.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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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: