How to Achieve Calm Confidence in Fundraising... Part 3: O is for Organize and Optimize


What would your reaction be if I were to tell you to stop wasting money on fundraising? Would you think to yourself, “Yeah, we don't need no stinkin’ fundraising!”

I hope not!

When I tell nonprofits to stop wasting money on fundraising, it's admittedly a cheap play on words, but it serves to get their attention and makes them think a little differently about their approach to fundraising.

An enormous amount of money is wasted every day on fundraising strategies that don't work, on inefficient or redundant tasks, and on repeating preventable mistakes.

This isn't the result of a lack of awareness, intelligence, or desire to improve. The problem is:

  • The number of variables that fundraisers must manage in order to be successful.
  • The lack of systems and processes needed to manage those variables.
  • The absence of a reliable means of measuring and analyzing fundraising activities.

O is for Organize and Optimize

This is the third in a series of posts I'm writing about the framework that I use to help nonprofits learn to adopt a thoughtful and systematic approach to their work and, in turn, achieve a state of calm confidence in fundraising.

I use the acronym SLOWER to help define the elements of the framework: Schedule, Level-set expectations, Organize and optimize, Work-back schedule, Execution, Record and repeat.

Today, I'll talk about Organize and Optimize.

The secret to doing anything really well over time is to:

Make a plan, work the plan, then assess the plan and your execution of the plan, make note of what worked and what didn't, and then apply what you learned to the next effort.

This approach works for physical activities, mental activities, and anything you want to do really well, including fundraising. You can apply this approach to fundraising events, individual asks, annual appeals, etc.

It’s called using a strategic process, and despite being so fundamentally simple and obvious, very few of us ever actually use a strategic process as part of our regular routine.

So What’s the Trick?

The key to successfully adopting a strategic approach to fundraising (or anything else), is putting in place a system that helps make sure you follow the steps of every activity.

To do this, it's important to design a system that's simple, doesn't include too many steps, and helps reward you for using it. Otherwise, it won't be long before you forget all about it and revert to old habits.

One of the primary components of The SLOWER Framework™ is a system built around an “action brief” that serves as a simple, strategic guide for each new activity or "action” (i.e., events, fundraising appeals, program cycles, newsletters, etc.).

A Brief Introduction...

An action brief is a document or file where you organize the details of your plan and of how you will know that the plan worked. Once your project is complete, you record the results and anything you learned in the brief, and then save a copy of the brief as a template for your next project.

In terms of The SLOWER Framework, "organize" is the recording of your plan, and "optimize" is the capturing of lessons learned and applying them on future efforts.

It’s best, when you first begin using an action brief, to keep the format simple and only include a handful of fundamental fields:

  • A short and simple description of the action and your goal(s).
  • Specifically how the project supports the organization’s mission.
  • What specific tactics you’ll use to accomplish your goals.
  • The estimated role that each tactic will play toward accomplishing your goal, and why you’re more than reasonably confident in your estimates.
  • A summary analysis of the action, what worked and what didn’t, and what lessons you can apply to future actions.

Once your team gets get comfortable using the brief and begins to see the benefits of using it, it’s not uncommon for them to want to incorporate additional fields to create a more robust tool. Examples include:

  • A work-back schedule (the topic of the next post in this series).
  • Links to related and/or similar actions.
  • A list of stakeholders and contact links.
  • Tracking and conversion details.
  • A summary of lessons learned.

Beyond serving as a strategic guide for your fundraising projects, action briefs are also excellent resources for stakeholders and others on your team to access the details of your project without having to constantly bug you.


You're probably familiar with the saying “when you fall off a horse, get right back on.” This is great advice, and the basic assumption is that each time you fall off, you learn from the experience and use it to keep from falling again.

That’s optimization. Doing something, considering how well it worked or didn’t, and applying what you learned the next time. Doing this consistently over time leads to significant improvement.

This is why it’s important, with each new action brief, to take into account what you learned from the last action and apply it to the new plan. In fundraising, this might be learning to do better research on your prospect before making an ask, learning the best way to price items at an auction, or figuring out the best type of email subject line to use on appeals to encourage more opens.

Every fundraising activity you engage in offers an opportunity to learn a new lesson and apply it to the next. By recording details about what you learned in the action brief and saving the brief as the starting point for your next activity, you ensure that each new activity benefits from the lessons learned before.

As I said earlier, a system has to reward you for using it. The rewards for using this system are marked performance improvements in your fundraising activities, greater confidence that what you’ve planned will actually work, and fewer repeated mistakes. All of which lead to calm confidence in fundraising.


Image Credit: Juhan Sonin