What Baseball Can Teach Nonprofits About Fundraising

October is officially here, which can only mean one thing: we’re in Major League Baseball’s post-season! Let’s go, Giants!

OK, confession: just a few years ago, you certainly wouldn’t have found me uttering those words—I’m not sure I would’ve known what “post-season” meant. But with two school-age sons who have both spent many, many days at baseball diamonds, I have grown to really appreciate the game over time. And as they’ve learned about baseball both by watching the pros and playing the game themselves, I’ve likewise learned about baseball, its nuances, and some of the larger lessons the sport teaches that are applicable to many other things in life. Like fundraising, funnily enough! And with that, here are a few lessons that baseball can teach nonprofits about fundraising:

Keep your eye on the ball. On my sons’ baseball teams, this aphorism was often coupled with, “Watch the bat hit the ball.” Translation: Don’t get distracted, zero in on the goal. Focus on what you want to happen. In the day-to-day work of nonprofit fundraising, it’s easy to get distracted as well, by competing priorities and minor (or major!) crises seemingly around every turn. But staying focused on the goal of an organization’s mission is critical. Fundraising can feel removed from the direct benefits of an organization and its services. An understanding of what changes your organization wants to effect, and of how the funds you secure help the organization serve the community, are powerful guideposts for your fundraising efforts.

Don’t strike out looking. When a batter is in the box, he’s often told to swing at anything close to the strike zone. One of the worst offenses for a batter is to “strike out looking,” i.e., to end his at-bat on a called strike, without having swung. Likewise, I sometimes encounter nonprofits that are hesitant to pursue new funding opportunities for fear of failure. “We couldn’t get that grant anyway,” or “That funder probably won’t even talk with us,” are used to dismiss the very thought of even trying. But just as ballplayers can only get hits if they swing, nonprofits can only experience success with new funding opportunities if they are willing to try pursuing them. This still requires prudence, of course. Good batters don’t swing at every pitch, and your organization shouldn’t pursue every funding opportunity. But finding ones that look like “your pitch”—i.e., that are well-aligned with your organization’s mission and programs, offered by funders with like-minded priorities—probably warrant taking a swing.

RBIs are just as important as home runs. Home runs get all the glory in baseball, but runs batted in, or RBIs, are more critical to a team’s success. Smaller, consistent hits that help a team score generally add up faster than individual home runs. Nonprofits that focus on chasing home runs in fundraising—the $200,000 grant, the $50,000 gift from the local philanthropist—may miss the importance of fundraising RBIs—the $20 donor, the $5,000 grant award. Though smaller and less spectacular, in total those RBI sources of funding are vital to your organization’s income engine, and deserve respect and attention, too.

Baseball is a game of statistics, but it’s the players and their stories that stick with us. Maybe more than any other sport, baseball is a game for stats lovers. Just as an example, check any current pitcher’s numbers, and you’ll find more possible permutations of their earned run average (ERA) than you can shake a stick at. How well do they pitch against left-handed vs right-handed batters? Day vs night games? With a runner in scoring position? During months ending in the letter ‘r’? (OK, maybe not that last one.) And these stats are important in understanding the totality of a team’s performance. But the thing is, even with this mountain of data available, what fans remember are the players and their stories. They recall Angels centerfielder Mike Trout and his phenomenal over-the-wall catch, robbing Oriole JJ Hardy of a home run. Or San Francisco closer Sergio Romo’s unexpected fastball, freezing mighty Detroit batter Miguel Cabrera to clinch the Giants’ 2012 World Series victory. Or shortstop Derek Jeter’s storybook, game-winning RBI single to end his career last month at Yankee stadium.

Nonprofit data serve a similar function as in baseball. Yes, it’s important to track how many clients you’ve served. Yes, it’s important to measure your organization’s programmatic progress each “season.” But it’s just as important to remember to balance those numbers with stories. Stories stick with us—they are the essence of an organization that supporters remember and share. Take the time to find the young woman who found safe haven in your organization’s shelter, the family who was able to transition to permanent housing after months of homelessness, the boy whose mentor kept him in school and focused on the goal of college. Tell their stories. These kinds of narratives have the power to become the memorable stories of your organization, passed on long after the stats have been forgotten.


