Part 1: Six Improvements
Sunsets provide a daily promise: Every end sets up a new beginning.
The end of shelter-in-place and the economic shutdown will launch a new, defined-as-we-go era. After reducing, restricting and removing, the doors will open for rethinking, rehiring, reworking, and more. Much more.
Take a couple deep breaths now and prepare to embrace reality that will soon dawn.
Leadership guru Patrick Lencioni tweeted on April 6: “No organization is going to emerge from this crisis unchanged - I don’t mean [just] financially. During a time like this, we’ll either get better as a result of what we choose to do as teams and organizations, or we’ll be diminished for what we fail to do. And that is the question every leader must answer. Will we get better, or worse?”
Patrick’s prophesy applies as much to associations and nonprofits as it does to businesses. That said, let’s consider how to improve donor communications – a need shared by any organization that solicits donations. Get better in this area, and you will begin your new era strong. How might you change letters, emails, updates, requests, and acknowledgements? These six ideas will deliver immediate and disproportionate impact – while costing you nothing:
1. Segment donors into different groups that will receive different communications. Your supporters likely possess varying appetites for information. A general guideline: The greater the gifts, the more you should feed.
2. With a specific donor group in mind, picture a representative person and craft your message to him or her as if you’re meeting over coffee. A conversational tone invites engagement – on paper, on a screen, and at Starbucks. Formal language falls far short.
3. Use the pronouns “you” and “your” often, while avoiding “I” and “our” whenever possible. The former two should outnumber the latter pair by at least 3 to 1. The word “we” should reference the joint effort of your donor and you, not the organization.
4. Make it fresh; always share something new. Donor communications that read like general overview brochures or, even worse, simply describe the same mission in a different manner invite little or no response. Find someone who writes well to help you. Just don’t continue to waste your donors’ time with dull pieces.
5. Show more, tell less. Illustrate impact through a story. Emotional connection with a donor happens through well-crafted stories. In his book All Things New, author John Eldredge says, “Hope is the sunlight of the soul.” Show how your association or program shines bright, and you’ll secure support from a very deep place within a person. Key word: Show.
6. Transparency must play a leading role. If finances concern you, say it. Or any other difficulty. Donors appreciate your forthrightness when they hear about your challenges. A simple graph or chart can show reality quite well and with punch. Just make sure that you also provide the planned solution, especially the role you want the reader to take. (Read Deliberate but not Desperate)
Using the six items above, read your three most recent communication pieces and look for specific items you could change. Make the edits and then read again. See the difference? Donors will. And they will appreciate your association or organization’s new day.
Next week, part 2 will provide content development suggestions that help you answer the question: What do I say?
This article provides further coaching from writing expert Roy Peter Clark: Make Hard Facts Easy to Read
© 2020 David Staal. All rights reserved. davidstaal.net
Fundraising in Difficult Times, Part 3
You have permission to change. No excuses needed. Change will soon serve as the new normal.
For many, that day has already arrived.
Daily death reports represent families ripped by grief; torn hearts take a long time to heal. Our collective conscience has now sensitized to one another’s health, although we paid a high price to develop such awareness. Doubt others care? Just cough or sneeze in public for the next few months.
Broad societal ills will linger. Millions abruptly lost jobs, billions learned to distance from one another, and economic impact stretches into the trillions. How much will return and when? No one knows. But this we do know: First comes loss, then comes change.
“When the world emerges from the pandemic, the size of the commercial market and the types of products and services our customers want and need will likely be different,” Boeing’s Chief Executive Officer David Calhoun said in a recent message to employees. “It’s important we start adjusting to our new reality now.” (Fortune.com, 04/02/2020)
Mr. Calhoun’s words apply to the nonprofit sector as well. While checking in with a friend who serves as a foundation executive director, he said, “We are busy rethinking how we will do philanthropy.”
Rethinking means new funding decisions based on new priorities and new lessons learned. For a long time, the adage “You’re either growing or dying” drove decision-making for nonprofits. Today, “Rethink or regret” seems more apropos. Wise nonprofit leaders will consider now what new approaches, programs, structures, and messages need to take place – adjustments to a new reality.
Again, you have permission to change. Actually, it looks more like a mandate.
In the immediate term, start with three core questions every organization should answer:
While the pandemic-induced shut-down caught many organizations unprepared, make decisions now to prepare for when everything turns on again. As the president of a healthcare professionals association recently said, “Every organization has received an opportunity to press the big re-do button.”
What specific areas serve as mid- or long-term change candidates? Schedule a video call and brainstorm opportunities around these general topics:
For many organizations, these are no small changes. True; but remember that you now have permission.
© 2020 David Staal. All rights reserved. davidstaal.net
Fundraising in Difficult Times, Part 2
Two words describe the fresh wind blowing across our land: “People first.”
