Get pledges of allegiance to your NPO with these 3 tips

I attended an outdoor concert of a local symphony recently and the audience was asked to stand to recognize the pledge of allegiance as it was performed. While I hadn’t expected it, it got me thinking about how often it is a part of so many of the public gatherings we attend.

Be it a school assembly, government forum, or athletic event, practically all those in attendance dutifully rise, place their right hand over their hearts, lift their heads and speak in one voice their devotion to their country.

In what is turning out to be a head-scratching, nail biting U.S. presidential race, declarations by one party or another of their devotion to their country is on full display, just as they question same, one of the other. Beliefs about what that allegiance should look like and how it should be expressed are at the core of what political parties claim differentiates them and helps them attract legions of like-minded ideologues.

They compete for the hearts and minds of the voting populace, touting their particular philosophy and approach as the one that is most effective and appropriate for the trying times we live in.

Come November 8, those convinced of the best-made case will go to the polls and vote their conscience, and their allegiance. They also will be voting for what they believe is in their best interest. After all, that’s what it’s really all about.

For a nonprofit organization seeking to gain the unwavering allegiance of its stakeholders, that’s all that counts as well. Self-interest drives everything we do and expressing our philanthropy is no exception.

That expression is highly personal and steeped in allegiances, traditions and ideologies that as a nonprofit leader you need to know as much about as possible. Finding out what motivates your donors, boardmembers and other stakeholders, and making this a structured part of your donor cultivation, boardmember vetting and employee development process should be a standard practice.

But that may be putting the cart before the horse, especially if your organization hasn’t established and regularly expresses for all to hear and know:

  • a clear mission and vision,

  • the values that guide the way it executes its programs, treats its stakeholders and safeguards its legacy, and

  • its culture of philanthropy

The expression of your vision, mission, values and culture of philanthropy affects the current levels of contribution in time, talent and treasure your organization is experiencing from its stakeholders. As nonprofit leader’s we’ve all done our share of belly-aching about lax board participation, disappointing fundraising outcomes or diminished employee morale. Every organization experiences its own challenges in these areas at one time or another. But if

they’re happening all at once or for such a long period of time that it’s threatening your very existence, it’s safe to say that the elephant in the room is tired of waiting to be acknowledged.

Capturing and holding your stakeholders attention, imagination and allegiance is likely not all that different from how a country commands unwavering devotion from its citizens. The objective is to appeal to their nationalistic sensibilities; helping them see themselves as essential to your organization’s success (and by extension their own) as a pledged super-delegate to a political party’s presidential nominee.

Search your own feelings when you hear or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I’d venture to say that its power to inspire patriotism and ignite passionate devotion in you rests in key areas that when applied to your nonprofit can have just as effective an impact:

Indoctrination through recitation – The Pledge is short, uses action words that conjure visions that connect to a particular feeling, and is easy to say repeatedly and commit to memory. Use this same approach to develop or rework your vision and mission statements so they are easy to recite.

Then make sure it becomes a living, breathing part of everything you do, from opening every board meeting and fundraising event to every closing call on a donor or site visit with a foundation. Everyone you encounter should know why you exist and what you’re about.

Pride by association – People want to be affiliated with success. Your organization’s ability to endure challenges, institute innovative practices that advance its outcomes and perhaps be recognized for its achievements, especially among its peers, sets your stakeholders up as smart, savvy philanthropic investors who belong to an exclusive club.

One way to thank them for hanging in there with you is to make sure you keep them in the communication’s loop via electronic, snail mail or social media, newsletters, videos, webinars —and a plain old phone call every once in a while. Let them know what your organization is working on or has accomplished and how they are helping move the mission forward.

Legacy building—Focusing on how your work has and can endure with the participation of new and varied voices, ensures that the foundation you build today is one that is responsive, expansive and inclusive. New stakeholders who bring different cultural, ethnic, racial, gender and age-specific perspectives can establish your organization as an open and welcoming expression of the ideal its vision should embody.