Goodbye, Summer… So, When Is My Next Vacation?

Another Labor Day weekend has come and gone, and for many of us this means summer has officially come to an end. Some of you may have slipped in a vacation during the summer months, or squeezed in a few days away during this final holiday weekend. Now, however, it’s time to get back to work, and prepare for the crazed countdown to the end-of-the year…

But wait! Before you put your head down and plow ahead, I suggest that you get out your calendar and schedule your next break while you’re still in the summertime frame of mind. Think that time off is a luxury for for-profit sector employees? Actually, those working in the nonprofit sector are particularly susceptible to professional “burnout”—and as a result, are among those who could benefit most significantly from regular time off. A 2011 study from Opportunity Knocks found that half of the nonprofit employees surveyed were burned out or at risk for becoming burned out. In her post, “How to Avoid Burnout When You Are Saving the World,” Rebecca Andruszka points out that the weight of serving those in need, plus the never-ending grind of nonprofit work, create conditions that can easily lead to professional fatigue. And in case you think that Hawaii’s nonprofit employees are immune to burnout because they work in what many consider “paradise,” think again. An analysis of a 2011 study of nonprofit executive directors found that Hawaii's nonprofit leaders are just as dissatisfied, overworked, and underpaid as their mainland counterparts.

It’s well documented that extended breaks help us to preserve both our mental and physical health. And let’s face it—we’re all under some degree of chronic stress, particularly in today’s constantly connected, information-overloaded world. Vacation is a chance to interrupt that ongoing stress, if only temporarily, and reset our immune systems, our sleep cycles, and our general emotional state of mind. 

But perhaps more important, time off allows us the mental space to think creatively. Thoughtful problem solving takes time, and unless we proactively carve out that time, it tends to remain in scant supply. The fact that nonprofit employees are attempting to address some of our communities' most pressing social needs is precisely the reason they need to take time off as a matter of routine. In his article “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain," cognition researcher Daniel Levitin states: "If we can train ourselves to take regular vacations—true vacations without work—and set aside time for naps and contemplation, we will be in a more powerful position to start solving some of the world’s big problems. And to be happier and well-rested while we’re doing it.”

What can we do to ensure that taking time off isn’t seen as a weakness or a luxury? We have to shift the nonprofit culture regarding time off, which will require coordinated changes at the personal, organizational, and sector-wide levels:

Personal: A staggering 41 percent of American workers let their paid vacation days go to waste. The reasons for this are many and varied, but all employees—nonprofit and otherwise—have a responsibility to be proactive about self-care by taking the time off that is available to them.

Even if extended vacations are impossible—for example, for financial or logistical reasons—we can each establish routines that inject breaks in our workdays and workweeks. Studies show that our minds are most productive when we focus on work in brief, intense bursts, then punctuate those bursts with quick respites. So, scheduling periods of time each day or week to simply take a walk outdoors, listen to music, or have coffee with a friend can help us to reset and refresh our minds, bringing renewed energy and focus once we return to the tasks at hand.

Organizational: While nonprofit organizations may not be ready to adopt Daimler’s auto-delete email program to encourage vacationing staffers to unplug, they can nonetheless ensure that their policies—both formal and informal—support employees’ extended breaks.  “Use it or lose it” vacation policies are effective in getting staff to take needed breaks from work, as are flexible work plans and the option of working from home. Similarly, employee wellness programs can decrease absences, improve morale, motivation, and productivity. And let’s not forget that the vital engine of many nonprofits—volunteers—can benefit from strategies to prevent burnout, too.

Managers can support their staff members, both through modeling and reassuring their staff that time off is sensible and necessary. Rather than seeing their vacations as "selfish" or “letting down” those they serve, supervisors can affirm that staff members will be able to bring their best selves to bear on the organization’s work by taking care of themselves physically and mentally. Likewise, by providing outlets for socializing, support networks, and simple things such as adequate time to eat lunch, managers can provide their staff members with release valves from stress.