The old. The young. The health-compromised. The vulnerable. Those without work. Neighbors. Fellow shoppers. The young lady working the drive-through. The delivery guy. The sick. The beloved medical workers and other first responders. Folks we know and those we barely noticed. Until now.
“People first” has moved to center stage and beckons us toward fresh thoughts and ideas. For nonprofit organizations, especially those who fundraise to exist, consider adopting this strategic approach: Stay six feet away but make effort to grow closer.
Let’s dig deeper.
The challenge to raise money grows more daunting every day that the economy remains stuck in pause, no longer producing the funds needed for nonprofits to operate. Meanwhile, the need grows for organizations to serve people whose needs have multiplied. Plus, work has decentralized due to shelter-in-place directives, fundraising events have postponed or canceled, and nearly everyone worries about personal health and that of loved ones.
Regardless of how cleverly delivered, the words “Can we count on your support?” (or any variation) could sound quite callous at this point. Yes, exceptions will always exist. Nonetheless, the days we live right now beg a different approach. Quite different.
Let’s turn attention to a statement made by Patrick Lencioni on a recent LinkedIn post: “Demonstrate your concern for the very real fears and anxieties that your people are experiencing, not only professionally and economically, but socially and personally.”
His advice applies equally to leaders and fundraisers. Maybe much more than equally for fundraisers. Give strong weight to his final word: personally.
Remember, these are “People first” days we live in.
Last week I sent a very brief message to a key donor, and his long reply started with the words: “Thanks for your message. My wife and I…” After reading the three paragraphs that followed, he asked about my family and me. Similar exchanges repeated with several donors, and I learned a valuable lesson.
Now, right now, is the time to check in with as many donors as possible. Person to person. Email, text, or phone. Not due to any hint of opportunism. In fact, press pause on asking for anything – that day will come again. But it’s not today. “People give to people,” the saying goes. Show that you are a person, and along the way you’ll show the folks you typically ask for money that they are people first, donors second. People that matter.
This will remove any pressure that accompanies donor communications. To “check in” is simple and brief; ask how they are, then listen/respond to what they say. That’s it. Just don’t ask for money or talk about your organization or its needs.
“I’m going to call my whole list, ask them how they’re doing, and not mention us at all,” a development officer told me. “If a person asks about the organization I’m going to say, ‘That’s not why I called.’”
As billions of people and trillions of dollars remain hostage to a microbe, a new day has arrived, one in which you have permission to take off your fundraising hat. You will give donors you have relationships with – relationships that you’ve been managing and working for all these years – a treasured example of how personal that relationship really is to you.
All "best practices" for fundraising in the past (February 2020 and earlier) must be challenged because the world has changed, and everyone will wobble as we try to walk in a new day that no one understands. Yet, as ancient wisdom says, “This too shall pass.” When it does – in a couple weeks or months – put that fundraising hat back on, knowing you did well when you put people first.
© 2020 David Staal. All rights reserved. davidstaal.net
Fundraising in Difficult Times
.The person who handled our finances came into my office, sat down, and cried. “We don’t have enough money and I have no idea how we’ll get more,” she said between sobs. “I don’t see how we’ll make it.”
That meeting happened in March 2009. The economy had bottomed out, towing donations with it. For many nonprofit leaders, similar meetings will soon happen in their offices.
Back then, I had served barely six months as the organization’s CEO, which meant I knew how to a) log onto my computer, b) use the printer, c) call a meeting, and d) work the coffee maker (somewhat). Solve our financial crisis? No way. Plus, no one told me we were in such a tight spot. Or did they, possibly in those meetings when I had printed an agenda from my computer and offered everyone coffee?
The approach taken back then will work well today – and anytime an economic drop threatens to demolish an organization. Our organization operated as a donation-driven entity, meaning fundraising provided 80+ percent of income. When the market tanks, generosity follows. I don’t like that last sentence; I don’t want it to be true. But it was true back then and it will be true this time around too.
However, your organization need not worry about the broad market. Instead, focus on your donors. Not all donors. Just yours. That’s what we did, and we ended up with a record amount of donations in 2009. And 2010. And the next several years.
This could be your year.
Our approach can become your approach. It’s simple, brutally simple. And that’s why it works. Many fundraising approaches focus on developing systems and complexities. When hard times happen, work the system harder. Ugh! Instead, when challenging times inevitably arrive, do something stronger – and wiser. As the editors of Nonprofit Quarterly suggest in their March 17, 2020, digital issue: “Don’t think small or defensive. Think new world.”
How? Show that you are deliberate, not desperate. Stay with me as I explain.
