“When it comes to fundraising, tell me how I should be spending my time.”
“I’m worried that we’re missing prospects and opportunities.”
“I don’t know how to prioritize the mix of priority projects and funding opportunities. Where should I be focusing?”
“I’m too busy. Can someone else in my organization set these priorities?”
These are particular types of concerns and questions I hear from nonprofit leaders. They all relate to the art of prioritizing.
Prioritizing is (1) a decision making process (2) wherein you are choosing where to spend your time and (3) it is a necessary and repeated act.
That definition is so simple that people gloss over it. Instead we need to be grading ourselves against it.
There are typically three simple reasons teams stumble with prioritizing:
They don’t take time to prioritize.
They don’t know how to make decisions (because they’re not clear on strategy).
They are not clear on who should be making the decisions.
Reason #1: Teams don’t take time to prioritize.
The first solution is as profound as it is simple: block out time on your calendar to prioritize.
“Although most of us have no trouble ranking the importance of decisions if asked to do so, our brains don’t automatically do this.” – Daniel J Levitin. The Organized Mind.
Show me a high performing sales person, or a high performing executive, and I will make my point by showing you their calendar. They no doubt have time, or a routine, blocked out on a daily or weekly basis to help them prioritize their activity.
Reason #2: Teams don’t know how to make prioritizing decisions.
This is especially apparent when a team has not committed to a strategy. If you haven’t picked a strategy, then you will not be able to make decisions (to advance any one strategy). In the context of large gift/grant fundraising, here are three really simple strategies for you to choose from:
Top-Down. Prioritize actions around your very best prospect first, and then work your way down the list. This is great for a campaign effort.
Routine. Prioritize your actions around ensuring that you have a calendar filled with visits and asks. Focusing on a routine-based strategy is more appropriate for organizations, or portfolios trying to develop new leads and new relationships.
Top-Down + Routine. This is a mix of the first two strategies. Perhaps you set priorities around your very best prospects and then backfill your calendar with other prospects.
Reason #3 – Teams are not clear on who should be making the decisions (or they’re trying to prioritize by consensus).
This is why we bring in the roles of sales leader and relationship manager. It is the role of the relationship manager to make decisions that advance their portfolio (i.e. to prioritize prospects and actions). And, it’s the role of the sales leader to help with this decision making process through a mix of coaching, accountability, and executive leadership – which is to say that the sales leader can clarify the priorities as needed.
This has a big implication: If you are a CEO and you are the relationship manager, you cannot delegate decision making about your prospects. You could, however, empower someone else on your team to be the relationship manager.
Footnote: Planning and prioritizing are closely related concepts but they are not the same. Planning is figuring out what to do, or preparing for something. Not all planning involves prioritizing but all prioritizing follows (or produces) a basic level of planning.
80% of the organizations we encounter lack a funding rationale.
A funding rationale is the basis for your clear request. Insofar as you are asking someone to invest in your cause, organization, or project, the funding rationale articulates the return on that investment.
This return on investment can be quantitative: 10 lives impacted.
And/or it can be qualitative: With this investment we will change the life trajectory for a generation of kids.
It can be certain and distinct: Every time you invest $10,000 this enables us to impact one village in one year.
Or, it can be aspirational: with these funds we will attempt a new solution!
A good funding rationale…
Bridges the emotional thrust of your story to the role your funder can play in that story.
Offers some logical (or contextual) justification for the level of financial commitment/investment.
Can be individualized for a funder.
Although this leaves a lot of room for creativity, here is a simple framework you can use to litmus test your clear request and funding rationale:
Would it be possible for you to consider an investment of $ X? (clear request) With this level of investment we will hope to make Y impact. (funding rationale)
The reason you need X is because it will do Y. Or, in order to achieve Y it will require an investment of X.
The 1:1 ask is what compels and maximizes an individualized investment. A great ask has a clear request and a compelling funding rationale.