Sector-wide: Beyond individual employees and organizations, funders can lead the way in both recognizing and addressing nonprofit burnout, particularly among nonprofit leadership. As noted in a recent article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, foundations across the country are beginning to understand the personal sacrifices that nonprofit executives make, and acknowledge that “when a leader spends time with family or pursuing personal goals, and comes back refreshed, that has a benefit for the organization.” To this end, numerous funders and philanthropists are awarding leadership development grants, sabbaticals, and fellowships to allow nonprofit executives to invest in their staff members and recharge themselves personally and professionally. Locally, Hawaii Community Foundation's annual Hookele Award provides four $10,000 awards to support the personal development and renewal of Hawaii's nonprofit leaders.

In a sector that is so focused on the well being of others, nonprofit employees would benefit from giving their own well being the attention that it needs and deserves. Prioritizing time off and vacations are a sensible first step toward just that sort of self-care among nonprofit professionals.


What steps have you taken to carve out regular time off for yourself? How has your organization’s or manager’s approach to time off impacted your effectiveness and morale at work?



First Steps to Finding Funder Love

Happy February! Yes, Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, but if you’re like most nonprofits, the kind of love you’re thinking about this time of year is good old-fashioned funder love. You know what I’m talking about—that symbiotic meeting of the missions, where the work your organization does perfectly aligns with the priorities of the funder…

But wait, that’s just in the movies, right? How is a nonprofit gal or guy supposed to find grantor/grantee bliss?

I do think of myself as a bit of a matchmaker when it comes to finding the right funder prospects. And I’m certainly not the first to notice the resemblance between the grant seeking and dating processes. Fundraising colleagues have written posts on the ways grant seeking is like online dating, and provided tips on how to develop a long-term funder relationship. There's great stuff here that I couldn’t agree with more!

But too often, organizations look to jump into a relationship with a funder without doing the difficult work of self-reflection and assessment. Personal relationships are more likely to succeed if you know your values, know what you are looking for in a mate, and are ready to talk about the tough stuff. Turns out, these are great ready-to-date criteria for nonprofits, too.

Know your values, and be confidently rooted in them. Nonprofits need to know, deep down, who they are: who they serve, to what end, and via what means. Often, this identity is reflected in the organization’s vision and mission statements—they are the center from which the nonprofit’s values naturally flow, and are guideposts for the community work that the organization undertakes. (If, by the way, your nonprofit's mission doesn’t reflect its identity, your organization may be suffering from mission creep, and would be wise to revisit its mission statement.) This sort of deep and confident embrace of an organization’s values is critical not only to successfully articulating the organization’s goals to potential funders, but also to ensuring that a meaningful alignment exists between the nonprofit and the funder. After all, how can funders know that you have priorities in common if you’re not able to identify what your values are?

Know what you are looking for—and what you can accept—in a (funding) mate. If you’re a quiet-walks-on-the-beach kind of person, you are not necessarily looking for a high-flying, adventurous type to be your mate. Likewise, not all funders are going to be a good fit for every nonprofit. It’s important to be honest about what you are looking for in a funder to ensure a good fit. Maybe your organization is a small nonprofit, debating whether to apply for grants at all. Perhaps it's a medium-sized grassroots organization, and you prefer an accessible, hands-on funder with whom you can communicate directly. Local funders and smaller family foundations may be a good bet for your organization. Has your nonprofit experienced success with smaller regional funders, and you are seeking to raise its profile? State or national funders might be a logical next step. Is your heart set on securing funds for a capital improvement project? Then funders that are committed to program giving are probably not going to be a good match, no matter how well you make your case.

Just as important, your organization needs to be honest with itself about the types of funder relationships it can accept. Is that government grant opportunity tempting your organization, but you worry that your staff of two won’t be able to manage the reporting? It may be wise to seek other funders whose requirements won’t overwhelm your organization, or perhaps postpone applying until your staff capacity improves.

