Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Your fundraising consultant is talking about you behind your back

You do it, so don’t you think we do it, too? While I cannot speak for every fundraising consultant, I can tell you, based on my experience in being one for 11+ years and knowing lots of them... we’re talking about you. It’s not all bad, though. Some of it is nice, some of it is neutral, and some of it is really helpful for you and your organization. Here’s a peek behind the curtain:

“I don’t know what to do.”

I don’t want to shock you, but (brace yourself for this one): your fundraising consultant does not have all of the answers. Not by a long shot. In fact, if I were you, I would be wary of any fundraising consultant who tells you she has all the answers. If she says that, she’s probably full of it.

There is great value in knowing what you don’t know, and in having a strong network of other fundraising consultants and professionals to which you can turn for advice, feedback, and suggestions. If your fundraising consultant doesn’t have that network, or if he only wants to stick to the things he knows, your organization might be missing out on some powerful growth opportunities.

“Why won’t they get back to me?”

This is one of the great mysteries of the consulting world. You spend money to hire us, we create plans for you, and then you won’t return our calls or emails. I’ve noticed that this happens more frequently when we both have deliverables for which we are accountable, e.g. I need you to answer these 5 questions about your program in order for me to draft the grant proposal you asked for. This is probably because I’m not one of those consultants who will promise to do everything for you, and you won’t have to lift a finger to raise any money. If I were you, I would be very wary of those consultants, too.

Yes, we know that crises come up, organizational fires need to be put out, etc. We also know that you get sick, your kid gets sick, your computer servers go berzerk, your board chair is visiting the office, and the dog ate your homework. Here’s the thing: your donors will not wait for you. If you want to raise money in a sustainable way, to have the operating dollars you need on an ongoing basis, you’re going to have to make the time for this. Even if it’s your least favorite thing to do.

“I’m not a magician.”

Once you hire us, you cannot wash your hands of the whole dirty business of fundraising. We are not magicians. We cannot wave our magic wands and produce huge fundraising numbers for you, as if by sleight of hand. For better or worse, we are in this together. It’s a partnership, and you are going to have to be in it with us. You will have to share your information, contacts, and passion for your work. You probably are also going to have to ask people for money. Don’t be afraid! We will do everything we can to prepare you for this. We will arm you with all of the information and tools that you need. We’ll coach you through it. But to be really effective for your organization, we cannot do the whole thing for you.

(As a side note: Yes, we are going to hold you accountable. But you should also hold us accountable. Hold us to the high standards to which you hold yourself. This partnership is a two-way street.)

Oh, and that whole “golden rolodex” thing? The idea that we have a list of donors whom we can call up and ask for money at the drop of a hat, and they will just open their checkbooks and checks with huge numbers will come fluttering out, like doves at the end of a fairytale wedding? It’s bull. It’s an urban myth. Trust me, you are better off letting go of that rescue fantasy.

“They do really good work.”

Your fundraising consultant believes in you and your organization. We think you do great work! If we didn’t think that, we wouldn’t have taken the gig. I have never met a fundraising consultant who is not passionate about their clients and who does not want them to succeed. Actually, not just succeed, but thrive. It might not seem like it when we are pushing you to do more and do better, but we really do want you to do well. Believe in us. We believe in you.

Find my fundraising tips, including my e-book, Grant WritingQuick Tips, and my audio file, Grant Writing for Creative Souls, click HERE.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Your Grant Proposal is Boring. What Can You Do About It?

After nearly 20 years of writing, editing, reviewing, and evaluating grant proposals, I’ve seen my share – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Some grant proposals leap off the page, painting a vivid picture of the problem at hand and the proposed solution, while also providing an elegant, accurate (and not overwhelming) description of how, when, and why the solution will be carried out.

Some grant proposals get the job done, but don’t do much more than that. They answer the who, what, where, when, and why, but they never draw the reader in. They are the workhorses of the grant writing world: efficient, but forgettable.

Some grant proposals are real clunkers. There’s just no better way to say it. Not only do they not give the required information, explain the problem or the solution, or draw you in, but they are just... limp.

If you don’t activate the reader’s interest with your grant proposal, someone else will. Most individuals who are reviewing grant proposals and deciding what to fund, or deciding what to pass along to their boards or grant review committees, are reviewing myriad grant proposals. You must be memorable in order to not be forgotten.

