It’s Not Your Mission That’s Holding You Back!

Older ministries that are not meeting their funding goals, or those that experience an outright decline in donor funding, can begin to panic. They can make desperate decisions, like changing a long-held mission.
The reality is that many ministry organizations would rather change their mission than identify, accept, and then address those internal issues that are the most likely sources of their funding problems. So they place the blame on their mission and throw away years of mission investment to focus on areas that may seem to have greater funding potential, but in the end become their undoing.

Your mission is worthy because God validates it, not because man funds it. Your history proves your mission’s value, even if you haven’t had much success in demonstrating that to donors.
Ministry leaders and boards that are currently looking into the abyss of mounting debt and decreased funding and that desire a way back to their golden days of funding, must start by asking the hard questions and be willing to hear the unvarnished answers.

There’s an old saying that goes, “you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge,” and for ministries in decline, that couldn’t be more true.

A great first step is to open opportunities for those who are, or were, closest to the organization to safely communicate their attitudes and perceptions. Donor’s who have never returned should also be included in this so that the truth about the things that are holding you back can begin to truly set you free!!!

Soft Touches

Here are a few examples of the kinds of touch points that you can use as a great way to build relationships.

  • Send a card on your donor’s birthday and have everyone in the development and executive office sign it.
  • Make a thank you phone call within a couple of days of receiving their gift.
  • Send an update on what your organization has done the year before. This update can be specific to a programmatic or regional area of interest and should include some insider information from a program manager or director.
  • Invite them to sit at your table at an annual event.
  • Offer them a tour your organization. This is a great way to help someone connect in a deeper way with the work that you are doing.
  • Arrange a meeting with the donor, one of your program staff members, and yourself to provide an in-person update.
  • Send them a handwritten note with a few words about a special interest they have.
  • Buy them a cup of coffee and tell them a story of something that happened because of their support.

Enhance Fundraising via Public Relations

As development professionals, volunteers, and board members, we spend a lot of time searching for new prospects… trying to find new individuals, companies and foundations who might respond to our message, who we can cultivate, and who, over time, might make a significant gift to help us continue our work.

Prospecting can be time-consuming, and can often be disheartening, if we have trouble finding and cultivating new leads.  Wouldn’t it be great if new donors sought you out?  If you came into the office and had messages waiting from major funders who wanted to learn more about your organization, and about what your funding needs are?

Similarly, wouldn’t it be nice to have some real, hard, solid “social proof” to take with you as you approached new prospects… something to show them just how important your work is?

All that can and does happen every day for nonprofits, both large and small, thanks to smart public relations efforts.

What Is “Public Relations”?  Simply put, “public relations,” or “PR,” encompasses all the activities your organization does to get press coverage for your work.  Press releases and press conferences, letters to the editor, calls into talk radio and interviews with journalists… getting coverage of your non-profit and getting your message out through the press is the essence of good PR.

How Can Good PR Help Me Raise Money?  Smart non-profits have started to realize that a strong PR effort, and good press coverage, can lead to increased fundraising.  There are several ways good PR can help you raise more money:

  1.  New Prospects That Find You:  When you get good coverage, people learn more about your work and want to get involved.  When you get really good coverage, you start to get calls from prospects wanting to learn more, volunteer, and donate.  Good press coverage is a great way to find new prospects.
  1. Raising General Awareness:  Good PR raises awareness in the community about your non-profit and the work you do.  If you run a small non-profit, you know how hard it is to approach new prospects.  It’s unlikely they know your organization’s name or what type of work you do.  After a couple of good press stories about your non-profit, people start to know your name, and may even remember your mission, which makes it much easier to start cultivating them.
  1. “Social Proof”:  Press coverage provides good social proof that what you are doing matters, and that your organization is a leader in your field.  Approaching a new prospect with clips of newspaper articles about your non-profit, or a short video from the local news with an interview of your Executive Director, can go a long way toward overcoming objections and moving a prospect towards a gift.

Keep it Mission-Focused and Stay on Message.  As you seek out and receive press coverage, remember to keep the stories you are generating mission-focused, and do your best to stay on message.  It’s nice getting press coverage of any (non-scandalous) kind, but it’s best, for fundraising purposes, if you can generate great stories about your work, and your mission.  For more on keeping your efforts mission-focused, read Mission + Energy = Raising More Money.