Our team crafted a plan that showed specifics about how we planned to manage the challenges ahead and included what would happen following those challenges. (Logic based on the “stay two steps ahead” approach you will read about in a future piece.) Sure, it clearly and honestly showed the realities we faced. Here’s the big aha point – it was not a plan that articulated how we would raise much-needed money. Instead, the planning all focused on what we would do, programmatically and operationally, with the money raised based on a presumption of funding success. Or a “forward look” approach for anyone who prefers managerial jargon.
We took this plan to our key donors while many, many other organizations knocked on those same doors and shared woeful, emotion-drenched stories about being victimized by the economy and the catastrophic decline in generosity. Blah, blah, blah. Who do you guess these key donors chose to support with their amazing (yet less numerous) gifts?
Yep, they chose the folks who they believed would deliberately use their money to go forward – and not those that wanted to plug a hole in the hull with dollar bills. Donors want to see a plan – not a plea. Funding pleas sound small and defensive.
The events of 2020 clearly show that a new world has started to dawn, so how will your organization respond? With the same exuberance that fueled your programs in the past, determine how you will passionately pursue your mission in the reality of now, then develop your best projection for the road ahead.
Show what will change. Show what will always stay the same. Show the new impact. Now show it all to funders.
This approach provides firm footing from three truths. First, people (that includes donors) want to support a winning team. Second, positive and transparent messaging within existing relationships yields success. And third, sounding different will create valuable separation from the other voices.
Success happens with strong messaging. Be deliberate, not desperate. Contact me and I’ll help you get it right.
© 2020 David Staal. All rights reserved. davidstaal.net
What goes up must come down.
My son Scott and I decided to take a course to learn rock climbing and rappelling. So, we traveled to Arizona and early one Saturday morning met our instructor Josh. Less than five minutes after meeting us, two things became clear to Josh: 1) We had made one easy climb before, which meant we knew nothing, but 2) we were eager to learn, commitment proved by the fact that we had already purchased legitimate climbing shoes. (More about the shoes to come.)
Five hours later we felt tired, sore, bruised, bleeding, and just smart enough now to know we have a long way to climb before we truly know what we’re doing. That’s okay, because Josh taught us plenty that day.
We began the adventure with a hike around the back of the climbing course that took us to the top. Once there, Josh showed us a pair of 8-inch bolts driven into a rock as large as my garage. Our Yoda-like guide said, “Always know your anchor; you will need to rely on it, so always know what you’re putting your trust in.”
Several more explanations of the function and infallibility of our equipment familiarized us with all the stuff on our harnesses. Good info to know because a few moments later the time came to stand backwards on the edge of a cliff and begin the gravity-defying rappel to the bottom. “When you’re about to make a challenging move, pause for a moment and think about the systems that support you, especially the anchor.”
“Are we starting with a challenging section?” I asked.
“For you it is because it’s your first time.”
Fair enough. A quick scan of my gear and a mental image of those anchors provided enough reassurance to step backwards and begin the descent. While not quite a Tom Cruise maneuver from a Mission Impossible movie, the adrenaline rush hit me big! No wonder Tom makes so many of those films.
Next, we climbed. About half-way up a rock face, maybe 40 feet, another challenge arrived. I felt stuck. No clear next move appeared. For the moment, my feet solidly gripped the rock, thanks to those sweet new shoes. But I knew that moment could not last long. I heard Josh say from the floor that now seemed 400 feet below me, “It’s okay to make a big move because I’ve got you. Trust your equipment. Remember the anchor.”
Emboldened by the image of those 8-inch bolts, I released my right hand, lunged my body weight to the left, and reached high for a grab point that, unfortunately, did not exist. The move made so much sense in my mind. But with nothing to grip, the reality of my situation immediately set in; I will fall. Yep, that’s what happened.
But I only fell a foot or two. The anchors remained in place, the harness held me, and I remained suspended in mid-air. “A few big breaths and plan your next move. You’ve got this.” Josh had confidence in me – just enough for my own to return.
I eventually reached the top and then rappelled back to the ground. As Josh and I bumped fists, he shared wisdom that I needed to hear: “Unless you fall, you will never learn how to completely trust what’s holding you.”
Scott and I both fell that day, making us better climbers. In our own, challenging ways, we both experienced falls in life over the past year. Yet, neither of us plummeted to the floor. Others helped support us, and we held up one another. Still do. And will. Most important, we both have an unmovable, 100 percent reliable Anchor that we remind each other about often. (“Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.” Deuteronomy 31:6)
What do you trust? Who or what is your anchor? When you know for certain, you’ll be able to continue going after a fall. You might even try bolder moves.
Everyone falls. Climb on.
© 2020 David Staal All rights reserved. davidstaal.net
Something sacred happens when the sun sets.
My family felt it often when we lived close to Lake Michigan. Several years ago, USA Today listed sunsets over Lake Michigan as some of the best found anywhere. Many evenings we finished dinner, left the dishes, and piled into a car for a couple mile drive to a remote park we dubbed “Sunset Beach.”