Capturing and holding your stakeholders allegiance by taking every opportunity to help them see their own reflections in your mission, vision, values and philanthropic culture will make them eager contributors to your organization in every way you need them to. Once you effectively demonstrate they are essential to your existence, their bond, and your organization’s future, is set.

What are some ways your organization is building allegiances with its stakeholders?

Plug-in to bridge philanthropy: Build a bridge to capacity with this formula

$70,000. That’s what my ED told me was needed to fill an unexpected funding gap—three months before the end of the fiscal year. How on earth were we going to raise that kind of money so quickly? Whatever remaining grant proposal awards we were waiting to hear about certainly wouldn’t cover that, should we get them. I did have one more newsletter mailing to send out. But with the likely response percentage, it wasn’t like it would make much of an impact.

It was the year we’d expanded our programs three-fold and so went the budget as well. With a gap that big, it should have been anticipated. But why wasn’t it? And what are we going to do now?

As an organization, we responded to the shortfall by asking board members to pitch in even more than many of them had already. I also sent some letters to a few donors who hadn’t given yet, explaining our situation and asking for their help.

Scary and embarrassing.

There was probably a good reason the organization was caught unaware. Thing is, I couldn’t say for sure what it was because I was never included in budgeting conversations. Not long before that I’d been at another organization that found itself in similar straits but in that case our government funder told us about it 18 months in advance, giving us enough time to strategize and implement a response.

Thing is, stuff happens and when it does it often leaves nonprofits on the brink of something—and it’s often a fall, not a rise. The ability to respond from a position of strength usually lies with how much financial hemorrhaging can be slowed or at least contained. This is dependent upon the types of scenarios it can reasonably plan for, the resources it has in place to mitigate losses and strategies it can employ to secure itself once disaster has been averted.

Crisis fundraising is the standard practice deployed in response to so-called natural disaster emergencies while crisis fundraising is often the preferred practice employed in response to the daily life urgencies facing nonprofits themselves.

Using this as a mode of business is devastating for your constituents and your community. They expect that your organization has asked the questions, anticipated the situations and created the strategies that will keep the doors open and your services going under most any circumstances. They’re having crises of their own. Where is yours going to leave them? defines nonprofit capacity building as a “broad term that encompasses ‘actions that improve nonprofit effectiveness’, in terms of organizational and financial stability, program quality, and growth.” In its application to nonprofit resource development and fundraising, it promotes the notion that the third sector must proactively secure its financial sustainability. The status quo of passively accepting what comes its way in the form of charity, gives way to self-determining actions that chart a course of longevity and empowerment.

Admittedly, I’ve spent much of my career in organizations that seemed always to be playing financial beat-the-clock; and a couple were straight up out of time. In my opinion, that’s clearly fostered from a culture that practices just-in-time fundraising based on a charity mindset. It’s a belief that organizations, especially grassroots community initiatives, don’t deserve more.

I never really understood this, much less accepted it. As standard-bearers of civil society, nonprofit organizations of every ilk should always seek to exemplify the very best in and of humanity. They fill the gaps between what business and government can, and in some cases won’t do. Settling for sub-par outcomes in any area is unconscionable.

No, there is no room for scarcity mindsets of any kind when you’re busy saving the world. Nonprofit organizations were created to span gulfs by building bridges. That can only happen by elevating to a kind of stakeholder engagement that presents opportunities to invest in transformational philanthropy, not debilitating charity.

Don’t think your organization can move to philanthropy from charity? I’d bet you’re wrong.

TRY THIS: Find at least ten to 15 people your organization can invite to a one-hour gathering. Give them some impressive facts and dispel some myths about your organization or field of work. Let them hear compelling stories from your clients on the impact your programs are having on their lives. Then ask for their feedback on what they saw and heard and meaningfully engage them over the next several months in activities that help them deepen their understanding and commitment to your work.

