Donor Stewardship Basics and Beyond

November 23, 2015

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 4:55 pm

I recently put together a presentation for The Databank on effective donor stewardship, which some people call donor cultivation.

You can check out the slides from the webinar below.


Donor stewardship from Jonathan Poisner Strategic Consulting

Preparing for an Executive Director Transition

October 20, 2015

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:37 pm

Often times Executive Director transitions are abrupt, taking place within a 1-2 month period when an E.D. moves onto another professional opportunity.  Rarely, they are even more abrupt after a tragedy or the Executive Director being fired.

However, in many instances an Executive Director is able to give significant advance notice to their board, often as much as 6-12 months.

In those instances, the organization has an chance to make the most of the transition so that it serves as an opportunity as much as a threat.

Below, I list 10 major steps an organization should consider to manage the transition, particularly in the 6 months immediately prior to it.

    1. Make sure that the organization has a current strategic plan. In the absence of a complete strategic plan, the organization should hold a facilitated meeting to ensure the board is aligned with the remaining senior staff regarding the purpose of the organization and major programs for the next 1-2 years.


    1. The Executive Director should consciously “transfer” personal relationships with major donors and institutional funders to others within the organization. Depending on the situation this could involve board members or other senior staff.   This could be accomplished by holding meetings (e.g. lunches, coffees, or more formal) with the donors one-by-one or by hosting small gatherings with multiple donors.


    1. Communicate early and clearly with allied organizations and funders in advance regarding the transition. In those communications, identify the specific steps the organization will be taking to ensure a successful transition.


    1. In public communications, such as newsletters, press releases, the website, etc., tell success stories about other staff and have other staff serve as spokespeople.  The more constituents come to know staff beyond the Executive Director, the less noticeable their absence will be.


    1. Have the Executive Director write down organizational stories. These stories could involve the founding of the organization if they were involved in it.  It should definitely involve stories that demonstrate the organization’s success and/or impact.  Depending on the E.D., this may be best done by having someone “interview” the Executive Director and write up the stories as they are told, as opposed to having the E.D. sit at a computer and write.


    1. Create an E.D. “Job Manual” that identifies the systems used by the Executive Director. This should cover all the major administrative and fundraising activities of the organization where the E.D. is involved, identifying what major activities need to be conducted weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually.  This might also cover major “program” activities if the E.D. plays a substantial role, again broken down by weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually.


    1. The outgoing E.D. should talk to other senior staff about their own timelines for professional development and discuss if/how to motivate them to stay on with the organization at least at least 6-12 months after the E.D. transition. This conversation should also be an early flag of whether the senior staff intend to apply for the Executive Director position.


    1. As soon as feasible, the E.D. and the board’s Finance or Executive Committee should develop a cash flow analysis of where the organization will be financially as of the date the new E.D. should start.  If at all feasible, additional funds should be raised or spending should be curtailed so as to maximize the amount of unrestricted reserve available at the time of transition.  If cash flow is going to be tight, the board should be asked to increase their personal giving in the short run in order to help.


    1. If the outgoing E.D. has relationships where it would make sense, use the transition as a message around which to raise extra funds.  Examples of tactics that have been successfully used include an event that “roasts” the outgoing E.D. and the creation of a “Legacy” fund by which donors can make a gift in honor of the outgoing E.D.


    1. The board and Executive Director should identify a “Plan B” should the hiring process for a new Executive Director not succeed in finding someone appropriate who says yes. Boards should be enthusiastic about new Executive Directors and  organizations are almost always better off not hiring someone who they believe will be mediocre.   The Plan B could involve an outsider brought on as an Interim E.D. or the temporary assignment of one of the other staff as Interim E.D.


Do you have additional suggestions for steps an organization should take when planning for an Executive Director transition?

If so, please comment below.

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Your organization is an intermediary

June 24, 2015

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 1:11 pm

One of the more interesting words I recently heard used to describe nonprofits is as “intermediaries.”

Under this way of thinking, your organization isn’t the protagonist in your story.

Instead, those who support your organization are the protagonists. The donors, whether individual or institutional.

Their passion is what matters.

Passion for what? Not for your organization, although they may well also have that.

Instead, it’s their passion for the community impact or change that you’re making.

You are the intermediary that helps the donor make the impact that they want, where the donor can’t do the work directly.

If you start thinking this way, you’ll avoid the trap of your fundraising materials being all about how great the organization is. Your case should instead be about the tremendous impact the donors are making for the community and how satisfying it is to play a key role in making that change happen.

You are the intermediary.

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Questions from Joan Garry to ask candidates for your fundraising job

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources — jonathanpoisner @ 1:00 pm

Joan Garry has some superb questions to ask those interviewing with you for a fundraising job, as well as what types of answers you should hope they provide.

I particularly liked Joan’s questions on their approach to philanthropy and how they would work with a board.

