The best experience in life comes from walking a curvy path. As a new member of the Rescigno’s team, mine has been quite curvy and I’m looking forward to sharing my knowledge in the months ahead. My 30-year career in political fundraising, volunteer management, major and planned giving experience in healthcare and higher education, and as an entrepreneur has provided for a wide range of experience.
Not all that long ago, I left a major gift officer position at a university after 17 years and accepted the position as “the captain” in a 3 – person shop at a community college following a 29 - year leader. Nothing will test your skills more than going from the lido deck of the ship to the tugboat! It didn’t take long to realize that no matter the size of the shop, the skills, practices, and processes are the same. Simply the scaling is different. What are those basic skills, practices and processes needed to steer that ship in what may be calm, and sometimes rough waters? Here is what I suggest.
The first step is to assess where your operation is now, and where you want to end up. Does your mission truly reflect your organization purpose? What is your message? We may know why we exist and create great mission statements, but does that same statement translate well into a simple statement that tells others what you do? One organization I know had 5 bullet points in their mission statement, yet created a message that allowed board members, staff, and volunteers to easily understand what they do and share consistently with others. A great marketing strategy was formed around that message.
A strong board is key to fundraising success! They set the policies that provide staff parameters for daily operations, particularly in accepting gifts. Your board should be a mix of volunteers that are passionate about what you do, and you should consider what Steven Covey calls their “Circle of Influence”, or those that can bring other influencers into the organization. Many foundation boards are comprised of those that know the mission of the organization, and very little about the funding to make the organization effective in their mission. Recruit the movers and shakers in your community. Recruit those with strong financial backgrounds to help with your fiduciary responsibilities, and by all means, recruit those that can help you financially stay afloat should the market go belly up! These are the people that will keep your foundation strong! Look for professional wealth managers such as investment representatives, attorneys, bankers. They not only have the skill base you’re looking for, but come in contact with clients that may be interested in giving. And make sure ALL of your board members give . . . ALL of them . . . 100%! There is nothing worse than a donor asking you about the giving of those that are perceived, and rightfully so, to be insiders and truly dedicated to your organization. If they don’t give, don’t expect others outside your organization to do so.
Once you have the right mission, message, and board, assess if you have the policies and processes that let you do your job. Gift acceptance policies should cover not only the types of gifts you’ll accept, but how you will accept them, as well as what you won’t accept. It should include operational issues such as sexual harassment, ethics, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Donor Bill of Rights. It should include investment policies.
The biggest void I find in foundation policies is that they only address what you’re doing now and not what you may be doing in the future. Ok, so you don’t have a 355 acre farm to manage NOW, but I can tell you that you may overnight. It happened to me 2 months after I became “the boss”! Luckily, we had policies in place that addressed that type of gift. You certainly don’t want to find yourself developing policies when a donor is standing at the door waiting to make a gift of an asset that you’ve never dealt with before. And you don’t want to accept something that will have a negative impact on your organization simply because you decided to figure it out along the way! I know of an organization that did that and 3 years later are still trying to figure out what to do with it. Beware of non-donors bearing gifts!
You should have processes in place for accepting gifts, gift entry, gift acknowledgement, and a very clear gift stewardship plan and donor stewardship plan. What’s the difference? The gift stewardship plan is a guideline so that all staff and donors know that if a gift of $XX is made, these are the things we do to thank the donor. The donor stewardship plan is how you recognize donors for their lifetime of involvement. Always, always make sure you have both of these in place before you ever ask for a dime! Donors can often times be competitive in their giving and we don’t want to treat Jane and John Doe differently than Jasper and Izzy Wannabe in their giving. And every major gift officer I know will tell you that good stewardship is the next best gift. Think about that a minute. If making a gift was a good experience, the donor will repeat it.
Part of good stewardship and good operations is being able to generate reports that you need for operations and to answer donor questions. If you can’t access the data easily, there is a problem with your process. If the data isn’t consistent in how it was put into your system, then there is a problem with your process and a policy or guideline may need to be developed. Donors want to know that YOU know what you’re doing in accordance with what they’ve told you to do with their gift. And they expect to get it fast when they ask! Look at those processes and see if they’re efficient and effective for the purposes you need.
Once you’ve assessed your operations, you can begin to do what you were hired to do.