Archive for February, 2014

Forecasting and fundraising with a “table of needs”

When I worked in the university setting as an annual giving director, the goal-setting process was a mixture of art and science as well as feasibility versus need. Unlike my colleagues who sought major gifts exclusively, I had the fortunate position of leaning more on science due to the nature of expected response rates from a combination of direct mail, the telephone outreach program and our direct solicitations by committee. Oftentimes, my major gift counterparts were dealing with much more uncertainty, such as well-researched prospects who didn’t give to their potential or surprising windfalls from the consistent $25 annual donor.

Forecasting and fundraising

Whenever there were “windfall gifts” that far exceeded our expectations, we always factored them out of the equation for our projections in the new fiscal year because they unfairly skewed our estimations to a more optimistic goal that wasn’t always repeatable. Financial author and consultant Richard Linzer actually talks about this strategy in his book, Cash Flow Strategies. He recommends forecasting revenue based on three different types of income that are categorized by how dependable they are. This way you can forecast several scenarios depending on what type of income renews.

Another kindred spirit on the forecasting topic is consultant and author Julia Ingraham Walker. Her book, A Fundraising Guide for Nonprofit Board Members, gets a lot of attention in our summary store and for good reason. Walker has accomplished the behemoth task of aggregating everything you need to know about orchestrating a coordinated fundraising effort at the board and staff levels.

How one small independent school got it right

In addition to publishing several more books on this topic, Ingraham Walker is also an accomplished fundraiser in her own right, continuing to consult with high-impact nonprofits and universities. One of the many passages in the book that naturally caught my eye was called “Setting Goals.” Here’s how the vignette reads:

One small independent school thought that it would set a capital campaign goal based on what its peer institutions were raising. The headmaster polled several bigger, successful schools in its market and decided that his school needed to raise $100 million to be just like them. When he told the board they were going to raise $100 million, they balked. The largest campaign they had ever completed was for $25 million. Where were they going to find four times that amount?

The school brought in a consultant to conduct a feasibility study. Discussions with potential donors and board members took over six months, but the final result was a recommendation to develop a $75 million campaign in three phases. The first phase was for $25 million to build a new science center, the second phase of $25 million would be for faculty salaries and program needs, and the third phase was for $25 million for scholarships and endowment. In this way the board agreed to most of the aims of the headmaster but focused on a realistic set of needs and a timeline that could be met.

A “table of needs” is feasibility’s best friend

This small independent school is not unlike many other organizations that have aspirations to be more and do more but they require taking a realistic look at what’s feasible. Ingraham Walker introduces a great exercise to facilitate this feasibility discussion called a “table of needs.” A table of needs is the list of goals your organization wants to raise money to accomplish. These needs should stem directly from your strategic plan and be the basis of your fundraising efforts. The table should result in a three- to five-year list of needs over and above annual operating funds. “The list should be prioritized so that as potential donors are identified, the projects that are most important to the organization get funded first,” says the author.

Let your table of needs increase fundraising solidarity and focus

In the picture above [Image 3.2 on page 55], I’ve shown Ingraham Walker’s example from her book. She points out that this plan relieves the annual fund of picking up the additional annual cost of a new staff member, an all too common method for funding new staff, which creates more pressure on fundraising for operations. Notice how the table covers capital, endowment, program and staffing goals over the next five years. And if this organization is fortunate enough to find a “high impact” gift of $2 to $3 million in addition to the priorities it has identified, it has some big ideas to explore for expanding its services.

For small nonprofits with no history of major gifts, there are major financial and staffing implications to plan a comprehensive fundraising campaign to meet the needs outlined in this exhibit. A board must be willing to help seek additional resources to reach the fundraising levels required by a plan like this.

Why I like it

I like this table-of-needs method because it also puts everyone on the same page if you have multiple staff members working toward funding objectives. For larger teams, it facilitates cohesion toward shared funding goals. And for smaller one-staff-member development efforts, it keeps the board tied to the objectives and keeps the type of prospects needed top-of-mind. Above all, it divides the needs among the different kinds of fundraising strategies as well so there aren’t any surprises in annual giving versus major gifts, for example.

After looking at what transpired at the small independent school, it’s easy to see how a table of needs might have helped it break down the goal into the three agreed phases and areas of programming focus. The table could have also helped the board compartmentalize how each phase would come from different kinds of gifts and how to target specific objectives.

