From all this, I think we have a serious problem with the donor-centered approach. Namely that the pervasiveness of this model in our sector may be perpetuating the very inequity that we are seeking to address as a sector. Continue reading
Hi everyone, this week is my organization’s first annual fundraising reception, where we formally introduce our Fellows to the community. Doing special events, to be honest, freaks me out, and I have been banned by planning committees in the past from attending meetings. Sheesh, and all because I get stressed out and occasionally go into catatonic states and murmur things like, “Beware…the storm is gathering…registration lines will fill up…time will stop…guests will beat their chests in anguish and despair as volunteers weep in the darkness…beware…”
Anyway, today I want to talk about cultivating individual donors and how it relates to communities of color. Every time that I talk about how arduous grantwriting is, either on this blog or in person, inevitably someone will say something like, “That’s why you should focus on individual donors! Statistically, individual donors provide 72% of the funds for nonprofits! Why, I knew this one org that was struggling, and they decided focus on individual donors, and they were able to save the family farm, and not only that but the ED was asked to pose for the Men of Nonprofit calendar because his stress melted away and he regained his youthful, radiant complexion!” Continue reading
Hi everyone, last week the Chronicle of Philanthropy published a piece I wrote on the Sustainability Myth. Warning: The piece is for paid subscribers, but it was adapted from this post—“Can we all just admit there is no such thing as nonprofit sustainability?”—which you should check out, since it talks about teeth tattoos, which is an earned-income strategy I am working on in order to increase my organization’s “sustainability.” Tattoos on one’s canines and incisors will be the next big thing in society, trust me, and my organization is going to ride that wave.
Recently I wrote a grant proposal for $30,000, and of course, at the end, there it was, the Sustainability Question. “How will you sustain your program when support from the XYZ foundation runs out?” I took a deep breath. And by “taking a deep breath,” I meant chugging a mini bottle of vodka I keep in my laptop bag. Then I looked at pictures of cute baby animals. That always helps me to calm down. Continue reading
In life, there are few things sweeter than that beautiful moment after a fundraising event is done (provided the event didn’t suck completely). It’s like living in a part of Alaska where it’s dark for six months at a time, and then finally seeing a sunrise and knowing that the darkness is abating. It reminds me of that time after my wedding reception. It was an awesome reception, complete with glowsticks and a live bunny and tons of booze, and we felt so much love and support and had more fun than we could remember. But that day that followed, that was magical. Sure, there were thank-you notes to write and other stuff to do, but slowly we started to feel a semblance of normality, like we had been lost in the woods and raised by wedding-planning wolves and now we were back to civilization.
Wedding-planning wolves, that’s hilarious. I am so sleep deprived. For the past couple of weeks, I have not been able to sleep. This is partially due to the baby, who wakes up every 30 minutes for the express purpose of wailing and spitting up on his father. But also because of this dinner, a 9-month ordeal very comparable to childbirth, including the screaming and crying and fetal positions, but without a cute baby at the end. For all the stress and night terrors and occasional fist fights, though, it actually turned out pretty well. We had an effective planning team team, led by our no-nonsense Development Director (slash Finance Director slash HR Director slash Office Manager) Rachel, who, like any good Development Director, inspires people even as she simultaneously strikes fear into the heart of everyone around her.
300 or so people came, including several political leaders, and the event started and ended on time. For days I was worried about my speech, the standard inspiring ED speech, having had no time or energy to work on it. I was supposed to practice for a couple of hours before the event, but then exhausted I promptly feel asleep, waking up an hour before the dinner started, panicking and hoping the Maya just miscalculated their calendar and that the Apocalypse was still going to happen before I had to speak.
Anyway, I didn’t screw up my speech, or at least I didn’t think I did; I couldn’t tell, since in my baby-induced exhaustion it seemed kind of like a day dream, except this time, I wasn’t an Iron Chef on the Food Network. I think we may reach our goal, and besides one person who emailed later to say he and his guests hated the food and the location and their sound system and their table position and my suit and said the decorations gave him cancer and who actually had gotten his table to get up up and walk out (!) of the event in protest, I think the guests overall had a good time.
Still, we could certainly improve for next year. Here are some lessons I learned:
- Don’t seat politicians all together at the ED’s table. Politicians always leave early, since they run on political time, which is twice as fast as civilian time. Halfway through the dinner, I was left with my wife and baby and three other guests. I felt like a loser table captain who couldn’t fill his table. Next time, scatter the pols around, or seat the ones who plan to leave early in the back.
- Using tablets to do floating registration is awesome. We had volunteers with tablets who just went around the room checking people in, which completely cut out the waiting-forever-in-line-at-the-registration-table curse that plagues many annual events. Technology is so cool. Eventually, we’ll just have volunteers wearing Google Glass go around blinking at people to check them in. That’s the future.