That is the formula for building a stakeholder engagement process that can exponentially expand your fans and your fundraising—that is transformational philanthropy.

You see, research already shows that upwards of 80 percent of people who volunteer are donors, even if the organization at which they volunteer isn’t the same one to which they donate. The point is they give, time or money or both, because they are engaged in some meaningful, deeply satisfying way, with the organization’s mission. Their commitment to this mission is appreciated and likely in some way recognized.

The capacity of your organization to elevate its expectations of its volunteers, staff, board and donors beyond mere supporters to investors, expands the level of engagement and results in exponential rewards that ultimately sustain the organization through good times and bad.

Your nonprofit does have the capacity to build bridges to philanthropy as well as any other gulf that needs spanning. Are you ready to talk with your stakeholders and start architecting those plans?

3 New Year’s “revolutions” for your work

When I reflect upon my most frustrating experiences as an employee, having to coordinate 2,000-piece mailings by myself or traveling to make a scheduled presentation only to find that the venue was moved and nobody bothered to tell me, do not spring to mind.

I’m not easily irritated, and though those issues were definitely ones that could have, if the conditions were ripe, tap danced on my last nerve when I was having a particularly stressed day, I always managed to keep my cool. After all, it’s “small stuff”, right? At least that’s what the late Richard Carlson, author of the “Don’t Sweat” book series built his publishing empire upon.

Funny thing about small, though. Under the right conditions, some small things can grow, especially when they keep happening over and over again. And under the right negative conditions, like deliberate avoidance and neglect in dealing with persistent, challenging issues, those small things can grow to monstrously expansive girths.

They can create a work environment rife with feelings of disrespect and devaluation, all manner of distrust and alienation, and even sabotage. It thwarts performance and productivity, lowers morale and renders creativity impotent.

Please forgive the tone of the references, but there’s no better time than right now to be this real. The fact of the matter is that as we’re still caught up in the splendor and wonder that is representative of this time of year and we’ve taken a break from work and its woes to bask in it, many of us will be going right back to varying scenarios of the theme I described in just a few days.

New year, S.O.S. Bummer, I know.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be. How about taking the time now to think about making, not yet another New Year’s resolution, but a revolution in thought and action about how you can use the following three approaches in dealing with a challenging work environment, no matter how small or large a position of influence you hold in your NPO.

1. Lead: Can you find or create opportunities to inspire, motivate, serve as a role model, and build learning environments that help others embark upon personal development endeavors free from criticism and ridicule? I attended an event recently where the speaker challenged us to change our own life trajectory by simply showing faith in other people’s ability to do the same. “If you believe in them, then they’ll believe in you and in turn you’ll believe in yourself,” was the basic message.

Perpetuate this cycle, and see if you don’t find that the stronger, more confident your belief is in yourself, the stronger, more confident your belief will be in them.

2. Manage: Can you find or create opportunities to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and execution of any coordinated processes you’re involved with? Provided your office culture doesn’t require you check your brain at the door, think about ways these processes affect you and the people you work with then make some innovative tweaks where appropriate. Is there a way to perform routine tasks better? Faster? Cheaper?

Challenge your presumptions about what can and should be, build your strategic thinking muscle and stop suffering under mediocre.

3. Support and/or follow: While this may be the role you have already, are there opportunities for you to not only follow, but support the person in charge or effort being managed even more vigorously than you have in the past? Lead people.Manage tasks. Support vision. This can be a tough one, especially if you have some fundamental disagreements with the “why” of things.

You may have to talk yourself into understanding the why, or simply make peace with it, but as I’m always inclined seek the benefits as opposed to detriments of the why, seeking opportunities to assist others can help in building skills and camaraderie, two benefits that may well make the why mute.

Do you have any other ideas on how to turn your New Year’s resolutions into revolutions? Please share them below.

