The "Contact Census"

Today I was talking with a colleague of mine and she was telling me about something she did during her last job as a development director. She would meet with her board members in person, one by one, and go over every contact and lead they had that might be useful for development purposes. I call this practice “the contact census,” and it can be a great source of resources for development staff.

One of the things your board is there for is using their network to help you make contact with potential donors and supporters, but often it can be difficult to nudge board members into making overtures on their own. Even if you do have a natural fundraiser or two on your board, not all of them will be. However, all of them have connections.

Schedule some time to sit down with your board members one on one and pick their brain for people, businesses or organizations that could be potential supporters or collaborators with your organization. I think you’ll find it is time well spent!

Finding Nonprofit Startup Funding

    It’s hard to find funding for a new nonprofit venture. You’ve pulled together a passionate group of individuals to meet an unmet need in your community, but that doesn’t mean any of you know how to fundraise. There are a lot of possible approaches to finding the right mix of funding streams, and knowing how to direct your limited time and resources towards the correct approach can make a big difference in your first few years. Here are some places I recommend you start:



1 - Board donations


Good fundraising starts at home, which in this case means that you should aim for a 100% board giving rate. Sometimes this can be tricky, because many board members feel that they are already “donating their time,” which is a valuable resource; absolutely something to be grateful for. But having your board on board as financial supporters accomplishes two important things. One - it will give you some seed money to work with to kickstart your fundraising efforts before you have to ask anyone else, and Two - it shows the community a level of commitment from your board that (perhaps unfortunately) only money can show. It can be hard to ask other people to donate to a cause that your own board hasn’t yet donated to. It is much easier when you can show a financially committed group that is fully on board to advance your mission.


2 - Build individual donations


Donations from individuals in your community are the next step up, and they can be an amazing source of financial support--most of the charitable giving in the US comes from individuals. Do everything you can to give people ways to find out about your work: newsletters, events, open houses, media exposure, and anything else you can think of. Then just start asking people. I don’t mean going door to door at random, but getting over that first hump just involves starting to ask. If you have an email list, send out a nicely crafted electronic appeal. If you have a bunch of people at an event, make an ask. Whatever you do, save all the information from your donors and track it so you can properly thank them and keep stewarding that gift! Letting your donors know how much impact their gift is having and how much you appreciate it goes a long way towards keeping them involved in your organization.


3 - Approach business and corporations


This is where your board’s connections can really come in handy. If you meet or know a business owner or company that is interested in your mission, ask them if they would be interested in sponsoring an event or a program. Remember that even though your cause is worthy and you know they care about, corporate giving is about providing something in exchange for their gift. Publicize grants, make visible signage at events, work out something that will benefit your mission and give the business you’re working with a boost from being involved with such a worthy cause. As in so many things, you’re better off spending more time working on an appeal you think has a good chance than spending less time on a lot of random appeals.


4 - Government Funding


Ah, government grants: bane of all but the most hardy EDs and development directors. Make no mistake, working with the government is not easy, but it does have advantages. If your programs are addressing a public need that the government has an interest in funding, you may be able to secure grant funding for it or work out a different funding model depending on your program’s outputs. These funding streams can last for years, unlike most foundations grants that only fund for a year or two, as long as the public funding for them isn’t cut.


5 - Foundation grants


Foundation grants are almost always given to established programs, so you’re unlikely to get any grant funding if your program is just starting or about to start. There are a lot of reasons for this, but mostly foundations want to make sure that the limited money they spend each year has the most impact. Programs that are already up and running are simply more likely to have a high impact. Foundations also like to see that you have other sources of funding lined up (it makes foundations nervous to be the sole source of funding for a program, because they like to switch it up and fund different things every year or two). However, once you get some other sources of funding and your program is starting to produce results, grants from foundations can provide unparalleled levels of yearly funding (matched only by the fabled major donor, which I’m sure we will talk about one of these weeks).

I hope these ideas help to get your charitable venture moving! If you have any startup funding ideas of your own to share, let us know in the comments.

No Competitors, Only Collaborators

    There were a lot of salient points in Diana Aviv’s remarks stepping down from her position at Independent Sector. The rhetoric of an ‘Ash Heap’ of nonprofits that fail to adapt is fairly stark, and perhaps even overly dramatic, but what interests me the most is her point that “charities need to collaborate rather than compete and work more effectively with government and businesses.”

    I’ve believed for a long time that a nonprofit has no competitors, only collaborators. Because of the nature of our field, nonprofits are highly specialized. We have to be. Resources are tight, and in order to make a meaningful impact we have to attack a very specific community need. This specificity is a double-edged sword; having a single focus keeps you on mission and makes your work more effective, but it also means that most charities are working on pieces of a larger problem. Who’s working on the other pieces? Your collaborators, of course.

    I also believe that future conditions will reward nonprofits that can identify other organizations that are working on different parts of the same larger problem. The most successful will be able to identify opportunities to collaborate with them for an even greater impact than they could achieve separately.

    So what does that mean for you? Well for one, I encourage you to think about how your organization fits into the bigger picture of the unmet need you’re trying to address with your programs. Knowing where you fit in can help you refine your services and also gives you a better chance to secure funding that only an organization specialized to fit that niche can secure. Even more importantly, looking at the bigger picture can give you ideas on how to collaborate with organizations working on a different aspect of the same larger issue.

    In short, taking a collaborative eye to the bigger picture can give you an edge on finding funding as well as a better chance to make an impact for your constituents.

    What do you think about the future of collaboration between nonprofits? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Stewardship and You

    If you are running a small nonprofit with limited staff and limited time, you may find that sometimes one of your responsibilities has to take a hit. Unfortunately, stewardship and donor tracking are usually the first things to go. This is a shame, because those things can actually have a really high input/reward ratio if you do them correctly. Maintaining communication with your donors and volunteers keeps them involved, making them more likely to become future donors and volunteers. With a few tips, you can start to reap the benefits of a more organized stewardship program without it eating up too much of your schedule.





    There are a ton of great tools out there to make stewardship easier and more effective. At the very least, you should be using a mail client like constant contact or MailChimp to send out a newsletter to your mailing list. Constituent Relationship Management systems (or CRMs) give you a lot of tracking power and make your data much more useful and accessible than that old excel spreadsheet. Some systems, like CiviCRM, are even free.



2. Automate what you can


    Sometimes the simplest donor recognition letter can be automated so that you send one out to everyone who gives you a donation, but you can also keep copies of your most recent thank you letters to alter slightly for each new thank you. If you work a little bit ahead and you’re using a mail program, you can also set newsletters to fire off automatically at a given time, letting you take communications off your mind for a while to focus on your other duties.


3. Write smarter, not harder


    Assuming you don’t have a staff person who handles your communications, writing your newsletters and donor communications are going to take some time, but they don’t have to take much. When something noteworthy happens at your organizations, just jot down a few notes about it afterwards. If you can take pictures, all the better. That way, when it comes time to write some content, you can just polish up your notes about the impact your work (and therefore your donor’s support) has had.

I hope these help some of you beleaguered EDs out there who don’t have communications staff but still want to experience the benefits of a stewardship program. If you have some tips of your own, let us know in the comments below!

Three lessons gleaned from the beginning of a nonprofit

    The other day I sat down with someone whose growing program currently run by themselves and a handful of other volunteers could easily soon turn into a full-fledged non profit organization. While we were talking I realized that many of the things we were discussing that are important when you are starting a nonprofit remain important for organizations of all ages, although we often lose sight of them. For your benefit and mine, here are the lessons that crossed my mind while discussing how to start a new nonprofit:

Asking for money is hard and scary, but you have to do it

    This is just as true for the fifty year old organization with an endowment as it is for the one that just filed their articles of incorporation. Socially, asking someone for money directly can feel uncomfortable, so much so that too many small organizations forgo doing so altogether. Remember, you are not asking for money for some kind of personal gain, you’re offering someone the chance to be an integral part of your important mission. If you do it right, it can be enriching for everyone involved.

Your board should be the people most committed to your mission

    We were talking about board-building because I believe it’s crucial to start out with a board made up of the people you know who are the most dedicated to your mission. If you don’t have a hard core of board members willing to put in the work necessary to build a nonprofit from scratch, you have a much lower chance of success. However, this remains important for any organization. If your board isn’t fully dedicated to your mission in word and deed, you’ll have a hard time moving your organization in the right direction. If you know someone who is one of the most dedicated to your mission, they should be on your board. Conversely, if someone on your board has been part of it for a long time and is getting visibly burnt out, give them a chance to rotate out in a way that maintains a good relationship. An active, dedicated board is akin to a living thing, and you should nurture it.

