.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
David Staal serves as a consultant to the nonprofit sector following 11 years as President & CEO of a national organization (Kids Hope USA), 10 years in church staff leadership (Willow Creek Community Church), and a 13-year marketing career (Abbott Laboratories). A senior editor for Christianity Today International for 12 years, he also authored these books: