizations.
You can write a better ending to these children’s story here.
Even if it is just $1, your gift will show these children that they are not alone. Thank you for backing my book!
NTGD has since grown into one of the largest “single days of giving” in the country. Yet, while NTGD raises significant funds for nonprofits… I believe that it can do so at the cost of long-term financial sustainability for many participating organizations.
This does not have to be the case. It certainly was not the intent of the initiative. However, many of the 2,700+ nonprofits participating in North Texas Giving Day will unfortunately abandon the core principles of long-term donor development and focus on the absolute worst tactics of short-term fundraising:
Cannibalizing larger, year-end gifts (particularly if those gifts shift from checks to credit card donations);
Blasting their mailing lists so many times that they hemorrhage donors via “unsubscribes,” resulting in a net loss of the long-term value of their donor base.
The latter is the most pernicious aspect of this day and is why I am writing this blog.
NTGD represents a tremendous opportunity for our sector. The energy and enthusiasm behind this campaign could enlarge the philanthropic pie for the 17,000+ nonprofits that call North Texas their home. However, to do so, nonprofits must integrate their NTGD efforts within their annual fundraising efforts … not rely on this single day as a lottery ticket.
To explore some real-world ways to do this, I interviewed two of the most successful fundraisers I know — Erin Hart, the Director of Development for the Cistercian Prep School; and Michael Thomas, the Executive Director for My Possibilities. Both of these amazing leaders have found a way to leverage NTGD to improve their overall sustainability.
Thanks to their leadership, these two organizations thrive throughout the year and crush it on North Texas Giving Day.
Cistercian Prep School’s Results
I am proud to share that my little alma mater (Go Hawks!) was the #1 NTGD recipient for three years in a row and #2 in 2018. While they benefit from being a “closed constituency” group (where their donors and their clients are the same population), they raise a shocking amount of money for a school with only ~350 current students.
Online Gift Amount $
# of Online Gifts
My Possibilities’ Results
In addition to being one of my favorite places to volunteer, MP runs one of the best NTGD campaigns of any “open constituency” nonprofit (where their donor base is not necessarily the same as their client base). Their results speak for themselves:
Participating for 9 years
First Year = $16K
Last Year = $162K ….. a tenfold increase!
CFT awarded MP a marketing award a few years ago; check out their incredibly creative campaign this year!
Tips on Setting Goals
Both leaders emphasized that their success was connected to defined goals that were integrated within their annual development plan. In both cases, the organizations have strong cultures of philanthropy that focus on cultivating long-term relationships with their donors. While each has a strong focus on giving on NTGD, their campaigns are extensions of their ongoing relationships with donors.
Erin said, “As a school, one of our most important metrics is alumni participation. Our highest rate so far has been 42%. We also aim for 100% participation of our current parents. If you work on participation, the money is going to be there.”
Michael shared that MP has three very defined goals for NTGD. The first is a clear financial target, with the goal to leverage the “overwhelming amount of focus placed on donating in DFW” to raise as much money as possible. Driven by their creative marketing efforts, MP successfully engages its community in an exciting effort to contribute a meaningful portion of the organization’s annual budget.
The additional goals include:
Engage the HIPsters (the “Hugely Important People” whom MP serves) and the community to “show that we are a working examples of our vision to include people with disabilities.”
Increase followers through our social media channels, in an effort to build the foundation for even more donors in the future.
Key Strategies for Success
Both organizations focused on two central strategies:
Integrating NTGD within a culture of philanthropy.
Engaging key stakeholders in serving as ambassadors for the organization.
Erin shared that Cistercian’s team does “a lot of prep work before the event to ensure that people know about it. We get people involved the summer before and let them organize it. You have to get people connected to you and be passionate about what you are doing; if you don’t have that, NTGD will not solve that.”