There is no other field where your only goal is to pursue a mission that helps the community

    This is the first thing we talked about, both because she asked me what made this field unique and because I like to cover it before I scare people off with the amount of work involved and the low monetary rewards. If you work in a store, your only job is to sell things. If you’re the director of a company that runs stores, your only job is to make sure that company makes as much money as possible. Any good you do in the for-profit field is ancillary. In the not-for-profit field, it is our job to do good. It is our primary legal obligation. That is an important and powerful thing.

I hope these lessons about starting a nonprofit have been helpful for you no matter the size of your org. If you have any of your own, tell us about them in the comments below!

The Importance of Storytelling pt. 3: Three ways storytelling can work for you

    By now I hope I’ve conveyed to all of you what a powerful tool you have available to you in storytelling. As a medium of communication that is universal between human beings, storytelling can do unparalleled damage when abused but can have unparalleled benefits when used deftly and responsibly. This week I bring my ersatz trilogy to a close and tell you about three important ways that storytelling can work for you in your professional life:

    Storytelling is a rhetorical tool.

    Storytelling aids mutual understanding.

    Storytelling is a medium for empathy.

Let’s start at the top.

Storytelling is a rhetorical tool

    Having a firm grasp of rhetoric is important, and knowing when and how to make full use of storytelling in a presentation, proposal, or debate can be the difference between success and failure. Something I do all the time (and I recommend you try if you haven’t yet) is use a story to let people come to an idea on their own terms. An idea (or argument, or perspective) has to go through a figurative “customs” before it’s accepted and integrated. Most people are naturally inclined to reject new ideas they encounter, especially if they run counter to the ideas they already hold.

    You can use stories to circumvent that process. If someone has drawn a line in the sand and built up giant walls along that line, you’re not going to convince them by charging head-on against their defenses, no matter how strong your argument is. Storytelling can draw discourse away from that direct exchange and towards the conclusion in a way that feels natural and intuitive. Rather than telling someone what you’ve realized, you get them to realize it with you.

Storytelling aids mutual understanding

    The same techniques that can pull someone over to your perspective in a rhetorical context can also be used to build understanding in many other situations. Whether you’re coordinating a diverse group of individuals or trying to evoke a reaction from your audience, story can allow people to experience something different from their natural state, and through that experience they can reach a new understanding. In much the same way that we might read a novel to experience something far removed from our everyday life, you can use story to make foreign concepts or perspectives accessible and understandable.

Storytelling is a medium for empathy

    This is perhaps the most important function of storytelling, and I believe this is why it’s so hard-wired into our being. Storytelling lets us experience empathy in a way that nothing else can. When you look through that window into an unfamiliar experience, you don’t just gain understanding of a new perspective, you feel for the person who had those experiences. Instead of just knowledge, your understanding breeds compassion. This is particularly important for those of us who are (like myself) in the charitable field, where your organization’s success or failure can hinge on your ability to deliver that empathic experience to your supporters and constituents. If you provide people with that clear window, human nature can take care of the rest.

    I hope this exploration of one of my favorite facets of humanity has been useful--or at least interesting--to all of you. On this point I will wrap it up, and I remind you to use your storytelling prowess responsibly. If you have any insights into storytelling or its uses in professional life, please share your thoughts in the comments below!

The Importance of Storytelling, pt. 2

Now it’s time for the second part in my series on storytelling. As promised, this week I will delve into the seedy underbelly of our affinity for stories. This is the Empire to last week’s A New Hope. Last time I talked about how prominent storytelling is in our lives; we use narrative structure to better remember the important events in our lives and connect to the world around us, but the truth--the same tool we use to help understand the things we experience--can also be used against us. Sometimes we even use it against ourselves.    

One of the most important things I learned in school comes from a theory that examines organizations through their culture and symbols. The theory is called the symbolic frame (more info via this dry but informative lecture); its central idea is “action and meaning are loosely connected.”

