Leadership. It can make or break a small nonprofit (or any sized, really).
For many of the organizations we work with, leadership has been instrumental to fundraising success. But it comes with unique challenges. Many of these organizations have pretty big growth aspirations, so understanding how to leverage leadership and plan for fundraising succession is important.
Small organizations rely on a strong leader to attract donations of all sizes. Often, the dynamic and intimate nature of relationships means that donors are as energized by the Executive Director as they are the work. The more you can focus your ED’s time and energy on building and maintaining donor relationships, the more short-term fundraising success you’ll have.
This works because often, the Executive Director is the founder and has deep passion and commitment to the organization. Their story of how they built the organization is contagious. There is a magnetism that becomes irresistible. We often hear from donors that the number one reason they give to a small organization is that the believe in the ED.
We're all familiar with Founders Syndrome where the passion and charisma of the founder can be limiting as a company grows. This exists in nonprofits as much as for-profits and can impact fundraising significantly.
EDs in small organizations wear many, many hats and that fundraising often isn’t a priority (or isn’t their favourite). It’s hard to find time to fundraise with so many other competing priorities. Even more so for founders whose passion really does lie in the core work of the organization, where everything else feels like an obligation.
Often EDs or small nonprofits are also not trained in fundraising, so they "fly by the seat of their pants" and learn a lot through trial and error. This is a great way to learn, but can take more time and include more mistakes than there is appetite for. The urgency of growth (or even keeping the doors open and lights on) means that any learning curve directly impacts the bottom line.
Paradoxically, one of the biggest fundraising strengths (the dynamic leader) can also limit fundraising as donors become aware that so much of the organization's success lies with one individual. Unawareness of succession plans means that donors can also be hesitant to invest or give too much, because they can't see the future of the organization beyond that one individual.
Focus and outsourcing
The ED needs to be dedicating some time to fundraising. It should be part of the routine and focused on the actions that are effective in building strong relationships. Personal meetings and correspondence goes a long way in making donors feel special and connected.
To avoid burn out and create structure to grow, start to find ways to outsource or build organizational capacity for some of the day-to-day fundraising tasks, such as writing letters, managing the database, organizing events, etc. Before hiring a full-time fundraising staff, which can be expensive and hard to manage, consider what can be outsourced and where experts can be brought in. Get support around implementation, not just strategy. Success lies with doing, not just thinking.
Hiring a fundraiser
As fundraising success grows, bringing in a dedicated fundraiser can help take things to the next level. Position this person with donors in a way that reinforces the strong relationships donors have the the ED and organization. Have the ED and fundraising staff attend donor meetings together and over time, start to let the fundraiser take on more of a role in managing the relationship. This doesn't take the responsibility away from the ED to continue the relationships, but rather spreads the relationship across individuals, to deepen them with the organization.
Share the spotlight
Donors can have relationships with other staff and volunteers in an organization, not just the ED. Position front line staff and volunteers (if you have any) as experts and make sure your donors get to know them too. Let your donors know that the organization is in great hands, beyond just the one leader.