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2021 nonprofit mantra: Less is more

A business professional writing in their planner

Let me begin by asserting in the strongest terms possible that nonprofits can and should solicit gifts of time and money as robustly as circumstances allow. Their noble missions deserve no less. 

Despite the magnificent generosity demonstrated by Americans from all income levels during 2020, the nonprofit sector will continue to face formidable challenges in doing more with less. Countless Americans are facing insecurities of food, health, housing, education, and other necessities. In tandem with the government, it will be up to nonprofits to fill these enormous human services gaps.

“Less is more” is a philosophy associated with the German architect and designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), who as a leading figure of the Modernist Movement elevated minimalism and the elegance of simplicity.

This strategy fits nonprofits with limited bandwidth as they start the New Year. Nonprofit resources of dollars, staff, and volunteer time need to be stretched as they never have before. This will require an all-out commitment to concentrating on essentials.

As a former higher education advancement practitioner and now a fundraising trainer/consultant who’s worked with dozens of nonprofits, I’m intimately familiar with the scope of the challenge. Practically in our DNA, nonprofit intuition is to think big and reach higher.

The less is more strategy can empower nonprofits in resource-challenged environments to be more successful in carrying out their respective missions to touch, improve, and save more lives. Here are some action steps that come immediately to mind when less is more:

#1: Place a premium on board meeting time.

This probably means a reduction in the number of meetings and length of meetings. Staff reports need to be kept to an absolute minimum, and board engagement should be maximized. Try to encourage board members to make vivid reminders of the impact of your mission at every meeting. The transition to virtual meetings places even more of a premium on time, since virtual meetings are much more tiresome for participants and should be planned to take up roughly two-thirds of the time of in-person meetings.

#2: Avoid voluminous planning documents.

Too often, I’ve seen organizations spend months on developing bulky strategic plans that never get implemented. Just start with a frank discussion of the basics—mission, vision and values—which all might require updating. Then, move to budgets and income projections. Establish stretch yet realistic fundraising goals. Finally, scrutinize charts of organization and position descriptions. All these elements should be in alignment.

#3: Create and keep to a communications content calendar.

Far too often, we see organizations skipping communications for a long time and then trying to make up for it with a barrage of communications. Communications through a variety of media should be strategically spaced over the year, and preferably sent on a consistent and reliable schedule. Keep in mind that the average person receives up to 10,000 messages a day. Before sending any communication, the nonprofit should ask itself if it is absolutely essential.

#4: Invest in major gifts fundraising.

Major gifts are by far the most efficient way to develop resources. Each organization needs to determine its own amount for a major gift that has a significant impact on its mission. CEOs, development directors, board chairs, and development chairs should devote time every day to the discovery, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship of prospects who can make high-impact gifts. The realities of social distancing make it easier to find high wealth individuals at home and schedule meetings, likely via videoconferencing. Special events have been suspended, and though virtual events are showing positive results, they don’t come close to achieving results from major gifts. 

#5: Hold board members accountable for bringing in potential donors.

Every board member should be challenged to break the ice and introduce to the nonprofit at least one likely donor from their personal, business, and civic networks. They don’t necessarily have to solicit the gift but they must accept responsibility for initiating the cultivation process. I used to recommend three prospects per board member but have concluded it’s wiser to let them complete one introduction and then move to another one.

#6: Be selective in your identification and targeting of major gift prospects.

“Spray and pray” major gift cultivation doesn’t work.. Major gift prospects should meet the litmus tests of capacity, inclination, and access. Long prospect lists scare me because it can be daunting to show any concrete results. I come back to this rule of thumb—you can only cultivate and solicit one donor at a time.

#7: Have your board members thank donors.

There are exceptions on my list, led by the stewardship of donors, who can’t be thanked too much for their gifts of time and money. An effective tactic is having board members make thank you calls with no other purpose than expressing gratitude. This is an especially smart way to engage board members who might be reluctant to be part of the fundraising process. Many times, voice-mail messages will have to be left. That’s fine. Donors will still receive an additional and often surprising touch from the lay leadership of the organization.

#8: Collaborate, coordinate, communicate, and forge potential partnerships.

There are approximately 1.5 million nonprofits in America. The truth is countless organizations occupy similar if not identical mission space. The opportunities to gain efficiencies, cut costs, and extend impact through partnerships are boundless.

#9: Request the gifts that are absolutely essential to moving your nonprofit forward—unrestricted funding.

Last year, it was very encouraging to see MacKenzie Scott award $6 billion to nonprofits all across the United States with no strings attached. Nonprofit leaders without fear, anxiety, or hesitation need to state the case for flexible funding to achieve greater impact. When people invest in corporations, they don’t restrict their money to research, marketing, or any other specific area. Why should investing in nonprofits be any different?

#10: Invest to the extent possible in fundraising training.

You know I couldn’t leave this off the list of key fundraising reminders. The return on investment of staff professional development is well documented. For example, a major gifts study by Adrian Sargeant, Amy Eisenstein, and Rita Kottasz found a profound connection between staff training and development and fundraising success. More specifically, the study concludes that engaging in one additional form of training is associated with an increase in revenue of $37,000.

The last year pushed both nonprofits and for-profits to be more creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial to survive and move forward. This less is more spirit must be enthusiastically reinforced in 2021 with an unstinting concentration on top priorities and essentials.


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