Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during May/Jun 2007, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Deep in the heart of every development director you’ll find an enduring fantasy: volunteer board members who ask for big gifts face to face. This vision is so pervasive and persistent that an entire industry — books, articles, workshops, consultants — has emerged to promote and service it. As a member of that industry, I can report that demand never ends and business is brisk.
This worthy fantasy can come true, but progress is usually measured in small, incremental steps. However, given all the challenges associated with board members’ participation in fundraising, it surprises me how few organizations turn to the other available “human resource”: their staff.
To raise money successfully, nonprofits need at least three things: a strong case for giving, prospective donors to solicit, and people to do the asking. Grassroots activists tend to assume — incorrectly — that they lack the second element — prospects for big gifts. However, most donors can and will give much more than you think. For example, people tend to contribute five to ten times more money when asked in person than they do when solicited by mail. If you can’t or won’t meet with your supporters, you’re leaving money on the table.
For most organizations, the biggest barrier isn’t, in fact, a lack of donors, but rather a lack of askers. Perhaps it’s time for a different approach to major gifts — one that deploys your human resources in a different way by focusing a little less on your board and putting a lot more energy into training and motivating your entire staff.
Consider Toxics Action Center (www.toxicsaction.org), which works in neighborhoods across New England to address the human health impacts of pollution, pesticides, workplace chemicals, and other poisons. They use a traditional community organizing model: canvassing neighborhoods by knocking on doors, sitting at kitchen tables, meeting with community groups, and organizing both formal and informal networks of residents to fight corporate and government misbehavior.
After five years of building their major gifts program, Toxics Action now raises $110,000 per year — one-quarter of its annual budget — from individual major gifts of at least $250. Using the time and talents of eight staff members, only one of whom is a full-time fundraiser, the organization conducts 250 to 300 donor visits each year in homes spread across six states.
At Toxics Action, the first rule of fundraising is that every staff member participates. If you’re on the payroll, you meet with members and ask for big gifts. Period. Everyone is trained together (regardless of previous experience), everyone works the phones together, and everyone schedules appointments during the same weeks. This egalitarian approach leaves no fundraiser (or prospective major donor) behind. Here’s what makes this strategy work.
- A campaign model with specific goals, deadlines, and a very tight calendar. Twice a year, in January and September, Toxics Action shuts down most regular activities for two weeks to concentrate on major donor fundraising. The first week of each campaign is dedicated to staff training and phoning donors to set up appointments. On the second week, everyone hits the road for donor meetings. Staff can and will do a bit of their normal work during this period, but for two weeks, fundraising is the priority. Conversely, organizers and support staff do very little major donor fundraising between campaigns, so when it’s over, it’s really over.
A third campaign is organized each May to follow up with remaining major donors and prospects, but this one is limited to a few senior staff. The rest of the staff canvasses through the summer, improving their door-knocking skills and building up the membership base.
- Devotion to the numbers. During the campaign, all goals are stated and tracked numerically (see the campaign analysis chart on page 14). Each staff member begins with a list of between 55 and 70 members and is expected to reach half by phone during the first week, with the goal of scheduling 15 to 18 visits for the second week. These numbers are tallied and discussed at the end of each work day, so a dose of daily accountability is built in to the process.
- A commitment to storytelling. Everyone is encouraged to tell and develop their own stories — why they’re personally involved, why they do the work — and trained to elicit stories from the members. They all learn and tell organizational success stories. According to consultant Valerie Reuther, who helped Toxics Action to develop and perfect this approach, even the pitch —“why you need to give now” — is framed as a story.
- A “culture of practice,” in the words of executive director Alyssa Schuren. Training week feels a bit like boot camp: a typical 12-hour day includes repeated role plays interspersed with actual donor phone calls, sharing stories from the organizational “story bank,” point-by-point training on conducting donor meetings, followed by more phone calls and role plays (see daily schedule).
Every stage in the solicitation process is discussed, modeled, and practiced. “We break it down into very small pieces,” says Schuren. “We learn them one by one and then we put the pieces together.”
Picture this: a series of practice stations encircling the room dedicated to the most common telephone excuses— “I don’t have time to meet with you,” “Just mail me something,” and so on. During one training session, solicitors spend more than an hour rotating through these stations, practicing their responses until they feel prepared to address any objection they might hear on the phone. After such rigorous training, the actual phone calls are much more manageable.
- Persistence powered by a dose of realism. During training-and-telephone week, staff members spend about 15 hours total on the phone with the goal of scheduling their 15 to 18 appointments. That’s about one appointment per hour, during which they also confront a lot of voice mail, the occasional wrong number, and a taste of rejection. Everybody is given clear expectations from the start: one meeting per hour is a good result, so keep working your way through the list. If you make enough calls and talk with enough people, you’ll reach your goal.
- A culture of mutual support. Everyone is accountable for both individual and collective goals, but the campaign leaders — Schuren and development director Mia Scampini — are encouraging and even gentle in their critiques. People laugh a lot, especially at their own behavior. While facing difficult work together, a tangible esprit de corps is modeled and reinforced by the leadership. Mutual support is built in at every stage. For example, during donor visit week, three conference calls are scheduled so everyone has the chance to share notes, commiserate, and inspire each other.
