Fundraising Success: Seven Deadly Sins That Slow It Down

Is your nonprofit in Fundraising Heaven? It is, if enough money stream in predictably and consistently, well balanced among funders; if staff, board and volunteers have adopted a true culture of fundraising, and if results are what you want them to be. But if you're in Fundraising Hell, income is inconsistent and unpredictable, fund diversification is merely a dream, and anxiety is the law of the day. You can choose the more "heavenly" path, if you understand what holds you back from successful fundraising. And what holds you back probably isn't what you think it is.

These are the most common reasons (complaints? excuses?) I hear about Fundraising Hell:

  • We don't have time!
  • We don't know how!
  • I just freeze up when I have to ask for money!
  • Our mission isn't glamorous/interesting/exciting!
  • Fundraising is a dirty word!
These are symptoms. They're not the reasons that your fundraising is unsuccessful. Over the years, we have identified seven "Deadly Sins" that really hurt your fundraising success. Repair each "sin" with a virtue and you will be on the path to fundraising heaven.

The Seven Deadly Sins that Hurt Fundraising Success:

Sin #1: You don't understand the true value of your fundraising time, so it's easy to squander it on the wrong donor prospects, unproductive fundraising activities, and "urgent" operational issues. Fund development tends to take place after hours, outside of the "real" work. How often have you pulled an all-nighter to complete a grant application?

The Virtue: Figure out what it's actually at stake - per hour. Your fundraising time is probably north of $1,000 per hour, once you take away all the non-development hours you have to devote to your job. So that means for every hour of fund development, you risk losing $1,000. Appreciate the value of your time and you will invest it more wisely.

Sin #2: You don't define what it should cost to achieve your mission. In fact, you tend not to associate "costs" with mission at all. Instead, you launch your nonprofit with your beautiful shining mission in mind, and operate on the money you can raise. Period.

The Virtue: Write a business plan that shows how much it should cost to achieve your mission. Include competitive salaries as well as the costs of office space. Even if your executives donate their time, or office space that is provided at no charge, show what it would cost to replace those "free" gifts. It's unprofessional not to do so.

Sin #3: You don't have a Comprehensive Development Plan, including income targets, targets for fund diversification (the proportion of income you seek from each major funding category), and other performance metrics. Without such a plan, it's almost impossible to stay focused. You, your board, staff and even contractors can veer off track; something always comes up that seems more urgent.

The Virtue: For heaven's sake (no pun intended), create one! Write it down, make sure you can measure everything that goes into it, update it at least once a month. An undocumented, un-reviewed plan is pretty much the same as no plan at all.

Sin #4: You haven't defined or profiled the kinds of funders or donors most likely to support your organization. Instead, you waste time chasing prospects that don't have the right level of wealth, aren't interested in your mission, are already over-committed to other charities, or just don't fit. Finally, you run out of time.

The Virtue: "Cut to the chase! Identify your ideal [donor's] profile. Then spend as much time as you can with only those kinds of prospects who are a match." Figure out the characteristics that your best donors, grantors or corporate sponsors share. Document these characteristics; use them as a benchmark to evaluate each new prospect and see how well they match that ideal. (Thanks to Anthony Parinello, author of Think and Sell like a CEO, for that quote.)

Sin #5: You can't articulate the emotional and economic appeal of your mission and programs, in a way that prospective donors find effective. So instead, you flap around babbling about how much you need the money. Remember, "We need money" is not an appeal. It's a complaint.

The Virtue: Let donors and prospective donors know that a gift to your nonprofit is a good charitable investment. The "emotional" appeal touches hearts and makes people reach for their wallet. The "economic" appeal shows how their money will be used to further your mission. It persuades them to open those wallets and make the gift.

Sin #6: You don't involve your board effectively. Board members don't know what's expected of them in terms of fundraising. They want to help, but they don't know how, it never occurred to them that fundraising could be part of their role, or they lack personal wealth or connections in the community. The worst offender: the staff thinks it's the board's job to raise money, the board thinks it's the staff's job, and it ends up being nobody's job.

The Virtue: Clarify board roles, responsibilities, and expectations. Make sure that fund development is viewed as a strategic priority of the same level of importance as the mission and programs themselves. If you or your board members don't know how to do any of these things, seek out resources that can help them and you.

Sin #7: You don't execute your plan consistently at adequate levels of activity, or give yourself sufficient lead time to get fundraising accomplished. In fact, you rarely even talk about your development plan in board or staff meetings. So fundraising falls to the bottom of the priority list - again.

The Virtue: Adopt the habit of regular performance reviews. Of all the 'virtues,' this one may pack the biggest wallop for you all. Sit down with your team at least once a month. Do not skip a month, even if you can't all be there; at least one person must review performance against plan regularly, and adjust the plan moving forward. Compare what you accomplished to what you planned to accomplish. No matter what your results were - at, above, or below the plan - consider what these results mean. Do you want to maintain the same results for the next review cycle, or produce different results.

The Seven Deadly Sins that hurt fundraising are so easy to make! The seven "virtues" may seem uncomfortable or awkward at first. But you'll quickly discover that the work of adopting them will deliver you to Fundraising Heaven pretty fast: consistent, predictable, and well-balanced income at a level that permits your nonprofit to achieve its mission.


Ellen Bristol is an expert in two fields:  sales-force productivity for the commercial market, and fundraising effectiveness for the nonprofit sector.  Ellen works with sales and fundraising organizations to improve their top- and bottom-line results, simplifying the processes that help these business development functions exceed expectations.  Ellen and her team redefine the ways that fundraising and salese teams are deployed, managed and support for optimum outcomes, ensuring...

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