Predispose prospects to a funding conversation, or ask;
Engage with prospects that won’t take a visit;
Illustrate impact to current funders; and
Boost the alignment and morale of your internal team.
For our purposes, we’re going to define a virtual experience as a short-form opportunity to engage key stakeholders and showcase your impact. It should have an agenda that is relatively easy to reproduce. The production of this could be (and usually is) as simple as running a 60-minute zoom gathering, but when used strategically, it can have a very high return-on-energy.
This visual helps to illustrate how this format can support your sales process.
Note that the visit and ask remain primary objectives. Virtual experiences are a tool to support that objective.
Times have changed:
The way that prospects and funders are engaging via this format is different than it would’ve been 2-3 years ago. It emerged (and remains) as a low fidelity, high access tradeoff. By this, we mean that it’s not going to replace a site-visit, but the tradeoff is that we can bring our impact anywhere… we don’t have to wait for the next live gathering of Skoll World Forum… or to get on an airplane to introduce our work to a new funder. The tradeoff creates value for funders and prospects too – they can jump into one of these and control their level of engagement. They can treat it like a podcast, or engage in deep discussion.
A virtual experience is not just another zoom call!
And it’s not a virtual fundraising event. I want to distance your association with those concepts. This is what you make of it. We’ve seen:
A funder briefing that harnessed the collective engagement of 80+ funders/prospects around on-the-ground work to reunify families separated at the U.S. border.
Dance troupes in refugee camps streamed to the homes of funders.
Real-time tours of new building projects with funder Q&A.
Artwork produced in real time from a cafe in Kenya. (Special thanks to ZanaAfrica for allowing us to share this video excerpt with you!)
And the outcome stories are just as strong:
New funding: A national foundation dropping into the chat to say, “This is powerful. Let’s connect to talk more.” (And then mobilizing within weeks to make a six-figure starter investment.)
New connections: Board members bringing new connections because it’s a low-friction and high-value hour.
Successfully landing visits: High net worth individuals who ignore visit requests attend and accept follow-up meeting requests.
I want to start the year off with a simple and practical tip: write quotes in your notes.
After a prospect visit, write your visit notes (also called a visit memo, or memo for the record). This is a download – and a processing – of everything that happened.
It creates a memo of record. This is beneficial to anyone from your team that engages with the prospect, or supports the prospect strategy, at a later date.
It allows for processing. We learn and make new connections (synthesize) if and as we take time to process the visit.
It also saves you time later. In three weeks, you will not remember the nuances of the conversation. You can use your visit notes to make your next steps more efficient.
Include quotations – sentences, phrases, or keywords – complete with quotation marks, in your visit notes.
On a visit, you work really hard to listen to the prospect’s words and word choices. Write down key phrases exactly as they were said.
Think about a key to a door. It has distinct grooves that only work in one lock. When you write down the prospect’s words, you are taking the time to encode the distinct grooves (words!) to the prospect’s vantage point and interest. This is the key. Don’t lose the key!
There is a big difference between these two notes:
Prospect said they were really interested but had some concerns about growth.
Prospect said, “We can’t just keep feeding the line as it gets longer and longer. What are we doing to ‘shorten the line’?”
“The line” is the prospect’s metaphor. It is the key (language) to position our program with the prospect. We need to be able to come back later and address “shortening the line.”
Here is a visit memo (made anonymous and generic) after visiting with a prospect recently. And here is a visit memo template you can download/use.
Shoutout to Cassie who came to a For Impact Funding Boot Camp two years ago and just shared with me that this little tip has paid so many dividends for her. “It’s so amazing to go back to my notes from a year ago and remember exactly how to engage. It’s the simplest tip and makes things way easier for me in the long run!”
For Cassie and for you, this also helps your team and others pick up the conversation in future years! Take time to make that key and pass it along!
At For Impact, we’re constantly trying to get people to think about what it means TO ENGAGE! In school, in business, in life, we’re taught how to present, but we’re not always taught how to engage.
We define engagement as a dynamic within a relationship that holds attention, heightens interest and motivates action.
