What fundraising challenges are you seeing out in the field these days?

Through my own board work, requests for advice from friends and colleagues, and the G2G community, I get to see a wide range of organizations. These are challenging times for most everyone, I must say. Here is my take on the top five issues facing fundraising leadership today.

1.     How crowded the field is
Direct Mail SolicitationsI’ve spoken before about how competitive it is out there. Unfortunately, it’s getting worse, not better. The number of “capital campaigns” being launched is escalating, and that pile of solicitations that I collected a few years likely will be even deeper this year.                                               


2.     Keeping a positive tone
I’ve long been a critic of the “whine and dine” approach to fundraising.

It’s hard, I know, when your organization is facing government cutbacks and other very real hardships. But whining comes awfully close to begging, and turns me (and many other donors) off completely.

The message to the donor has to be positive. It’s not about you and your problems.  It’s about how you can solve an important issue that the donor cares about.  “Look what we could do with your help!” is the right approach.

3.     Finding the “hook”
So many appeals sound the same to me. If it’s a school, for example, it’s about innovation, globalization, leadership, equal opportunity, and so on. It’s true that you want to accomplish those things; the problem is that everyone uses the same words.

To stand out in a crowded field, you need a hook – something that is unique to your organization, and that donors will find compelling and memorable.

As an example, I will offer Olin, an engineering school where I serve on the board.    Building a donor base and upping giving levels are challenges for the institution, as it enters just its second decade of existence. Olin has framed its ambitious vision as a “revolution in engineering education”:

It’s an exciting time for Olin College of Engineering. We’re expanding our reach every day as we continue to identify new and innovative ways to fulfill the school’s unique dual mission: to educate a transformative generation of engineers and to transform engineering education itself. Olin is not just a college—it’s a cause, and we invite those who share our vision to participate in our exciting effort to lead the revolution in engineering education.

A compelling story will help, but demonstrated success is even more powerful. Olin addresses that truth by issuing an annual “impact report” on giving that details how donations are helping Olin lead the revolution in engineering.

4.     Keeping your economic house in order
“Are you well managed?” is one of the four donor questions that you must be prepared to answer. I still find that many organizations are not able to articulate their economic models clearly. Financial sustainability is a special concern for individuals considering a significant gift; they want to be sure that you’ll still be around tomorrow, and their money won’t be wasted.

5.     The “gift that keeps on taking”
This one is a corollary to Number 4. As a general rule: Beware the gift that keeps on taking; it can wreak havoc on your cost structure. The new building that is donated with no funds for ongoing maintenance is a classic example.

These days, there is lots of enthusiasm for investments in technology to improve outreach. Often, however, it is not fully thought through.

Who exactly are you trying to reach, and what are their needs? Can you use off the shelf software rather than a customized solution? (I know we all think we’re unique but…)

Then there’s that “gift that keeps on taking” problem.

With technology, you get to do it every over and over again. What is cool today may be old stuff or completely obsolete in three to five years. You may get funding for the start up, but what about down the road?

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