Their key strategies include:
VOLUNTEER LEADERS: Each alumni class has 1-2 class agents who facilitate communication with their fellow alumni. These agents are supported by class captains who oversee ~ 5 years of classes underneath them. These volunteers lead the charge to secure participation in North Texas Giving Day.
CULTURE OF GIVING: “People feel so blessed to be a part of our community. This is not really about development; I don’t think of myself as going after money, I think of myself as allowing people to be a part of this community in a different way.”
OWNERSHIP MENTALITY: “We are not a school where five families make it happen. We are a community that everyone takes a part in building. The reason this works is that everyone has to work.”
PRIORITIZE IT: “We treat the day/event with the respect and focus it deserves. If it raises $100k and only costs $5k, why would you give it less attention than a golf tournament that raises $100k and costs $50k?”
ASSIGN A LEADER: “Budget expenses specifically for this event and make sure that somebody on staff is ultimately responsible for the day’s performance. If ten people own the event, then nobody owns it.”
A caveat about the advice below: while these strategies did not work for these organizations, they might work for yours. However, given Cistercian and MP’s success, it is worth strongly considering their direct feedback.
If you already have a series of emails queued up, or a major on-site party planned, there is no need to cancel them… just consider how to adjust these efforts in a way that fosters long-term relationships with your donors.
“The worst strategy is to annoy donors with those ‘NTGD is coming‘ emails. If you want to give, you will give; I am not going to harass you.”
“Donor fatigue is the worst. You don’t want someone to give to you because they want you to shut up; you want them to give because they want to be involved.”
Recruiting retail stores to donate a “percent of sales on NTGD is a huge miss. It’s trying to force a square peg (one that doesn’t yield any profit anyway) into a round hole.”
“Hosting on-site events on Giving Day. Nobody is coming. Don’t do it. “
Other Points to Consider
NTGD puts a bright spotlight on our sector. It gets the community excited. And it gets us excited too, which is a wonderful gift in the midst of a challenging fundraising year for many organizations.
However, to harness that enthusiasm effectively, we need to participate with the same care that we would use for any other fundraising event. Most importantly, we need to consider NTGD to be an amazing tool within an overall donor cultivation campaign.
If done well, NTGD can do far more than bring in gifts on one day; it can support:
Donor Retention Rate (“What percentage of last year’s donors supported you again this year?”)
Donor Return Rate (“What percentage of donor’s from prior years returned as donors this year?”)
New Donor Volume (“How many new donors joined us this year?”)
Average Gift Amount (ideally broken out by the retained, returned, and new donors)
Number of Gifts per Year (since a donor who gives you $50 per month is more valuable than a donor who gives you a single gift of $600)
Open/Click-through/Unsubscribe Rate (e.g. are people opening, reading, and clicking on your emails … or unsubscribing?)
Social metrics (e.g. are you building your social media following, increasing the number of likes/comments/shares, etc. … and is there crossover between your followers and your donors?)
Whether or not your organization is participating in North Texas Giving Day, focusing on these metrics is the key to successful fundraising every day.
Another of my fellow teachers at Cistercian Preparatory School in Irving, TX, Mr. Rodney Walter has retired after a lifetime of service to the school. In his latter years, he served as the archivist and historian of the school, gathering photos from its early decades and cataloging them for posterity.
Poem for Mr. Rodney Walter
Who gathers up the dust of dreams,
of memories left beside the road?
Who sweeps them neatly in a box
and seals them with a father’s kiss?
Who places them, now wrapped and neat,
on shelves our future selves will see
and pull back down, to open up,
revealing truths we left to find?
Who knows that all we hold most dear
is nowhere else than here, at home?
Oh precious friend, who guards our heart,
what service you have rendered long!
May God, who graced us with your art,
now lead the swan of this: your song.
For most nonprofits that have $500,000 or more in revenue, funding must come from a variety of sources – government, foundations, individuals, corporations, events, etc. – and has to be managed, almost full time, by a senior person in the organization.