So what does that mean? Think back to some of the most important events in your life--times when something happened to you, or you learned something that still informs who you are today. Odds are, your memory takes on a story life of its own that is far divorced from the actual content of those events, and is now imbued with narrative significance because of its importance to you. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I would argue that forming our memories into stories is something that enriches our lives and helps us relate to each other: we want things to be connected, so we connect actions and meaning. The problem is not how meaning is connected to actions, but what meanings are connected to actions, and by whom.

One of the low-down, dirtiest ways to exploit our narrative affinity is propaganda. I don’t need to tell you that some of the most horrific events in human history began with people telling themselves they were the heroes and their victims the villains. Examples like this seem so large and bombastically obvious that we think we could never be fooled by them, but it’s important to recognize that people just like us have been fooled before, and more are taken in by similar stories every day.

The very thing that makes human beings master storytellers also makes us master manipulators. If you’ve ever spent time around kids (or spent time around someone who will tell you all about kids with you even having to ask) you know that children are unrepentant liars. They will weave for you a ludicrous story in which they are not only innocent, but were in fact acting duly and righteously in a difficult situation. They’re really bad at it, so much so that it’s comical, and while we think that children eventually stop telling these unbelievable stories, the truth is that they just get better at it.

This is not to say that storytelling is simply lying; it’s much more complex than that. A story can contain a lie, sure, but it can also contain nothing but truth and still not be an accurate representation of real events or concepts. Take, for example, an annual report. The object of an annual report is to tell the story of an organization’s previous year in a way that is thorough yet digestible . Someone could put outright lies in that report to cast themselves in a better light, but if they were found out they probably wouldn’t keep their job for very long.

Let’s say the organization had a bad year; hypothetically, a completely objective person with all the information they could ever need and no stake in the organization (but for some reason a lot of interest in writing a good report) could write an annual report that tells the story of what went wrong the previous year, why, and what can be done to make improvements in the following year. Unfortunately, that completely objective person does not exist, and these reports are always penned by people who remember last year as a story they experienced. That experience is what will end up in the report. It could be a story that paints the CEO in a positive light, doing all she can in a down economy. Or the story told in the report could be an earnest account of the previous year’s failures but with a focus on the wrong problems and potential solutions because the people writing it remember the past year as an experience- a story -rather than a series of objective events. Diving deeper, we could also find this phenomenon in an annual report of a good year, a letter to a colleague, an exchange over lunch, even a childhood memory. Whether the truth or a lie, all re-tellings naturally take on a narrative form, and are subject to the same faults inherent to that form. Even the stories we tell ourselves are no exception.

I promised this week we would explore the dark side of storytelling, and no exploration of the darker side is complete without a long look into the self. It’s easy to sniff out someone else’s BS story, it’s harder to catch your own. You recall hundreds, maybe thousands of memories every day and each one is a small story unto itself. Over the course of our lives we write our own stories: we collect the events that led us to this place in our lives and we string them together so that they make sense. For every action, we can point to a belief or a series of decisions that led us to that very choice. Because we are the narrators, we live lives that fit into perfect narrative structures…

...Except we don’t. The pieces of our lives don’t fit together into a pattern because they’re not even really pieces--they’re snapshots; segments of a continuum that we can only take in so much of. The stories we weave from our experiences can make our lives understandable and even wonderful, but they can also drag us down into patterns we can’t even see in a story we don’t even realize we’re telling. Assigning a meaning to the events that make up your life imbues you with purpose, but it can just as easily keep you from seeing things that exist outside of your narrative.

I often see intelligent, passionate people bang their heads against the same problem in the same way over and over again, because they care too much to stop and they can’t see any other way to fix it. In their mind the problem becomes insurmountable, a thing of myth in its entrenchment and malevolence, their solution constantly impeded by the self-interested or the simply incompetent. The issues they pursue are invariably important, and their work noble, but they’ve built themselves a story that they can’t get out of. It can happen to anyone, at any scale. We can’t take a different course of action because all of our experience leading up to this tells us that we’re right. We’ve been doing something one way for so long that it doesn’t make sense to do it any other way. What I did was right, and I’d do it again.

We are the architects of our own stories, but they can imprison us.

