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The Formula for Successful and Sustainable Fundraising
No, Relationship-Building is Not Enough

By Sunil Oommen
August 2016


As a longtime fundraiser, I have taken for granted platitudes like “the core of fundraising is relationship-building” or  “building relationships is key to successful fundraising.”  Most of us learn this when we start out in the field and repeat it when we coach our teams.  Recently I started giving more thought to these so-called truths, and concluded that even though there is some validity to these statements, the notion is woefully incomplete.

Do you remember learning the chemical formulation of vinegar in school?  It’s C2H4O2.

Basically, two parts carbon, four hydrogen, two oxygen.  You cannot create pure vinegar without this exact mix of elements fusing together.  For successful and sustainable fundraising, you also need all of the right elements to come together.  Fortunately, the formula has three elements too, but it is a lot simpler to remember.  One part Integrity.  One part Action.  One part Relationship-Building.  Below is what each element means and how the compound comes together:

Integrity: Merriam-Webster offers two complementary definitions of Integrity: “the quality of being honest and fair” and “the state of being complete or whole.”  However, neither definition speaks to what you need to do to act with Integrity.  In short: acting with Integrity boils down to taking certain Actions: doing what you say you will do, doing what you know to do even before anyone asks, doing the right thing, and doing what you do to the best of your ability. And when you make a mistake or break a promise, hold yourself accountable before anyone else does, and then make up for it.[1]

When I was in public relations, I learned that if you were not known as a person of Integrity, you would never have a reporter take or return your call.  You may get some assumption of Integrity when you are brand new to someone, but the moment you betray your word, your personal Integrity is broken, no longer whole.  The same applies in fundraising. 

Our Integrity is our bond, and we carry that bond wherever we go.  Donors and institutional funders are sophisticated; they know when a fundraiser is trying to sell them a bad bill of goods.  No amount of Relationship-Building alone can solve for a lack of Integrity.  Before you do anything, ensure you personally have a solid reputation for Integrity. This may mean having to ask for unfiltered feedback from past and present bosses, peers and “frenemies,” and listening to their feedback, no matter how difficult it may be to hear.  If perception of your Integrity is on any shaky ground, take Action – another fundamental element to the successful and sustainable fundraising formula - to restore your Integrity back to 100%.

Action: If there were an unstable or volatile element of the three in this formula, Action would be it.  I will therefore spend a bit more space fleshing this one out. 

In this formula, Action includes visible moves like physically meeting with current supporters and picking up the phone to talk to new prospects about your organization’s worthy work. 

I am always shocked by how few fundraisers actually take the right amount of Action with their current and potentially new donors.  That is why many donors complain that the only time they hear from an organization or fundraiser is when it is time to ask for money.  I bet that many of those complaints are really donors’ way of asking for more Action to build a real relationship with the cause they wanted to support.

It is also about figuring out the right mix of Actions.  For example, some fundraisers reach out to a new prospect once or twice in a month – sometimes only by email – and then drop the prospect as uninterested or not worth pursuing.  There are several problems with this.

First, everyone is flooded with emails, so email may not be the most viable way to generate the response we want.  In the case where some donors may actually prefer email communication, it may help still to follow up through other means as well – like the phone or even a snail-mail letter— especially if you are a new contact for them. This will help determine how your prospect responds to different forms of communications, which would be helpful data to track over the lifetime of a donor relationship.

Second, consider whether you are reaching out with the right frequency.  K. Michael Johnson has found success by taking the right Actions with healthy persistence:

“I can’t tell you how many people get back to me simply because I’m persistent. And not because they’re bothered by it! In general, people respect well-intentioned effort. Did you know that the rule of thumb in sales is seven phone calls? Not every day, obviously. That’s harassment. But, my guess is you’re not calling your prospects seven times.

My approach used to be one phone call and two emails within a week. And then I’d stop. If I didn’t hear back, I’d try again in a few months. Some got back to me, but I knew I could do better. And I also realized something important: None of my prospects were telling me it was too much outreach.