Be ready to discuss the difficult stuff. Nonprofits have to be ready to acknowledge their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Fundraising limitations, budget constraints, programmatic shortcomings—none of these is easy or fun to discuss. But it’s important as an organization to recognize areas for improvement, to realistically assess the bad with the good, and to be prepared to discuss both. The organization that is able to own its challenges is more likely to communicate with a funder in an open, honest way—a key to any successful relationship.


What other similarities do you see between dating and grant seeking? What other steps do nonprofits need to take to be ready for a “funder relationship”? 


What's Scary When You're a Nonprofit?

Yes, it’s Halloween week, time for ghosts and goblins, vampires and ghouls. But if you work in the nonprofit sector, there’s something far scarier out there…silos!

OK, just to be clear: I’m not talking about the grain-storing kind here. I’m talking about the metaphorical kind—the type that compartmentalizes our organizations, divides the efforts of the social sector, and generally keeps my sandbox separate from yours. In recent years, “silos” have been highlighted as a critical problem within the nonprofit community, hindering the sector’s effectiveness. At this month’s annual conference of the Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations (HANO), talk of silos and their threat to the sector permeated keynote presentations, break-out sessions, and informal conversations alike.

What is it exactly about silos that is so scary? Maybe it’s their insidious nature—that they can often exist without challenge, quietly reinforcing the status quo in the name of “efficiency” or “delegation.” Or rather, maybe it’s the alternative to silos that truly scares us: creating deep and meaningful collaboration is certainly far more difficult than keeping to ourselves, plowing ahead, blinders on. Like toddlers at a playground, many organizations are content with “parallel play,” independently pursuing the same goals and serving the same populations, curiously observing others alongside without actually engaging them.

Hawaii Community Foundation President & CEO, Kelvin Taketa, pointed out at the HANO conference, however, this approach just isn’t going to cut it in the long run. The philanthropy landscape has shifted in recent years, favoring those who focus on mission over organization. And just as the children on the playground will grow to realize that cooperative play is both more interesting and more rewarding, nonprofits too will need to realize that cooperation and partnership—true partnership—with other “players” will increase community impact and ultimately advance their missions. As Melissa Kushner, Founder and Executive Director of goods for good put it, we need to turn our sector’s silos into curtains, to create opportunities for collaboration that can help all organizations accelerate their work toward achieving social impact. 

So where can nonprofits begin swapping out those silos for curtains? Numerous posts have been written about addressing intra-organizational silos with greater cooperation and integration—for example, with regard to marketing, social media, fundraising, and organizational development. But I think it’s important for nonprofits to think about tackling three types of silos beyond their own walls: 

Silos Within the Nonprofit Sector: I can think of no single reading that makes the case for cross-sector collaboration better than John Kania and Mark Kramer’s piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on Collective Impact. As the authors point out, large-scale social problems simply cannot be effectively addressed by any single organization. Rather, they require coordinated efforts along the continuum of the problem to effect meaningful change—and these efforts require broad, cross-sector coordination. Shifting from isolated impact to collective impact requires not just partnership, but a focus and commitment to shared objectives across organizations in order to succeed. In Hawaii, Hui Kupa’a,  a joint partnership between the State of Hawaii and Hawaii’s nonprofit social service providers, actively utilizes the Collective Impact framework to address some of the state's most pressing and complex social issues.

Silos Between Nonprofit and For-profit Sectors: Unfortunately, the very name of the sectors sets up an “us” vs. “them” dynamic: a nonprofit is the antithesis of a for-profit. But the explosion of social entrepreneurship in recent years demonstrates that this dichotomy can be a false one, and that serving the common good can be sound from both a business and community perspective. Nonprofits must shift from seeing corporations solely as sources of funding, and instead as potential partners in solving problems and increasing effectiveness. This article on Toyota’s donation of expertise—rather than money—to the Food Bank for New York City beautifully demonstrates the results of bridging the nonprofit/for-profit silos to benefit community.