Storytelling can be used for good or ill and is certainly used for both quite often. The best way to avoid falling prey to this darker side of our narrative form of communication is to be aware of it. The people communicating with you are most often not trying to deceive you (you can probably tell if they are), and you are certainly not trying to deceive yourself, but being aware that you are being told a story will allow you to approach it critically, and consider what is and is not being presented.

Next week we will emerge from this dank cave and step into the bright light of the sun, by which I mean I’ll be talking about how to tell the right stories to advance your organization.

The Importance of Storytelling, pt. 1

    I read a lot of fiction. I suspect many of you do too. I watch a fair amount of tv, too, and I know I have plenty of company there. In my leisure time I seek out experiences that will tell me stories because I want to be affected by them. That sounds like a strange thing to say, but it’s something we all do. Even when you come home and you’re exhausted and you plop down on the couch and turn on the tv on and just watch anything that will let you relax and turn your brain off for a bit, you’re looking to be told a story. Whether it’s an episode of a sitcom you’ve already seen or just an episode of Chopped (I love Chopped), the experience is the same: characters, a premise, rising and falling action. It’s so hardwired into the human experience that once children figure out what it’s called they’ll ask to be told a story every day.

    This isn’t limited to our leisure time either; almost everything we experience is packaged into stories for our consumption, a phenomenon that has benefits and detriments. Maybe you’ve been unfortunate enough to watch some of the news coverage surrounding the race to the 2016 election. You’ve probably noticed that the way they use a narrative framework to discuss the candidates and the arcs they go through. The candidates are characters- some heroes, some villains -and each new development is a plot point in their story. The advertisements that run in between debates make use of the same techniques. Mom doesn’t know how she can ever clean up all this dust until she finds out about swiffer and now her home is immaculate and her family is happy. Two friends share a soda and remember all the good times they had together when they were younger. Even when you tell someone about your day you’re weaving them a tale of your triumphs and tribulations and the minor characters that flit through your daily life.

    We are all storytellers because human beings communicate and understand things through stories. Knowing that, you can make yourself into a better communicator and advocate by being aware of the stories you’re telling and what they will mean to the people you’re talking to.

As I round out this series I’m going to talk a little bit more about how you can use storycraft in your professional life but first: next week I’m going to talk about the darker side of this particular quirk of human nature. See you then.

Have a Great Summer

    I remember at the end of every year of school the treasured ritual of exchanging yearbooks with friends (and people you would have liked to be friends with). You would always spend a few moments trying to think of something cool or insightful for the auspicious occasion before giving up and writing “Have a great summer! Let’s hang out!” Then you would never see them again until the beginning of the next year.

    I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.

    You could make an argument that the relationship that you have with your funders is the most important to your organization, perhaps second only to the relationship you have with your constituents. These people should be your best friends, and like any good friendship it’s important to keep in touch. It is an easy thing to do, especially when you’re busy managing several grants along with other responsibilities, to write “have a great summer!” on your funders’ yearbook.

    You might really mean it, but if you don’t stay in contact with your funders the relationship you have with them diminishes. A lot can be gained from simple gestures like emailing someone an update on the program they supported even after the last grant report has been submitted. Keep in touch, hang out over the summer; the relationship you build and maintain can really help you out three or four years down the line when you’re applying for another grant.

Entry Points

    I’ve had one too many executive directors tell me that their organization is “the best-kept secret in town.” Ignoring the fact that there can definitely only be one best kept secret in town, this is a miserable position to be in for a nonprofit. As community supported entities, we thrive on visibility and the attention of our community. We can wither without it.

As heroic as it sounds to labor in obscurity for the greater good, you can do much more good for your constituents when your community is aware of your work.

Awareness has myriad benefits for a small nonprofit. Donors and volunteers interested in your mission who would otherwise pass by unawares can find you now, and that can mean the difference between growth and cuts.

So given that higher community awareness benefits your organization, how can we get more of it? One simple solution is entry points.

Entry points are events that bring people from the community face to face with your programs, the only expectation being that they find out more about you. I’d wager that most of the events on your calendar are fundraising events, and those are great, but they can only attract people who already know about what you do and are already interested in your work. Entry point events aim to cast a wider net.

Open houses and community nights (where you will probably have food to lure people in) give people who would be interested in your mission a way to find you and gives them a low pressure avenue to become volunteers and supporters.

If you added these events to your calendar, let us know how it goes in the comments!