Think about a movie or a performance you’ve attended where you were engaged and left with that feeling of being present and excited. Think about how that engagement consumed your mind! Now think about how you felt the next day.
Engagement (that level of attention, interest, and motivation-toward-action) has a 24-hour half-life. That is, if we could measure engagement in some way, it seems to dissipate by half every 24 hours.
This means that within 48 hours of your visit the prospect has an engagement level at 25% of what it was after your visit.
THINK ABOUT THE IMPLICATIONS!
As salespeople, we need to be making engaging presentations and asks. And, more importantly, we need to pounce on timely follow-up. It’s better to follow-up immediately, even if it’s 60% of your best effort, than to wait three days. The longer you wait, the harder you’ll have to work to recapture engagement.
This week we’re sharing the concept of the For Impact Engagement Tool in Halloween style.
Organization: Stop Zombies Now Purpose: Eradicate Zombies FOREVER!
What is the For Impact Engagement Tool? It’s a visual one-pager (or 1-3 slides) used on a visit with a funder to help you:
simplify your message;
illustrate the case for support; and
control the flow of the visit.
We have a short (10 min) teaching video that’s worth a watch — it offers a serious , simplicity, altitude, message, case, and the funding rationale to ERADICATE ZOMBIES FOREVER (download PDF).
Selected teaching points from the video:
This format helps move from Impact to Income. It helps you make the ask!
We use the Altitude Framework to address the three questions of every funder. We call this the kernel, or the core, of the presentation.
Toward what end? This is about simplifying the answer to this question. It’s not about a mission statement, or a theory of change. (Those can be used in support, as needed.) This is about the essence of the message that will make me sit up in my chair and say, “This is important and clear!”
Where does the money go? Our answer to this question must be simple and tie back to the impact we hope to create.
How can I help? Too often, fundraisers can’t answer this with clear precision. In this video we illustrate one framework (Champion. Invite. Invest) to help.
We’re not trying to convert people to our cause. We’re trying to connect with people (who are already committed to the cause!)
You don’t have to use everything on the engagement tool. In a visit, you might only reference 40% of the impact points on the tool. Use as needed.
1,000-day plan. To create a multi-year funding story, and secure multi-year funding commitments, we packaged projects/programs/priorities around a 1,000-day timeframe.
How to use the For Impact Engagement Tool in the virtual era…
We still find ourselves using the one-page format via screen sharing. However, some people prefer to break this up into a few slides (example here). That’s totally fine so long as you don’t lose the idea of simplicity!
The turnover rate of nonprofit development professionals is alarmingly high. A study published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy a few years ago put the average stay of a development officer at 16 months!!! In the virtual era — where unemployment rates are low and the friction to move jobs is almost nonexistent — we’re seeing anecdotal evidence to suggest that this churn may be increasing!
Why is the churn so high?
The right ‘fit’ is only part of the challenge.
There are three things an organization needs in order to make the hire successful. The first is a team commitment to a clear (defined) funding model. The second is a funding rationale (or story). The third is the right person.
Making a development hire successful is a three-legged stool. Remove any one of these three legs and the stool doesn’t work (hence, the churn)…
Team commitment to a funding model.
Most organizations don’t have a funding model. I believe this is the wedge that drives a whole series of conversations about revenue and earned-income in the social sector. For now, let’s focus on a philanthropic funding model.
Most organizations have an assortment of fundraising activities. Perhaps this includes an annual event, some emails, grant applications, and some individuals asks.
A clearly defined model should be standardized and measured around inputs, outputs and ROI (cost of fundraising / cost of revenue generation). At For Impact we’re partial to a sales model (and this is what a commitment to sales looks like.)
But the commitment to *a* model (generally) supersedes a commitment to a sales model (specifically).
Note: If you approach this conversation from the ‘social impact / social enterprise’ space, the conversation has largely abandoned fundraising because it doesn’t see that there is a sustainable model. There is.
