Fundraising War Stories: Pursuing the "Usual Suspects"

• donor • effective fundraising • fund development plan • board's role in fundraising • fundraising is everybody's job • fundraising strengths
Ellen Bristol

FrustratedI'm sure you'll agree with me.  Fundraising is everybody's job.  The board has a role in fundraising.  If your fundraising is not effective and efficient, you probably won't raise as much as you'd like.  Yawn.  What else is new?  Well, here's a tale that will go direct to the bottom line.  If you don't have an ideal-funder profile, you risk losing time and effort, two resources you can't replace.  With an ideal-funder profile, you can fund your organization far more easily and efficiently.  I'd like to tell you about an organization that overcame a bad case of pursuing the "Usual Suspects," learned how to qualify a donor/funder prospect properly, and transformed themselves into an organization with adequate cash reserves.

A local agency trains aspiring entrepreneurs from disadvantaged neighborhoods.  Like so many grassroots organizations in economic development, their major funding source had always been reimbursement contracts from local and state agencies.  But thanks to a variety of factors, their service-delivery rates were plummeting, so reimbursements were too.  It was a vicious cycle; the less they served clients, the less money they received, and so on.  The board (belatedly) realized they would have to do something about this issue, but no one seemed to have any ideas.  The problem was dissected - loudly - at several different monthly board meetings; everybody had great ideas but nobody was willing to act on them. People played the blame game, pointed fingers, came up with a zillion wild ideas, and nobody ever took any action. They even went hat in hand to the government agencies, pleading for relief, only to be denied several times.  Finally, the oldest member of the board (90 years old and frail) pounded his shoe on the table and declared that he would fly to Bentonville, AK the next day because "Walmart believes in entrepreneurs and I'm SURE they'll give us money!!!!!"

Yikes! Dead silence in the room, followed by the turning point that I had been waiting and hoping for.  The conversation turned away from unrealistic targets and started to discuss why they already knew that Walmart was a poor candidate.  They gently but firmly thanked the Elder Statesman for his willingness to go the extra mile but instead, encouraged him and everyone else to think about new and different ideas for replacing their reimbursement contracts and expanding their funding overall. They loved his fervor, but didn't want to see him risk his health either!  Here's how this small agency solved the immediate problem and turned the fundraising tide in their favor.

Tip #1:  You've got to know which funders are right for you. Being the right funder means that not only do you meet the funder's criteria for support, you've got some kind of linkage with them - an insider, a prior connection to a senior executive, an invitation from them to apply for a greant.  Otherwise, you're spinning your wheels.  Our agency didn't know exactly which funding sources would be right for them - but they did know that Walmart was wrong. 

Tip #2:  Doing the same thing over and over, while expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.  Our elder statesman was on the right track: the organization really needed to do something different, to get a different result.  Rehashing the same old same-old wasn't getting them anywhere. Neither was begging and pleading their government agencies to change their minds.  Our hero shows his personal willingness to take a risk.  He may have even shamed his peers into taking useful action!

Tip #3:  If Fill-In-The-Blank Usual Suspect is wrong for you, who's right for you?  The board members and ED put their heads together and started to build a profile of the right funders.  Sometimes all you need to know, is what you don't know; sometimes to find out what you like you need to describe what you don't like. 

Tip #4:  Find a way to break the logjam.  In this agency's case, they had a painful stalemate that they just couldn't seem to get around.  But once the Elder Statesman had committed to an unworkable action, everyone came around. Their affection and respect for this board member helped them recognize that they had been spinning their wheels and getting nowhere.

What's the upshot?  Today, in spite of the Great Recession, this organization is, in the words of its founder, "swimming in money."  They figured out how staff and board could collaborate effectively, avoid logjams, and take constructive action.  And by the way, the Elder Statesman never flew to Bentonville. 

We would love to hear from you about this story.  When has your agency pursued the "usual suspects?"  If you did, was there any linkage between the funding prospect and your organization?  Did you win or lose? 

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