The trouble with a broad, diversified funding base is that each stream can – and often should – be managed by a specialist. Most large organizations have dedicated employees who focus exclusively on a single area, such as grants, major donors, receipts, etc. Smaller organizations with limited staff and funding usually don’t have the ability to excel at fundraising for each of these streams. And the problem is that there is always, always, a new way to raise money that you should be pursuing.
Good nonprofit managers will follow the 80/20 rule closely with their time – 80% of their time from the 20% of their donors who provide the most money. Unfortunately, when Dr. Pareto invented his rule, he was looking at it the way that too many managers spend their time – 80% of their time on the 20% of donors who take the most time and energy.
Unfortunately, time spent does not equate with dollars raised.
So, instead of spending the majority of their time cultivating foundations – where a nonprofit might have seen a very good return in the past – they spend all of their time on an event that only bring a fraction of the revenue. And in the end, most activities that consume a poorly organized manager’s time will not lead to the two fundamental activities that every fundraiser should pursue:
Ask for money (see attached photo — I see this car a lot, and I love it every time); and
Send a handwritten thank you note.
There is a possibility today, however, for a small nonprofit to maximize its efficiency by outsourcing the development function. In fact, a secret that most managers might not know is that the larger organizations outsource a substantial amount of their fundraising rather than try and do it in house.
Here are just a few of the things that can be outsourced to free up a development manager’s time to focus on cultivating their most valuable donors:
Grant writing: most grants are fairly straight forward affairs that use some combination of the same text over and over for each foundation. Outsourcing the ROUTINE asks makes a lot of sense so that the manager can focus his or her time on the non-routine grants that can take up a lot of time (but which, when done correctly, can lead to outsized funding for new programs).
Direct mail: plenty of nonprofits outsource their direct mail operations – and there are even some organizations that specialize in direct mail for certain kinds of organizations (food banks, museums, etc.)
Online marketing: In the end, online marketing is no different than any other kind of sales/ask, but it is just special enough that it makes sense for people who are experts in online programming to do the work.
Events: Throw a contract and you can hit an event planner in Dallas.
Major Gifts: In the end, the nonprofit manager has to perform in-person asks for money and resources. But, the reality is that a lot of organizations may never even meet their largest donors – or certainly not each year when they ask for money. Which means, things like invitations to special events, handwritten thank you notes, even the (bi)annual proposal can all be handled by outside experts, freeing the manager up for the tasks where she is really needed (such as phone calls, in person meetings, etc.).
Receipts: This critical, but sometimes overlooked, function doesn’t need to be handled in-house. In fact, sending it out might be the best way to ensure accurate, timely acknowledgments of gifts. Unfortunately, it’s too easy to put off writing fresh stories, updating the content, and customizing the letters for larger or more frequent donors.
“But what about the cost?!?”
In reality, that depends on what the nonprofit executive wants done – and more importantly, what the manager isn’t getting done effectively because of his lack of time and expertise. Consultants and service providers can, and do carry some costs. But, because they are specialists, you are getting their experience and value immediately. A good consultant will have great references and can provide a clear action plan tailored to your needs from the beginning.
An executive director or development manager considering hiring new development staff might give serious consideration to farming out their specialized work to multiple contractors instead of hiring a single employee who might only have expertise in one or two specific areas. Instead of spending $50,000 or more on salary, benefits, and payroll taxes, you can spend (perhaps even a small portion of) that to productively hire outsourced experts – giving you access to the highest level of talent without the risk and hassle of hiring an employee.
Countless times over the past decade or so, I have received the following basic email/phone call/LinkedIn message:
“I recently met someone who wants to start a nonprofit. They are incredibly passionate about their cause and would be great at it, but they need some help with raising money. Could you speak with them and tell them how to get started?”
I almost always accept the call, because there are few people I enjoy meeting more than social entrepreneurs (and yes, I know this is a heavily debated term, but I mean it here simply as someone who wants to start a business whose primary mission is social impact instead of financial return). These are people who care enough about others to pour their time, talent, and treasure into launching a venture dedicated to improving the world.