A funding rationale!
It’s not enough to say, “Look, we’re really committed to major gifts. Our program team ‘gets it’, our CEO will be there, our board will open doors. Go raise $3M!”
Work must be done to translate the funding need into a funding rationale. What’s the impact? What’s the message? And then translating that into a story around funding programs, priorities or initiatives. This work can be led by the development professional, or by other senior team members. But if it’s not completed, eventually the development professional will move on out of frustration.
Imagine a salesperson in another sector that is simply told to ‘generate revenue’. He or she has no defined products or services. There is no rationale-for-the-sale. Just a general story about the company, its impact in the world, and a need for revenue.
The right talent.
In the hiring process, experience with fundraising is often over-valued. “Oh, you have five years of experience and your resume says $10M was raised? Fantastic! We need you!”
On Context: Is this person coming from a 100-year-old school? In that case, the job is about stewardship and maximizing relationships. It’s not about building new leads and new networks.
Note: Context is equally important to experienced development professionals. There are PHENOMENAL development professionals at 100 year old schools! My point is about context. Context can explain why that experience does or does not translate to a next organization.
If you’re just starting a sales model – you might be better off bringing in someone with sales experience from the for-profit sector! Specifically, someone with start-up sales experience.
Bottom line points:
Hire the right person into a defined model, with something to sell; OR
Hire with eyes wide open and a clear mandate + support for the new hire to develop the model and funding rationale.
This is a story about clay pots. It’s also a story about learning and perfection. I’ve shared it a lot and it seems to really resonate with people so here you go:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
If you are new to fundraising my advice is to go make as many pots (read: visits and asks) as possible. I think we spend too much time waiting for the perfect time to visit and the perfect time to ask, or the perfect time to make the perfect ask. Visit and ask a lot. You will learn and you will outperform any benchmark that can be found.
If you’re not new to fundraising my advice is to go make as many pots (read: visits and asks) as possible. Even with a top-shelf portfolio of prospects we have to stay sharp and make the best asks of the best prospects. Find a way to visit and ask a lot — whether that’s through more time with your top prospects, or identifying and engaging new prospects.
Finally, quantity is relative. For some organizations this might be 10 visits (instead of one PERFECT visit). For other organizations this might be 1000. The point to drive home is that we can’t wait for perfection or you’ll end up with the philanthropic equivalent of a pile of dead clay. Related content: As it relates to building up new team members and getting visit repetitions, this is another reason why we love the Leadership Circle as an entry-level-major-gifts-concept; it’s a great way to build talent.
How do we find new prospects? This is a question of nearly every organization.
Before we talk about going outside of your network to find new prospects, the answer is to start by making sure that we’re maximizing existing relationships.
Most relationships are not maximized at this given moment. We know this based on working thousands of prospect strategies across all types of organizations. When we apply the actions below to prospects who were thought to be maximized, we see an increase in funding and referrals 70% of the time!
Why is it that we can increase the funding or referrals so often? Why is it that so many prospects are not maximized?
The answer is pretty simple: there is no scorecard to tell you that you’re leaving referrals, or money on the table. A prospect will probably never say, “If the approach were a little different, I would be more inclined to open doors and I probably would’ve increased my commitment by 50%.”
If organizations had this feedback, they would tweak their approach instead of trying to take their approach to new prospects.
At For Impact, we are in a unique position in that we have thousands of repetitions with clients, to help them evaluate and implement strategies with current funders. That experience has produced this simple checklist we use and you can use as a reliable guide to ensure you’ve maximized relationships.
And before we lay out the checklist let’s examine the difference between doing these things and not doing these things. It’s not incremental. It’s scalar. It’s the difference between a $10K and $100K commitment. It’s the difference between no referrals, and three warm introductions. These actions consistently and collectively maximize a prospect’s passion for your cause. They build on really simple brain science concepts that allow the prospect to fully understand your needs in a way that resonates most with them. And, they ensure that the prospect has what they need in order to be a champion and help identify new prospects!
