A Response to “Six Main Reasons Fundraising Fails” or the Travails of a Development Director

trainingBy Deborah Kaplan Polivy

If I could make two changes in the way in which boards address fundraising, I would propose the following.

  1. Create feasible fundraising goals
  2. Develop measures of success beyond the bottom line

If we could persuade our organizational decision makers to use these actions as their guidelines for operating, I think we would all be far better off in terms of meeting the financial realities of our not for profits.

Organizations continue to create fundraising goals based on what I call The Equation – Expenses minus Income Equals Goal. It doesn’t matter if the goal is feasible or not.

What the decision makers do is create a budget, subtract income from expenses and the result then becomes the fundraising goal. If it has no relationship to what was raised the year before or any other standard measure, it doesn’t matter. If there is no strategic plan or demand for one from the board, it just becomes an exercise in futility.

The result is not only a budgetary shortfall but also professional staff become demoralized because the burden of meeting the goal falls on them and they can’t do it. They are set up with an impossible task and are measured against it. Oh yes, and because of the tight budget, they are often not provided with the resources to even reach the goal even if it were feasible. And then we all wonder why so many development staff change jobs or leave the field entirely. (See UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, 2013.)

Steve Meyers in his new book, Personalized Philanthropy, calls this singular goal the “One Number” and he claims it is an accounting measure but not one that is particularly useful in terms of the development office. He challenges the professional fundraising officer directly: You need to “define yourself in terms of fundraising achievement, not solely in terms of financial results.”

Meyers isn’t alone in tackling the issue of development measurement. Anne T. Melvin, Director of Training and Education at Harvard University, has made countless presentations suggesting new and different measures based on action steps that development staff undertake in order to obtain gifts and identify prospects. Both Meyers and Melvin have tried to address measurement beyond just the bottom line; they have proposed methods that include the process for obtaining gifts many of which won’t be realized for years to come.

So amidst these attempts to change the dynamic in how we measure various dimensions of fundraising, I read an article that appeared on a February 22 BoardSource SmartBrief entitled, “There are six main reasons fundraising fails.” I forwarded it to a lot of people with whom I work and suggested that they might want to share it with their board members and professional colleagues. I received an e-mail in return that was comedic if it were not so sad.

But let’s start with the article which states that the first reason that fundraising fails is that “there’s no comprehensive fundraising plan.” The author writes “a gala or auction in the spring, golf tournament in the fall, luncheon in May, and … a year-end appeal letter in December is not a fundraising plan.”

The article then goes on to describe five additional reasons for fundraising failure.

The board “has no ownership of the fundraising plan; the fundraising goals are unrealistic from the start; no one is asking; the organization is not telling its best story” and the last reason, according to this author, “is lack of CEO involvement.”

And now to the email. My respondent wrote, “the Board and Development Committee would probably latch onto ‘the fourth reason fundraising fails is simply because no one is asking’” and claim “’you, fundraising professional, you need to make more asks!’”

In relation to there’s no comprehensive plan, the response would be “And tell us more about your plan! What are YOU planning on doing? What’s your strategy for raising all this money?”

The email continues that the Communications Director would “latch onto the organization is not telling its best story” and reply “’there is no agreement on what our best story is.’ The Chief Executive Officer and I have very different ideas as to what is the best story and the Communications Director has another.”

The email is ended with this line, “Oh, good. Everyone is represented.”

Sad to say, this individual is not wrong. And while the fundraising goal is not mentioned, I know that in this organization it was developed according to The Equation described above.

So what is the answer? The only response that I can summon is board education. I know that this is a commonly proposed remedy, but the futility of continuing with unrealistic goals, no strategic development plan and thus no buy-in to the latter by the board and the constant use of event-related and transactional fundraising will continue without ongoing learning.

Board training is not a one-time event where a consultant is brought in and all the above issues are addressed. Boards most often ask for solicitor training, but the latter means nothing if the members of the board haven’t played a role in the development of the overall and hopefully, short and long term plans.

Boards need to analyze their data particularly in relation to donor retention. They need to think about how they will participate in donor cultivation and creating relationships. While it may be self-serving since I am a consultant as well as a board member, my experience is beginning to show me that ongoing education has to occur. Realistic goals must to be formulated, plans created to meet these goals reviewed and tweaked by those who are actually involved in the development process – both staff and volunteers. Boards need to remember that they are part of a team and they must be constantly reminded.

One visit from the outside expert just doesn’t do it. Distance coaching through telecommunications might work in between on-site meetings. However, my suggestion for changing our fundraising culture is to ensure periodic board check-ups where data are analyzed, discussion is facilitated with all members of the board and executive staff in attendance and hearing the same thing and asking questions together and maybe working in small groups to address issues. I would welcome other solutions but for now I suggest this prescription for changing our organizational cultures in order adopt the changes I propose at the beginning of this article.

Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D., is a fund development consultant and the author of “Donor Cultivation and the Donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Fundraising,” (Wiley, 2014). Her next book, “The Donor Lifecycle Map: A Model for Fundraising Success” (tentative title), will be published this summer by Charity Channel Press. To learn more, please visit  www.deborahpolivy.com.