Is your organization living hand-to-mouth?

Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.


Many years ago, I met with with a senior citizen organization.  Early on in our meeting, I asked the executive director, Adele Wilkins, a delightful sexagenarian, how much money she was looking to raise.

Fair question, wouldn’t you say?

She was vague: “Enough to continue the programming already in place and grow new programs,” she told me.

I noticed during our tour of the facilities that the computer center was unused.  Adele explained to me that they’d gotten a grant to create the program several years earlier but had no funding to maintain the technology or the classes.

The programs they did have were funded by insignificant earned income, bake sales, spaghetti dinners and small grants from a handful of local business sponsors and foundation funders.

What they were really excited about, according to Adele (and what they hoped to bring me on board to plan), was an idea one of their board members had shared for creating a signature event, a local “Antiques Roadshow” that would become an annual occurrence.

“What a charming idea,” I responded.  “How did you come up with that?”

“One of the regular appraisers from the PBS Antiques Roadshow series recently moved into the area,” Adele responded excitedly.

“Do you know him personally?” I asked.

“No,” she admitted.

“Well then, one of your board members must know him?”

“Well, no…” Adele replied, her voice trailing off.  Despite this, she seemed to be sure that the gentleman in question would be utterly delighted to share his years of hard-won expertise for free to raise money for their organization.

Do you have a plan for how much money you’ll be raising this year?  A reasonable dollar goal for grants, for individual giving, for online giving?

Or are you operating like the senior center?

  • Your board member’s cousin knows someone who is best friends with the brother of Bill Gate’s wife!  Let’s drop everything and spend the rest of the week writing a grant proposal for the Gates Foundation.
  • You just found out about the Good Search toolbar!  Once you sign up, every time someone uses it, your organization makes money!

When you begin to break away from living a hand-to-mouth existence, when you focus on a plan, centered around building genuine relationships (yes, cliche, yes trite, but that is what sound fundraising is all about) in a strategic, consistent way, you’ll find your fundraising becomes easier.  Steadier.  More reliable.

Only then.




6 Responses to “Is your organization living hand-to-mouth?”

  1. At the risk of beating an old drum, I’m going to suggest that this is one of the basic ways that nonprofits need to be more like businesses (and I acknowledge that there are some parts of being a for-profit business that do not carry over). Planning for the future and knowing what our organizations need is essential. Unfortunately I occasionally run in to this in organizations that I speak to as well. Thanks for bringing attention to it!

  2. I’m frequently asked “How long should our live auction be?”

    My response: “How much money do we need to make in the live auction?”

    Their response: “Ummmm…”

  3. Yesterday I had an organization invite me to attend their board retreat to help them understand how the board could be helping with fundraising. I asked how much they need to raise and if I could attend their next board meeting for 15 minutes to get to know them and ask them some questions in person.

    The answer: We want to raise as much as we can, but no you can’t attend the board meeting. We don’t have time to talk about fundraising at those meetings.

    Hmmm.

  4. Pamela Grow says:

    As Yogi Berra might say: It’s like deja-vu, all over again.

  5. Cristin Farney says:

    Great article! It’s not about the tactics – whether to have a live auction vs. silent auction, etc. – it’s about the relationships. And building those relationships takes time.

  6. Pamela Grow says:

    And a consistent focus :). Thanks for commenting Cristin.