In the preceding paragraph, I’ve broken one of my own rules about how to write a better, more effective, more engaging proposal. Read on:

1.            Tell a Story About One Person, One Program, One River, One Bird...

Storytelling is having a moment. Most grant writing books, blogs, and articles advise telling a story in your proposals, in order to help the reader envision your program. Research has shown that people remember stories more than statistics. Fundraising letters and appeals that tell the story of one person are more effective in raising funds than letters that assault the reader with a barrage of statistics, even when those statistics are compelling. Storytelling humanizes a proposal.

To make your proposal more interesting, creative, and lively, tell the story of ONE. One child who will be fed by your soup kitchen. One immigrant whose job training helped her transform her family’s life. One block in one neighborhood. One bird species. One river in a watershed. Drill down; get small in order to have the big impact.

2.            Throw Away Your Thesaurus.

Enough with the S.A.T. words, OK? Please stop saying “myriad,” as I did, above (and while you’re at it, if you MUST use that word, please learn how to use it properly). Proposal writing is like poetry; every word counts. But big words are not necessarily good words. In fact, throwing a big word into a sentence in order to sound smart can be like a tranquilizer dart to the head. Isn’t the preceding sentence more interesting than: “Use of advanced vocabulary to create the impression of intellectual prowess can have deleterious effects.”

Choose good words, not big words.

See more of my tips on what never to write in a grant proposal HERE.

3. Make It Shorter. Yes, Even Shorter Than That.

Writing long is easy. Writing short is hard.

Every grant writer knows that staying within an RFP’s page limit can be difficult, even maddening. When you do not have a formal page limit, it can be like driving on the highway with a full tank of gas. Freedom! You can keep going and going and going!

Except you can’t.

In my experience, at least quarter of most grant proposals can be cut out. Often, the longer your proposal gets, the more you are repeating yourself. Keep it short, focused, and powerful. Long can be boring. Short can be intense and vivid.

This rule of thumb also applies to your paragraphs and sentences. Watch out for run-on sentences, which seem to be the plague of the grant writing world. Mix it up. Throw in a short, impactful sentence every once in a while, just like I’m doing in this essay. When your reader has to read compound sentence after compound sentence, with no breaks, their mind tends to drift. If you mix it up with shorter sentences now and again, it’s a little burst of energy that makes you take notice.

In the spirit of following my own advice, I’ll close here and encourage you to give some of these tips a shot, even if it seems scary to get out of your usual grant writing groove.

Find more of my tips, including my audiofile, Grant Writing for Creative Souls, and my e-book, Grant Writing Quick Tips, HERE.

Friday, August 08, 2014

What yoga taught me about being a great fundraising and philanthropy consultant.

No, it’s not what you think. This isn’t about some hippy-dippy, Ohm chanting commitment to serving a higher universal power. Although that’s a nice thought, too. There are specific elements of my 11+ years of a consistent yoga practice that feed my work as a fundraising and philanthropy consultant, both consciously and unconsciously. Some of these thoughts were bubbling up “on the mat” yesterday, so here they are:

Precise attention to alignment.
In yoga, where you put your pinky toe can make all the difference. That pinky toe can help you open up and stretch your whole body, or, if ignored, it can leave your yoga pose stale and stagnant.
When I’m writing a grant proposal, precise attention to the details makes all the difference. Do the number of participants on page one match the number of participants on page seven? Does the budget narrative reflect the program we have described throughout the proposal? Are we answering all of the questions that the potential funder has asked? A dedication to details shows that we are committed to accuracy, thoroughness, and follow through.
In a philanthropic context, alignment also has a deeper meaning. For example, is the project we are describing really aligned with the potential donor’s interests? Is our proposed project aligned with the organization’s mission? Is it aligned with the needs of our clients/constituents? Does it align with our values?

In yoga (as in life!), the breath is your constant. When it gets tough, breathe. When it gets uncomfortable, breathe. When you feel off balance, breathe. When you are reaching your “edge” or your limit, breathe. When you want to celebrate how fantastic or expansive or light your body feels, breathe. Through every distracting thought, you can return to the breath to get grounded again.
Fundraising can be a stressful profession, with deadlines, unanswered questions that need immediate answers, donors or staffers who must be placated, financial goals that must be met in order for clients’ needs to be addressed... the list goes on. Going into panic mode doesn’t help. In fact, going into panic mode can cloud judgment and nudge nonprofits towards quick fixes that may alleviate stress in the short term but cause bigger problems long term (e.g. asking a donor for the wrong amount of money, cutting a program that’s mission critical, wasting time on shoving proposals out the door that are unlikely to lead to funding, etc.) When the going gets tough, breathe. This is not only a literal suggestion – inhale, exhale – but also represents need to return to the things that keep the nonprofit alive, that keep it functioning and healthy. What are the organization’s “constants”? What can’t it live without? What keeps the nonprofit grounded?