- Check and double check the AV system, and spend money on a professional if necessary. There will always been AV issues. We had trouble with the microphones, which cut in and out, and all sorts of other stuff. The most painful part was during the heart-tugging video, which we had spent months on, and it turned out really well. But the 7-minute clip froze and buffered, ruining the momentum, and with each buffer my eye started twitching more and more, and I put my face in my hands to stop myself from openly weeping.
- Try to get a good night’s sleep before being video-taped for the heart-tugging video. I had a rough night the previous evening, and it showed in the video, where I look like Steve Buscemi’s less attractive younger brother who has slightly better teeth. (This, however, may have spurred some people to donate more out of pity.)
All right, there’s a whole bunch of other lessons learned, but I have to sign these acknowledgement letters and write little handwritten notes on each one before Rachel strangles me with her Development Director hands, which are super strong from all that envelope stuffing she does for our mailing campaigns. I am tired, haven’t slept more than 3.5 consecutive hours in the past 15 days, and smelling like spit-up and diaper rash cream. And yet, I feel good, and this high will last for a month or two, before we start planning next year’s event.
Thank you so much, to all our friends and supporters, for helping VFA to lift up families and communities.
As the director of a small nonprofit, I live in a constant state of fear, one that is thankfully broken by occasional moments of terror. Recently these moments of terror come in the form of asking people to give money to VFA, since our annual dinner is coming up. Apparently, this is a major job of the ED, and one that I have been shirking on, because it is just so painful to do. There are ED’s who are really good at it, and then there are ED’s like me who would rather juggle open vials of Anthrax than sit down with a potential donor and say “Would you consider a gift of $500?”
Cultivating donors and corporate sponsors is not one of VFA’s strengths. So with SVP funds we hired a consultant, Al, a well-respected former ED who thrives on doing this stuff. He has been coaching the board on everything from how to set up the meeting with major corporations, to what to say during the meeting, to how to follow up. Al has been escorting us, like a mother duck, on various excursions to meet with some big companies. Usually we show up early to strategize:
“All right,” he says, “Vu, you will open with VFA’s history and what your current programs are. Jenny, you talk about why you joined the board. Thao, as board chair, you find a good time to present the handouts and ask for a sponsorship of $1,000. That’s not a lot, but it’s our first year, and they usually need at least six months to decide, so we’re already late. If they decline, move down to a table at the dinner. If that fails, ask for an ad in the program booklet. Here she comes; Vu, move down one seat so you’re sitting next to her.” I move down, hoping the proximity will allow my Axe deodorant to work its charms, like in those commercials where some guy sprays on some Axe deodorant and a bunch of ladies chase after him; maybe it might have the same effects on potential sponsors.
Sometimes first encounters can be really awkward. I can get very nervous and say stupid things. “So,” I said one time, talking to a rep at his office as we waited for another person to arrive, “where do you work?” “Um,” he said, “I work here.”
With Al’s coaching, asking for corporate sponsorships has been easier. It’s actually started becoming sort of fun to meet with people and tell them about the cool stuff we do. Last week I met with a rep of a company that sponsored us in the past. They had contributed $2500 last year, and after I met with them to confirm recommitment two months ago, we were disappointed to find a sponsorship form filled out for $650, or one table. I asked for a second meeting:
“Anna,” I said, “we really appreciate the $650 for a table, but I am here to persuade you to increase the support. Last year you gave $2,500. And it went a long way to serve our immigrant and refugee families.”
“Hm,” she said, “our company has not been doing as well as last year. $1,000. That’s what I can do.”
“$1,500,” I said, “look at these children on the sponsorship package with their big eyes brimming with hope and potential.” (We also serve children with small eyes brimming with cynicism, but we don’t feature them as often in promotional materials).
We stared at each other for a moment.
“$1,500,” she said, “but you have to attend this other dinner that we’re sponsoring.”
“Fine,” I said, “but you have to send in a check, so we don’t lose 3% to the credit card company.”
The most terrifying ask of all, however, is the individual donor. It’s as nerve-wracking as asking someone out. You see them and your heart palpitates. You sweat. You start to daydream. “Vu,” they say, “VFA does such great work. Here’s a check! Also, I have connection to Theo Chocolate. They want to donate 20 pounds of chocolate to you personally. You don’t have to auction it off or anything; you can just eat it while watching the Game of Thrones. You deserve it, you sexy vegan, you.”
Of course, that’s not how it works. I have learned some important lessons, one of which is that if you ask people to give your organization money, you have a much higher chance of them giving your organization money than if you don’t ask them to give your organization money. I have also learned another very important lesson from fellow ED Matt Lacey, which is “Don’t be a wuss.” His point is that I am not asking for money for myself, but rather for continuing important work that I really believe in.
But, just like with asking someone out, you sit across from them and all your lessons and intellectualizing go out the window. The thought of rejection, of ridicule, of ruining a relationship takes over. I guess it is something that can only become easier with experience. So if I ever come to you, my hands shaking, my words jumbled, just remember that at that point I am not so much the leader of a nonprofit, but rather just a boy, a simple boy in front of you, asking you to give the organization that he loves a chance.