A short boardwalk stroll from the parking lot landed us on cool sand and dune grass. Most times, we stopped talking just as the sun hit the horizon and begin its unusually quick drop beneath the water line. We always stayed for the last ray, which would linger as if saying, “Goodbye for now; I’ll be back.”
That’s it; a sacred promise took place. Whatever happened today cannot be changed. But take heart because tomorrow will happen, and with it comes new possibilities, new opportunities, new everything. Watching the sunset fills a heart with such hope. A welcome relief when a day (week, month, year) has felt dark. Or cruel.
A year ago, my wife Becky received a 12:30 a.m. call to tell her that Teri, her lifelong friend (and my friend too) had taken her own life. They were as close as sisters and enjoyed a love that would make real sisters envious. Teri loved our kids as her own. Her smile shone as bright as the sun.
But that sun set all too quickly and we didn’t get to stand and watch it go. Loss works that way; sudden, without warning, and painfully permanent. How does a person recover from something as dark as a loved one’s suicide? I don’t know the entire journey one must travel, but I did write a book about the first steps to take. A short, companioned walk that will take you to a place as sacred as a sunset. One filled with promise. Where you honestly shed the tears that today deserves – yet feel subtle warmth from a ray of hope about tomorrow.
Three years ago, I listened as a high school student at an assembly told nearly 2,000 peers how much she appreciated their help following her best friend’s suicide. “Even when you just smiled and said hello you helped me make it through another day,” she said to a very quiet fieldhouse. “Wow, what grace!” I thought at the time, completely unaware of how life would unfold for my family and me.
Today her words make even more sense after experiencing the hard-to-breathe-without-it-hurting pain that happens when someone close takes his or her own life. Compelled to do something for others who face this horrible situation, and with a blessing from Teri’s family, I wrote Four Corners of Grace to help you or someone you know make it through another day. All the way to the sunset.
At a time when so much of our world seems out of control, compassion remains a choice everyone still owns. Not the programmatic expression of the word compassion; the heart-sized, personal version. The type anyone can do. Or any group — even a church.
When a principal learned that a nearby congregation planned a vote on whether to start a mentoring program, he agreed to visit and share his thoughts. He knew that at-risk students in his elementary school had a common need outside his ability to provide: someone to make them feel noticed, valued, even loved by a grown-up. With constant budget cuts and staff reductions, fewer adults worked in his building every year. So the opportunity for an organized group of volunteers to meet with kids was, literally, a no-brainer to him.
However, the church had concerns about their ability to launch any new programs. They, too, had budget constraints to live within. They, too, had fewer adults — or that’s how it looked on weekends. Significant risk existed about this program launching, so the principal decided to accept the pastor’s invitation to show up at church on Sunday morning before the vote.
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Leaders everywhere share a common challenge: help people reach their full potential. In some cases, high potential. But such achievements rarely happen on their own.
My son Scott entered his senior year of high school football with low expectations. he missed the entire junior season with a broken elbow - a critical injury for a quarterback. The head coach remained uncommitted as to who would earn the starting role, and the anxiety took its toll on Scott's confidence. Then someone showed up for him.
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Every Monday I meet with an amazing fourth-grader. This week we began work on a model car; to see the tiny parts required me to don my reading glasses. “I know these make me look old,” I told him.
“That’s okay Mr. Dave,” he said. “You’re still cool. (pause) To me.”
So I celebrate that an old guy like me appears cool to at least one person.
As a country, America celebrates. Especially at the start of a new year, everyone can find reasons to feel positive — regardless of whether your favorite professional football team plays in big games or your political party parades into office. Consider the officially-declared possibilities for joy throughout January: National Hot Tea Month. National Soup Month. National Mentoring Month.
Everyone has a personal favorite tea flavor and can of soup, so let’s look closer at mentoring. Specifically, who needs a mentor and why should churches and attendees care?
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I volunteered to work at a basketball camp. Held in Gary, Indiana, just over a hundred four-year olds to fourteen-year olds enjoyed three days of skill building, scrimmages, and chicken sandwiches for lunch. They learned to dribble, pass, and shoot better, while the volunteers learned other valuable lessons.
Or maybe that happened for just this volunteer.
For example, I learned that a 50+ year old can miss a jumpshot, strain a muscle, and make kids laugh—all in the same moment. That led to a new appreciation for the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” and new skepticism about “Mind over matter.” No, my body simply cannot move in the same ways my brain remembers that it once could. These revelations carry little value.
More importantly, I left camp with three important questions—one about leadership, one about kids, and the other about outreach. Questions that at first seem to have easy answers, but caused me to pause and think deeper. Good questions, the kind that help you grow, work that way.
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