Donor meeting locations

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 12:50 pm

One of the truisms of fundraising, corroborated by expert fundraisers across nearly every type of nonprofit is that meeting in-person with donors almost always provides the best way to upgrade a donor to a more significant level of giving.

Which begs the question, where do you meet with them?

Rather than rushing ahead to the answer, start by reminding yourself: why are you meeting with them?

In general, you’re meeting with them to:

  • Get to know them better
  • Have them get to know you better
  • Have them better understand how the organization’s work matches up with their values
  • Ask for their support.

Given those goals, the major area of concern would be if the location is not sufficiently private for people to feel comfortable discussing their values or their money.  Likewise, the venue shouldn’t be so noisy that it interferes with the flow of the conversation.

So in order of priority, I’d suggest asking them if they’d like to meet at their home or place of business.

You can say something like: “I’d be happy to meet you at your home or work if that’s convenient to you, or we can figure out some other option.”

If they leave you the choice, opt for the home.

If they say they are interseted in another option, my next recommendation would be if you have some location that demonstrates the value of your work.  This could be a mini-tour.  But only if there’s a quiet place to talk and sit down while doing so.

If nothing like that fits the bill, I’d then suggest your office.  But that’s only if your office meets standards of professionalism that will match up with a donors’ expectations.

Lastly, if that’s not feasible, suggest a coffee shop or restaurant.  A public location is least likely to be conducive to the conversaion and most likely to offer up distractions.  With that said, it’s sometimes the right choice.  While you want to go somewhere good, prioritize places you know are usually not busy.  The last thing you want is for you and the donor to show up at a coffee shop where there’s no place to sit.

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Science fiction and my call to service

March 25, 2015

Filed under: About My Work,Advocacy — jonathanpoisner @ 12:21 pm

I was recently asked why I felt called to service. As it was asked, the question related specifically to my career’s focus on helping nonprofit organizations, either by working for them directly or as a contractor.

After reflecting a bit, I gave an answer that surprised even me.

I think my call to service was informed by reading a lot of science fiction growing up.

The science fiction I read growing up alternatively presented really positive, uplifting, exciting views of the future, or really dark, negative, challenging views of the future.

Most importantly, the books often focused on pivot points where things either went from “good” to “bad” or “bad” to “good.” And the characters in the books often played a key role in these pivot points.

I think this taught me two lessons in particular.

First, the future won’t necessarily look like the present. Change is possible, if not inevitable.

Second, individuals can have a real impact on what change happens.

Both are key to the mindset of someone who “fights the good fight” for social change.

If you don’t believe the future can be a lot different from today, you’ll be resigned to just let things be.

And if you don’t believe individuals can have an impact, why get involved?

So if you’re a parent who wants their child to become involved in social change work over the long run, pick out some good science fiction books and give them to your child.

Next step for me: work on a blog post outlining which science fiction books most impacted me.

Was there a science fiction book that had a big impact on you?

The power of asking good questions

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 11:35 am

When I’m asked what are the most important attributes for an effective major donor fundraiser, I often say: “nothing beats being naturally curious.”  Because a good fundraiser doesn’t talk at a prospect, he or she has a conversation and comes away learning a great deal about the donor/prospect.   For people who’re naturally curious, this comes easily as they’re full of questions.

Of course, not everyone is naturally curious.  Others need to be more conscious of the power of asking good questions and think ahead of time about potential questions to ask.

Good questions accomplish a variety of goals within a major donor meeting.

  • They elicit informaion about what the donor thinks about your work.
  • They elicit information about what else the donor cares about.
  • They evoke passion in the donor.
  • They help the donor identify the connection between their personal values and the organization’s work.

Here are some examples of questions that accomplish these goals.

What do you love about your work?

Why did you first get interested in X?  (X could be their career, their volunteer work, a cause, a hobby, etc.)

Why does our cause matter to you?

Which of our programs are most appealing to you?

What’s the best gift you ever made?

What are your top philanthropic priorities?

The list could, of course, be much longer.  And perhaps importantly, you should prime yourself to ask follow-up questions as people answer these in ways that generate more questions in your mind.

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The biggest barrier to effective major donor fundraising

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 11:21 am

What’s the biggest barrier to organizations launching an effective major donor program?

My three nominees are:

• Lack of connections
• Lack of time
• Lack of skills

Let’s discuss each in turn.

Connections: Most people I talk to feel their biggest barrier is lack of connections.  In my experience, this is not the case.  When run through an exercise to identify who they have as acquaintances, nearly everyone I’ve worked with discovers major donor prospects ($1,000+) in their midst.  More importantly, if conceived of as a program and not a one-time effort, everyone knows people who, in turn, know major donor prospects at even higher levels of potential.  Part of an effective major donor program is identifying the “connectors” you know, securing their donations (even if at lower dollar levels), and then enlisting them in the effort.

Skills:  Others come to me feeling their biggest barrier is lack of skills.  This is, of course, a real barrier.  Partly because lack of skills can lead you to use the wrong approach to meetings, leading to fewer and smaller gifts.  And partly because the lack of skills can sap you of the confidence necessary to build an effective program.  The good news: there are techniques anyone can use that will allow them to improve their success rate when talking to prospects.

