Thursday, June 23, 2005

Fundraising and organizational transformation

When a non-profit organization takes the plunge and decides to hire a professional fundraising consultant, they are most often in dire financial straights or see impending cutbacks in the near future. This means that they are usually focused on short term financial improvements--and that, of course, while perfectly natural, often means that they haven't considered the impact of implementing fundraising on their staff, board, infrastructure, or culture. As a consultant, I come into the situation knowing that undertaking a relationship fundraising program is going to transform the organization from top to bottom in unexpected and sometimes painful ways.

It's odd how many social service organizations are essentially closed systems. They have mechanisms to get client referrals, both in and out, and have a network of other agencies and contract funders, but they often have no publicly accessible face for the non-client community at large. Some even have large volunteer components--but these are also often seen, in a basic and important way, as separate from the core staff or work of the organization. The general public can be seen as essentially unknown and unknowable. Hence the huge fear that accompanies decisions to undertake a fundraising program and hurdle number one in implementing a successful relationship building program.

I often begin by reframing the fundraising program as a friend-raising program. We are not going out there to pressure people who essentially don't care about what we do to give us cash...we are heading out to connect with people who share our values, concerns and passions and to invite them to join us in our work. They care about it, but can't personally do the work, so they invest in the agency's capacity to do the work on their behalf. This reframe can begin to create the first crack in what is often an actual barricade between the organization and the community. And by this I mean a functional barricade created out of fear, mistrust, and lack of knowledge--them out there and us in here.

Continuing with this program of positive reframing, I will often engage in conversations about how the community can support and enhance the work of the agency--through things like growing a basic sense of belonging to a caring community (supports both staff and clients), acting as a positive, free, PR mechanism (happy, engaged donors spread the word), bringing a host of life experience and skills to the organization (increasing capacity). Together, we slowly grow the understanding of an open organization that has structures and attitudes that welcome and invite community participation at many levels. To me, this is an essential part of developing the fundraising function within an organization. It is about ethical asking and inviting, about true accountability and transparency.

Another facet of my practice is to work with and acknowledge what's there. In other words, an organization is people--people who are usually tired, stressed and overworked. People who have strong investments in the status quo and who may have strong opinions about how things get done. People for whom the merest mention of the word 'fundraising' sends them flying for the nearest cover. Welcome to hurdle number two. These are the folks who will have to shoulder the extra burden of work and who will be the organizational face that greets the public. Again, by involving them as much as possible from the beginning and by telling lots of success stories and framing change in terms that clearly show the benefit to them personally wherever possible, we begin a slow shift.

I truly believe in the value of the consultative part of consulting and in collaboration. My practice is to build the capacity of the organization to carry on a professional program under its own steam. Ultimately, implementing a relationship fundraising program is about transformation from an inward-looking, protective organization to one that is open, inviting and engaged vibrantly with the community.

I have found, as a consultant, that listening with the heart, understanding where people are at and working from there, taking time, and being flexible while moving gently and steadily forward, grows a healthier, stronger organization along with the revenue.

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