A vendor needs a product or a service that someone will pay for. Pretty simple economics. Ergo, a nonprofit also needs a good product or service if it wants to be successful in its fundraising.
Having a good product to sell for a nonprofit begins with program design, something no one recognizes as a capacity building need, yet it bellows out every time I teach an evaluation class. Ask people to describe the program they wish to evaluate, they can speak and write tomes; ask them what the program was designed to deliver and they become speechless. I can describe the sleekest, most beautiful and amazing car to you and get you so excited about it (if you like cars), but if I can’t tell you that it was designed to deliver 100 city miles to the gallon and reduce automobile-related deaths by 50%, why buy my sleek car?
Go buy a Ferrari (under 15 mpg) or a Lamborghini (11 mpg). But if I can tell you that and prove it to you, I’ve got your attention and now I can work to make my sale. Sound like fundraising? It should: have a great product; present it to the right audience (folks who like your mission), tell them what the product was intended to achieve, and then give them the evidence that proves the achievement. So, not only do nonprofits need to have well-designed programs, they need to know how to do good evaluation (not equating bean counting with evaluation, for starters)—something few indicate as a capacity building need—so they can build that in when designing programs. And all of that must come before attempts at fundraising—unless you like your fundraising efforts to be extra hard (as opposed to just plain hard) and not very successful.
Successful fundraising is dependent upon having a clear vision as defined by a well done strategic plan. Few are interested in that kind of capacity building—unless a funder is requiring it. But so few get the importance and value of a strategic plan to the success of an organization—and the success of funding raising. Most investors—and I do believe that investors are getting smarter with their philanthropic dollars as I see more and more Millennials and others are doing research before giving money—want and need to see a well-thought out context for those programs for which you seek money and an integrated view of how the organization is achieving its mission promise. They want the proof that will give them confidence that the organization is not blowing in the wind, reacting to the latest money-backed fad, but rather has a well-planned strategy for pushing that mission forward.
Perhaps a surprise to more than not, but fundraising success is so dependent upon having the right people on the bus—and even the right bus. That means people and infrastructure. What is the staff capacity to do fundraising? People who can assist the board? The executive director? Doing it on their own? If there is a dedicated fundraising staff,is it structured correctly? Do we have the supports that are needed, like good database.
An executive director recently told me a story of discovering by chance two past donors, each of whom had given the organization $45,000. There were no records of their having ever given. Are there financial staff and systems in place that account for donated funds? Several years ago, a major donor for an organization came to us asking that we help ensure that the organization had the best financial infrastructure in place to receive and track the funds that would come in through their coming capital campaign. He was willing to pay for our work but wouldn’t give the organization another penny until he was convinced its financial capabilities were up to the demands of a capital campaign. The group had already hired the consultant, done the feasibility study and was on its way to raising funds—and he was warning everyone off—big time. Sadly, though, and erroneously, no one is putting finance, HR and infrastructure on their list of capacity building priorities. Is it really easier to put the cart before the horse?
More and better fundraising is the knee-jerk reaction by every nonprofit to remedy its ills. But it is, way more often than not, a misdiagnosis because no one wants to take the time to do the real work that must come first in order to ensure fundraising success.