On Being Nimble

It's the best time to be a fundraiser. Every cause has the tools to make itself known and to build a community of fans in this networked age. 

However, as you try to shift your focus from start-up to sustainability, no matter how many years your cause has been in start-up mode, there is no absolute paradigm for mapping the business model you need for the future. This forces you to be creative and your donors to be willing.

What remains consistent is your commitment to your mission and the quality of your brand, a charity your donors can trust. 

How can you be an expert in a changing world? How can you discern what is useful and what are obsolete ideas from an earlier version of the world? 

Venture capitalists will tell you that many really good start-up ideas look like bad ideas at first. Change that matters usually comes form an unforeseen quarter. The best strategy is to simply be aggressively open-minded. 

You do need a development plan, mostly because it's there to motivate you. But you must be disciplined about not letting your hypotheses harden into anything more than elements of your flexible planning.

Include select donors among the people with whom you exchange ideas. Good ideas come from earnest, energetic, independent-minded people with no agenda -- all mission. Change is accelerating. Ideas beget ideas. 

The Turnover Issue

How does the turnover rate for the nonprofit sector compare to other industries? How does the turnover rate for fundraisers in small charities compare to large nonprofits? 

Turnover in the nonprofit sector is actually less than half the rate of turnover in the advertising/ marketing/ PR industries. Across all industries the charity/nonprofit sector turnover rate is below average and far below industries such as food/beverage, insurance, and human resources management. 

Nevertheless, turnover in the fundraising profession is an important issue, not least for its high indirect cost to the charity. The influencing factors are numerous and obvious, leaving for better pay being the primary reason. Good  fundraisers are scarce, noticed and aggressively courted by search firms. 

Penelope Burk conducts outstanding research in this area.

I wonder if most of this turnover in the development profession is primarily found among the large nonprofits with the capacity to offer high salaries that lend themselves to expensive professional searches. For the small charity, the fundraiser's closeness to the cause and to its leadership may curb the need to leave.

In this "at-will" era, employees everywhere are made to think of themselves as free agents. In the annual Global Workforce Study conducted by Towers Watson, most employees feel they must leave in order to advance their careers in general. In the 1980s, a Conference Board survey found that 56 percent of executives believed their employees deserved an assurance of continued employment. Just a decade later, that figure had plummeted to 6 percent. 

The smaller the charity the more likely the fundraiser may find an employment framework that facilitates mutual trust and investment with the charity's leadership. The fundraiser here may more likely develop her personal network and act entrepreneurially. The small charity fundraiser may have a greater ability to develop a sense of ownership that would resist the temptation to become a job-hopper. 

Entrepreneurial employees possess the "founder mindset." This energy and ingenuity is exactly what the small charity start-up requires and what the donor/investor interprets as passion for the cause. The small charity is where the fundraiser can discover how great she is and just how much she can emerge into the leader her cause needs. 

Much of Fundraising is like Ditch Digging

Discipline makes the significant breakthroughs in our fundraising possible. Most of a charity's advancement takes place in the daily effort of planning, research, writing, implementing, and above all else strengthening relationships. Resisting leads to quitting. Never have I met a ditch digger who said, "I’m just not feeling the ditch today, the ditch muse is not with me, I have to put my shovel down now." So it goes with fundraising, all day and evening long. Occasionally we're called upon to produce or perform a work of art that transforms a cause, but in the meantime boredom more than bad board behavior is what burns us out. The challenge is in keeping the daily work full of wonder and possibility. Being in regular and personal touch with your donors and with your charity's beneficiaries helps. 

Praising the Small Charity

Charity Spring praises the small charity. The Gift of the Magi is a short story written by O. Henry in 1905 about true gift-giving, about sacrificial and unconditional giving. It is a lesson brought to us by way of the most poor and obscure teachers.  The conclusion to this short story sums up everything there is to say about the value of the small charity valiantly trying to meet the needs of its neighbors.

Here is O. Henry’s timeless commentary on philanthropy:

The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Charity and Philanthropy

The commentary here needs to start somewhere, and so it begins with memory.

Like living bones, much of what could be examined here will remain invisible. But the fire of some memories will be extinguished in these posts.  

These memories spring from charity, not philanthropy. 

