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Creating The Donors You Really Need
Nell Edgington

January, 2011

A new year is always a time to re-evaluate things, to forge a new approach, to finally change something that just isn’t working anymore. In the nonprofit world, how nonprofits and their major donors interact could stand a new approach. It is difficult, if not impossible, to be open and honest with those who fund your work, as Ann Goggins Gregory has pointed out. And sometimes nonprofits feel beholden to donors who are taking the organization in the wrong direction, in this case blogger David Henderson encourages nonprofits to “fire bad donors.”

This disconnect between nonprofits working to solve problems and the donors who fund them can sometimes seem a vicious, unending cycle.

But with a new year comes a new opportunity to alter this pattern. Here’s what nonprofit leaders can do to create the donors they really need:

  • Inspire your donors. Make your ask for money from a place of impact, not need. Talk about your bold, ambitious strategies for change. Describe an opportunity so compelling, so invigorating, so inspiring that donors can’t help but reach for their pocketbook and follow where you lead. Part of your job as a nonprofit leader is to paint such a clear, desirable picture of a future goal that it becomes a magnet for the resources needed to get there.
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  • Ask for more. It’s not a donor’s job to automatically give you as much as they possibly can. Rather, it’s your job to convince them to give until it hurts. When a donor gives you less than you asked for, or less than it’s really going to cost, push back. Don’t just thank them and walk away. If they truly can’t or won’t give more, ask them to help you find a funding partner. If you want donors who share the burden of your work, treat them as such. Encourage them to give more, bigger, better. Not just with their pocketbook, but with their rolodex too. Be honest with them about how they could really make a difference and at what level.
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  • Command respect as an expert. Donors sometimes carry a hubris that they know best how to spend the dollars they invest in an organization. Work to forge a partnership with your donors that recognizes  you and your organization as the solution provider. A donor’s ideas and insights as an investor should be welcome, but at the end of the day you know what is best for your organization, its mission and the impact you are working to achieve. Make sure your donors know that.
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  • Stop apologizing for administrative costs. Educate your donors about how significant social change can’t be bought on a shoe string. If your donors are committed to the work your organization is doing, then they must invest in the personnel, space, technology, fundraising and other needs that are integral to that work. Don’t let funders only fund “direct program expenses,” as if such a thing even existed. Don’t let your donors make meaningless distinctions that end up crippling your organization financially.
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  • Educate donors about capacity capital. To take the last point even further, capacity capital (or money for personnel, technology, systems, space) is a new concept for philanthropists who tend to like to fund programs alone. But capacity capital could actually have a much higher social return on investment for donors because it strengthens an organization so that it can create more impact in perpetuity. But donors won’t understand that on their own. You need to make that case. Figure out what it will actually cost to hire the staff, secure the space, buy the technology you need. Then educate your donors about how funding those things could transform your organization and your impact.

It’s exhausting when you lack the donors you really need. But you can’t just wait around hoping they’ll see the light. It’s up to you to transform a mediocre or troublesome donor into a competent and willing partner in change.

Visit Nell Edgington at  http://www.socialvelocity.net

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