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.