Got ABS, bro?

Abs are great and all, but have you ever tried being a great steward of the trust your donors put in you by contributing to your organization?

See for me, that’s abs: Always Be Stewarding. It’s somewhat of a lifestyle for me, the way exercise might be for others. I write about it a lot, though I’m not sure it can be overstated.

Over 15 years in and around nonprofits, one sees myriad ways of demonstrating appreciation. Some organizations barely scratch the surface (thank you letters/emails) while others are utter rockstars with full stewardship programs (donor newsletter, event invitations).

Forever I worked in arts and culture, before transitioning to other types of nonprofiteering. Different sectors appreciate their donors differently, though I’ve consistently found a foolproof practice of sharing what you might consider “mission moments.” In this way, rather than telling donors what they get for their giving, show them how their generosity makes a difference.

I tried this at the end of last fiscal year a simple one-page letter with five short paragraphs, each spotlighting a different area of our work. I titled it simply, “impacts and benefits.” Nowhere in the letter did it ask for anything, rather, it was straight appreciation. This wasn’t novel, and in fact, it was a lightbulb idea after talking with a friend who’s a donor to the organization. And something funny happened.

A few weeks later, we started getting checks in the mail. And most of them were additional gifts beyond what the donors had already gave — not renewals of previous gifts, but increases. Again, we reinvented no wheels, but we put some gas in the car. This was sort of wonderful, and rather affirming to know people felt strongly about our efforts.

So how are y’all getting your abs?


It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

Most of us are familiar with the classic holiday Andy Williams song. But the song was actually co-written by George Wyle and Edward Pola. Behind the scenes, the two crafted possibly one of the most well-known Christmas songs, ever. A lot of great things happen behind the scenes, and the movers and shakers often get less credit than they deserve.

As a nonprofiteer, I think about that a lot during the holidays. I think about all the terrific things happening throughout the year, and I certainly think about the equally terrific people who make those things happen. In our world of fundraising — especially as it relates to corporate and foundation partners — those people are not always the top figures. They might be coordinators, executive assistants or other complementary collaborators.

Each year, at some point between Thanksgiving and December 31, I always make it a point to set aside a good chunk of time to not only reflect on the past year’s meaningful experiences, I make sure to thank each and every one of those complementary collaborators. I pick up the phone, I write notes, I send e-mails. Some I’m closer with, and some I’ve never met, but in no small way, they have all made my life easier and better, and they deserve exceptional appreciation.

So as we inch closer to December 31, won’t you all join me in sharing thanks with these superheroes? Because really, it IS the most wonderful time of the year.


It’s Leadership, Stupid

Great leaders are everywhere — in corporations, nonprofits and even in athletics. Recently I observed leadership in a group of runners taking cues from their trailblazer. She was shepherding the group forward, motivating them the entire way, because that’s what a leader does.

We want the same to be true with 501(c)(3) leaders. Staff and volunteers should be inspired by them, collaborators should enjoy working with them and they must resonate with donors. Once I worked with a small cultural organization where we tested this concept.

We were producing a brand new artistic performance, which was unquestionably the spotlight program of the year. It required some inventive fundraising, so our chief development officer (CDO) outlined a solid strategy. Through rigorous efforts, this led to cultivation of one particularly generous donor (let’s call this person “Major Donor”) whose support totaled 50% of our revenue goals. Huzzah!

The CDO departed soon after, and following some development staff restructuring, the executive director (ED) made the questionable choice to take on the lion’s share of fundraising. When the performances finally arrived, the ED’s behavior — disinterest in understanding basic performance etiquette, lack of presence and uninformed communication with Major Donor — led to unfortunate missed stewardship opportunities. After much damage control, Major Donor was pleased, and saw their philanthropy bring the performance to life. (Note: Performances continue to this day, supported still by Major Donor.)

This was an arts experience, though key takeaways can apply to all organizations contemplating or evaluating leadership:

  • Find leadership with a love for the mission. There are certain skills that can be learned, though passion is not one of them. If a savvy leader is truly interested in committing to an organization, their commitment is more likely to permeate beliefs and behaviors.
  • Reality-based understanding of what an organization does and how it happens goes a long way. Engagement stems from mission delivery, and a mission is carried out through programs, special events and other endeavors. Constituents get involved in personally meaningful ways, and leaders will serve best if they take the time to match their interests with an institution’s real abilities.
  • For those who have found their mission-driven, pragmatic leaders, proper staffing is really important. This doesn’t always translate to the ED or CDO being on hand at all times. It means that during those times of mission delivery — performance, 5k run/walk, clothing drive — the right leadership is present, valuing the mission and managing stakeholder expectations in real time.

George Harrison mused “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Organizations often know their destination — balanced budgets, thriving programming, engaged staff, happy constituents — and intelligible, bold leaders can absolutely shepherd the journey.