Finance Directors: The Forgotten Nonprofit Professional

cash_handsThe recent Blue Avocado study of finance professionals at nonprofit organizations serves as a great reminder of how important and yet overlooked this role is. As the study report notes, the “tenures and experiences of executive directors (CEOs) and development directors” get most of the attention.

Meanwhile, toiling in the background are a group of professionals that are, the study shows, typically highly trained and inclined to stay with the nonprofit longer than either its CEO or development director. They’re getting a bit of short shrift in return, it appears: Their biggest stressors include when other nonprofit staff don’t comply with basic financial procedures (like turning in timesheets) or when they don’t have enough time to do everything on their plate (other job duties having often been heaped there).

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the key part the finance director (or CFO) plays in an organization’s fundraising efforts, doing everything from:

  • explaining to staff and board what the cash flow and overall financial situation is
  • helping plan future budgets for projects or grant applications
  • collecting on reimbursement-based grant money
  • keeping track of a myriad of individual donations
  • preparing budget figures for follow-up reports to foundation grantors
  • making sure the nonprofit survives its audit with reputation unscathed, to
  • much more.

Given all that, it might be worth checking in with your CFO to see whether the typical stressors are grinding away at him or her — and try to eliminate at least some of them (turn in those timesheets, folks!) in order to enhance the likelihood of a good long tenure with your organization.

Jewish Culture Laying the Groundwork for Charitable Legacy Giving?

Vintage bronze Siddur cover useful for backgroundOkay, let’s not all start going through donor lists and chasing after everyone with “stein” or “berg” in their name; but nonprofit fundraisers should definitely read the article by Alex Daniels in the recent Chronicle of Philanthropy entitled “Jews Are Twice as Likely to Leave Bequests Than Non-Jews.”

It cites a Connected to Give study called “Jewish Legacies,” which found that 23% of  U.S. Jews age 40 and over with household incomes of at least $100,000 have provided for charities in their wills. If that doesn’t sound impressive, realize that it’s double the number of non-Jews who have done the same. Another impressive percentage is the 74% of U.S. Jews who have prepared wills in the first place; well ahead of the 60% of non-Jews to have done so.

If you’re with an organization that directly serves a Jewish population or cause, the lesson is clear: If you don’t already have a planned or legacy giving program in place, it’s time to start developing one. You’re working with a population that apparently acts with above-average maturity in planning for the end of their life and deciding what mark they will make on the world.

There’s good news in here for non-Jewish organizations, as well; the 23% includes 6% whose legacy gifts were intended for non-Jewish causes. Providing for basic needs, health care, and the environment ranked high on the list.

Don’t Promise Thank-You Gifts Unless You’re Able to Send Them!

Old books Used books donated to the poor and drive their growthI’ve heard too many stories like these lately: The environmental group that failed to send the promised calendar (and instead barraged the new member with additional requests for donations); the community radio station that sent the wrong book to an elderly recipient (and on top of that, sent her an anti-capitalist tract that she found politically suspect); the organization that had a major layoff and failed to send any of the promised thank-you gifts to anyone at all.

Perhaps that last situation is impossible to predict and avoid, but what’s up with the other ones? Surely no nonprofit on the planet thinks its okay to stiff donors of their promised gifts. More likely such lapses happen due to a breakdown in organization — a task gets delegated to someone with little experience, perhaps, or part of the work is handled by outside consultants and then the organization somehow fails or forgets to resume its in-house responsibilities.

While such lapses are understandable, they’re not excusable if the organization wants to maintain halfway decent donor relations. I don’t have statistics to back this up, but it’s probably safe to say that donors who don’t receive the thank-you gifts they thought they’d signed up for will not soon forget this apparent snub. (Why else would they tell me stories about it?)

It will damage their sense of relationship with the nonprofit, make them doubt its ability to organize matters with regard to its mission, and in the future, dull their interest in hearing about the latest cool thank-you gifts on offer in return for their pledge of $X!

If you realize that your nonprofit has made such mistakes in the past, it’s time for some serious damage control. Send a follow-up card and gift, make a phone call, do whatever it takes to assauge the donor’s sense of breached trust. You may not win that donor back, but you’ll at least reduce the degree to which he or she is tempted to badmouth your organization to others.

On the bright side, — and this isn’t much of one — a donor who doesn’t get a thank-you gift can take the full tax deduction for the donation! (In fact, this is a good reminder that donors should be able to opt out of receiving thank-you gifts — and the nonprofit should make sure to abide by the opt-outs and not send the gift.) Attorney Stephen Fishman explains these issues further in “Tax Deductions for Charitable Giving – The Nonprofit’s Responsibilities.”

Fundraising Kudos to: Vested Interest in K-9s, Inc.

vested dogYou’ve got to hand it to the folks at Vested Interest in K-9s, Inc. They’ve got a simple mission — to provide bulletproof and stabproof vests for law enforcement dogs throughout the U.S. — and the most measurable results per donation you could ask for.