My reflections on the top 3 findings of the national study, UnderDeveloped

I was in the throes of a very intense few weeks with the executive director of an organization I was development director of when the report “UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising” was released.

Long story short, projects weren’t going to her satisfaction and she immediately saw it as a performance issue as opposed to a resource, communication and systems issue, as I’d pointed out to her on previous occasions. Despite it all, I tried to do what I could to salvage what, I wasn’t at all sure. After all, I’ve always been a conscientious worker, and I thrive in an environment that respects and supports my work and my point of view. That wasn’t happening here.

Unfortunately, a familiar pattern was emerging; a dysfunction I knew would leave me frustrated and disappointed. I told her about the report and how I felt it spoke to a lot of what we both were experiencing. I parted ways with that organization soon after our discussion but not before passing along to her the report’s weblink as promised. I hope for the sake of the organization and herself, she reads it.

When I saw the report, I was elated and relieved. Finally, the challenges I’d been facing since I entered this field more than 15 years ago were being addressed. I discovered I’m not alone and my experiences are now validated by scientific data. But while there is comfort in numbers, it made me concerned at the same time.

You see, I know the potential strength of effective fundraising when sound organizational development, buoyed in a “culture of philanthropy” is lead by an optimally-functioning three legged stool: executive director, development director and board. This report essentially speaks to the vicious cycle of the self sabotage organizations exhibit by their inability or refusal to recognize this and adapt a philosophy that supports it, as the following findings

  • “Revolving Door—Organizations are struggling with high turnover and long vacancies in the development director position.

The report states that 50% of development directors surveyed anticipate leaving their positions within two years or less, with a slightly higher rate among organizations with budgets less than $1 million. Only a bit more than one third of the ED’s surveyed anticipated leaving their posts in the same time period, indicating that these same ED’s will continue to see instability in their development programs.

For the exception of my first development position, I’d stepped into vacancies that had been open anywhere from six months to two years. I was never able to ascertain exactly why my predecessor left or why there was seemingly no urgency in filling such a pivotal position.

Invariably, with no point of reference, I had to start building a development program from
scratch, as there were no current files to refer to, systems to implement or relational donor histories to trace and rekindle. And without fail, there was a culture of crisis fundraising, which resulted in my being in a perpetual state of playing “catch-up”.

  • “Help Wanted –Organizations aren’t finding enough qualified candidates for development director jobs. Executives also report performance problems and a lack of basic fundraising skills among key development staff."

With the proliferation of nonprofit management undergraduate and graduate programs over the last ten years or so, this one is a head scratcher—to a degree.

Is it a matter of poor educational programming, unrealistic ED/board expectations, or ill-prepared organizations? Even more curious to me was that the report cited that while between 30%-50% of ED’s made this claim about their DD’s, 25% of them admitted to lacking skills and knowledge to secure gifts themselves and 20% don’t even like doing it!

As truly the chief fundraising staffer of the organization, how then can they fairly and effectively judge performance with attitudes like these?

I recently attended the second in the webinar series UnderDeveloped: What Now? presented by the sponsors of the above-referenced report, which culled feedback from nonprofit fundraising consultants.

One of the panelists was of the opinion that graduate-level nonprofit management programs, while critical to the future preparation of leaders, were woefully lacking, particularly in the area of resource development and fundraising. And in terms of certification-type qualifiers, another panelist felt that the CFRE serves as more of a baseline indicator of a development professional’s expertise and not necessarily an indicator of a top performer. Which leads to:

  • “It’s about more than one person--Beyond creating a development director position and hiring someone who is qualified for the job, organizations and their leaders need to build the capacity, the systems, and the culture to support fundraising success. The findings indicate that many nonprofits aren’t doing this."

So is it a “what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg” scenario? Do organizations need a qualified DD in order to institute a culture of philanthropy? Or does the organization leadership need to cultivate and embody a culture of philanthropy in order to attract the best and brightest DD’s?

