No Sacred Kiwis: Putting First Things First in Annual Fundraising

kiwisBy Rachel Cyrulnik

When I was nineteen, I spent a week in Belarus on a community service mission with a few other college students, interacting with the people who lived in the Jewish community there.

The poverty was plain as daylight to see, men wandering about outside with vodka bottles stuffed into brown paper bags, walk-up apartments with minimally functioning bathrooms, and the group of bright-eyed teens who came to our program for physical nourishment as much as human connection. I noticed that when they left the community center for the day, they would take a kiwi or an orange from the fruit bowl and stuff it in their pockets on the way out. These fruits were treats, luxury items they couldn’t afford at home.

When our translator Miri told us that the government was building a new ice skating rink, I couldn’t help but ask her how the government could earmark its scarce resources on a project that seemed so frivolous – surely those funds would be put to better use addressing the serious needs of the people. “This is how our country works,” she lamented. “They buy kiwis when they don’t even have bread.”

I’ve often thought of this analogy in my fundraising consulting with dozens of nonprofits. In efforts to please donors or make our organizations sexier, nonprofits can fall prey to the kiwi mentality.

Make no mistake; the kiwi-grabbing is not ill-intended. It is just convoluted. Here are three commonplace examples of how nonprofits choose kiwis over staples:

1. Allowing Board Members to Serve Without Fundraising. Many organizations find it challenging to identify board members who are excited to (read: willing to) fundraise and figure it is better to have board members who won’t fundraise rather than be left with no board members at all. But by making such allowances, these nonprofits set the bar low and handicap themselves.

Organizations can successfully strike a happy medium: When recruiting board members, you can let them know that they’ll be expected to contribute to the fundraising process, albeit in a way that they will feel comfortable – making an introduction, inviting a friend to join at an event, accompanying a professional or board president on a solicitation or calling a prospect when armed with talking points.

2. Extravagant Events That Don’t Raise Money. Building community and inspiring donors through experience are both important organizational objectives. But as a field, we need to be smarter about how we accomplish those intents, looking objectively at the resources expended for each event to determine whether the staff time and other expenses are indeed worth the opportunity cost.

The most extreme example of a misguided event in my experience involved an organization on the brink of bankruptcy, which was planning to launch a takeoff of “American Idol” to captivate new audiences. Aside from draining time and money, this event series had very little to do with the mission of the organization, minimizing the chance of finding supporters of the cause in the audience.

Being strategic is as much about consciously determining what our organizations are not doing as it is about determining what they are doing. Having the discipline to determine that an event that brings in little net revenue – even a long-standing one – should be cut means that staff time will be freed up for more actual fundraising! More face-to-face meetings, more donor recognition, and even the chance to prospect new donors or focus on a new target audience.

3. Directed Giving for Elaborate Programs when Core Operating Needs Are Not Met. “Mission creep” is when funding influences programming rather than programmatic activities inspiring giving. It is so tempting to stretch to accommodate a funder’s preferences in order to bring new dollars to the campaign, especially when dollars to core operating don’t come easy. But if these gifts won’t be used to fund the organization’s core mission, taking them is tantamount to choosing kiwis over bread. And in many cases, the organization will now be stuck with the challenges of time-consuming grant reporting and even securing new money to sustain the program after initial funding from the original foundation or donor expires.

Jewish nonprofits do important work. They educate children, provide for the disabled, engage people in community, and empower the disadvantaged. Nonprofits have an obligation to their missions and those they serve. Let’s remember to put first things first by putting bread on the table. Keep “no sacred kiwis” in mind as you fundraise for a campaign that is sure to be – pardon the pun – more fruitful.

Rachel Cyrulnik is Partner at ALTRUICITY, a nonprofit growth firm. She specializes in creating and sustaining nonprofit models, identifying new target markets, and cultivation and solicitation strategies.