As stated on the organization’s home page, every $950 pays for one dog vest (which, without this organization, would not normally be provided to these animals).

Also prominently displayed on the home page is a tally of how many vests it has already provided — 437 since 2009.

It’s no wonder, then, that the organization managed to attract the attention of a nine-year-old girl, who decided to ask her friends and family to donate to the group instead of giving her regular presents for her tenth birthday. The story made it on to MSN, with 746 Facebook shares when last I checked.

But I doubt an MSN reporter just happened to be roving the area when this gift came in. The organization no doubt knew a good story when it saw one, and passed it on to the media. Well done!

By the way, outreach via the media (both traditional and social media) can be such an important way for nonprofits to gain visibility and credibility that a whole chapter of my book, Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits (newly out in its fourth edition) is devoted to it.

Best Email Subject Lines From Nonprofits

pirate msgLast week’s pirate-themed email from Oceana has got me keeping a watchful eye on other nonprofits’ email subject lines, to see which can best capture readers’ attention without the use of pirate lingo. (It’s thematic only one day out of the year, after all. Arrr.)

I had to open a recent email titled, “It’s time to take care of the bottom‏,” from Shotgun Players (a Berkeley-based theater company). I thought the wording was some sort of faux pas, oops thing, but no, they’re raising money for seat cushions and a new toilet.  So, give them credit for humor, taking a chance, and curbing my “delete without reading” impulse.

“Your tax dollars at work — killing wildlife‏,” from the NRDC, was also one I had to click on. The heavy sarcasm caught my eye, not to mention that it raised a question to which I needed to know the answer. (In case you are similarly curious, the first line of the email explained, “A little-known government agency called Wildlife Services is killing thousands of wild animals every year — and you and I are picking up the tab.”)

“Big Tobacco: Get your butts out of our Bay‏,” from Save the Bay, wasn’t bad either.

From Greenpeace, the heading, “BREAKING: Russia holding Greenpeace activists at gunpoint in the Arctic‏” was one I certainly couldn’t ignore. If your nonprofit has news like that, post it while it’s fresh and you can speak in the present tense!

So let’s see, humor, sarcasm, humor, and urgency. There’s a pattern here, at least regarding what I respond to. As to what I don’t? Well, I still don’t know what’s in the email entitled “This will make you furious.” Yes, it raises a question (“What could be worse than what I’ve already heard?”) but frankly, there’s already plenty that makes me furious. I don’t want to add to the list.

Fundraising Kudos to Oceana, for Riffing Off “Talk Like a Pirate” Day

treasure chestOne of the first items to land in my email inbox this morning had the subject line, “Avast! Was your seafood caught by pirates?‏” As Oceana went on to explain (and anyone who’s on Facebook already knew), today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

The email went on to say that, “It’s all in good fun, but how can we celebrate when there are real pirates out there scooping up our fish?”

Oceana is dealing with an issue that’s ongoing — but it managed to use a topical, and even humorous hook to get readers to think about it in a new way. That’s an ongoing, even daily challenge for any organization trying to use email or social media to get its message out. Let’s hope their strategy brings in lots of pieces of eight.

Study of Kids’ Giving Patterns Raises New Questions

kidPlenty of surprising statistics can be found in the recent study known as Women Give 2013, New Research on Charitable Giving by Girls and Boys, conducted by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Most notably:

  • Nearly nine out of ten children between the ages of eight and 19 have given at least some small amount to charity in at least two of the previous several years.
  • Around six out of ten girls had volunteered at least once during the relevant time periods, and five out of ten boys.

Too bad we can’t predict how many of these kids will go on to become charitable donors in adulthood. I’d hazard a guess that the numbers will drop off as soon as they’re in college and facing tuition and other bills, but that’s just a guess. In fact, there are a lot of other things that we might wonder about but can only guess at, such as:

  • Why are giving levels so high among the young? Speculating about this isn’t too difficult — kids take part in numerous organized activities through school and church, and some of these may involve giving to a charity. Also, use of social media may mean their friends ask them to give to a cause.
  • Why do girls volunteer more than boys? One could easily speculate about adults — there’s a long tradition of women volunteering, based in good part on their history of staying out of the workforce for some period of time while raising children. But young girls are far away from such social structuredness. What’s up?
  • How can nonprofits foster continued interest in charitable giving among these children? One factor, unfortunately, is somewhat out of our hands: The study found that when parents actually talk to their children about charitable giving, beyond just modeling giving behavior, it made a big difference in the kids’ likelihood of making donations. But nonprofits can certainly remind parents, via social media sites or newsletters, to talk to their children about their reasons for giving.

Because this study is new, we don’t know whether today’s adults come from a similar history of childhood giving. But as the children in this study themselves grow up, nonprofits can act with the knowledge that the concept of supporting a good cause is not a new one for them.