I’d say either way it starts with the acceptance by organizations that the status quo is not only ineffective but represents a dereliction of the fiduciary responsibility boards are held to by all shareholders.

And as the ED serves as the face of that responsibility daily, I can’t see how any organizational change in philanthropic philosophy can be sustained without there first being a commitment by that ED to shepherd the process with the board (in absence of a DD) or with the DD where one exists.

I’ll have more on this report in future posts, including the recommendations made by its sponsors. In the meantime, take a look at the report yourself and let me know what you think.


How to choose your next nonprofit job

The concept of loyalty in employment for the most part no longer exists in today’s workplace.

What we have now are business arrangements predicated upon the employer’s expectations being met. With both for-profit and nonprofit employers, I’ve had some really good work relationships and some bad ones—really bad. The bad ones were in part because I was never really good at determining early enough when the employer went from considering me a valuable organizational asset to that of a mere warm body, tasked to check my brain at the door, make like an automaton and produce!

In hindsight, because every organization has a culture and philosophy about how employees are regarded (written or unwritten), I just didn’t recognize where I stood initially and by the time my intuition kicked in it was too late.

My perspective now is that regardless of how tough the job market is, job seekers don’t have to feel like they have to be on the losing end of that business arrangement, not if they go in knowing as much about the employer as the employer knows about them. In this economy, one could argue who holds the handle as opposed to the blade, as my mom used to say, but past experience taught me that I have just as much to lose, if not more, as any employer if I don’t do my homework before selecting the right nonprofit employer for me.

Employment specialists will counsel on the things you should do to position yourself as an attractive employee prospect, including researching your prospective employer. But along with appearing knowledgeable and proactive during the interview, also consider how you can get information that will help you determine what kind of employment experience you’ll have even before you walk through their doors.

Like they say, turnabout is fair play so use some of their vetting processes to get as clear a picture as you can of what you may be signing up for. You know what they are:

1. Check their “resume’” to see what they’re saying and reporting about themselves.

They have (or will eventually have) your social security number; you have the internet. Beyond reading about their program achievements on their website, brochures and press releases, obtain a copy of the last few annual reports and 990’s. Financials can paint quite a revealing picture including, most importantly, whether or not they’ll be around in a year. You can find out the percentage of the budget spent on administration and fundraising, who their significant funders were for the year of filing and the size of gifts they’ve been able to secure, whether there’s consistency with those awards over time, who their board members are, etc. And if you can’t find a 990 filing, that is cause for concern. No matter how small they are they’re required to file and there are dire consequences if they don’t.

2 . Check their “references” to see what others are saying about them.

Do an internet search using certain key words to see if they have been involved in issues (positive or negative) that can shed light on their organizational, business, program or fiduciary practices or if there are particular issues trending that may affect their field of work. Use your networks to find out if anyone you know has either received services, volunteered or, more relevant, were once an employee.

Enlist some dear friends (folks who owe you a favor will do just as well) to do some investigating for you by calling and inquiring about services or volunteer opportunities. You could glean quite a lot from this, like how long it took for someone to answer the call (possible staffing issues); whether the inquiry was handled appropriately and timely (level of program/organization knowledge and professionalism), how long it took for the voicemail or written message to be returned (customer service), or how their volunteer service experience went. Having objective impressions from impartial parties can give a much needed perspective.

3. Listen to your gut.

The ideal would be that you’re able to complete all this before your interview, so you can bring up any concerns during the “Do you have any questions for us?” closeout phase. Broach the topic through questions that give them the opportunity to state some of their challenges, some of which you may very well be able to help solve should you be hired.

But once all the questions have been asked and answered, listen to your gut, considered by some to be the “second brain”, with a power to command our attention when things just don’t feel right. If there’s anything you discovered during your research or during the interview that doesn’t sit well with you, you’ll have a tough decision to make should they offer you the position.