Silos Between Service Providers and Recipients: This silo may be the most difficult of all to break down, because the chasm between those serving and those served can seem the widest. And yet, nonprofit organizations often speak of empowering those served, and giving voice to all stakeholders. Creating mechanisms that invite clients to participate in problem solving and that value their perspectives can cultivate a climate of mutual respect and collaboration. Just as school boards have increasingly given students a place at the table, nonprofits might similarly consider client representation on their board of directors. While not appropriate for every organization, the inclusion of a constituent on a nonprofit’s board can provide a firsthand, unique view into the organization’s service delivery and community perceptions.


How does your organization tackle the problem of silos? How has swapping curtains for silos impacted your organization's work, internally or externally?


Kicking It Into High Gear, Post-Labor Day

For many people, the passing of Labor Day signals two things: the end of summer, and the start of a new school year. For me—and for many of my colleagues in the nonprofit sector—the post-Labor Day period also means a return to routines after a much needed end-of-fiscal-year lull. And, as a recent piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy notes, September is "boom time" for donors, kicking off the busiest fundraising stretch of the year. 

So what does that mean for you and your organization? It means it’s time to shake off the summertime slowdown, and put things into high gear. Here are a few suggestions on how to make the most of your remaining fundraising months in 2013:

Revisit your fundraising calendar. I know, you might be thinking, “What fundraising calendar?” Fear not, fundraising expert Gail Perry offers month-by-month fundraising priorities for nonprofits. Gail's list offers a great starting point for nonprofits looking to maximize their fundraising efforts in the final four months of the year. (A tip to the wise: It wouldn’t hurt to start outlining your fundraising calendar for 2014, either!)  And although December is the most critical month for many nonprofits’ annual giving, relationship building and effective communication with supporters during the months prior is key.

Put your best foot forward for online giving. Recent studies show that online gifts to nonprofits are growing at a faster rate than other types of charitable donations. In 2012, online donations totaled $2.1 billion, an increase of 14 percent compared to the previous year, eclipsing the overall rise of just 1.5 percent in charitable contributions from individuals, corporations, and foundations. Make sure that your organization is ready to accept online donations, and that your website is warm, welcoming, and easy to navigate. The Network for Good breaks down the elements of a fantastic donation page. And both Nonprofit Quarterly and Noupe offer examples of well-designed, inviting nonprofit donation pages.

Add Giving Tuesday to Your Fundraising Toolbox. “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” have entered the post-Thanksgiving lexicon. Charities across the country are hoping to make “Giving Tuesday” just as popular a term and concept. Launched in 2012, the Giving Tuesday campaign seeks to create a national day of giving that highlights and encourages charitable activities at the beginning of the annual holiday season. In its first year, the movement engaged more than 2,500 partners from across the country. Blackbaud online donations processed on November 27, 2012, exceeding the Tuesday after Thanksgiving of the previous year by 53 percent. This year, its organizers are hoping to double the number of participating charities, and are encouraging partners to begin planning activities and communications well in advance of the December 3rd event. While it's still in its infancy, I predict that Giving Tuesday will only get bigger in the coming years. Because the event provides a focal point for charitable giving for your organization—not to mention a welcome antidote to the consumer-driven messages overwhelming us during the holidays—I believe it’s worth including Giving Tuesday in your organization’s year-end giving toolbox.

Think About a Thank-a-Thon. It’s an adage in fundraising: You can’t say thank you often enough. Amid the many “asks” your organization will be making in the coming months, it’s important to carve out time for simply saying thank you to your donors and supporters, too.

I love the idea of a thank-a-thon, which focuses purely on recognizing your donors, and reminding them of the impact that their gifts and support provide to the community. This is a great way to involve volunteers, staff, and board members in relationship building and to encourage a culture of philanthropy within your organization. Taking time to recognize the contributions of your supporters will go a long way toward keeping your organization front and center in their minds. 

Need inspiration for your organization's thank-a-thon? Check out this post by Lynne Wester (aka the Donor Relations Guru) for tips and ideas for a successful Thank-a-thon. Mark Miller of Children's National Medical Center shares his experiences on holding a Twitter #thankathon. And Operation Smile and the National Wildlife Federation provide firsthand insight into their own thank-a-thon events. 


How does your organization prepare for year-end giving campaigns? How do you keep your year-end appeals “fresh” for donors and supporters?