Charity is up-close and personal; it seeks to meet the needs of others by first trying to understand their suffering. Philanthropy is the big-picture cousin of charity, the difference between Andrew Carnegie and Mother Teresa. 

My journey began by combining direct service with fundraising while working directly with the founders of Covenant House and then AmeriCares during the early years of each of these now vast organizations. 

Returning quickly from a crisis to a donor’s home or a CEO’s office made for unscripted, insistent fundraising.  

We didn't even call it fundraising; it was as straightforward as our cause (the faces of people we just left) needing money and unabashedly going after it. 

Only by risking going too far did we ever discover how far we could go to bring help and hope to those we knew were greatly suffering. If your cause is "small," you know the feeling.

We pushed hard and went far. No one ever thought to take credit, to keep score. Meeting the budget was everyone's responsibility. It was all for one, one for all -- and all for the benefit of the people we were trying to help.

Here are a few among many memories that still haunt. If I am a bit too forceful in my commentary here and in comment streams elsewhere, it's because the work we do is personal and the stakes are often very high.  

I was in Times Square in 1981, where Covenant House cared for homeless youth during the days when pimps and drug dealers ruled those streets. Then it was a few years later in the Khyber Pass, that oldest of mountain passes connecting Afghanistan, Pakistan and India that through the ages saw so much bloodshed, eventually by the Russians, which is when AmeriCares delivered doctors and humanitarian supplies to the Afghan refugees. Then it was off to Sudan to bring relief to the displaced victims of the 1985 Ethiopian famine -- and then on to many more wars, famines and natural and man-made disasters.

Stories speed understanding and these stories for me are as fiercely remembered as a tattooist's needle and as hued as the inks that stain the body. It's the chance encounter and silent exchange that brings forth the full tide and fever of memory.

I was new and earnest as I watched Times Square waking up for another Saturday. I was looking for a kid in trouble. There to encourage homeless youngsters to leave the streets, the 16-year-old Pascale I was looking for instead chose to help me. He left Covenant House after only one night of shelter. When I found him, he generously stepped over an invisible threshold where his troubles, though they had not gone away, stopped and waited.  "I am not going back. This block is my home. But look, man, you need to watch yourself and everyone else. You're in another world here. Don't stare. Be cool," Pascale said. "Look up and ahead, never down. Keep your hands out of your pockets." People with quick eyes and dark clothes passed us. We stood there, apart and together. "Three star, three star," a man said hawking cocaine. "Methadone 60, 80," said another, advertising synthetic heroin. A man in a doorway as dark as a crypt with his hair in dreadlocks silently held out two hypodermic needles in a wrapper. Hell flew at me in that minute, a kind of knowledge beyond any way of knowing. Grief affirms those we lost. The many people I could not help through those years stand like trees in my memory, scared and burnt. 

Startled, I stopped and stared. The Afghan girl in the field hospital whose right leg was an infected stump stared back at me (the Russians disguised bombs as toys). Hers was not a look of pleading or of even being in pain, but rather of her just saying to me, "There is nothing either one of us can do." I was enclosed in my own voice calling out in that silent moment. She covered me with her light. 

The Ethiopian mother stood with her infant daughter as light as a whisper in her arms who would be dead within hours, if not minutes. I was walking through her refugee camp in Sudan after consigning a planeload of medical supplies to the NGOs at work there. Our eyes met. She was slight as a watercolor, a mere gesture of features. Hers was not a look of blame or anger; but rather of her saying to me, "This is my daughter, I love her infinitely more than myself, but neither one of us can save her."  We sometimes see as if from a great distance and out of time.

There was the Croatian War of Independence. While delivering a planeload of humanitarian supplies to Zagreb in May 1995, sirens sounding an artillery attack compelled my driver to have us duck into the basement of a random apartment house. There we all were, sitting and standing there, young and old, looking at each other wordlessly by candlelight. There is a light that includes darkness. 

These and so many charities and fundraising campaigns later, I bring those and many other faces with me to the work, to Charity Spring. These are the faces I see when I am tempted to advertise myself to you as anything other than a co-equal in our journey together to help who, where and whenever we can. These are the faces that drive fundraising and that give me patience when a donor or board member requires it. These faces remind me that it's not about me.