Maximizing Relationships – A Checklist
Have we visited with the prospect 1-on-1?
Visiting with a prospect 1-on-1 (in person or virtually) increases the level of engagement (when compared to group meetings, events, and mass communications) by 10x because it creates focus on personal discernment. Instead of asking, “What is everyone going to do?” someone asks, “What am I going to do to help, or make an impact?”
Organizations often have untapped opportunity for more engagement in these areas:
Boards. Some of the very best relationships are not maximized because they are engaged in group settings (i.e. board meetings). For example, we often see that an organization makes a year-end appeal to board members at a board meeting. Simply move this conversation to a 1-on-1 and get 10x the results! It’s simple but often overlooked.
Current commitments (that did not result from a 1-on-1 conversation). This could be someone that gave at an event. It could be someone who was so moved by an appeal that they sent in a major gift (without a visit). Or, it could be a family/foundation that renews support annually (without a 1-on-1 discussion). In the best cases, a 1-on-1 visit unlocks a lot more opportunity. Otherwise, it’s great stewardship and an assurance that you have truly maximized the relationships.
Note: One-on-one is a shorthand. This could be virtual, or include two-on-two, or other combinations, but the key is to be in a situation where you can have a dialogue with the prospect. Speaking of dialogue…
Have we had a dialogue?
For this checklist it’s not enough to say that we asked some questions; we have to really emphasize dialogue! Did we really listen to the prospect, ask more questions, and continue to listen?
This is about much more than the old maxim, “Selling is not telling.” It’s about WHY that maxim holds up:
The brain becomes more engaged when a person is talking. This is literal. We could put someone into a brain scanning machine (fMRI) and watch their brain activity increase while they talk about something.
You can build your message on the prospect’s words. So much of potential philanthropic investment (or really ALL sales) is lost in translation. Without changing any of your programmatic process or impact you can use words that resonate much more effectively with the prospect.
You can build your message on the prospect’s relevant interests, or address relevant objections. You can’t discover these without listening.
Have we engaged (at altitude) around the three questions of every funder?
1. At 30,000’ – Toward what end (does your organization exist)? 2. At 14,000’ – Where does the money go? 3. At 3’ – How can I help?
Every. single. funder. has these questions. They may not ask them explicitly, but if we don’t provide clear and compelling answers as part of our presentation, or case, then they leave a hole somewhere in the passion (at 30,000’), the logic (at 14,000’), or the action (at 3’). We need all three to maximize the interest and action on the part of a funder.
Commonly we see that an organization might do a great job engaging prospects at 30,000’ but they can’t clearly articulate where the money goes in a way that’s concise and compelling. Funders and champions will support the mission but they are reluctant to help open doors until they have confidence in these answers.
Have we made a clear ask? (This is expanding upon 3’ How can I help? From above)
The number one critique we hear from funders of the organizations that approach them is that the organizations are not clear in what they need.
People are generous – and amazing – and so I won’t say that a prospect never guesses at your funding need. Instead, I will say that 95% of the time, a funder will not rise to the level of your need until you tell them clearly what is needed (to fund the vision). This means that 95% of the time that you’re not clear in your request, you can’t be sure you’re maximizing the commitment.
This clarity holds true for prospects and referrals – be as specific as possible. “Can you help me think of two (individuals/corporations/foundations) that match our ideal prospect profile?”
Action: Look at your current portfolio, prospect list, or campaign plan. Look at your top five relationships. Can we answer YES to each of the questions above? If so, we can reasonably think of the prospect as being maximized at this given moment. If not, make a plan to visit, have a dialogue – at altitude – and ask.
Across thousands of visits, we have learned that — above preparing presentations and scripting visits — the most valuable preparation is usually the time preparing the fundraiser’s mindset: how to think about the prospect, the visit, and the ask. This mindset is the invisible construct, guiding the conversation. The mindset influences the words we choose, and dictates our tonal quality. It is the lens through which we interpret the prospects’ words. (Our mindset even influences our physical posture!).