They are, without a doubt, some of the best conversations I have ever had.
And yet, they are also some of the hardest. I have nicknamed myself “The Dream Crusher,” because I am honest with them about my opinions on their ideas.
And I am shocked at how few of them have given any thought to ….
The most important question to ask: Why does the world need another nonprofit?
According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), there are more than 1 million public charities in the U.S. alone! There are also another 368,000+ other types of nonprofits, such as chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues.
Whatever your idea is … there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of other established organizations trying to do the same thing. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have an innovative idea that could do a better job. But, there are some alternate paths to explore before going through the pains (and expense) of launching a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Another question to ask yourself: Why are you doing it?
You need to be ruthlessly honest about this answer. If the answer is “to help others,” a far more effective way to do so is to help other nonprofits instead of starting a competitor for limited funds.
For the vast majority of people with whom I have spoken, they were well-meaning and thought of themselves as following a calling. And yet, for most of those, the real reason was … they wanted it for themselves.
Don’t get me wrong: they want to do good work for others. But what matters more is them being the ones to do the good work, not ensuring that the work is done.
You might call that ego. You might call it a savior complex. Or perhaps it is merely a desire to find a job that they truly believe in. But, if you are on this journey, you have to own the reason why: because you are going to be tested on it when you invite others to support your mission.
I know this well, because ego was a big part of why I started my own nonprofit once. And why I started multiple companies. I am not judging you…. I just want you to gain clarity on what compels you.
If you reflect on that, I would challenge you to again ask yourself: is starting a new nonprofit really necessary? And please pay attention below to the section about joining an existing organizations — perhaps as a volunteer, or perhaps even as a new employee who raises their own salary — to see if this work justifies an independent organization.
I promise you, if you dig hard, there is likely a better path forward than starting a nonprofit.
But, if you are dead set on doing so, just skip ahead and read this informative article, “How do I start a nonprofit organization?,” via GrantSpace, for technical details on what to do to start a 501(c)(3).
So, you wanna start a nonprofit?
First of all, thank you for giving a damn. That’s the common thread amongst the many people with whom I have had the conversations above. They all want to make the world a better place. If we had more people like you … perhaps we wouldn’t need a million nonprofits to meet society’s challenges?
Second, understand that “starting a nonprofit” is NOT your goal. Delivering your mission is the goal (e.g. helping kids who are exiting the foster care system … or supporting veterans returning from war … or whatever it is that drives you to pursue this venture).
And there are many ways to deliver your mission WITHOUT starting a 501(c)(3).
Here are the questions I always ask people like you:
1. Is there an existing organization with whom you can partner to simply expand their work into a geographic/programmatic area they do not currently address?
For example, you want to open an after-school program in your neighborhood. Could you instead partner with Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, Camp Fire, or another after-school provider to bring their programs to your area? Or maybe you have such programs in your area but they are not delivering the programs the way that you believe they should. Could you explore collaborating to help them improve their work, expand their offerings, etc.?
Whether you want to serve kids, seniors, veterans, the homeless, or anyone else… there is almost certainly an established organization dedicated to doing the same thing. In the same way that franchising is often an exponentially easier to open a for-profit business, partnering with one of these providers to raise money to expand their work is a much more more efficient way to meet your mission. Starting a 501(c)(3) nonprofit involves significant expenses — like hiring a CPA to handle your annual tax filings and to conduct an annual independent financial audit; setting up an administrative office to handle payroll, accounting, etc.; launching brand new fundraising efforts that compete with those of existing organizations; etc. — all of which are avoidable by partnering with an existing organization.
NOTE: Almost every serious potential donor for your new venture will ask you this question. You need a better answer than, “Yeah, but I want to do it my own way.” The only way that I can interpret that response is that you care more about being the one helping people than actually ensuring that people get the help they need.