So, I upped my outreach to two phone calls and three emails within two weeks. And, surprise! More people got back to me. Actually, it’s not that surprising. There are dozens of reasons your prospects aren’t returning your calls. Assume the best and be persistent.”
  (credit: http://fearless-fundraising.com/qualification/get-prospects-to-call-you-back/)

K. Michael Johnson has an amazing blog at Fearless-Fundraising.com that I have referred to colleagues, peers, and now, to you.  He provides step-by-step guides that will help drive the Action element of your successful and sustainable fundraising formula.

Relationship-Building: You take the Actions necessary to score the meeting with the prospect or deliver the proposal.  You demonstrate your Integrity by ensuring said Actions are done on time, presented accurately and honestly, and are done to the best of your ability. Relationship-Building comes into play at the stage when you are interacting with a donor. Whether it is over the phone or ideally in a face-to-face meeting, this is our opportunity to create an authentic connection.  As in life, we also can create such authentic connections by sharing openly and with vulnerability in fundraising.   Most of us have heard foundation executives say they want to hear the real organizational challenges and frustrations alongside the positive updates because they know it cannot possibly be rosy all of the time.

I go a step further and advocate that we share ourselves openly. This also goes back to the element of Integrity, the state of being whole and complete.  Besides appropriate modulation for professional settings, we are not one kind of person at work and a completely different person outside the office.  If we are, that is probably cause for a multiple personality diagnosis!  So, yes, talk about ourselves, our families, why we got into this field, why we work for this organization.  Being whole and complete means being our authentic, full selves. 

Simultaneously, draw out the motivations of your donor or prospect, even the foundation or corporate giving program officer.  The old adage is still true: people give to people.  Your program officer is a human being who could be doing anything else for work but chose this position for a reason. They may have a story to tell and very likely a commonality that you both share. 

And in case you’re still concerned about being too open, I have a news flash for you: your donor or funder knows that you are a human being, too!  Besides, it is a lot more fun and rewarding to be our full selves with donors and potential partners who also want to create more good and positive impact in the world.  So one day, if your organization is in a bind, your donor or funder would hear that directly from you first (again, Integrity) and hopefully be more poised to stand by you – metaphorically and with the dollars you need – to get through that challenging time.

How it All Comes Together

I teased out each of these elements to illustrate how they all interact with each other. Just as it is challenging to split the chemical compound into its originating elements, you cannot have successful and sustainable fundraising without all three elements: Integrity, Action and Relationship-Building. 

I emphasize that the final outcome of this formula is both successful and sustainable fundraising.  It is totally possible to have one-off wins with donors if you happened to luck out on a big ask or you wrote a compelling proposal once or twice in a row.  But, if you do not fulfill on your grant outcomes after a year or two, this compromises your personal Integrity. So ask yourself: are you going to get that renewal gift?  Or if you are really great at being persistent with the right Actions to get in front of donors but come across as a guarded talking-head, are you going to get another meeting, another gift and much less an increased gift for your organization?  Probably not.  Even if you do, you also need to consider your donor retention rate: if you find yourself constantly hustling to replace lots of donors who cycle out every year, you are costing your mission much more money and energy than any nonprofit organization should afford. 

It admittedly takes something to live one’s life with Integrity, be on top of all the Actions one needs to undertake, while also engaging in Relationship-Building that conveys authenticity and vulnerability. Clearly, we need to be saints!

Kidding aside, in the spirit of what Lynne Twist has been advocating about the fundraising field, I think we fundraisers are indeed following a higher calling.  We are channeling the resources and energy of the world towards creating the greatest possible good.  It is important and vital work, especially in a world in which the distribution of wealth, power and opportunity is unjustly unequal.

Like most callings, fundraising can be exhausting, under-valued and misunderstood work.  But, if we consciously act on the Integrity:Action:Relationship-Building formula, we will be honoring that calling and leaving the world a better place.

