For Fundraisers, Groundhog Day is Coming

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How to Manage Fundraisers When a New Fiscal Year Begins

Groundhog Day is almost here. I’m not talking about the day in February when Punxsutawney Phil predicts whether an early spring is on the way.

Instead, my reflection today is about the Groundhog Day phenomena from the 1993 Bill Murray movie. In this film, the lead character stays trapped in a time loop until he changes the way he treats others.

And it’s a perfect description for a type of nonprofit déjà vu that happens around this time of year.

Seasonal obsession

Many nonprofits end their fiscal year in June and start their new year on July 1. Even if your organization is on a different calendar, rest assured that the time loop exists in all fiscal years – and you and your fundraising team may be trapped in it.

You see, June is when I obsess about my revenue goal. It’s not exactly healthy behavior, because there isn’t much that I can do at the last minute (or the last couple weeks of the year) to change what my final numbers are going to be.

Yes, there are online avenues to put out a few extra appeals. But unless there’s real urgency around those, this just isn’t a great time of year to fundraise for most nonprofits.

After all, it’s summer. Donors are taking vacations, people are distracted and folks want to lighten up and have some summer fun.

And so do I!

Donation déjà vu

But I know better because of Groundhog Day. July 1 means I start all over. The fundraising clock flips back to zero dollars (or 6:00 a.m. in Bill Murray’s movie world).

The thing that disheartens me the most about this is how quickly we expect fundraisers to pivot from “Yay, we made it!!” to “Okay, how much more can you raise this coming year?”

And yes, people who manage fundraisers say those same words every July 1.

This question is hard for fundraisers to hear because:

  1. The budget is set: By this time, most fundraisers have completed the tedious research and projections needed for the budgeting process. They’ve already answered the “how much more” question.

  2. We just had a successful year. The fundraiser’s hard work paid off and their organization can pursue its mission for at least one more year! A good fundraiser wants that trend that to continue.

  3. Or things didn’t go according to plan. All fundraisers have unsuccessful years, either through their own fault, things outside their control, or both. This is when they need support and encouragement, not more pressure.

At times like these, I wonder if the same thing happens to salespeople, our doppelgangers on the for-profit side. Of course, I hear that if those folks meet their goals, sometimes there’s a big bonus involved.

This an ethical no-no for nonprofits, but does the bonus actually serve another purpose besides compensation? Perhaps it gives salespeople much-needed recognition and the positive energy they need to move forward.

Of course, I didn’t come to the nonprofit world for accolades – monetary or otherwise. And I do take personal pride in what I’m able to accomplish as a fundraiser, and how the funds raised by folks like me make the nonprofit world go around.

Advice for managers

But managers of fundraising staff, please take note. If you don’t want to search for a new fundraiser every 16 months, stop for just a minute.

Look at the revenue budget that’s already board approved before you ask the dreaded question on July 1. Or maybe don’t ask it at all?

Instead, take a minute and thank your fundraiser for all of their work. You can do this, whether last year’s goal was met or not.

Then stop and think back to the last time your fundraiser took a day off “just because.” Is it time to encourage a little downtime? Even if it’s only to say “go home early” one day that week.

Perhaps my best advice to managers of fundraisers is this: On July 1, acknowledge what kind of year you just had. Have an open conversation with your fundraiser about what was great and terrible and in between. Then express confidence in the fundraiser’s ability to reach this year’s goals.

Then end that conversation with the magical phrase that Bill Murray said at the end of Groundhog Day when he broke the time loop. “What can I do for you, today?”

Terri Shoemaker is Chief Strategy Officer of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising support firm that helps nonprofits create reliable revenue. A professional fundraiser, Terri has raised millions of dollars for nonprofit and higher education institutions. Read more from Terri.

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