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The Executive Director’s Guide to Putting Out Fundraising Fires

for executive directors Jun 22, 2021

In any one day, a nonprofit executive director’s duties can include managing operations; satisfying funders and donors; informing and inspiring board, staff and volunteers; listening to clients; communicating your mission and accomplishments to the public; assessing community needs; collaborating with community agencies; raising money; reviewing (and worrying about) finances; keeping the agency afloat; growing the agency; managing facilities; solving technology problems; studying and implementing proper human resource regulations and policies; cleaning the office and whatever else decides to rear its ugly head. How do you get it all done while making sure there is enough money in the bank to pay the bills when they’re due?

Take Time to Breathe

Take a deep breath and hold it in for ten seconds. Slowly exhale. Take another deep breath and hold it. Slowly exhale. Keep breathing deeply while you ponder. You’ve got this. They hired you because they believe in you.

Then look at what you’re already doing to fundraise. Which is basically about everything you do. Supervising operations, including managing facilities, solving technology problems, and implementing good human resource practices, is crucial to successfully delivering services, aka, overseeing operations is overseeing your mission in action. Collaborating with other community agencies leverages your agency’s resources resulting in increased mission fulfillment, increased donations and/or increased net income. Knowing your community’s needs helps you craft your case for support to donors. Good public relation habits create greater community awareness and lead to expanded community support. Good financial management makes sure there is enough money to support it all.

And there’s the rub. Where do you find time in the day to raise the money to keep the agency afloat, much less grow it? How do you juggle the overwhelming task of fundraising with managing the day-to-day operations of service delivery?

Engage in Strategic Planning

To keep and agency afloat and grow it, an executive director must take an assessment of where the organization is today and set goals for its future. And then the actions to get there. In other words, create or update your nonprofit’s strategic plan as the first step in generating fundraising income. And don’t let that plan sit on a shelf. Use it as your blueprint. By using your strategic plan as a guide, you can inform board, staff and volunteers of your progress; create excitement around mission fulfillment; and get your board, staff, volunteers and donors excited about contributing. It is mission that motivates. If you can measure and communicate progress in fulfilling your mission, which a good strategic plan can help you do, you’ve taken a huge first step toward meeting your fundraising goals. You have just inspired and motivated your board, a crucial foundation for any successful nonprofit fundraising effort.

Fundraising is not about money. Nonprofit fundraising is about mission and mission fulfillment. You are not developing relationships with the intent to raise money. You are raising money to meet community needs as expressed in your agency’s mission statement. It is mission, not money, that motivates. For more on the critical importance mission plays in your fundraising, read To Bring in the Money Be a Mission Hawk.

And don’t just do what everyone else is doing. Align your fundraising activities with your nonprofits unique mission, culture, strengths, and weakness. We talked about the important of creating an individual fundraising plan in Fundraising Plans: One Size Does NOT Fit All.

Prioritize Long-Term Goals

Once you have a strategic plan in place, structure your workload to meet BOTH your short-term and long-term goals. We are so busy putting out fires. We put out fires every day. But you can’t spend all your time putting out fires. You need water to put out the fires. You need time to build the pipeline for getting the water. And then you need to get the water. Have you tried letting someone else deal with the fire so you can expand your access to water? In other words, can you delegate the immediate task to someone else so that you have time to fundraising tasks such as researching community needs, crafting your case for support and building relationships with important donors? Can you delegate researching your community’s needs and crafting your case for support to someone else while you’re dealing with whatever is today’s fire? Who else can deal with the issue of the day while you’re out building community funding relationships? The point is, you must prioritize getting those long-term objectives addressed. Who does exactly what is a matter of how big your staff is and who has what strengths and weaknesses. As an executive director, you can delegate many tasks. What you can’t delegate is getting out there and building the foundational relationships that will lead to greater mission fulfillment and funding. We talked about building community relationships in Where To Go To Find Community Support

As an executive director of a small agency, I spent 70 percent of my week on the day-to-day operations and 30 percent of my week on building foundational relationships. What I found was three-fold: 1) when equipped with the proper tools and given the opportunity my staff rose to the occasion; 2) my expectations about what I could do needed to be realistic and 3) I wasn’t as indispensable as I thought. The benefits of stepping back for 30 percent of the time far exceeded what I hoped.

Delegate to Others

When I challenged my staff to reach new heights, they became more engaged in their work. The greater engagement in their work lead to greater productivity which, in turn, led to increased mission fulfillment. Increased mission fulfillment led to increased funding. My staff also felt more empowered and appreciated because I believed in them. Of course, they needed the proper tools to meet their responsibilities, which I could do because I was spending 30 percent of my time on meeting long-term fundraising goals and garnering resources. Feeling more appreciated and empowered by me resulted in greater job satisfaction which, in turn, led to further engagement which then reduced my employee retention costs. My net income improved. Voila! Increased fundraising income by delegating to others.  

Set Realistic Expectations

Change is always slower than we want it to be. Development is called development for a reason: it takes time to build strong and lasting relationships. Donor retention is key. Often, the focus of fundraising efforts center around donor recruitment and special events. This approach may produce great short-term gross income. But it’s increased long-term net income that leads to financial sustainability. Sometimes you need to sacrifice short-term results for long-term sustainability. It’s more little-by-little than by one fell swoop. Once you and your board understand this and expectations are more realistic, relationships with the board will improve. Which means board members have good experiences and feel better about being involved with the agency. And, since there is less conflict at the board level, there is more time to – guess what? – talk about the strategic fundraising partnerships you and the board need to build. Strong donor partnerships result in increased funding. Voila! Increased funding by setting realistic expectations.

Take Care of Yourself

Once I realized I didn’t have to do it all and board relations improved, I relaxed a little. Since I wasn’t feeling pressured, (by mainly me) to meet unrealistic expectations, had others helping me put out fires and was increasing net income, I could get away for a couple of hours. Or a day. Or even a whole week. I could take time to engage in self-care activities. I could rejuvenate. Which is extremely important for an executive director to do. As an executive director, you set the tone for your agency. A more positive, refreshed, relaxed environment is going to make for positive experiences both in the office and the boardroom. Positive staff and board experiences improve overall agency morale. Happier staff and board members communicate more positively with volunteers and donors. Repeated positive interactions with contributors leads to greater engagement. Greater volunteer and donor engagement translate into higher contributions and improved retention.  Which results in better fundraising results. Voila! Improved funding through self-care.

Wrapping It Up

The buck stops with the executive director.  As an executive director, you are responsible for the success of your agency. So much demands your attention. And finances are a constant worry. It is imperative that you keep the agency afloat and meet your mission. Where is the time for fundraising going to come from?

In my experience, good strategic planning, prioritizing long-term goals, delegating to others, setting realistic expectations and engaging in self-care lead to increased mission fulfillment, better board relations, greater productivity, increased donations, and reduced costs. Which, in turn, positively impact the agency’s bottom line. By planning, delegating, taking care of myself, and chipping away at my long-term goals, my agency saw incredible increases in donations and net income. 

No, it wasn’t easy. Yes, it did take time. No, I didn’t always feel qualified to the job. We did it though. With less board tension, a more challenged and engaged staff, a slow but steady pace and a rejuvenated me, our fundraising results drastically improved. We had resources with which to meet our mission. And I found that I had money in the bank to pay the bills when they were due.

I want to move my fundraising to the next level