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How The Common Cold Can Improve Your Fundraising Results

Jeff Shuck
June 8, 2015

Oh man, have I been sick the last few days. I’m a terrible patient, too – I predictably let myself go to the point that I spent a good part of the last few days as well as half of the weekend flat on my back in bed.

You’ve probably been there. It started last week – I woke up kind of groggy one morning, with my nose a bit stuffed up. “It’s just allergies,” I thought, and against my better judgment I proceeded to work out and head into the office as usual.

The next day I spent most of the day working with a client in a frigid boardroom. When I say “frigid,” let me clarify that my clients themselves were kind and welcoming – but the temperature in their boardroom was just a tad warmer than Chicago in January. Halfway through the day I felt some aches coming on, and by the end of the day my nose was running like a Summer Olympian. “Maybe I just have a headache,” I said to my team as I took some Advil. 

But by the flight home, there was no denying that I was in for it. By the time I crawled into bed I was coughing and sneezing, and by the next morning I did something I rarely do: I took a sick day. 

It’s now five days later and I’m on the mend. But I can’t help think that if I had just slowed down when I first started feeling sick I would have spared myself from the worst of it – and reclaimed most of the weekend.

There are some great parallels here to what I often see in our nonprofit clients. At Plenty, we generally do two types of engagements. The first kind are very entrepreneurial: an organization is looking to launch a new subsidiary, channel, or campaign, and they need a partner to help them develop it. These engagements are stimulating and demanding because often there is no clear roadmap. We have to create the map while we’re driving.

The other kind of engagements we do are what could be described as turnaround. Something is off track: an event or campaign or maybe even an entire division is underperforming. Despite everyone’s best efforts – and sometimes, maybe because of them – the results are getting worse, not better. These engagements are equally as demanding, because there is an urgency to create quick results and a frustration on the client’s part that they weren’t able to find the solution themselves.

The thing is, fundraising problems are a lot like the common cold: everyone gets them; they aren’t any fun; and if you don’t take care of yourself, you can make them worse, not better.

Here are some things I’ve learned from working with dozens of nonprofits to help them through their fundraising ailments.

It is natural. Just like no person is healthy every single day of their lives, even the best-run fundraising organizations can run into challenges. Shifting public tastesbrand issueseconomic conditions, even tax policy can impact your fundraising results. If your fundraising campaign starts to get a cough and a slight fever, don’t jettison it yet. Many programs will not grow consistently every single year. Quick health tips:

  • Monitor your performance against the prior month and the same period over the past several years. You won’t know if you have a problem unless you’re comparing against past results.

  • Watch for small changes, good and bad.

  • Resist the urge to explain away downturns with anecdotes or rationalizations. Saying “We lost our largest team” to explain a 10% income drop is the same as saying “Maybe it is just allergies” when you feel a fever coming on.

  • If you see a downturn, don’t panic.

Denial doesn’t work. You can argue with your mom and your friends that you don’t have a cold, but when people start looking at you with concerned eyes and saying, “Are you really sure you’re all right?” it may be time to admit that you’re not feeling well. Similarly, while it is natural for fundraising campaign to hit bumps in the road, the sooner you take remedial action the easier it will be to fix what is going wrong. The reverse is true, too – the longer you wait, the harder and more expensive it will be for you to fix. In our turnaround engagements, by far the most common thing our clients say to us is, “We waited too long to call you for help.” Quick health tips:
  • Strive to create an environment of openness so that your team feels willing to share the good and the bad. Regularly ask questions like, “What is working? What isn’t?”

  • Do the same when reporting to your executives. Including a brief punch list of “watch list” items, along with your intended responses, will show that you are keeping your eyes open but are focused on solutions.

Do what you know you should be doing. We all know we’re supposed to drink a lot of water, get enough sleep, and lay off the junk food. But often it takes a cold or flu for us to straighten up and fly right. In the same way, when our team comes in to repair a damaged fundraising program we often find that the fundamentals have been swept aside in favor of either more elaborate programs with a tenuous link to results or busy work that detracts from real fundraising time. When your program takes a dip, that is the time to make sure your asks are clear, your donation levels are solid, your brand is powerful, and the impact of a constituent’s gift is clearly articulated. Do a quick health inventory of your program’s website and printed materials:
Get some rest. We all know that the number one thing we’re supposed to do when we’re not feeling well is lie down. “Get in bed!” How many times have each of us heard that phrase? While sleep and rest alone won’t improve your fundraising, there’s some great advice for nonprofit professionals in these words. When times get tough, our natural reaction in the professional word is to go into overdrive: we pull a lot of levers, launch a lot of programs, try a lot of tactics to get something – anything – to improve. However, that is often the worst thing to do. A frenzy of responses creates more work for a staff that is probably already overwhelmed. It also makes it harder to see what is actually working and why. You can’t sit idly by, but leave the kitchen sink firmly bolted down in the kitchen. Quick health tips:
  • Do a quick inventory of all of your team’s activities. What directly contributes to driving revenue? What directly contributes to reducing cost? (Hint: The more rationalizing you need to do to explain how something increases revenue or reduces cost, the more likely it doesn’t do either.)

  • The four main drivers of revenue are acquisition, retention, stewardship, and expansion. Give yourself a quick assessment in each category. How can you bolster each?

  • What is your biggest busy work activity? Busy work includes things that don’t contribute to anything other than your lack of time, growing stress, and mounting frustration. Examples include rekeying reports; filling out forms that have already been completed somewhere else; and doing someone else’s job. How can you eliminate some of the busy work?

See a doctor. Often, rest, sleep, and a little patience are the only things you need to feel better. Sometimes, though, you have to go see an expert. The longer you wait, and the more symptoms you have, the more likely it is you will need someone with outside expertise and perspective. Asking for help isn’t a signal that you’ve failed – it is a proactive step that you take when you are ready to get better. At Plenty we offer a few ways to give you the diagnosis and treatment you need:

  • Daylong, onsite skill-building seminars with you and your team. 

  • Onsite, three or four-day intensive workouts to diagnosis issues and build solutions. 

  • In depth, extensive examinations to get to the root problems and create scalable, long-term, innovative answers.

  • Long-term mentoring and capacity-building to get you back on track permanently.

There are two things I realize every time I get sick. One, I’m very grateful for my health! I always emerge from a cold rededicated to taking good care of myself and thankful that I’ve been blessed with a healthy life.

And two, I realize that health is an ongoing state, not a one-time goal. I resolve to take care of myself each day – and to get the help I need to get the next time I need it.

Here’s wishing you the best for a healthy summer personally and professionally!

Interested in another dose of fundraising medicine? Download our new e-book "The Participant Gears: Understanding Why People Participate in Peer-to-Peer" for a deep dive into the three forces influencing your supporters decision to participate in your fundraising programs, and how you can leverage each one.

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