- Transparency in recruitment. Before they sign on, new employees are told that they will be accountable for raising money, and that they will also be trained and supported — and everyone, regardless of job title or seniority, will be doing the same work. Once hired, nobody can credibly complain that “Fundraising isn’t my job.”
- The courage to ask for much bigger gifts. Toxics Action members who have sent in $50 checks are generally asked for $1,500 during the meeting; those who have sent $100 checks are asked for $2,500. The result: during the fall 2006 campaign, the average gift was $538. These visits can lead to even larger contributions over the years, as$500 donors increase their gifts to $1,500 or more.
Scampini tells a typical story: “It was a working-class neighborhood. The family had previously given $45; the man was a surveyor and his spouse worked as a homemaker. Looking around their house, I had my doubts, but they had both been active in our local campaign, so I asked for $1,500. The husband said, ‘We were thinking about $500, so why don’t we meet in the middle and we’ll give you$1,000.’ I was blown away — but this happens to us all the time.”
- Embracing the wisdom that fundraising equals organizing. If you calculate staff expenses in the cost per dollar raised, the Toxics Action model starts to look less profitable. But this analysis misses the larger point: every contact with constituents is a chance to deepen commitment, strengthen relationships, and encourage members to accept responsibility for the health and growth of the organization. Each donor meeting is, in effect, an organizing meeting. Fundraising provides another opportunity to sit with members in their homes, ask about their concerns, discuss how they want to participate to address those concerns, and involve them in the work.
This method also helps the staff to become better organizers. They improve their listening skills, discover the value of persistence, and learn to speak about the organization in a compelling way. If for a similar campaign you wanted to recruit board members and other volunteer leaders to join the campaign, they would gain the same skills while expanding the pool of askers and potentially reducing your costs per donor reached and dollar raised.
This model, which works very well for Toxics Action, also has its quirks and disadvantages.
Lots of time, no dependents. All current employees are under the age of 35; none have children or other dependents. (This hasn’t always been the case —toward the end of his tenure, the former executive director was raising three kids— but the staff has always been relatively young.) Yes, they have lives outside of Toxics Action, but they also have enough flexibility to participate in a two-week fundraising blitz with several 12-hour days and lots of travel. Of course parents can travel and put in long hours — many do — but with young children at home, it could be challenging to honor this campaign schedule.
Staff turnover. The flip side of employing a relatively young and childless workforce is that they tend to relocate more frequently than the general population. New staff must be recruited and trained all the time, which means that donors often meet with different solicitors each year. However, the group’s major donor income also rises each year, so although this situation is a challenge for the group, it does not seem to be an obstacle to the success of the campaigns.
Limited board involvement. Toxics Action has had limited success in engaging its board or other volunteers in these campaigns. Because most of their board members have jobs and family commitments, it’s hard for them to join in such rigorous schedules. However, board members do provide prospect names, contribute money themselves, and occasionally participate in donor visits.
Although the Toxics Action model may seem daunting — very few nonprofits can shut down the office for two weeks while the entire staff raises money— perhaps you can redesign it to meet the needs and circumstance of your group. Here are a few suggestions to spark your thinking:
- Reduce the time commitment. Spend two days on training and phoning, and three days on visits, for a total of one work week instead of two. This approach might work well for local groups where most constituents live within the neighborhood, city, or county. The fundraising days don’t have to be consecutive — you could do training and calling one week and schedule donor meetings for the following week, with a few days of regular work in between.
- Spread out the time commitment. For example, you might dedicate half of everyone’s work hours for a month, with scheduled time for collective training, phoning, and donor visits. As a variation, you could devote four or five consecutive two-day-per-week blocks of time to this work, say every Wednesday and Thursday for a month, divided among training, calling, and donor visits. If any of your board or volunteers can make a regular time commitment, this might be a viable strategy for involving them.
- Recruit a smaller staff team. Rather than taking every staff person off their other work, you could focus on development and executive staff. According to trainer Valerie Reuther, you can reach “critical mass” for a campaign like this with as few as three or four staff solicitors. Other lessons from the Toxics Action approach can be applied to your fundraising program even if your program doesn’t involve such concentrated campaigns. Here are a few:
- Share the numbers. For those who don’t do it every day — and for some who do — fundraising is mysterious. Require time at staff meetings and retreats to talk about where your money comes from. Discuss the pros and cons of various types of nonprofit income. The message: by providing more money, especially unrestricted income, a successful major gifts campaign benefits everyone, regardless of job title.
- Collect and share stories. Successful fundraising is based on compelling stories. Every organization needs a “story bank” that details the group’s history and accomplishments along with the individual and collective stories of the participants. All staff members can contribute, even if they do no direct fundraising.
- Build a fundraising component into everyone’s job description. Even if you can’t corral your entire staff into soliciting big gifts, how can you match their talents and passions to your fundraising needs? Perhaps they could participate in a donor visit by sharing a story, and then listen and learn while someone else does “the ask.”
When fundraising is left solely to the development staff, it reinforces three all-too-pervasive myths: that fundraising requires specialized skills or a unique personality, that it’s not the “real work,” and that it’s somehow demeaning or corrupting. Let us pledge to destroy these myths once and for all. Requiring that everyone on staff participate would be a great way to start.