2. If the answer to #1 is “no,” is there a way to incubate the new nonprofit as a program of an existing organization so that you can avoid all the administrivia cited above?
Doing so would also leverage some of the existing organization’s financial credibility in terms of administration, which is often a major barrier to securing funding.
This doesn’t even have to be a related charity (though it helps). While it would be odd for a new pet shelter to be incubated as a program of a prep school, it would certainly be easier than setting it up as a stand-alone organization. There also are “umbrella” organizations whose broad missions could feasibly encompass the incubation of such ventures, like your local United Way, nonprofit management center, Social Venture Partners affiliate, etc.
It is more complex than scenario #1, because the incubating organization has to setup some internal controls and likely run separate financials for the program, but there are also some practical benefits to this scenario that you don’t receive in the ones below:
Administration is already setup and running smoothly — so you don’t need to worry about bookkeeeping, annual tax filings/audits, payroll, liability insurance, etc. This is the greatest advantage.
Employees would be a part of a larger workforce, which could result in better health benefits, access to more human resources options, and potentially a better work environment (even if they don’t work in the same office, they might be able to participate in activities organized by employees of the incubating organization).
The board for your venture would only need to be an advisory board, and not have to worry about being a governing board with legal and fiscal responsibility for the organization (which can make it easier to recruit high-powered advisors, since many wealthy/well-connected people are hesitant to expose themselves to the liability of being a governing board member for a startup charity).
There can be some challenges with fundraising, particularly in the area of foundation grants (e.g. if your program is a strong fit for a grant from a foundation that already donates to your fiscal sponsor, that scenario has to be explained very clearly so that the two requests are not seen as coming from the same organization … which could result in neither getting funded). However, all of this can be cleared up with a simple MOU (“Memorandum of Understanding”), or similar document, that outlines the fiscal arrangement between the organizations.
Technically, such an arrangement is called a fiscal sponsorship. More details on the more traditional fiscal sponsors below.
(There is a really detailed article about fiscal sponsorship here that includes links to the Fiscal Sponsor Directory, “a tool created by the San Francisco Study Center to help connect community projects with fiscal sponsors.” One such foundation that does this is the Edward Charles Foundation. For organizations that are already raising over $500K per year, or that have a $1M+ commitment to get launched, companies such as Arabella Advisors offer a premium model of fiscal sponsorship that can allow you to launch not only a 501(c)(3) but also a 501(c)(4).)
3. If the answer to #2 is “no,” could you set it up as a fund of a community foundation to achieve similar objectives?
This is how I first established Executives In Action, which operated for years as a fund based out of the Communities Foundation of Texas. In North Texas, The Dallas Foundation also has a specific program for this outlined here.
These foundations are 501(c)(3)’s themselves, and they often can setup an agency fund that operates like a donor advised fund. They often have fairly low minimum amount to get started, sometimes as low as $10-25K. They then charge a modest percentage of the amount you raise to operate the fund and cover their costs, much like the fiscal sponsors above; this fee typically ranges from 5-10%, depending on the services they provide (e.g. are they simply a passthrough for funding to your organization, or are they hiring contractors/employees for the fund, supporting compliance efforts, assisting with bookkeeping, etc.).
Another advantage: you can rapidly get started. Typically, it takes less than a month to get a fund setup; by contrast, it can take over a year to establish a 501(c)(3) via the IRS.
4. In any of these cases — including proceeding with launching your own 501(c)(3) — focus on collaborations whenever possible.
That helps to leverage the credibility of existing orgs — even if you just use their curriculum or consider them program advisors — to avoid the very valid criticism of, “why do we need another nonprofit?!”
As above, I strongly encourage you to document these collaborations via MOU’s.
5. Please, for the love of God, follow Peter Drucker‘s advice: do one thing well. Demonstrate results, prove outcomes, then go to market to raise money based on that successful model.