Stretching in a yoga pose can feel amazing. Expansive. Invigorating. But stretching beyond what your body can handle, or what you have carefully prepared your body to do, can create pain. That pain can last for days, months, or even years. (Just ask my sacroiliac joint. Ouch.)
When I work with clients to set new fundraising goals, train their boards, or envision new programs to integrate into their existing work, I encourage them to stretch. Pushing beyond their immediate comfort zones keeps the organization vibrant and healthy. But stretching too hard, doing something that they are not prepared to do, can cause pain, or even damage. The wisdom comes when you can figure out how much of a stretch is too much.

            Many people think yoga is all sitting on the floor and chanting Ohm. Not so! Some yoga practices are vigorous and sweat-inducing. Even if you are not moving a lot, just holding a pose in one place can bring on a serious sweat. Sweat is good. It cleanses you, cools you off, and shows you that you’re working.
            It’s also good for an organization to sweat a little. Even doing the same thing it’s been doing for a long time (like holding a yoga pose for a long time) can make an organization sweat, if they are doing it well and with the right level of effort. Trying new things (like trying a new yoga pose) can make the organization sweat. And that’s a good thing. It keeps the organization healthy. And a little bit of sweat and nervous energy never hurt anyone before going in to meet with a donor for a major solicitation.

Practice, practice, practice.
They call it a “yoga practice” for a reason. Every time you return to the mat, it gets a little more familiar. The mat seems to feel a little more like home. Every return to the mat is an invitation to take things deeper, challenge yourself a little more, find out what feels really juicy and right in your body. A yoga practice is called a practice because it’s never really “done.”
The same is true of fundraising and philanthropic giving. It’s never really done. As soon as you feel you’re on top of it, you’ve accomplished your goals, you’ve mastered a new skill, that’s your invitation to take it deeper. It takes practice to get really good at asking people for donations, writing a grant proposal, or deciding how to give away your charitable dollars mindfully and carefully. And as soon as you’ve done what you set out to do, that’s your invitation to learn a new skill, expand your nonprofit’s work or influence, or explore how your charitable giving is really moving the needle on an issue that’s important to you. It’s a practice, one that gets more rewarding each time you return to it.

Monday, August 04, 2014

August at Your Nonprofit: Gazing Back, Looking Forward

As I spend this August morning working in my favorite local cafe, I realize that I am engaged in some of the same planning and reflection that I encourage my clients to undertake during this time of the year.

On a rare day not filled with deadlines, appointments, and phone calls, I am taking a couple of hours to review and update my annual plan, assess the progress I am making towards my goals, remind myself of new projects I wanted to undertake that seem to have fallen by the wayside... in other words - get energized for the last few months of the year!

August is a great time to review goals, track progress, and get revved up for the fall months. So many nonprofits just throw up their hands at the beginning of August and say "Oh well, we can't get anything done this month. We'll just pick up our fundraising in September." Not so! This is a great time of year to gaze back and look forward. And it is an important time to plan for September, which can be a vital fundraising month. If you don't engage in some planning now, you'll be behind the eight ball come fall. Here's my August checklist for nonprofits:

  • Revenue goals: are you on track? If so, can you do more of what is working? If not, can you course-correct?
  • Donor stewardship: When is the last time your donors heard from you, not to ask for something, but just to offer an update? Should you send a friendly update in September or October? Can you start writing that now?
  • Grant proposal and reporting deadlines: Which of your grants are expiring in the fall or early winter? Should you be planning to reapply? Can you set up a time to talk to the grantor about a reapplication? If you need to gather data for grant reports, now is a good time of year to do that.
  • Government grants and contracts: For those nonprofits that get funding from government agencies... the government's fiscal year ends soon, which often means that they will release RFPs in August. Should you be on the lookout for these? Or, better yet, should you be proactively searching for opportunities?
  • Twitter and other social media: Imagine your donors sitting on the beach with their smartphones, checking Twitter or Facebook. While they are scrolling through vacation photos or updates from friends, will they see updates from your organization? 
  • September milestones: Are back-to-school time or the Jewish holidays important times of year for either your donors or your organization? If so, what do you need to do now to capitalize on that time (late August - early October)?
  • Board: When your board goes back to work or back to school in August and September, will they also be turning their attention to the latest accomplishments and needs at your organization? Should you schedule a board conference call, meeting, update packet, or training?

Wishing you an August filled with dips in the pool, cool lemonade, and the pace and expansiveness that allow you to do some great planning for the fall!