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The real secret to successful fundraising

  • March 18, 2021
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In our experience, when nonprofits fall down in their fundraising, it’s often a function of poor operations. In their eagerness to raise the dollars needed to make their budgets, they don’t take the time to properly set their systems and train their people.

Do you believe us when we say development operations are the most absolutely critical, unquestionably central, and utterly significant factor to successful fundraising?

If not, let us convince you.

Development operations are so important because they enable your identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship—the four key phases of a successful fundraising cycle—to operate smoothly, consistently, and reliably.

Moreover, these benefits don’t just apply to you. They apply to your donors too. Donors notice the details that come with good administration—always spelling their name right, segmented communications, and naming and honoring the relationship history in your solicitations—and that notice is what builds their trust.

In turn, increased donor trust is what enables and sustains revenue growth.

In our experience, when nonprofits fall down in their fundraising, it’s often a function of poor operations. In their eagerness to raise the dollars needed to make their budgets, they don’t take the time to properly set their systems and train their people. They then impede their own growth, because as the volume or sophistication of their frontline fundraising increases, they can’t monitor and manage all that activity on the back end. Donor trust begins to falter, and growth stalls.

Development operations encompass all the administrative processes and procedures that enable a successful fundraising cycle to execute consistently and smoothly over time. These are the systems and routines that exist above and beyond the tenure of any one staff person.

When we work with partners to improve their development operations, we focus on these four anchors:

1. Expectations: Set and document clear expectations as to what needs to get done when, how, and to what quality.

If your organization does not set the standard for how development works at your nonprofit, then individual staff people will make it up for themselves and change it over time. That’s no good. By writing Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) manuals for development, you specify and clarify the expectations of your fundraising team’s work. This covers everything from the big things like the timeliness of your gift processing and how often you perform health and integrity checks on your donor data, to the wee little details such as your conventions for recording donors’ titles or middle initials and how to correctly capitalize information.

2. Common logic: Ensure your team thinks about your donors and data in the same way.

Instituting a common logic on your development team is especially important when it comes to data management. If you allow your staff to work by their own definitions of key data points, you will have development pandemonium. Support your staff and your fundraising program by setting out and documenting (again, it’s all about writing it down!) your nonprofit’s logic and definitions when it comes to issues like defining gift and funder types (a very common example we see is the judgment call as to whether gifts from Donor Advised Funds are counted as individual or foundation money), what metrics are most important to you to track, and how to update and use gift pipelines.

3. Systems: Be clear on what systems you use to do the work, and how.

Here’s a not-secret secret: if you’re not living and dying by your fundraising software systems, they aren’t working for you. Your systems should make your job easier, not make you want to hop in a time machine back to 1984. Draft up SOP manuals to guide your staff on how to use your CRM, online gift processor, email marketing software, social media management tools, Google Analytics, project management software, and calendar tools (just to name a few).

Of all the systems you use, your CRM is the most precious and non-negotiable. Modern fundraising requires that your CRM be the basis of everything else that happens.

The other system to mention that sometimes goes overlooked is how your nonprofit operates staff check-ins. How often do they happen? Who sets the agenda? Who takes notes? How do you record and follow-up on action items? If you don’t have a system for talking about the work, the work will go crazy.

4. Staffing: Be certain everyone who supports fundraising knows their role.

Fundraisers at small nonprofits are usually not bodybuilders. They don’t have enormous shoulders that can hold up the piles and piles of work that gets put on them and them alone. To support your fundraisers and ensure they don’t collapse, you need to be intentional about having honest, right-sized job descriptions that are clear-eyed about how much work is feasible. And these job descriptions don’t disappear after the hiring process concludes. They should be revisited on an annual basis to ensure they still make sense and are right.

Being specific about who contributes to the work and how is also important. The Management Center uses the MOCHA framework for assigning the roles of manager, owner, consultant, helper, and approver. RACI Solutions advocates for RACI: responsible, accountable or authority, consult, and inform. No matter which framework you use, they are wonderful for setting boundaries and getting the help you actually need.

Finally, don’t forget about the board! They support successful fundraising too! Here at Thread, we love using annual commitment forms with the board to spell out exactly what they’re willing to do on behalf of fundraising each year. Again, there’s magic (and accountability!) in writing things down.

If any of these things make you want to scream, or cry, or bury your head in the sand, that’s okay! There’s no magic wand to wave that will improve your development operations over night. But there is the Thread team, and we love this stuff (we truly do!), and we’ll take the time to help you. Email us at [email protected] anytime!

Join Candid and Thread Strategies on Wednesday, March 24 for their virtual training, “For New York Fundraisers: Fundamentals of Development Operations,” to learn how your New York nonprofit can excel at development operations. Register for the free event.

This article was written by the Thread Strategies team.


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