There are over 400 not-for-profit organizations in Wayne County, Indiana. Most of them get some or all of their operating dollars by asking the people who live here for money. And unfortunately, with some shining exceptions, many of them are pretty bad at it.
I don’t mean “there was a typo in their annual appeal letter” bad.
There was the time that I had such a good experience with a local not-for-profit that I wrote them a letter and asked how to make a donation. They thanked me for the letter but never followed up (after repeated attempts on my part) about where to send the money.
There was the time I went to a fundraising event for a local not-for-profit, and it turned out they had published the wrong event date in the local paper. While I was there I dropped off a donation anyway…but they never cashed the check. When I contacted them to ask about it, they said they’d look into it, and then never followed up. I had to call the bank to put a stop payment on the check.
I have more of these stories. Voicemails and emails left unanswered. Attempts to volunteer my time unacknowledged. Broken website donation tools that never get fixed. The not-for-profits involved are names you would recognize if you live here. I know that these oversights were never intentional or malicious – and hey, maybe it’s just my money they don’t want? – but it’s really hard to see, especially knowing how much every dollar can make a difference for some of them.
(My experience here is not just anecdotal. I served on the Wayne County Foundation’s grant-making committee and then on its board of directors for a number of years, and saw grant applications and fundraising strategies go by from many of the active not-for-profits in our community. But in case it’s not obvious, none of the views expressed here represent the Foundation or its affiliates.)
Even for organizations where there aren’t embarrassing blunders involved, I notice difficulties with the basics of fundraising. Sometimes it’s circular logic in their appeals (“give us money because we need money, so please give us money”). Sometimes it’s broken or missing logistical details about what the money will be used for or how to send it. Sometimes it’s the painful realization that they’re spending months and months of staff and volunteer time organizing a fundraising event that ends up being poorly attended and/or brings in a relatively small dollar amount given the effort involved.
Most noticeable to me is the frequent lack of any quantitative way of measuring the outcomes of the work they do. At the Foundation we always tried to stress the importance of tracking “outcomes” and not just “activity,” but I fear many non-profits thrive on advertising their activity alone. If you’re engaged in some important service to our community and you want to come back to ask for financial support year after year, I think you need to be able to show the value of that on paper. It doesn’t have to be complicated: “By producing X number of programs/events/etc. at a cost of Y dollars per recipient/beneficiary, we made a Z percent increase/decrease in this critical indicator of community health last year.”
But so many organizations don’t have or can’t share even those basic numbers. They may have lots of great event photos, Facebook likes and press coverage, but they can’t articulate a basic business case for supporting them. And when they can’t do that, then they almost always struggle with other important functions like marketing and public relations, staff and board development and retention, and overall efficiency.
“Why are you hating on these poor not-for-profits, Chris?” you might be asking. To be clear, I’m not. I greatly appreciate and treasure so many of the not-for-profit organizations we have here. I have given and will continue to give my own time and money to them, and I want them to succeed. And goodness knows there are some of them that do fundraising really, really well.
But for the ones that don’t, I want something better for them. And I want our community to hold them to a higher standard. There are many generous people living here, but their generosity is not unlimited and their financial resources are not infinite. As a place wrestling with serious issues like childhood education, poverty, opioid abuse and workforce readiness, we owe it to ourselves not to squander a single dollar that might help provide a better life for a person or family in need.
So how can a Wayne County not-for-profit organization that depends on but also struggles with fundraising get better at it?
The first thing to do is make sure you’re treating fundraising and donor development seriously as a skill and practice, just as important as any other aspect of your operations. Hire staff or dedicate volunteer time accordingly, track and measure the details like any other business function, and report back to your board and supporters on the results. If your fundraising strategy amounts to an annual board meeting agenda item where you’re trying to think of ways to raise money via a one-off event, you’re doing it wrong.
The second thing I’d suggest is making use of the fundraising resources available to you. The Wayne County Foundation is connected to a wealth of knowledge, events, associations and trainings that can help you on your way. Occasionally they’ll even pay to bring in nationally recognized speakers who can train your staff and board on effective fundraising practices, at no cost to you! The people at the Foundation are excited to help area not-for-profits do what they do better, and you should call or email them today if you’re not already in touch. Beyond that, I know that many development professionals at some of the more successful organizations in town would be glad to share their tips and expertise with you; just don’t start the conversation by asking them to be on you board.
A third thing is to make sure your fundraising is relational and not just transactional. If raising money starts and ends at asking for it, receiving it and depositing in the bank, then you’re missing out on the most critical parts of building long-term support for your mission. You need to understand how your donors found you, why they supported you, and what will make them give reliably in the future. You have to be able to connect to their interests and passions and to know why they might give you a dollar that they’ve presumably worked hard to earn. This takes time, conversation, surveys, networking events and careful management of a donor database, just to start.
And back to some of my stories from earlier, I can’t stress enough the importance of getting the basics right. Make sure your online donation process can easily be found and is truly painless for your average donor. Make sure your postal mailing address is easily found, and that you track and cash the checks you receive. Return calls and emails (and, if you’re on social media, inquiries there) quickly and professionally, as you never know which seemingly random contact could turn into a major supporter.
Having a healthy and sustainable not-for-profit community is important in any community, but in current day Richmond it seems especially essential as we work to meet the needs of all who live and work here. And for as long as our local not-for-profits depend on the generosity of others, I think they need to work toward a higher level of quality in fundraising strategy and tactics.
What’s your experience of raising money and/or giving money in our area?
I’d like to see more Wayne County fundraising events that do not involve a night out and a hefty admission price to help pay for food and/or entertainment. It seems to me that these events consistently appeal to the same audience and leave out those of us who don’t enjoy or cannot afford them. Just because I don’t want to pay $75 for an evening doesn’t mean I wouldn’t give $5, $10, $25 or more to support a cause. And it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy meeting other people who care about the same cause.
I don’t object to the high price events. I can see they’re successful. I’d just like to see some other possibilities.
Agree! Related, I think the availability of child care would would drive participation up in many cases.
I have worked in town on various boards and with fundraising for twenty years. I agree 100% with everything you mentioned. I love that people in Richmond want to help when they see a need. Too often, however I find those ideas to have been developed in a vacuum that results in duplication of services and asking for money from the same pie- just cutting each piece smaller .
I agree. I wrote some about that duplication almost 10 years ago now.
I agree completely, Chris. I’m involved in a couple of boards whose leadership clearly doesn’t understand the importance of being able to communicate (and publicize) their importance to the community. It’s difficult because that seems so obvious. Board participation at any significant level is also a problem. I’m glad you wrote this and I hope the people who need to see it see it.