For Impact


Building a Strong Fundraising Team Culture – Guiding Principles

Funding | | Nick Fellers

We spend a lot of time helping fundraising teams become more efficient and effective. This includes clarifying goals, roles, and responsibilities; building skills; and strategizing portfolios.

This is where ‘sales’ is a handy concept. We can build a function around the building and maximizing of relationships one-on-one.

Beginning with the end in mind, we do an exercise with teams where we envision what our work would look like on a day-to-day basis three years from today – if we were one of the best sales teams in the world. This leads to a list that looks something like this:

  • Out of the office. Our sales team would be out in the field, making visits.
  • We would know our goals and track them on a big board.
  • As a team, we would practice our talking points and power questions.
  • We would build time into our calendar for strategy.
  • Etc. etc.

With the future state in mind, we then talk about what it would mean to commit to sales with some guiding principles… things that any team member can use at any time to help them know when they’re productive, or moving toward their organization’s north star. Here are some of the most common guiding principles:

  • Drive toward the ask. (Engage/Visit/Ask)When will we make the ask? Pick a date! When we simply say, “It’s not the right time to ask,” we’re letting the strategy happen to us. Instead, create the strategy to make the ask happen. Then continue with strategy, focus, and persistence to get the commitment.
  • Maximize relationships at this given moment.Or the longer version: We build lifetime relationships… that we maximize at this given moment.

    Development professionals often fall into one of two extremes. The first extreme is too transactional – always looking ahead to the next gift. The second extreme is so focused on relationship-building that an ask never happens. When we think about maximizing the relationship at this given moment, we can drive the focus toward both the human connection (relationship) and the urgency and specificity of how they can help, right now. We never go more than 1-3 visits without presenting the opportunity to help. We never spend 2-3 years cultivating…. But, we will spend a lifetime showcasing the impact and presenting the opportunity for them to make a greater impact.

  • Focus 97/3. (In other words: spend more time with better prospects)97/3 is like Pareto’s 80/20 rule on steroids. Over time, an organization focused on strategic philanthropy will generally observe that ninety-seven percent of its funds come from three percent of its funders. We focus on that top 3% – building relationships, strategies, and asks accordingly. (We then build communication and mass-engagement strategies for the other 97%).

    1:1 means to focus on one-on-one relationships / visits / asks to build and maximize relationships.

    Prioritize your focus around your Top 10 prospects every year. They will deliver the greatest return-on-energy and greatest return-on-investment (both in dollars and in connections), year-over-year.

  • Celebrate decisions (including declines).A leader recently told me about the night and day difference in his team’s funding results since they committed to sales 18 months ago. I asked for one illustration. “What’s something that looks different now when I watch your team?” He said, “We celebrate a ‘no’.” The team celebrates getting to the clear decision. (Obviously, they continue to celebrate a yes!)
  • We don’t make decisions for our prospects.This principle is about attitude. Present the opportunity to prospects. It’s not our job to decide whether or not the prospect wants to change and impact lives (and our society). It’s our job to show them how we do that and to give them an opportunity to help… by asking!
  • Prospects drive everything. (…as it relates to our sales culture)What sales materials do we need? What else do we need to strengthen our case?

    To answer these questions, we work backwards from our prospects. We build what we need according to prospect strategies, organize our calendars based on when we can get visits, and develop materials based on the conversations we’re having.

    We also invoke this as we prioritize other projects within a team environment. Instead of these projects taking on a life of their own, we keep ourselves focused by asking, “How does this help us identify, prioritize, strategize, and/or visit with prospects?”