Newly in Print: Fourth Edition of Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits

effn4_2I almost forgot to announce this — but don’t worry, the midnight lines of eager purchasers haven’t completely depleted the stock of this latest edition of Nolo’s all-around guide, Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits.

Some exciting features of this new edition include simple explanations of how “search engine optimization” can help bring Web searchers to your nonprofit’s website; new information on how to use crowdfunding to augment your fundraising efforts; new stories from fundraising practitioners, such as the development folks at Rosie’s Place in Boston describing their holiday card-sales program; the latest IRS tax figures relevant to your work; and much more.

Should everyone involved in nonprofit fundraising buy this book? No! This book is specifically aimed at nonprofits that are fairly grassroots, but nevertheless large enough to have staff members whose responsibilities include development. If you are with an even smaller nonprofit or one with no full-time staff, such as a P.T.A., church or temple, or musical group, you’ll be better served by reading Nolo’s book, The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising.


What Fundraisers Can Learn From Ben Franklin

benBen Franklin is quoted as having said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” This quote is often tossed around by telemarketers, teaching one another the not-so-gentle are of pushing a customer just far enough toward closing the deal . . . but not so far that the customer hangs up in a panic.

Your average fundraiser does not, of course, go to telemarketer school. (Many telemarketers, in fact, seemed to have skipped the lesson mentioned above, but that’s another story.)

The thing of it is, I sometimes wonder whether fundraisers would be better off studying telemarketing tactics. By doing so, they could also understand when to back off, and why prospective donors — who are also consumers — are prone to feeling railroaded.

Why is this on my mind? Because some overeager fundraisers recently showed up at my front door, and despite the fact that I was literally holding cell phone to my ear and talking to my parents, they WOULD NOT LEAVE until they’d delivered their entire, long spiel. (They probably thought I was lying about being on the phone. I wasn’t.)

If anything, selling a product leaves more room to convince someone against their will than “selling” a cause does. We all buy lots of things we don’t really need, sometimes just to try something new. But when it comes to supporting a charitable effort, studies have shown that even those who donate to charity tend to choose a limited universe of causes to give to, based on very personal reasons. (See my book, Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits — just out in its 4th edition — for more on that.)

So, there are some people out there — goodhearted, charitable people — who will not support your cause no matter how hard you try. Or maybe they’ll give a few bucks, but ignore all follow-up appeals, and resolve never to pick up the phone or open their door again.

Ben Franklin might have been interested to hear the results of a recent study of fundraising techniques, which found that telling targets that they were free to refuse the request actually increased the likelihood that they would donate. People felt “less threatened” by the whole interaction. (Will we be hearing such messages from telemarketers soon?)

It’s PTA Collection Time as the School Year Begins!

Can you feel the excitement in the air? Kids are finding out who their teachers are, buying their back-to-school wardrobes, and signing up for activities.

Parents, however, may be a little less excited. Whether the kids are attending public or private schools, this is the time when many are asked to write a big check — knowing that without parental support, the school will literally go without an arts or music program, a librarian, after-school tutors, and so on. The “suggested donation” levels can run into the thousands of dollars.

This raises the annual conundrum: Should the PTA or other volunteers organizing these fundraising efforts ask for the full, needed lump-sum up front, or plan to spread out their requests for funding over the school year, sometimes packaged up as special events or fundraising sales?

Two mothers I recently spoke with debated this very point. One said, “I helped with school fundraising last year, and noticed that some people just won’t write a check unless they get something in return — they hold out for the silent auctions and other sales.” The other said, “But I get so sick of having to attend events like that, and I’m sure things like wrapping paper sales don’t net the school more than a few bucks — I’d rather just add that to my check at the beginning of the year. Yes, it hurts to write that big a check, but at least I get it over with.”

FLIBThere’s probably no final answer, though if you’re a PTA fundraiser, it’s worth keeping an eye on whether parents are developing a “mass sentiment” toward fundraising. Here’s an excerpt from my book, The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising, that will help illustrate:

[D]onor sentiment has cycled at South Mountain Elementary School in South Orange, New Jersey. PTA copresident Laura Reichgut describes, “We sent out a survey last year to get a sense of how the school community was feeling about fundraising, programming, and so forth. A lot of the feedback suggested that parents had had their fill of the various smaller fundraisers, such as giftwrap sales or walkathons. So the PTA decided to eliminate some of those this year—or at least take a break from them—and replace them with what we call the ‘No Frills Campaign.’ We sent out a simple letter asking
for donations and including a reply envelope. Our pitch was that this is an opportunity to support all the great work of the school with 100% tax-deductible donations. . . . [A] mere week into the campaign, the South Mountain PTA had already reached its minimum monetary goal for the No Frills Campaign, and the donations continued to come in during the following weeks.”