Too many social entrepreneurs launch with a scattered vision of solving all of the world’s problems. I understand that your dream might be to operate a green homeless shelter that is entirely off the grid and that includes an organic farm in which the residents can secure living wage jobs producing vegan, gluten-free foods while also learning to speak English, manage their addictions, save 50% of their income, and launch their own tech startup … all while managing a pet shelter for orphaned animals.
But start with one of those.
Offer an ESL program for the homeless in one of your community’s existing shelters.
Partner with an existing affordable housing provider to dedicate a few units for people escaping addiction with your support.
Develop a company that specializes in helping existing nonprofits to go green… or add a farm to their property …. or raise goats.
The key is to focus on the unique thing that you thing will: a) make an impact, b) fill a gap that no one else is filling; and c) engage others in the vibrant nonprofit community to leverage their existing investments of time, money, energy, and creativity.
And last, if you’re going to do it: GO BIG OR GO HOME.
That likely sounds crazy considering what I just wrote. But if you have found a way to appropriately acknowledge the role of ego in your desire to found a nonprofit; you have identified a way to make a big impact; you have done the research to ensure that no one else is doing something similar whom you could help; and you have explored ways to collaborate with others to maximize efficiency and leverage existing community assets … then go for it.
Don’t go small. Build a multi-year plan for impact. Go to market with an idea of how much you need in the first 3-5 years of your work. Commit to raising those funds as quickly as possible so that you can focus on execution.
If that sounds exhausting or impossible, and you want to start small, I encourage you to go back to the top: see if you can just support someone else who is already doing great work that is similar to your vision, and see if you can help them to improve it.
That would not be a failure, because it doesn’t matter that YOU are not the one doing it. What matters is that it gets done; if you have to do it yourself, then do it. But if you can help someone else, you will likely find yourself doing much more of the work you love (helping the homeless, running a garden, caring for animals) than if you spent the next few years raising money, setting up QuickBooks, talking to lawyers, designing spreadsheets, etc.
Again — thank you for caring so much about the world/others that you would consider throwing everything into it. I would love to hear from you; if you need help, I am always happy to chat and give you my advice. You are not alone.
“Thank you for your generous donation to the World’s Cutest Baby Fund. I sincerely appreciate your investment in our mission to transform fundraising, one adorable stock photo at a time.” Licensed via Creative Commons.
Alexander Graham Bell won the first U.S. patent for the telephone in 1876. And today, despite all of the bells and whistles of the Internet, it remains a fundraiser’s greatest tool.
Direct mail is very effective. Email can also be great, if used properly. Facebook and Twitter are right for some organizations, and huge wastes of time for others.
But after 140 years, the telephone remains an unrivalled tool in the hands of a talented fundraising team.
I was reminded of that truth by one of my fundraising heroes, Jerold Panas (of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners), who has raised more money than anyone I have ever met. The story below (from his blog here) is a perfect example of why little things matter.
Start Phoning: An Idea from Jerold Panas in 57 seconds
One of the wonderful things about being a consultant is that we give very wise advice . . . and we don’t have to implement it. We fly away and leave it to the client to put it all together.
There is one of my recommendations that fits this category. I’ll explain how it all came about.
I used to tell my clients that at $1,000 level, a gift should be acknowledged with a phone call. I talked about this at all my Seminars. I felt this was important counsel.
After one of my sessions, a person came up to speak to me. She said she didn’t want to interrupt while I was talking, but told me that at St. Jude’s (Memphis) they call everybody who makes a $100 gift.
“Good grief,” I said. “That must be a lot of phone calls.”
“23,000 a year.”
I asked, “Is it worth it?”
Then I didn’t even give her an opportunity to respond. I knew it was indeed worth it. St. Jude’s raises about $900 million a year.
Several weeks later, I was at my regular consulting visit with Scripps Health in La Jolla, California. I told the staff that they should begin calling people at $100 level. There was a great deal of resistance. But finally the Vice President, David Mitchell, said they would try it.
