3 Signs That Instantly Identify Nonprofits with Bad Fundraising Skills

And 2 Signs of Fundraising Leadership

In recent years, I’ve had the honor of serving alongside some truly talented fundraisers.

These are folks who understand that the essence of fundraising is relational, not transactional. Their goal is to cultivate lifelong, meaningful relationships with donors that grow in engagement and dollars over time.

Donor stewardship linked to leadership skills

With each email, donation letter and phone call they make throughout the year, they make donors feel special and appreciated. They demonstrate that they’re interested in a long-term relationship, not just a one-time donation in December.

A recent article by executive coach Marcel Schwantes got me thinking about these true leaders of fundraising, and how easy it is for nonprofits to veer off course without that leadership. The article is titled, “5 Signs That Instantly Identify Someone with Bad Leadership Skills.”

Schwantes listed these characteristics:

  1. Narcissistic tendencies

  2. Too much control

  3. Not sharing information

  4. Not recognizing their people for good work

  5. Treat people like numbers

We’ve all seen a fair number of nonprofits without great fundraisers that fall into these traps. Below are three examples of how things can go truly wrong.

Narcissistic tendencies

I recently received a fundraising appeal from an international exchange nonprofit I hadn’t heard from in more than 20 years. I’m grateful to this program for helping me launch my career, and I believe in their cause wholeheartedly.

But the donation letter talked only about the organization, belittled its competition, and used fear tactics to suggest what would happen without my donation.

As a donor prospect, I wish they had developed a welcome series instead that mentioned my exchange program and its impact over time. Then, I would have loved to hear about how my donation could help another young person develop compassion and understanding for other cultures.

“You” and “your” are such powerful words in fundraising. “We” and “our” are not.

Too much control

Control is a key reason why some nonprofits struggle to get consistent, monthly communications out to donors. Someone (or sadly, a committee) is micromanaging appeals.

If several people have to sign off before a donation request letter goes out the door, then you have serious editorial workflow problems. Everyone needs one editor who is knowledgeable, focused, and has the authority to give final approval. But no one needs a committee of editors with conflicting opinions.

One fix? A documented style guide that takes into account fundraising’s effective, but quirky grammar. Another fix? Surfacing the data of what your donors actually like and respond to. Do more of that – and test new things with a small subset of your list.

Not sharing information

This is all about transparency. Nonprofits with inconsistent donor communications may appear cagey to donors when they’re just struggling with internal process. It’s the old adage, “If you’re not telling your story, then someone else is.”

But there also are nonprofits that are afraid to talk authentically about their challenges. They always present a sunny face to donors, like the acquaintance who says “Doing great!” when they’re really not.

Our closest friends tell us when they’re happy and when they’re struggling. That bit of vulnerability draws us closer to them, builds trust, and makes us feel needed.

Turning Negatives to Positives

Enough with the negative examples, right? I’ve also seen many cases of nonprofits that grow and mature in their communications – often when a great fundraiser comes on board.

For that reason, I’m turning our last two negatives into positives.

Recognizing their people for good work

An organization I do donate to just sent me their spring donation letter. The appeal’s first two words after my handwritten, personalized greeting? “Your generosity.”

The letter goes on to tell me a success story about a child named Luke, giving him credit for changing his attitude about school and working hard to get better grades. Of course, my donation helps children like Luke succeed.

It also helped the organization hire Dominique who was once a student in the program and wanted to give back to our community. I love that the organization recognized both of these individuals and gave me an inside look into their stories.

Treating people like people, not numbers

This same nonprofit mails and emails me throughout the year in a variety of formats – giving donors like me more choices. A month or two may go by before I get time to read their stuff, but I always know that they will have personalized it for me in some small way.

It feels like they’re my friend, not an organization that begs for money. And together, we’re changing the world!

I remember a time in which this nonprofit struggled to get even one appeal out a year. But they’ve moved beyond what Joan Garry calls “treating donors like ATMs” to doing true, relationship-based stewardship. They’re not a huge organization, but this consistency signals to me that they’ll invest my monthly donations well.

True fundraising leaders – whether individuals or organizations – seek lifelong relationships with donors. You can clearly see that in their communications.

They praise donors, give credit to the community, and send messages that are personal, frequent and meaningful.

Laura Ingalls is CEO of Abeja Solutions and co-creator of Beezable, a tool that makes direct mail as easy as sending an email. She’s produced for CNN, served as a humanitarian spokesperson in Iraq and led award-winning nonprofit and corporate communications teams. Read more from Laura.