Time: Lack of time is, in the end, the barrier that I find leads many organizations to fare poorly when it comes to launching an effective major donor fundraising program.  It takes time.  Especially at the start.  You can’t launch a major donor program with a stable staff without clearly identifying what you’re going to do less of because time is going into major donor cultivation and solicitation.  Even if you’re adding staff who will take the lead with major donors, you need to still identify the time needed by others in the organization and account for how it will be allocated — especially for Executive Directors who are essential to major donor fundraising.

Time is also a big challenge for programs that aim to take advantage of the board’s connections and passion.  The best board member on paper isn’t all that helpful if he or she lacks the time to commit to helping an organization.  This should be a major part of the conversation with potential board members in recruitment and organizations should overstate rather than understate the time requirements of serving on the board so as to maximize the number of new board members who can truly fulfill their role.

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Guest blog: How to become a thought leader

February 17, 2015

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 9:30 am

Guest blog by Liz Banse of Resource Media. 

Thought Leadership: More than just a TED talk and, yes, more than just a fad

Have you ever dreamed of giving a TED talk and selling your big idea to the same folks who gobbled up Bill Gates big vision of innovating to zero, learned that gaming can be good, or how schools kill creativity?

What you were dreaming about was becoming a world-famous thought leader. If there was a word or phrase of the year in the communications industry for 2014, it would be “thought leadership.” Finally, a new phrase has pushed “storytelling” to the side as the “it” thing.

At Resource Media, we have heard a lot of you articulate your dreams of getting your bold vision out to a wider circle. There’s nothing we love more than working with visionaries – who wouldn’t?!

But, with all the ideas and excitement about thought leadership, what is it really?

First of all, it’s disruptive. Take any current notion of how things can or should be done and offer a completely different approach to solving whatever problem you have identified, and you are well on your way to becoming your industry’s thought leader.

Thought leaders tend to upend the status quo with a bold vision.

Thought leadership is not about being the most knowledgeable person on your issue.

If you’ve checked this box, great. But, before you go out and make your mark on the world, make sure that your organization’s brand is strong, too.

As the leader of an organization, your thought leadership should come around to benefit your organization. And, vice versa. If you know your organization’s brand is strong, it can help catapult you to the forefront. If it is weak, work on that first, before you work on your thought leadership plan.

Check. Now, you are ready to go forth and conquer the world. Package your thought leadership with an interesting life story (trust us, everyone has one). People have thought leadership, not organizations.

Create a video or some other vehicle that will carry your idea to others when you are not able to do it in-person. Attend events and conferences with audiences who can help you test out your idea and hone it even further. Actively pursue media interviews with journalists who can help spread your ideas among other influencers. Play an active role on social media, engaging in conversations with other leaders.

Watch your influence meter rise.

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Guest Blog: How to Refresh your Brand

February 10, 2015

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 9:19 am

Guest Blog by Liz Banse of Resource Media

When was the last time you went to the doctor for a check-up? Hopefully, it was in the past year. But, what about your organization? Have you given it a check-up recently? Specifically, have you checked on the health of your organization’s brand?

Aw, we’re fine, you say. I know how to articulate my organization’s mission statement without even referring to the cheat sheet by my phone. But, do you know what other people are saying about you? And does that match how you describe who you are, what you do, and what makes you so unique?

At Resource Media, we like to say that your brand is what people say about you once you leave the room. If there is any sort of gap between how you describe yourself and how others describe you when you aren’t around, you have a brand disconnect. And a brand disconnect means you are not fulfilling your brand promise to your supporters.

That’s when you want to get back into alignment. A branding refresh is all about redefining and getting clear on what sets you apart from others in your field. It’s about finding the right words to communicate the value of the work that you do to the people who need to hear it most – whether they be donors, elected officials or community leaders, other organizational partners or anyone else you need on your side to realize your goals.

How does a typical branding process flow? Start with a discovery process where you interview people within the organization as well as those who interface with it from the outside (supporters, funders, policy makers, partner organizations, and others). Ideally, these interviews are conducted by a neutral third party with communications expertise so that you’re receiving candid views instead of people telling you what you want to hear. These in-depth interviews will give you the first clues as to the health of the brand.

Next, have someone outside of your organization review your organization’s materials – online and offline and write up what they perceive as your brand. Does their write up match what you had intended to convey?

You may also at this point want to do a broader online survey of organizational supporters.

Pull all the research generated together and hold a “workshop” at which you hopefully will generate some “a-ha” moments. The outcome of the workshop should be refreshed language about your organization’s core identity and some tactics for how to better communicate it.

Then, don’t forget to make sure everyone on staff (and possibly the board) is trained and any stock materials are overhauled. The result: Staff, volunteers, and those outside the organization will speak in one voice on how and what you do and, most importantly, why the work you do is important and unique.

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