Here’s what happened. On an acquisition mailing, a fellow who had never given before sends in $130. Jerry Buckley calls him on the phone to thank him.
The guy was so impressed, the next day he sends $1,000. Jerry Buckley calls him again. The guy was immensely impressed with the attention.
Four months later, he sends $40,000. At the end of the year he sends $50,000.
Eighteen months after that, Scripps holds a press conference. They announce from this acquisition donor a cash gift of $100 million.
The phone call started it all. It really pays off.
As my friend Andrew Kramer recently wrote as a guest-blog here, “increasingly, the best and only way to raise money from new prospects is to keep working to build a strong relationship with your donors.”
I learned that lesson very clearly early in my career.
An envelope had arrived from one of the wealthiest families in town. I was incredibly excited to open, and nearly fell out of my chair when I saw it included a folded check. They had never donated, so I was really excited to see what my latest letter had generated for the organization where I was working.
I unfolded the check to see it was for … $50.
That’s right. FIFTY. Boy, did I feel successful!
After a few deep breaths, I then began to think of our options. And I realized that their first official gift fundamentally changed their relationship with us. Sure, it was only fifty bucks, but they were now officially a donor.
We contacted them to thank them, even though it was a small gift. We then nurtured that relationship over the years with additional calls, notes, and communications. Eventually, we received an unsolicited $50,000 from them. And when we were launching a capital campaign a few years later, we successfully secured a $5 million gift from this family.
From two figures to seven figures in a few years. These things work.
3 Action Items for Fundraisers
Build a list of the top 10% of your donors. Rank them by order of importance (which is not entirely their total giving amount … rank them by how critical their support has been to your success. Someone who has given you $1,000 per year for ten years is more valuable than someone who gave you $10,000 once. Trust me on this … a long-term committed donor is the most likely prospect for major gifts and bequests, so you want to love people who have loved you.).
Set aside a specific time just ONCE per week to call these donors JUST to thank them (do notask them for money, to volunteer, or anything). Just tell them how much their gift matter and that you wanted them to know that they are important to you. Even if it is just 30 minutes per week, commit to that time. And tell your team to guard it so you have no interruptions.
Try it for four weeks. Lock yourself in an office without the Internet and make your calls. Don’t give up for four weeks. You can give up in week five, but treat this like a 28-day rehab. You’ve got to kick the habit of under-appreciating your donors.
Questions to Ask Afterwards
After the 4-week trial, evaluate your success. How many of the Top 10% did you reach? What conversations did you have? Are there any who now deserve a hand-written note to follow-up to the conversation as a second thank you? And most importantly … can you keep doing this next month?
What would happen if everyone on your team did this? For example, each week, could you give a list of 3 donors to every member of your team and ask them to call them just to say “Thank you”? Could you include the program team in doing that, not just development officers?
And what about giving each of your board members 1 person to call each month? They might hate calling people to ask for money, but they might LOVE calling people to thank them for giving money. And that could then become the gateway to turning them into fundraisers for you.
Let Me Know How it Works
I would love to hear your stories of whether this works for you. I promise, it is one of the best things that you can do to build the key donor relationships that can make an impact on your organization. Contact me here, or tweet me @JeremyGregg.
Many nonprofit leaders like to treat foundations as a type of high reward direct mail campaign. As a development leader, almost all of my Executive Directors told me that they wanted me to increase the number of grants I was sending out.
On some levels, it makes sense. The foundation usually indicates in its Form 990 whether it accepts unsolicited applications, provides an address, and instructions for how to contact them. At a minimum, a good grant writer will have done some basic research to determine even a minimal suitability for an application, what the typical range of gifts has been in the past, and some basic information on the board of directors.
My Experience as a Fundraiser
In my experience, I might start with a list of 200 prospects, and whittle that down to about 20 that might even be considered possibilities. Just 10%.Very few of my EDs or CEOs were happy with those numbers.
