Tag Archives: fundraising

Fundraising: on not being a wuss

moneyAs 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.

Special event planning: as fun as 19 consecutive root canals

turtlesRecently, we met with Tim, our Lead Partner with Social Venture Partners, to go over SVP’s Organization Capacity Assessment Tool (OCAT). Tim travels a lot and always comes back with inspiring stories. This time, he told us of the giant sea turtle, which digs a hole in the sand, where it lays over 100 eggs. The mother turtle buries her egg and then leaves. A couple of months later, baby turtles hatch and crawl out of the sand.

“They’re really cute,” said Tim, “and this usually happens at night when they hatch. But somehow, they see the ocean—maybe it’s just a little bit lighter in color or something—and they start heading for it.” We started imagining these tiny little turtles, newly hatched and filled with thirst for life, heading toward the horizon to start their journey. “But then,” continued Tim, “all these seagulls and other predators start swarming in on them in a horrible feeding frenzy. A few of them barely make it to the ocean, and those that do usually get eaten by fish and other things in the water.”

This made me think of several things. First, don’t call Tim when you’re having a bad day. Second, baby sea turtles trying to make it to the ocean and being eaten by seagulls is a great metaphor for diversification of funding in the nonprofit world. Grants, individual donors, mailing campaigns, these are all hopeful little baby sea turtles trying to reach the horizon.

For the past eight months or so, VFA has been hatching one of our baby turtles, the annual event. I am not an event planner. In fact, I and other Executive Directors find the process of planning a special event so horribly painful that the Department of Homeland Security should consider using it as an interrogation method: “So, you refuse to talk, huh? Well, let’s see how defiant you are after serving six months on an annual dinner planning committee!”

Special events are challenging because there are a billion pieces to worry about, all of them having to come together at precisely the right time, and each of them requiring at least three arguments and 30 emails to settle. Fortunately, we at VFA have perfected the art of productive debates:

“How about we call the first award we’re giving out the ‘Community Service Award’?”

“That’s so boring and clichéd!”

“Your FACE is boring and clichéd!”

“I suggest The Golden Hedgehog Award for Awesomeness.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Your FACE is stupid!”

Don’t even get me started on the debate over the menu (“Your FACE is too many pork dishes!”).

Even though I am not fond of event planning and would in fact rather undergo nineteen consecutive root canals, I have lots of great ideas about how to make them more successful. For example, “We should have a non-dinner,” I said, “where instead of having a dinner, we don’t have one, and people buy tickets to this non-dinner, and they donate money, but they get to stay home, and all the money goes to VFA programs!”

“That’s a great idea, Vuey,” said Rachel, one of our co-chairs, “we’ll definitely think about it.” I went back to my cubicle, disheartened. This was like my wedding reception all over again, where all my great ideas to make the event better (“We should have a non-reception…”) were also condescendingly ignored.

Luckily, we have a great planning committee. Just because I dislike event planning, doesn’t mean that there are not others who are really great at it and who actually enjoy doing it. I will never understand them; their eyes light up at the thought of things like cakes, a critical element for any benefit dinner. Recently, the team has become more cohesive and has taken control of the entire event, which is great, but I am becoming kind of worried that the committee may be getting too powerful. “We will have ten cakes for the dessert auction,” I was told, “The Committee has decided you are going to bake a vegan cake. The Committee has also decided that your speech will be 3 to 5 minutes long, focused on VFA’s accomplishments this past year. Keep working on your table and potential sponsors; the Committee will contact you with further instructions.”

As we approach D-Day, we get more and more stressed, and when I get stressed, my face breaks out into constellations. With a billion elements in play, there will be some that do not go right, no matter how competent we are in controlling for them. Every other week, the Committee has been meeting, and soon it will meet weekly. I try not to attend, as I will either take over, or else end up in the fetal position under the conference table.

But I have hope. Like the mother turtle, who lays her eggs and then leaves, hoping against the odds that Fate will be kind to her offspring, perhaps slightly in denial, I go off into the distance to Google recipes for vegan cakes and maybe to order Proactiv since there is a special deal for 19.99 with free shipping if I call within the next thirty minutes. In two months, I am sure our baby turtle will make it safely out to sea