Fundraising is a Team Sport; How Well Does Yours Play Together?

May 2018

For many nonprofits, efforts to improve fundraising tend to focus on tactical activities that add to the event calendar and the to-do list of the executive director and the director of development. While analysis of all fundraising activity is a worthwhile objective, an area that is often overlooked is the efficiency and effectiveness of the fundraising "team", usually the aforementioned ED and DOD, and some combination of other staff and board members. The fact is, nonprofits that seek to improve this team dynamic will raise more money, and will create an environment that is more satisfying in which to work. I've made the team dynamic an integral part of the discussion within the current cohort of Leadership Gift School, and feedback from the nine participating organizations confirms three important characteristics of best-practice fundraising teams.

The first key is agreeing on a collective "short-list" of key donors and prospects. While activity continues in support of all constituents and efforts to build the pipeline, the senior development team should create an organizational list of key prospects that it can review and plan around on an ongoing basis. My recommendation is typically a "20-10-5 list", which identifies these top 20 individuals and families, the top 10 businesses and corporations, and the top 5 foundations. This list is naturally subjective, and changes as activity and information moves prospects on and off the list. A good place to start in building the list is first looking at your organization's existing donor records; who are the top 10 donors all time? who were the top 10 donors last year? Too often we are seduced by the prospect of "new money" while failing to consider the potential investment from existing donors who may not have been approached recently.

There should be no pressure to perfect the list; start with your best analysis of current donors and prospects and simply apply the donor cycle to this list. Instead of discussing tactical activity for the organization, start with these individuals and entities and consider where they are coming from. What motivated them to give before, or to other charities? What message should therefore be communicated to them to reinforce that inspiration? What opportunities exist to engage or re-engage them in the work of the organization? Who is the best person to engage this prospect on behalf of the nonprofit? While not necessarily the next step, what will the ideal investment opportunity look like? Is it a lead gift in our next campaign? Is it an estate gift that endows a program of interest? Is it a challenge gift to help mobilize others? Senior team discussions around these types of questions for every member of the 20-10-5 list assures the quality of relationship management focus, and avoids one-size-fits-all appeals go to your most important and greatest potential prospects.

For all of the tactical precision that occurs by having this type of targeted focus, the second advantage this creates for best practice nonprofits is the "quality time" it requires that senior teams spend together. Too many meetings are the bane of everyone's existence, and in the flurry of topics that must be covered in most team meetings, it is no wonder we fall victim to what Patrick Lencioni calls "meeting stew" in his wonderful business fable "Death by Meeting". Meeting stew describes so many meetings in which too many topics are covered without real depth for any of them. For a senior team, separate and intentional discussion must review these 20-10-5 prospects, and not simply squeezed into the larger staff meetings when everyone reports on everything. Best case scenario is this becomes a weekly meeting for the ED and DOD, or at least every other week. It is definitely a time commitment, but this focused discipline addresses a priority that must be top of mind. Without focusing on leadership and even the transformational gifts these prospects represent, you will be doomed by a never-ending flurry of activity but not truly advancing your fundraising program, and more importantly, elevating your organization.

A less tangible but perhaps equally important benefit to a regularly scheduled prospect meeting is the benefit to the working relationship between the ED and DOD. Too often I listen to one or the other describe their counterpart with more questions than support. "Why doesn't my ED get more involved in fundraising?" "Why isn't my DOD out raising more money???" These types of misunderstandings are quick to fester, and no doubt contribute to the rapid turnover that plagues the development position in the nonprofit sector. While most ED's and DOD's will acknowledge they need to spend more time together, both maintain an over-busy schedule and can justify the lack of strategic discussions in light of other "priorities ". This is flawed thinking, and a commitment to regular 20-10-5 discussions not only keeps leadership focused on its most important investors, it reinforces the two positions must work together on this list as opposed to maintaining separate to-do lists when it comes to top prospects.

The third advantage of a prioritized prospect list and a regular meeting discipline to address them is the ability to bring other resources to bear on the 20-10-5 effort. Prospect research is a resource that varies widely from nonprofit to nonprofit, but to whatever extent it exists at your organization, the 20-10-5 list is where efforts to explore the donor's giving history and other philanthropic interests should be. Many organizations are paralyzed by their inability to engage in database-wide wealth screening, and many fail to acquire useful information or manage to translate it into actionable activity. Even a limited staff structure can accommodate the time required to research its best prospects, even if the ED and DOD simply divide the list and utilize the magic of their favorite search engine.

Beyond the electronic research function, another advantage of a prioritized list of prospects is that it is easier to incorporate other "peer screening" techniques around these top prospects. Which of your program staff have been involved in the relationships with these key prospects, both currently and in the past? Talk to them about these relationships and you are sure to find nuances of the relationship with your organization that will never show up through traditional research methods. 20-10-5 focus also improves the board's role as part of the fundraising team. Instead of the typical request of board members to "introduce us to everyone you know" or have them review dozens of names on endless printed reports, ask board members to simply partner with the ED and DOD on 2 or 3 of these key prospects. Assuming your board is the typical size of 15-20, helping manage just a couple of key prospects is a very manageable activity for a volunteer board member, and orients them to the importance of these critical relationships and the strategic volume of relationship management. The beauty of this dynamic is that board members can engage in different aspects of the development cycle without necessarily having the responsibility of making the ask. These relationships should be managed with the long view in mind, and thus many touch points can occur beyond the transactional efforts of solicitation.

It's easy to get overwhelmed by the many hats nonprofit professionals wear, and the endless to-do lists that emerge from myriad activities that are ever-present. If, however, you really want to raise more money, assure there is a prioritized focus on relationship management around your 20-10-5, and maintain a disciplined regularity toward your senior team meetings.