It is important for a job seeker to seriously guard their professional reputation, particularly in the case of resource development professionals. A bad employment experience, especially as regards work conditions, management philosophy, performance expectations and the availability of the tools and resources you need to do your job exceptionally well, can set your career on the wrong track, or completely off it.

Then you’re stuck having to explain to the next employer prospect how it is you ended up as a DD or ED with an organization facing devastating financial straits that threaten its existence just six months after you took over (trust me, I know).

Remember, regardless of what job market you find yourself in, you always have control of who you work for. In fact, giving yourself permission to say “No” can lead to your smartest career move yet.

3 ways to tell if you work in a nonprofit twilight zone

I love watching Twilight Zone reruns!

I remember scheduling my activities during its periodic cable TV marathons back in the 80’s so I could catch at least a solid 6 hours of it. I really don’t know what captivates me so about the series even to this day –maybe it’s because it dealt entirely with human psychology and I was once a student (briefly).

Thing was, the characters would know the situations were out of this world (literally and figuratively) but would still try to adapt common reasoning as they would to normal situations. One thing you could always count on was the reality check soon to come because nothing in the Twilight Zone, though apparently normal, is ever as it seems.

And as I soon learned, neither was life at a nonprofit.

Like many of you, my foray into nonprofit fundraising was by happenstance. I’d started out as an applicant for an administrative position and by the time I got to the interview was being considered for development coordinator. Though I wasn’t clear about what development was, I was relieved to have been considered qualified to do it. I wanted a career, not a job, and I felt like I’d finally found my purpose.

Well as time passed, my skills and training got me positions with more responsibility. These organizations seemed to be sound, and as they’d been around for several years I assumed their leaders knew something about development.

I soon got my reality check on that because through the years I’d slipped in and out of The Twilight Zone on several occasions. What you are about to read are true accounts of a few of my experiences. If they sound familiar, maybe you too have and one time or another entered the nonprofit Twilight Zone.

Submitted for your approval . . .

1: Your job description states that you are to be a “self starter, take initiative and work with little supervision” yet you’re regularly quizzed, sometimes harshly, about decisions you’ve made.

My training and professional development endeavors taught me best practices that I was eager to apply to my job tasks. One thing that kept me motivated to continue doing nonprofit work was the entrepreneurial freedom I had to, in essence, “make my own job”. As a development director/manager/specialist, etc. there is the expectation that you know what to do and if you don’t you’re gonna ask somebody.

But mentors were VERY hard to find in the grassroots/small nonprofits I worked for so I’d relied on my training and common sense, which on one job almost got me fired because I’d decided to address donors as “Mr. Smith” or “Ms. Smith” in solicitation letters and not as “Dear Friend” as had been customary.

2. Gaining access to program information/data that everyone knows you need is tedious and cumbersome.

New to the organization, there were regularly scheduled grant proposal and periodic reports that the ED knew needed to be completed with program information that I’d assumed would be at the ready.

Instead I was told I needed to talk to three different staffers to get the information; one had the info in a format she could easily email to me and I could cut and paste, one had nothing documented and would have to “wing it” and the other, seemed reticent and even borderline defensive saying he’ll have to think about how to give the information to me because he doesn’t want to give away any “trade secrets”.

3. You’re told you’ll need to make up a budget shortfall/campaign goal increase without being included in the budgeting conversations.

Three months before the end of the fiscal year my ED informs me that the development committee increased the annual campaign goal by $70,000 in response to a budget shortfall and that I need to figure out how to get us in the black. She apologized for the last minuteness of the announcement—she was always so pleasant, and genuinely so—but made it very clear how urgent it all was.

I had a fleeting moment of panic followed by considerable moments of resentment at being put in this predicament and while in the midst of trying to figure out which donors I could tap yet again, a champion on the board came through with contributions from colleagues and friends. Crisis averted—one that for some reason she thought should land solely on my shoulders.

Now, I know I’m not alone here, as Earl Holliman wondered in the first episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where is everybody?”

Can YOU relate?