Creating a Healthy Fundraising Culture (Part 1)

February 4, 2016

 “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”                                                                                                I Corinthians 3:6-9

Just last month, we set out as a team to achieve an audacious, God-sized goal. We want to raise $8.5 million in commitments this year to fund the next three years of expansion. In the first month, we received the three largest pledges in our organization’s history. These extraordinary acts of generosity came from donors who have been giving for more than 5 years. Conventional wisdom says that people begin to experience donor fatigue and lose interest at that 5-year mark, but we have seen the opposite. We give all credit to God’s provision and the obedience of these faithful stewards, but I also believe that we have created a culture that cultivates this type of generosity.

Our team is currently reading a book called The Sower. One of the core ideas in the book can be summarized in the verse above. It asserts that our job in fundraising is to help encourage and challenge people along the journey of stewardship and generosity. It is expressed in the book that typically, development staff are expected to plant, water, and make things grow. This is the wrong way of thinking about development, though- if we do our role of planting and watering seeds, we must trust God to bring the harvest.

My team gets tired of hearing me talk about tensions... tensions are one of the truths that I observe in all aspects of my life and leadership, and the tensions that exist in fundraising are very evident- they will not be resolved and they require constant management. In light of these tensions, this book has caused me to take hard look at what kind of culture we want to create at CARE for AIDS. We need to measure and celebrate the right activities, so they will be repeated. Thinking through these principles, there are three specific tensions that come to mind: 

Activities vs. Outcomes – If we believe what it says in Corinthians, then we find that measuring people’s fundraising activities is more beneficial than measuring people’s fundraising results. It produces the right actions that will ultimately bear fruit. However, most stakeholders, internally and externally, care about the outcome of dollars raised. If we are not careful, pushing too hard on dollars raised creates incentives to compete internally, ask donors for too much too soon, and give undue attention to people with the greatest capacity. All of this erodes the organization’s culture, donors’ trust, and ultimately, the nonprofit’s reputation.

Compete vs. Co-Labor: Our organization strives for excellence in everything we do. We want to cast a compelling vision, host excellent events, invest intentionally in our donors, and be efficient and transparent in all matters. In doing so, I believe we are competing against other organizations that are also trying to accomplish worthy missions. However, we also have a core value that says we want to “help others win.” We have a deeply held abundance mentality, while many organizations operate from a scarcity mindset. We know God can and will provide the resource we need to accomplish the mission He has given us. This allows us to be very open handed with our donors and resources. If we can connect a donor with another ministry that better aligns with his or her passions, we always try to do so. If we can help people find a ministry that will unlock more generosity, we feel that we have created a net benefit for the Kingdom.

Capacity vs. Generosity vs. Affinity: These are just a few words to describe ways one can qualify prospects and assign priority to donors. There is so much that can be said on this topic, but it creates enormous tension trying to decide where to spend your limited time and resources. Do you focus only on people who have high capacity? How do you show appropriate honor to those small donors giving sacrificially? What if someone has a high affinity for your work but no capacity? If given the chance, could they offer something of value beyond a monetary gift?

So, all of these tensions lead to the question, “How do you create a culture that produces the right kinds of behavior that ultimately produce results?” Many have said, “What gets measured gets done.” So, one of my challenges is to determine what to measure that will provide the proper incentives to our team. Next week I will outline the four specific and measurable activities that we focus on at CARE for AIDS in an effort to cultivate a healthy culture...stay tuned!