Why You're Not Reaching Your Fundraising Goals

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My first job out of college wasn't fundraising or marketing for nonprofits. I sold television advertising to small and medium sized businesses. Early on, I showed signs of success and was moved to a new territory where I was expected to repair a number of fragile relationships with existing clients, and rapidly acquire new ones. As my boss was driving me around the new territory, I asked how long he thought was reasonable for me to “get organized” before I started calling on clients. He replied, “No more than a week.”

Though I didn't let on, I was stunned. There was so much to do to get ready; a week couldn’t possibly be enough time.

When I look back on this exchange today, I'm still stunned. But now it’s because he was so generous. After all, what was I really going to do for a week? My job was to sell advertising. I knew my product and my audience. All I needed was to begin repairing and building relationships. Neither of which was going to happen until I started making calls.

How is this relevant to you?

As I look back, I wasn’t really concerned about organizing my files, researching client lists, or who knows … sharpening pencils? No, I was procrastinating having to start making calls. It was nothing more than reluctance to start prospecting and meeting with clients who were close to the point of cancelling their accounts with us.

Today I help guide fundraising and marketing strategy for nonprofits, and one of my many roles is coaching fundraising professionals to be successful. And though this may ruffle a few feathers for some of my readers, what I advise on today is essentially the same thing I learned when selling advertising back then.

Sure, there are tips and techniques to improve fundraising, just as there are for sales, but what success ultimately comes down to in both professions is finding opportunities to meet new, qualified prospective "customers" and working to build mutually beneficial long-term relationships with them.

Back then I took my boss's advice and got to work quickly. I accomplished my goals and continued to earn greater responsibility with the company until I was rewarded with managing a region of my own. In that role I became familiar with the phenomenon of “getting organized” when I would witness my sales staff stopping at nothing to put off having to prospect for new business or seek contract renewals.

Fast forward to today. I work with many eager and committed fundraisers who mean well but spend a lot of time entering data into their CRM system, managing staff issues, responding to email, or managing unrealistic demands to take on more and more busy work. But they rarely seem to have time for cultivating donor relationships.

Some of the things that fill our days are truly important, but if they are allowed to interfere with cultivating relationships with donors, it's very likely that there's a healthy dose of procrastination going on.

How to overcome the urge to procrastinate.

When I was starting out, I used my drive for success to overcome my natural tendency to procrastinate. Over the years, as that approach became less effective, I learned a few tips that have made the process simpler:

1. Be honest with yourself about why you’re procrastinating. Chances are, you’re letting your beliefs sabotage your success. Common (often subconscious) thoughts include:

  • “I’m just bothering people.”
  • “I don’t want to be thought of as a salesperson.”
  • “They’ll just say ‘no’ anyway.”
  • “They would rather talk to someone more important than me.”

What helps is to remember, it’s not about you! These are limiting beliefs, and beliefs can be changed.

It’s also helpful to remember that you’re in a fundamentally good business and you’re helping to make the world a better place. By connecting people with a mission they care about but likely don’t have the time or experience to address directly, you’re allowing them to be the hero.

2. Use a system. Block out recurring dedicated time on your calendar to actively cultivate and prospect. Set aside separate time for research and preparation for prospecting (another slippery slope to procrastination!).

Before beginning cultivation and prospecting for the day, be sure you already have a list of people you’re going to be contacting and know specifically what the next step is with each so you don’t spend your allotted time figuring out what it was you were going to communicate to them.

Mornings are typically best for scheduling fundraising activities, because you’re more alert and doing so allows you to get your most important work out of the way before too many distractions develop.

Track and record what works well and what doesn’t, and apply what you learn to future activities.

3. Never make a cold ask. While this seems simple in theory, too often we skip the steps between asks, which means the only time donors hear from us is when we’re making an ask. Whether they are an established donor or not, this is still essentially a “cold ask” and is much less pleasant and effective than the alternative.

“Fundraising” is an unfortunate term, because it places all of the emphasis on the ask. As I mentioned earlier, the goal is to build mutually beneficial relationships. Thank donors promptly (in multiple formats), invite them to “safe” gatherings where there will be no ask, seek their opinions and input, and for crying out loud, send updates about your progress!

You’ll soon see that getting to know your donors better and building excitement about a shared interest makes the eventual ask much easier for both of you, and not always necessary.

Still having trouble?

  • Find inspiration, and do what other really successful fundraisers do.
  • Have a competition to build enthusiasm around the number of activities or touches you complete.
  • Make a public declaration so others can help hold you accountable for this important work.

Now log out of your CRM, put down the pencil sharpener, and get busy!


Image Credit: Oscar Cortez (with changes)

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