If you’re running your development effort solo or with a department, ask yourself if you have a table of needs or something similar in your plan. It’s a small but mighty tool that will yield clarity and commitment toward goal-setting and organizational growth.

See also:

Fundraising Series–Volume One: Selling Impact, Storytelling, Planned Gift Marketing and Legacy Gifts

The Influential Fundraiser

Fundraising When Money Is Tight

Image credits:

Table 3.2 on page 55: A Fundraising Guide for Nonprofit Board Members by Julia Ingraham Walker



Leave a reply

The Validation Board: a “Lean Startup” strategy worth testing

A few months ago, a colleague recommended I pick up a copy of the popular book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. This book challenges “startup founders to build and run their companies in a new way, maximizing customer value while minimizing wasted effort.” Having run my own business for the past decade, I immediately connected with the wisdom shared by the author regarding how organizations from any sector can achieve higher results while simultaneously investing less time, effort and money. I thought back over my career and noticed for the first time that many of the mistakes I had made over and over would have been totally preventable had I been using these Lean principles.

As I hopped on Google and began investigating this philosophy in more depth, I stumbled upon a website called “Lean Impact – Lean Startup for Social Good.” Since I run a for-profit business that serves the nonprofit sector, I was intrigued by how the site describes how this work-smart approach could benefit the social sector in the following ways:

  • Figuring out what creates real impact and discarding what doesn’t
  • Operating with fewer wasted resources
  • Leveraging forward-thinking technologies to achieve our goals
  • Gathering continual feedback from our community
  • Creating a culture that sees failure as learning that brings us closer to a solution
  • Eliminating mission creep influenced by funding.

What an amazing list of benefits a Lean strategy could have! When I discovered the Lean Startup Conference was coming up in San Francisco, I excitedly booked my ticket and headed there ready to learn more. Having just returned, I’d like to share with you my biggest take-away from the event as it helped me view effective social change in a whole new way. I’d like to introduce you to the Validation Board.

The Lean philosophy is all about failing fast by testing your ideas early before you invest a lot of effort into them. We’ve all been there…We have a “great” idea but after working on developing it for months (and sometimes years), it bombs. What happened? Most likely we had our target market wrong or we were trying to solve a problem that really didn’t matter to our target market in the first place. Our idea may have very well been amazing but unless your target client wants it, it’s really not that viable an idea after all.

Just how does the Validation Board work? Here is a quick seven-step overview. For a more detailed explanation, please watch the video below the seven steps.

1. Identify your “Customer Hypothesis”: Who is your organization’s specific target client? Although we like the idea of helping anyone who needs help, the truth is your organization will be most effective by delivering specific, customized solutions to a specific market.

  • Nonprofit example: women aged 25-45 from the Washington, DC, area who have been victims of domestic abuse.

2. Identify your “Problem Hypothesis”: What problem do you think they have for which they are searching for a solution? I know for me in my work as a coach, it is so easy to see a glaring problem that I can help my client solve; however, if my target market doesn’t personally identify with that same challenge, my solution to their problem won’t “sell” no matter what.

  • Nonprofit example: In an effort to serve these women, you hypothesize these abused women need a shelter to escape the abuse.

3. The first time working through the Validation board, skip the “Solution Hypothesis” because we need some data about the problems our target market is currently facing around a specific issue before we come up with any potential solutions. Once we have some feedback from our market, we can then begin to test the viability of potential solutions.

4. Identify your “Riskiest Assumption”: What are you assuming about what your target clients want? In addition, what data do you need to support your assumption?

  • Nonprofit example: You assume this target market would be willing to come to a shelter to escape when you might not know if women will utilize the shelter until you have some data to prove it. For argument’s sake,  these women may want to escape but would not feel safe in a shelter. Before you invest in building an expensive shelter for them, it would be important to find out what kind of escape resources they would want instead of just assuming you know what they need.

5. Method: How are you going to test your idea? How are you going to find out if your target market identifies with the problem you’re looking to help them solve? Are you going to ask them in person, do a survey, etc.?

6. Minimum Success Criterion: How will I know when I have enough data to validate my idea?

  • Nonprofit example: Before deciding on creating any particular solution to help these women escape, you may decide  you need 18-20 women from your target market to say they would use a shelter. If you don’t get the numbers you need, then you go back and create a new hypothetical problem. For example, maybe the women would feel more comfortable coming to a kid-friendly, established church building.

