Is Your Nonprofit Starving or Dream-Brokering?


Why does the nonprofit sector feel like it’s in starvation mode? Giving USA reported new record contributions of $400 billion in 2017. That’s more than the budgets of HHS, HUD, the EPA, and the Departments of Education, State, and Interior combined.

We know people want to make a difference and see giving as a way to create a better world. We know our missions matter, and we’re committed to this work. So why do most of us in the social-good profession continuously feel like we’re on the brink of disaster?  

I’m all about illuminating what drives fundraising success – and what holds us back from it. Why should it be shrouded in mystery?

In The Generosity Network, Jennifer McCrea and Jeffrey Walker notice the language we use and the mindsets we default to. We so often refer to fundraising as “harnessing resources,” inferring that the resources required for success are “limited, hard to acquire, and eager to escape.” It’s a short-sighted and powerless mindset.

Instead, they suggest thinking about fundraising as “unleashing” resources. It’s our way of unlocking the flow of funding donors want to give and are ready to give – solving the big problems around us and to change lives.

This resonates for me. Fundraisers really are “dream brokers for donors,” as I heard a keynote speaker put it at the 2016 AFP International Conference.

Which obstacles are preventing YOUR nonprofit from unleashing resources and dream-brokering for donors?

Could it be one of these three most common mindsets that plague us?

1.       Scarcity
We have a starvation problem in the nonprofit sector, and lack of money is not the cause.

It’s because far too often, nonprofits are not investing in themselves in the ways they really need to, to realize results. (If you’ve heard me on my soapbox about overhead before, you know where this is going.) We must invest in talent. We must invest appropriately in both in administrative and programmatic staff to grow. We have to stop believing program funding is “good” and administrative costs are “bad.” They are symbiotic. And if you don’t have strong organizational infrastructure in place, you can’t run effective and efficient programs. You will not produce the results donors want to invest in.

If money was no problem, what would your organization look like in programs and staff needed to do our job well? What would it take to put ourselves out of business, because we’ve solved the problem, fulfilled our mission and met the vision, putting ourselves out of business? Allow yourself to dream when answering this question. And use your answers as funding opportunities for your donors who are standing right there next to you waiting to help.

2.       Fear of the Unknown

Building relationships can be scary.  It requires trust, transparency, and vulnerability. We feel safer in our armor of elevator speeches and canned language about our programs. Too often, nonprofits keep donors at arm’s length because we don’t have time to invest in nurturing those relationships. Or because we don’t want the donor’s impression to change if we pull back the curtain and show themselves authentically, warts and all. Even further, we fear that if we show donors our nonprofit’s challenges, we will scare them away.

Am I maximizing relationships with our donors in a way that can lead to transformational gifts?  Does my organization have enough connection points with our donor audiences (through impact reports, newsletters, etc)? Do we know enough about our top-level supporters and their interests and ways we might deepen their connection to our work? Are we positioning the challenges we face in a way that helps our donors see where they can support us most?

3.       Fear of Rejection:
Jennifer McCrea reminds us, “If you remember that people really do want to make a difference on the planet with their lives and with their money, you realize that rejection is fundamentally impossible.

So, when a donor says “no” to your request for funds, don’t get stuck on the rejection. Dig deeper to learn more. If it was a personal solicitation for a major gift, it could be that you didn’t get to know that donor well enough to understand what his/her interests really are and where the alignment is between those interests and your mission.  But a “no” to a personal solicitation is rarely a flat out rejection.  Ask more about what prompted their response.  

If your “no” is donors who become inactive, it might be because they didn’t feel valued by you or feel assured that their gift was making a difference (the two biggest drivers of donor motivation). Revisit your communications to look at how you’re talking about yourself. And reach out to your recently lapsed donors. Tell them you miss them, and send them a survey asking why they stopped giving to you. Prioritize a few of those donors for personal calls and visits.

How can we turn our donors’ rejection into a culture of learning within our organization, so that we evolve in the way we truly hear and understand our donors? 

In the nonprofit sector, sometimes our mindsets limit and defeat us. And they can be deeply entrenched in our organizational cultures and our individual approach to our work. Together and with intention, we can move out of these old ruts. We can truly unleash resources and transform donors’ dreams!

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