The issue for me was never going through the detailed and difficult process of putting together an application. Nor approaching a foundation “blind”. No, my problem was always that most people wanted to treat foundations as though they were a different type of donor than an individual or important volunteer.
I like to think of it this way:
Most executives and development professionals are used to attending events in a wide range of settings where they run into people who are prequalified to be potentially major donors (because of the type of event, usually). The executive gets to talking to some of these people and telling them about what the organization does, the great work and results, a great story, etc. A good director can easily see if the other person is interested, or just being polite.
(Ideally, the executive is asking as many questions as they are talking, but that’s another topic…)
No, most times, whether the other person is interested or not, the executive doesn’t insert in the beginning, middle or end of the conversation an ask for $20,000. At least, not without the potential donor telling the executive to make the ask then and there.
But, that is exactly what most EDs and CEOs want their development departments to do with foundations.
A Better Way to Raise Money
I won’t say that it doesn’t work in a very few cases, but generally, it’s not an effective way to raise money. Increasingly, the best and only way to raise money from new prospects is to keep working to build a strong relationship with your donors. It can take a couple of years to get a foundation to even pay attention to you, and another grant cycle after that before your grant request gets serious consideration from the board.
The gold standard of foundation fundraising,
just like with individual major donors,
is always relationships.
I had plenty of foundations where we never met in person, and it could have taken years to build the relationship to a point where we could get a gift.
The best advice I ever got from a CEO who deeply understood fundraising was to spend most of her energy on existing donors and prospects where she had an existing relationship, and only a small (5-7 at most) number of new prospects where she was trying to build a relationship.
The high-touch services that Jeremy Gregg offers are a powerful way to help build those relationships more quickly and effectively than the typical “wait and see” methods most organizations use. Not only will they help your existing donors make a favorable decision on your request, they can help new prospect foundations learn about your organization very quickly without being pushy or seeming “high pressure.”
All major gift work takes a great deal of time for each donor. Most small organizations aren’t equipped to provide the same level of consistent, high-touch grant writing services as larger organizations with dedicated grant writers. Even then, many grant writers are young and less experienced, whereas Jeremy Gregg and his team are all highly experienced development professionals with millions of dollars raised from every single donor source. They are RELATIONSHIP EXPERTS that can help you supercharge your fundraising, build a great reputation for your organization, and help foundation’s and major donors make the best decisions possible when considering your proposal.
This poem was written for the students who had the great misfortune to enroll in my Creative Writing class at Cistercian. It is an imitation of “Do not go gentle into that good night,” by Dylan Thomas (available here), which I taught during our class on the villanelle.
The Cisterican Hawks
Do not go gentle into this good form,
Young age should fly and shriek in villanelles;
Shriek, shriek within the poem’s storm.
Though young men in their haste detest the norm
Imposed by metered rhymes that feel like cells,
Do not go gentle into this good form.
Good hawks, the next wind up, screeching how warm
Their fierce wings may yet burn in azure quells,
Shriek, shriek within the poem’s storm.
Wild birds who soar and hunt alone, no swarm
To teach how soon the once-calm wind rebels,
Do not go gentle into this good form.
Glad flocks, near birth, whose boiling blood transforms
Deaf hearts, can pierce the sky with caws like bells,
Shriek, shriek within the poem’s storm.
And you, my students, there in the lonely dorm,
Curse, bless me now with your new poems (not hell’s).
Do not go gentle into this good form,
Shriek, shriek within the poem’s storm.
Click to learn more about my first children's book, which explains incarceration to children with a parent in prison. You can also buy the book on Amazon here.
Click to learn more about the children's book I created for the North Texas Food Bank, which explains food insecurity to children who want to help others. Rather than emphasizing charity, the book integrates a participatory model that demonstrates how to engage those who suffer from hunger in co-creating an equitable community solution to it.