Great PR Rarely Just Happens.  Almost any organization can “luck into” a local press story every so often.  But to get maximum coverage over a sustained period, it takes good planning and hard work.  Great PR rarely just happens.  It takes lots of calls, press releases, and follow-up to generate good coverage.

Where Should I Start?  So, where should you start in your PR efforts?  If you are a larger organization that can afford a professional public relations company (generally, they charge in the range of $1,000 – $5,000 per month on retainer, depending on their size, your geographic location, and the scope of work), shop around and talk to a few to see what they can do for you.

If you are a smaller organization or otherwise can’t afford a firm, that’s ok, much of the work can be done in house.  Start by compiling a contact list for all of the press outlets and reporters in your area, including TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and online outlets.  Then, start pitching stories, sending out press releases, and holding press events.

As you do so, remember the number one rule of getting press coverage: the press wants to cover you, but they only want to cover you if you have real news to cover.  So generate newsworthy items, and get that press coverage rolling in.

Overcoming Ethical Blindspots: “Percentage Based Compensation”

In the latest edition (March/April 2012) of Advancing Philanthropy, readers were challenged to identify the ethical dilemma posed in several examples of real situations.  One of the examples was the following.

Lacking the staff to carry out a fundraising campaign that will ensure its ability to continue funding vital services for underprivileged children, a financially strapped nonprofit hires a company to handle the campaign and promises to pay it with a percentage of the money raised.

Ministries that are struggling to get by, may not see the dilemma.  There’s the misguided idea that losing 15% of a donation, for instance, is better than receiving no donations at all.  Tempting as it may be, percentage based compensation is absolutely unethical.  It doesn’t matter if the organization doing it is faith-based or not, the ethics centers around protecting the donor.  Percentage based compensation can create an inappropriate conflict of interest, one that put’s profit-motive ahead of the purpose for which the funds are being raised.  This is why the Association of Fund Raising Professionals (AFP), the Evangelical Council For Financial Accountability (ECFA), the Grant Professional Association (GPA) and the Association that Certifies Fund Raising Executives (CFRE), prohibit raising funds on a percentage basis.

However, more and more ministries today are throwing ethics aside and foolishly opening a door to temptation.  The fundraising consultation industry is being flooded by companies that can organize and run fantastic events and take as much as 50% of the “profit.”  None of the companies that do this are fund raisers, however, but profiteers working in the field of fund raising.  They take advantage of vulnerable organizations and pounce!

For a ministry with a minimal staff and little expertise in running events, the trade-off seems as if it is worth the financial sacrifice.  But they sacrifice far more than money when they engage with percentage-based “fundraisers.”  The focus narrows on financial goals that don’t end up serving the body of Christ after all!  Donor lists, that should be protected at all costs, are now in the hands of companies that can, and often do, sell those lists to for-profit-companies (like auto dealerships and jewelry manufacturers) that are looking for new customers with disposable income.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has exposed some of these companies and followed a trail of devastating consequences.  When vendors who add to their percentage-based profit by selling vital information to other companies compromise detailed donor information, it doesn’t take long before donors get wise and trace the meddlesome solicitations back to the non-profit, and the company that they hired.  Many non-profits have lost some of their most precious financial partners this way.

Development research has found that high-capacity donors simply walk away when they learn that the organization to which they give engages in percentage-based compensation for vendors.  Major donors understand that development professionals are paid, but one would be hard-pressed to find any donor that knowingly gives a large-dollar gift to a fundraiser that is compensated on what can only be described as commission.  The trouble that it can bring can be devastating to a ministry’s reputation, which has a direct connection to the organization’s ability to keep and attract new donors.

It can impact foundation gifts too.  To help qualify grant applicants, more and more foundations today either ask questions about a non-profit’s past engagement with percentage-based fundraisers or require the organization to sign an agreement not to engage in such practices.

Your ministry does not exist to maximize profits, but make a difference in the Kingdom of God.  Every ministry should have clearly defined policies to protect the integrity of the ministry as well as the donor’s interest.