Your One Goal for 2019

By: Sheela Nimishakavi, MA, MPH

In many ways, 2018 was the year of the story. Nonprofits were encouraged to share the impact of their work with supporters by using narratives that read almost like short stories. Appeal letters featured heartwarming tales of struggling protagonists who were helped along their journey by a nonprofit organization, with the donor as the hero.

But 2019 needs to be the year of questions. I’m not saying we need to throw stories out of our toolbox this year. But, if we are going to use them, we need to question the narrative. Does our story empower those we serve? Does this story unintentionally perpetuate racism, sexism, ableism, and other –ism’s? How can you be sure you’re telling a compelling true story and not disseminating poverty porn?

In addition to moving past stories and creating empowering narratives, questions can help us gain clarity of purpose and clearly articulate impact. As a donor, I want to know how my support helps. This doesn’t mean I need a log of how my $200 paid for lunches. I want to know: What change did I affect with my giving? Did I contribute to making the world a better place? What did we accomplish together and what remains to be done?

Importantly, nonprofits must keep a finger on the pulse of their field, having a ready answer to the question: Does your nonprofit treat a symptom or solve the root cause of a problem?

Both types of work are absolutely needed. Symptoms need to be treated until we can figure out how to solve the root cause of a problem, which will likely need to occur through advocacy for systemic changes. However, where does your nonprofit fall on this spectrum? What is the root cause and is anyone in your community tackling it?

If your organization goes through a facilitated strategic planning process every three to five years these questions are likely raised at that time. I would argue that this is not sufficient. Questioning what, how, and why we do our work should be a constant dialogue in our offices. Questions ensure we not only stay on track but are on the right track. Questions help us become better leaders, fundraisers, front line staff, board members, community members. Questions help us solve problems.

As you sit down to write your goals for the year, make sure to add this one to the top of your list: Ask more questions.


Is it time to retire the phrase “major gift?”

By: Sheela Nimishakavi, MA, MPH

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I took a trip up to New York City to celebrate his birthday. It was a long weekend filled with tons of laughter, friends, family and oh so much food! We’re talking the best falafels ever, pizza at the famous Juliana’s in Brooklyn, macarons from Laduree…the list goes on.

One of the highlights of this trip, though, was our tour of the Statue of Liberty. We had an amazing tour guide- shout out to Zack!- who gave us tons of fun facts. I’ll be ‘entertaining’ friends with “Did you know…” tidbits for months, I’m sure.

As we walked through the museum, Zack dove into the history of funding the massive undertaking that crafting, transporting and assembling the Statue of Liberty entailed. It was decided early on that France would fund the statue itself, but the US would be responsible for the pedestal.

Unfortunately, no one was stepping up to the charge of funding this project. The bigwigs at the time were hesitant to get involved. But, this statue representing change, hope, opportunity and freedom, resonated with the public at large.

So, when Joseph Pulitzer- yea, that Pulitzer- posted an ad in the newspaper asking for donations, the money came flooding in. These were not large gifts, though. Rather, people from all over the country gave what they could just to be a part of this amazing project. My favorite story is of two twin girls who gave their life savings- a whopping fifty cents!- to be a part of this movement.

This story got me thinking. Fifty cents doesn’t sound like very much. No one would consider it a major gift. But to these girls, it was everything they had! I’d say that’s pretty major.

And, if we call some gifts “major gifts” what are the other gifts? Minor?

No organization (I hope) has a Minor Gifts Officer.

What message does it send to donors when they know your organization has a Major Gifts Officer, but they are not being contacted by them? While we’re on the topic, can we stop calling them Major Gifts Officers?

Whether $5 or $50,000, all gifts should be treated as “major” gifts. I know it’s not feasible to spend hours of time and resources stewarding every donor. But, are there broad changes you can make to ensure that all your donors feel like their gift was “major?” Can you express so much gratitude that you make $5 feel like $50,000?

Nonprofit Administration Errors That Send Donors Running

By: Sheela Nimishakavi, MA, MPH

Donor retention is one measurement of a strong development program- perhaps one of the best indicators of a nonprofit’s success in fundraising. But, if you think it is only the development department’s duty to focus on retention, you’re wrong. Much of development is actually driven by administration- think data, bookkeeping, and infrastructure. Small administrative mistakes can send donors running for the hills. Is your nonprofit making any of these errors and turning away donors?

Mistake 1: Not knowing exactly where donor funds are going
Impact metrics are all the buzz these days. So, what are you waiting for? Administrative staff should be pulling data that indicates how funds were used and all staff should be armed with the percentage of donor funds that goes towards programs vs. fundraising vs. administration. Better yet, plaster it on your website and social media. Kudos to nonprofits that can link donor funds to true impact, not just activities.

Mistake #2: Misspelling a donor’s name
This one is a doozy and so easy to prevent. There is nothing worse than proudly donating your hard-earned money only to have your name misspelled on the acknowledgement letter or, even worse, on the nonprofit’s website. Trust me, I know how much this sucks- just check out my last name. It may seem like a trivial issue, but names are important (duh- that’s why so many people donate oodles of cash to get their names on libraries or lecture halls). This mistake sends the powerful message to your donors that you don’t care about them or their gift. That is the exact opposite of what your donor communications should say! Double- nay, quadruple- check your data entry.

Mistake #3: Making it difficult to give
You’ve heard this before and yet a surprising number of nonprofits still have really frustrating procedures that make it difficult for donors to give. Eliminate all barriers to getting a donation- even if that means collecting less donor information. I say this because several nonprofits I have made donations to ask for my life’s history before I can make my donation. No one wants to fill out a two-page form just to donate $20. Get the donation and then ask donors additional questions. Extra communication with donors is always a good thing and this gives you a reason to reach out. Further, donors should not have to dig through a website to find the donation page- make it readily accessible from your home page. Along the same line, have credit card readers at ALL of your events- even if you are simply manning an exhibit table. You never know when someone will be inclined to make a donation so be prepared. In other words, do everything in your power to make it as easy as possible for a donor to give the instant they decide to make a donation. Nonprofit administration can research new products, update infrastructure and link accounts as necessary to aid in this process.

Nonprofit administrative staff play an important role in the development process. If you work in administration, take note of the downstream impacts of your work. How can you improve administrative processes so that donors give again and give more? If you work in development, what do you need from administration to retain donors?