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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The power of asking good questions

March 25, 2015

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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No magic words, but themes matter

January 29, 2015

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 5:04 pm

I was recently asked by a nonprofit leader whether there are certain words or phrases that the organization should be sure to utilize in major donor fundraising because they tend to be particularly effective.

The leader (at the urging of a board member) was thinking about major donor fundraising as a marketing exercise in which certain words hold special power, particularly if repeated over and over.

In my view, major donor fundraising is more analogous to sales if one wishes to make an analogy to business. While I have no doubt some words are particularly effective in sales, my experience is effective salespersons think more about what stories and themes to tell than what specific words to use.

I responded to the leader accordingly.  Don’t focus on what words to use.  Focus on what themes should show up in the stories you tell donors.

I highlighted three themes to her.

First, it’s critically important to focus any donor conversation first on values and only secondarily on the work of an organization, statistics, or public policy.  Connect with people emotionally by sharing your personal story and by speaking in values terms that resonate with them. Ask their story to understand what values motivate them. Only then are you likely to engage them in a conversation about your organization’s strategy and details in a way most likely to lead to major gifts.

Second, it’s very important that you both demonstrate there is a problem the donor wants to help you address and that they should have hope that your organization can be part of the solution. Don’t assume potential donors already get the problem and rush into talking about your programmatic work (which tends to be your solutions).

But that doesn’t mean the conversation can end with the problem. If all you demonstrate to donors is you’re working to address a problem, they are unlikely to dig deep. You need stories that demonstrate your capacity as an organization (and sometimes as an individual leading the organization) to address the problem. You need to leave them hopeful.

Third, donors increasingly need to simultaneously understand that your organization is uniquely positioned to make a difference and that it’s also not a “Lone Ranger.”  This can be a quandary. On the one hand, you need to stand out from the crowd. On the other hand, donors increasingly prize organizations that collaborate and who can articulate how their work dovetails with others. You should be able to tell the story of your work that navigates this challenge.

Do these themes match up with your own experience as a major donor fundraiser?  Are there other themes of equal relevance?

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The Science behind Storyelling

November 24, 2014

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 3:51 pm

Here’s a really quick, but useful read about the science that explains why fundraising via storytelling is more effective than relying on statistics to mak your case.

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling.



Guest blog: Grantwriting as a Team-building exercise

May 19, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 1:22 pm

Guest blog by Sami Fournier of Element Exercise.

Faced with the prospect of submitting a grant proposal, consider what a great opportunity you have before you. Beyond being a challenge and a bit of a chore, the grant writing process can define your organization’s work in a way that also improves the leadership of your team.

A looming grant deadline can be a team-building experience.

Let’s take the example of applying to a foundation for a general support grant.

Your first instinct as Executive Director might be to sequester yourself in your office and just write it.

But consider this alternative possibility:  Get your team together (on a rational, roomy timeline, if possible) and build an outline using the funder’s guidelines and requirements. Suppose you start with something like this:

  • Intro
  • History and Background
  • Statement of problem and need
  • Goals and objectives
  • Solution to the problem
  • Budget
  • Timelines
  • Applicant qualifications
  • Evaluation
  • Organizational Sustainability

Carve out assignments for your team members, knowing that each will review and edit and feed into the main narrative as well.

Whomever is drafting the narrative is not working in a vacuum. That person is hopefully starting from the organization’s strategic plan and building on the organization’s mission and goals.

The main job of the narrative writer is to organize and delve into the details of the how and each step along the path to the goals. The proposal should describe clear goals, activities and tasks you will do toward each goal, the target audience, and the intended impact. Be honest and direct about your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and make it clear how you will evaluate the success of your efforts.

Now, back to your team.  Perhaps you had a lead and some other folks (board? staff?) assisting with various sections, or perhaps it was a set of reviewers providing input. No matter how you organized yourselves, the process helped each team member feel pride of ownership, and the end product gave them more guidance in their work.

That’s how you got the multiplier effect of improving and developing staff as they work through drafting and presenting your organization’s proposal to a funder. Throughout, you can be making process improvements and tweaks, and finding and developing leadership qualities in each staffer.

By this time, you have a proposal that can be submitted as a centerpiece of your group’s work. It describes a problem, but puts much more emphasis on your approach to solutions and their execution. In the process, you came away with a tighter team, and more direction and sense of purpose. The support you got from the funder went well beyond the financial benefit. You arrived with stronger leaders and greater skill than ever to go forward. No matter what, make sure to tell the funder how much you grew in the process.

Sami Fournier has a Bend, Oregon-based consulting company called “Element Exercise,” which sounds like a personal training outfit, but actually specializes in grant writing in the field of alternative transportation.  She formerly directed the League of American Bicyclists’ Education programs.   Sami can be reached at

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Connecting fiscal management to strategy

May 17, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 9:14 am

I recently published a guest article for 501Commons on the importance of building a fiscal management system that connects with strategic decision-making.

The main point: you should track revenues and expenses by categories that provide information useful for strategic decision-making.  That means moving away from an exclusive focus on a “line item” approach that focuses on things like printing, postage, and salaries and also layers in a way of tracking by functional categories that represent your programs.

Check out the full article on 501Commons website and then let me know what you think.


Ideas for Donor Involvement

April 17, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 12:36 pm

I once talked to an Executive Director who resisted inviting major donors to volunteer or become more involved because “I don’t want to seem like I’m bothering them. Their gift should be enough.”

I thought that was backwards. Of course, you could make the ask poorly in a way that’s bothersome. But as a general rule, inviting people to get involved is a key way to enhance the commitment of your donors to the organization.

Here are 6 ideas for how to engage current/potential donors, in no particular order.

1. Hold a conference call briefing for them. New technology allows opportunities for people to be on the call and ask questions, without it being disruptive.

2. Invite them to volunteer on tasks that could be done by staff or board members, but don’t have to be done by staff. This will vary wildly by the type of organization, but could include everything from having them help out in the office, to assist with an event, to lead a hike or tour.

3. Hold a “focus group.” Whether as part of strategic planning or otherwise, pick some topic where input from those beyond the board/staff would be helpful and invite enough donors to have 8-10 participate and lead them through a conversation.

4. Hold a “Salon.” Pick a book, article, or even a TedTalk video for them to read/watch and have them join a board member at their home to discuss it over a glass of wine. Obviously, you’d want to pick a topic that’s relevant for the organization.

5. Participate in a committee. This could be an ongoing committee or it could be a short-term committee charged with answering a specific question.

6. Send them an online member survey. Ask for their feedback on how the organization is doing and priorities for the future.

I’m always looking for more ideas, so let me know what else your organization has done to make donors feel involved.

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