Extreme Makeover: Nonprofit edition

House makeover imageIs your organization a candidate for an extreme-makeover?  If you have not had your fill of reality television, check out one of the makeover programs. The person, house or even town that is going to be made over, is usually in dire straits prior to the arrival of the camera crews.   As someone who has experienced, first-hand, the demise of a valuable nonprofit I can tell you the signs are there long before they closed the doors.  I can also tell you that we never should have gotten to that point.  Welcome to “corporate culture” extreme makeover.

Changing the culture in an organization – whether it is a total overhaul or simply tweaking systems – is not easy.  However, altering three integral aspects of your organization can create the effects of a complete makeover.  It’s time to engage a tenacious board that will commit to changing the organization and pursue a shared vision.  Then you can enhance your annual fund and, finally, establish an exemplary major gifts management system.

That takes a lot of hard work.  Now, you understand why so many organizations struggle.

Which needs more work a 200-year-old house or your board?
Perhaps it is time to start with our definition of a strong board.  It is one that has:

  • dedication to the organization’s mission, vision and values;
  • confidence in both the short-term and long-range objectives;
  • regular discussions about goals and objectives;
  • no fear of failure;
  • patience to reach its goals;
  • persistence;
  • priorities and timelines
  • access to the proper resources (energy, staffing and funding);
  • commitment to change; and
  • willingness to try new things.

It shouldn’t surprise you that one of the ways that board members become more invested, more credible as well as more empowered to serve as an advocate and ambassador is through making meaningful gifts of their own.  You need a board that can serve as champions of the organization.

Landscaping: Are you growing Annual or Perennial Funds?
While the comparisons between landscaping and fundraising are amazingly easy (think: planting seeds, patience, watering, tending, cultivating, etc…), it is important to recognize that an annual fund is just like annual plantings – something to reconsider each and every year.

Everyone’s dream is to establish a system that will bring in large gifts without contact with donors, but a successful annual fund includes plans to repeat and grow donors each and every year.  Fundraising is a full contact sport.

A successful annual fund is based on the premise that you:

  • get the gift;
  • get it repeated;
  • get it upgraded;
  • build and develop a base of donors; and
  • establish patterns and habits of giving.

Always remember that there are two primary objectives of any annual fund.  First, you seek to inform, involve and bond the constituency to your organization.  Then, you mine the donor base as a source of information to identify prospective major donors.

Post-Makeover Major Gifts Management
If your organization were offered the above mentioned overhaul (or you hired a consultant to facilitate the process), would you be able to maintain the changes? Do you have the systems in place to ensure success next year, the year after and the year after that?

In order to assure success, you need to create systems for relationship fundraising and major gifts management.  But, they are not just quick fixes for current problems – rather they ensure your organization’s future.  And that takes time.

The standard development cycle is a circle that includes:

  • Identification;
  • Research;
  • Planning;
  • Cultivation;
  • Solicitation;
  • Stewardship; and
  • Renewal.


Proper planning enhances your chance of success by fifty percent.  In fact, well begun—with a great plan—is half done.  Planning provides clarity of objectives as well as increases confidence levels.  Then, you will be able to really listen and gather invaluable information about the person as well as understand how your organization is perceived. And asking respectfully with a measure of gentle persistence – more than once when necessary – is the ultimate way to achieve your goals.

But, when we appraised the efforts of solicitors, we observed that:

  • 44% gave up after prospects voiced the first objection;
  • 22% gave up after hearing the second objection;
  • 16% gave up after the third objection;
  • 10% gave up after the fourth objection; and
  • 73% of all donors voiced 5 or more objections before being sure enough to make a gift

There is a veritable cornucopia of valuable information about major gifts management.  Chief among the ideas we find most helpful is to remind our clients to go back and examine the entire development cycle.  Before you start talking to prospects, plan (there’s that word again) carefully as to how you will thank the donor and begin to establish an on-going relationship.  Success depends on follow-through at every stage of the development cycle.  Conversely, failure results from gaps in your implementation of the system.

Your Blueprint
This article barely skims the surface of shifting corporate culture and creating a world-class development organization.  A complete plan for an extreme makeover could never be described in less than a thousand words, and without knowing the specifics of your organization.  However, we hope this gives you a good idea about the scope of work required to turn around an agency.  Because, until the television networks realize the ratings they could score with a nonprofit makeover – you – your staff, lay-leadership and board will have to create your own blueprint for improvement.  You could begin with a call to Mersky, Jaffe & Associates—or by sending an email here with a request for a no obligation, initial consultation to get you started…