I want to bring awareness to mindset. Without attention to this, so many fundraisers, and so many organizations, just have one mindset (for better or worse). I want us to ask ourselves, “What mindset do we want to bring into this conversation?” In doing so, I hope that we have more range (through more mindsets) and more effectiveness (by choosing the right mindset for the right moment). Choosing our mindset is the greatest contributing factor to fundraising success within our control.
Whether we view our plan as a hypothesis to be tested, or an imperative worthy of the greatest pursuit.
If you’re not 100% certain your organization can deliver on the plans, you are not alone. This is one of the biggest hesitations we work through. Focus your mindset on your convictions (toward attempting the impact) instead of our uncertainties (in the plan). So many times I’ve said to a client, “I don’t need to believe that this plan will succeed. I need to believe this is worth attempting!”
Whether we believe we’re asking for money, or presenting the opportunity.
The first brings a cautious and sometimes apologetic tone. The second removes mind games to focus on the impact that needs to happen.
Whether we’re here to make a pitch, or solve a problem (for the funder).
Instead of focusing on how our deck flows, let’s focus on asking the right questions.
Every funder has a challenge: to give away the money in a way that will ACTUALLY have an impact. Very few fundraisers lead with a listening-ear toward finding the funder’s true problem. Instead, we tend to think we have something to prove and present accordingly.
Whether we’re asking for advice, or aligning key stakeholders around a vision.
Ask for advice and we’ll get advice. It can be more powerful to say, “Follow me! We have a vision to change the world and I want to bring others along so that we can make this happen!”
For Impact (our name) represents a “master mindset.” The conversation we’re having with a funder is about impact (not income); if we do a great job engaging around the impact then we can present-the-opportunity to invest toward that end. From there, there are infinite possibilities for framing a conversation with a funder. These are your ask mindsets. To name some that we use in our preparation:
Assumptive Mindset. You start by assuming the prospect is ‘in’ — the ensuing discussions are simply to work on the mechanics of the commitment.
This mindset has a lot of utility, but it’s most used when we don’t want a conversation to go backward. Example: The prospect said they would fund this project but needs time to think about the specific commitment. You don’t need to circle back to ask them if they’re still in. Keep moving the conversation forward! Remind yourself that the commitment has already been made. Now the conversation is about mechanics: timing, commitment-level, cash-flow, etc.
Leadership Mindset. This is literal. You focus the conversation (framing and tone) around where you want to lead the organization: the vision. This is very much about inspiring or asking someone to follow.
It’s easiest to contrast the Leadership Mindset with a Permission Mindset, or Advice Seeking Mindset (see below). In those mindsets you’re trying to get permission to make an ask. The Leadership Mindset allows you to be a little more forthright, “I’m sharing this funding plan with you now because I am hoping you will be a part of it.” Or, “I’m sharing this with you now and hoping to bring you along with us. We think we can make this vision happen and we need 4-5 funders on board to help us get there.”
Discovery Mindset. This is a little more passive. The orientation is about learning (and using that information to help qualify or engage the prospect). I’m against discovery as a visit-goal but am okay with a discovery mindset and posture (from time-to-time) especially when we don’t know the prospect’s interest or capacity.
Advice Seeking. This mindset needs to be named just so that we can shift away from it! Too often fundraisers glom onto some maxim: “Ask for advice and hope for money.” To the extent that that works at all, I think it could be narrated alternately as: creating engagement under a false pretense but also hoping to make the prospect feel important enough that we’re invited in for funding.
Advice is a natural byproduct of dialogue. There are times when we genuinely want advice, but as an ask mindset this can be very, very limiting.
Solution Selling. This is really powerful, especially as you start to work on larger gifts and partnerships. Every funder has a problem – every funder is trying to have an impact – if we think about giving them the solution to this problem then we hone in on listening and ‘needs analysis’ and then we can present our impact, or organization, or project in the context of their needs.