Friday, October 29, 2010

Are you stuck between the consultants and your organization?

Do you know who Tom Ahern is? If you don’t you should. He is a communications guru in the US. Tom is a frequent presenter at AFP congress and, over the past ten years, has taught me a lot about donor communications.

Tom also sends out a fabulous newsletter. Getting them is like a slap in the face – I mean that in the nicest possible way. The newsletters are excellent reminders of how to put the donor at the front of all communications and the importance of using simple language. They are very refreshing. You can subscribe here. (Although when I saw Tom at IFC this month I did candidly ask him if he still has any clients. He assured me he does.)

The newsletter I received this week featured an article called: Why, oh why, don’t they trust you? “Because I don’t pee like Jesus.” It will be added to the online archives soon I'm sure.

The article starts by briefly talking about gender issues, but quickly moves into the deeper issue of trust in the head fundraisers ability to do her job. Tom outlines what in his opinion is best practice from a personnel point of view. He writes:

‘The head of fundraising (the director of development, or advancement, or whatever you choose to call the position) should have sole and final approval on every donor communication, whether it's an appeal, a newsletter, the donor portion of the website, the annual report to donors, emailed solicitations, fundraising event invitations ... etc.’

And goes onto say:

‘No headmaster, no president, no CEO, no dean, no executive director, no board chair, no committee member is born with an innate understanding of what will be effective in fundraising communications. I had to read 150 books and survive 15 years of real-world experienc
e as a writer before I could confidently say, "Yup. I'm pretty sure this will work."

Tom is right in saying that it is our job as chief development officers to deliver the budget. And that the right kind of communications can raise more money. However, I think he misses a really important point.

A strong, sustainable operation requires a culture of philanthropy throughout the organization, integration between communications and fundraising, understanding from the receptionist to the chair of the board about what it means to be donor centred. Yes as the chief fundraiser we are mostly measured by the quantitative results. i.e. how much money is coming in. Our job is also measured in the qualitative outcomes I’ve mentioned above. We are responsible for leading these changes in our organizations.

My experience has been that it is important to work collaboratively and build consensus around donor communications so that everyone feels ownership of them. Otherwise the silos get taller, we risk people trying to avoid working with us or worse, working around us and across the sector the fundraisers will continue to be thought of as the 'difficult ones'.

One of the biggest challenges for those of us in the trenches is to be stuck in between what the consultants say is ‘best practice’ and what the organizational culture is ready to do.

So while I eagerly look forward to getting slapped around by Tom on a monthly basis and I’m absolutely sure he is right, I’m also in this for the long haul. I’m not going to get too worked up if my newsletters or website don’t meet his standards. I’m going to keep working toward building a strong team.

This is a shout out to all the fundraisers who are stuck in the middle between well intentioned and very vocal consultants and your organization. Keep leading effective change, stay allies with everyone, celebrate and share your successes along the way. Most importantly, don’t feel too deflated about the occasional little compromise you need to make in order to get the job done.

Thank you for spending time here,.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Talk of unethical fundraising - How do you respond?

It happens every year at this time. Exactly when charities are moving into their busiest and most important quarter, there is a flurry of media activity about unethical fundraising practices. The stories are often inaccurate, sensational and extremely damaging.

For those of us who are dedicating our lives to creating positive change in the world through the redistribution of wealth, these stories are offensive. The implication that resource mobilization isn't worth a pay check, that we don't deserve to get paid for keeping charitable programs funded is well...

WAIT! - this blog is turning into a rant. I didn't mean to do that. There has already been a lot of ranting. The point is this year was no exception. A few weeks ago there was a flurry of media activity about charities in Canada spending too much to raise money.

Every year we all have an opportunity to respond to this story.

Professional associations responded quickly. AFP Toronto and Imagine Canada were right there for all of us. Within what seemed like hours fundraisers across Canada had guidance and speaking points. We were armed.

The response from consultants in Canada was swift and dramatic. Almost every agency I know wrote a blog attempting to prove their worth to charities.

While associations were proving they are worth the membership dues and agencies were fighting to keep business I was having a very busy week on the road. In almost every conversation I had that week I was asked whether we hired ‘professional fundraisers’. People wanted to know how much of their donation went to fundraising costs. It was time for our response?

Our charity decided to be transparent, open, honest and proactive. We wrote to our donors. We empathized with concerns they might be having and told them where they could find our charitable return, what our fundraising costs were and why we hire third party fundraisers. You can read our email here.

Now it was turn for the donors to respond. Within hours my email box was full. Some people saw this as an opportunity to express a concern they had. That was marvellous because then we were able to have a conversation. I telephoned these few people and talked with them directly. They really appreciated it.

Here are a few examples of other responses:

‘I never worry about the FON using funds irresponsibly or for personal gain. Just keep up the good work!’

‘Thank you, this was a good idea.’

‘You are the first (only?) organisation to have contacted me about this issue.’

‘I believe in your work, thank you for your efforts!’

‘K. Well done.’

‘Thanks Kimberley, You can count on my continued support for years to come!’

‘Thank you for your letter but I have no concerns.’

It has been extremely hectic in the fundraising trenches this past year. We have done some good work. Work I’m proud of. Work I believe I deserve a pay check for. I think the majority of our donors would agree.

How about you? How do you respond to media coverage on the cost of fundraising? If you didn’t, don’t worry – you’ll get another chance next year.

NOTE: I only know of two other charities that issued a proactive communication about this story. Great job CPAWS and Second Harvest. Anyone else?

Thanks for spending time here.