[1] Special thanks to Landmark Education for the training and coaching that inspired much of my thinking on Integrity.  Check out their personal and professional development training opportunities at landmarkworldwide.com.​​

Sunil Oommen is President of Oommen Consulting. Comments about this article may be directed to sunil@suniloommen.com.​  All opinions (unless otherwise credited) are my own and not affiliated with any current or former employer or client.


Why Focusing on Diversity Pays Off in Fundraising TODAY

By Sunil Oommen

April 2016

After nearly 20 years in the nonprofit world, I still notice a big gap in the fundraising profession: we have a severe dearth of fundraisers of color. From tiny to very large organizations where I have worked, I am still one of the few people of color (much less, men of color) in frontline fundraising roles. Given how our field has grown and professionalized over the decades, there should be many more of us by  now.

Incorporating diversity and an inclusion lens into our fundraising program is not just a matter of checking the box.  It is about reflecting the communities we serve and should be serving.  It is also about doing the most effective and best fundraising possible.

Many of us work with nonprofit organizations that serve the public at-large, which of course includes communities of color.  Even if we don’t, our country’s changing demographics require us to think more seriously about engaging these communities in our theaters, museums, associations, academic institutions, elder-care centers, and other nonprofit settings.  To not do so would mean catering to a very limited public when in truth our nonprofits exist, and receive tax exemptions, to serve the greater public good.  Do our organizations’ internal structures -- from board, to staff, to volunteers -- reflect the communities we serve or should be serving?  I bet the answer for most of us is “no.”  It is important that we reflect the communities we serve.  Just take a look at Congress and its composition today.  If Congress actually reflected and embraced the diverse gender, racial and ethnic nation it attempts to represent, we might be having a lot more productive dialogue and progress on many issues.

Some might say that focusing on diversity initiatives in fundraising will not produce any return on investment in the near-term, so why bother?  We are struggling to keep the lights on today, and conversations about this issue are a distraction from more urgent needs.  I argue that it is quite the opposite.  

At this very moment, many of us might be depriving our causes of the valuable perspectives, ideas and unique wherewithal that people of color would bring to our work.  For example, I was born and raised in New York to immigrant parents from South Asia.  I absorbed several languages, grew up in a beautifully diverse town (shout-out to #NewRochelle, NY!), and learned how to navigate in different settings and communities.  These early lessons produced valuable skills in relationship-building and cross-cultural understanding that add value to my employers' bottom-lines.  The short-term yield is real and exponential.  Imagine how enriching it would be to have board, staff, volunteers and others of various backgrounds brainstorming and conceiving new and innovative ways of doing our work.  We would have that many more ideas, inroads and connections to tap immediately for our causes.  

Moreover, if we wait too long before taking action on these issues, our organizations risk getting caught behind the curve, or worse, being completely out of touch with community needs.  Allowing our organizations to fall behind would be abrogating our responsibility to plan for both the short and the long-term yields of our fundraising work.  The most savvy organizations have already started working on issues of inclusion and diversity or have concrete plans to do so.  It is plain business sense.

This is admittedly a big and daunting issue.  You may not know how to approach this subject matter at your workplace.  That's why AFP New York City has taken on this issue as a professional advancement opportunity for us.  As one of the session producers, I personally invite you to join me at AFP's professional advancement session on engaging communities of color in your organization’s fundraising on May 19, 2016 at 8:30 am in midtown Manhattan where we will create a space for you to hear from noted experts and ask questions about diversity, equity and inclusion issues.  This conversation on May 19th will hopefully inspire your planning to ensure your nonprofits are on track to achieving their missions well into the future.  Please click here to learn more and sign up!

Special thanks to AFP New York City's leadership for opening the door to this important conversation.   Ideally we fundraisers will become the pioneers for our organizations in ensuring that our leadership not only talks the talk of diversity, equity and inclusion, but executes on it with thoughtfulness and integrity.  Then one day we will attract the best and brightest from all backgrounds to join our noble profession and truly reflect the generative power and talents of our entire community.

Sunil Oommen is President of Oommen Consulting. Comments about this article may be directed to sunil@suniloommen.com.​  All opinions (unless otherwise credited) are my own and not affiliated with any current or former employer or client.