For those new to nonprofit management, and particularly for people new to the nonprofit director role, carrying the responsibility of fundraising can be overwhelming, and even paralyzing.
It’s one of those “awake at 3 am worrying about cash flow and the pending grant proposal” jobs.
In my years of leading nonprofits and of coaching directors, I’ve come to believe that the single most important factor in having fewer 3 am moments has to do with fundraising habits.
When something becomes a habit, we do it regularly, with little or no intentionality. Habits are ingrained in our brains and neural circuitry in such a way that we perform the routine without much thought.
Here are my top five fundraising habits:
#1: Pay attention to fundraising at least weekly, if not every couple of days. Fundraising is not an add-on; it’s a central part of your job. Just like mission, you do it all the time.
#2: Strengthen relationships and build new ones: Funders give to people they trust and believe in. The more you engage donors and foundation staff as partners, the more they get to know you, and the more money you will raise over the long term. If funders hear from you infrequently, when you are desperate to raise funds or have a report due, you’re not engaging them.
#3: Constantly look for new funding sources: Keep your eyes open for potential donors and when you spot one, reach out. The only way to keep your head above water long term is to expand your funding base. Keep an eye out for new and emerging donors through researching the supporter lists of groups similar to yours. When you attend a fundraising event, pay attention to which donors are listed as supporters on the event program.
#4: Ask, ask, ask: If a funder has turned you down, apply again in their next cycle. No is not forever.
#5: Control your expenses: Often we ignore the expense side of the ledger. Have clear policies in place to limit travel and meeting expenses. Don’t allow non-performing staff to linger in a rut. Either provide them with additional support, adapt their role to fit their strengths, or counsel them out.
These habits are key to surviving some of the basic realities that come with the territory and are constantly working against you. These realities include:
If you are in the executive director or fund development role and are someone not naturally drawn to these habits, what do you do? What does it take to learn new habits? This is a tough one. We have all experienced times in which we know intellectually that we need to act a certain way, but we mostly do what we always do, and repeatedly get ourselves in hot water as a result. That said, here are a few tricks that might help:
It’s easy to spot organizations whose top level staff lack fundraising habits. These organizations tend to go through boom and bust cycles. They get a large grant or donation, stop paying attention to fundraising, then run out of money. They consistently overspend their budgets because they pay little or no attention to expenses. They are regularly putting out emergency appeals. They can’t hold on to strong staff. Who wants to work for an organization that struggles to make payroll?
Our ability to be strong fundraisers and money managers is very much connected to the attitudes we were raised with as children toward money. Some people find it nearly impossible to ask others for money because as kids, they learned that money was something you never spoke of. Or they were raised in families with few resources and they simply learned to not ask. Asking for money can feel undignified.
In the nonprofit world there a numerous other challenges we face. The funder world is mostly white-led. Directors of color and women often encounter bias and have to prove themselves in ways that white men do not. Foundation program officers are a mixed bag. They can be helpful, and they can be really terrible. Really terrible. Don’t get me started.
When taking on the challenge of learning fundraising habits, it might be useful to think of times when you have learned a new habit. You never exercised, but a few years ago you learned to frequent a gym. You learned to not react angrily to certain situations. You became a more attentive parent or spouse. What did it take? How can you replicate the pattern through which you learned those new tricks?
Finally we’re all in the same boat, with the same sharks circling us, and it helps a lot just to talk with others about it. I’m married to a nonprofit director and we talk about it daily. Not that I recommend it. Get coffee with others who are in your role.
You’re doing amazing work! When people learn about your efforts and your impact, they will want to support you!
Jim Keddy assists social change organizations in growing their capacities in community organizing, advocacy, policy analysis and development, organizational growth and fundraising.