7.  Pivot as necessary: As you get more feedback from your target market, adjust your approach as necessary. Perhaps the problem you’re setting out to solve isn’t what they really connect with but there is another problem they’d like you to help them solve. Keep tweaking your concept until you have enough information to validate that your idea is viable for both you and for them. Use as many columns on the Validation Board as necessary.

Here is the video resource that explains the Validation Board in more detail:

I admit that after spending two days talking about the Lean Impact conference and then spending hours reading through the different resources on this topic, it is very easy to slip into a mindset where we feel like we are handling our target market’s problems in a way that involves way too much head and not enough heart. Data, numbers, hypothesis…not focused on the heart of the mission; however, I want to offer the questions below to you.

What if being Lean allows you to impact more lives in a more meaningful way, giving your donors a higher ROI on their dollars, thus encouraging them to increase the frequency and amount of their gifts to your organization? What if being Lean makes your nonprofit leadership job easier and more satisfying? Wouldn’t that be worth at least looking into?

More and more, the organizations that are able to change the world will be those who become experts at listening to their target clients’ real needs and then developing customized, innovative solutions to solve them. How they will arrive at these solutions will be through a process of thorough testing, attention to the real data from those they exist to serve and then pivoting accordingly.

I’d love to hear from you…What do you think of the Lean philosophy as it applies to the nonprofit sector? Please leave a comment.

See also:

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity

The End of Fundraising: Raise More Money by Selling Your Impact

Image credit:,,,

Leave a reply

What’s missing in most fundraising campaigns with businesses?

“It’s ironic that there is a new piece of scientific research every week that shows the central role the emotions play in persuasion. For cause marketing, an emotional appeal has to be your vanguard, the thing with which you lead. So given the choice between asking the customer, ‘Please donate to X hospital?’ or ‘Would you like to donate a dollar to help a sick child?’ the latter is the more persuasive appeal,” answered cause marketing expert and author Joe Waters when we asked him about the importance of evoking emotion in fundraising campaigns.

Waters added, “I’m amazed how resistant nonprofits are to emotional appeals. They want to sanitize the appeal to make it more ‘acceptable,’ which is exactly what doesn’t work.”

Evoking emotion in 40 success stories

When he’s not advising clients on how to lead with more emotion in their appeals, Joe Waters is sharing success stories from his new book Fundraising with Businesses: 40 New and Improved Strategies for Nonprofits. Each of his 40 chapters is dedicated to a revenue strategy with companies.

It’s more than writing a check

Waters’ objection to nonprofits not embracing the emotional equity they have as nonprofits is part of his overarching message in the book: Nonprofits willing to get creative and identify businesses that want to engage their employees and customers in doing good have much more to gain than charities that simply ask businesses to write a check.

Why fundraising with businesses is more fruitful when you involve consumers

Waters claims this is a great time for nonprofits to begin partnering with businesses in more meaningful, engaging ways. “Consumers are driving the rise of cause partnerships,” explains Waters. According to the 2010 Cone Cause Evolution Study:

90 percent of consumers want companies to tell them the ways they are supporting causes.
83 percent of Americans wish more of the products, services and retailers they use would support causes.
Support for cause-related partnerships is especially strong from two key consumer groups: moms and Millennials.

Clearly, consumers want to know the business that provides their product or service is rooted in support of its community and engaged in the well-being of those who need help. In other words, consumers are inspired by observing an emotional connection between the community and the company that thrives in it. Fundraisers must look for ways to engage their corporate partners beyond check writing not only because it will yield better results, but also they can leverage what research has already proven.

I’ve excerpted one of Waters’ 40 stories in his book to give you inspiration and a glimpse of why giving customers, employees and businesses a higher connection beyond the simple transaction is so successful:

Share Our Strength and Shake Shack use pinups to fight hunger

A great example of what Waters calls “a midsize partnership” is The Great American Shake Sale launched by Shake Shack and Share Our Strength. Over a few weeks in 2012, this modern roadside burger stand surpassed its original goal of $25,000 and raised over $135,000 with pinups. “A pinup, which is sometimes called a paper plaque, paper icon, scannable or mobile is sold in restaurants, department stores and any other place that has customers at a register,” explains Waters. Shake Shack’s success wasn’t a stroke of luck. The next year, they raised a whopping $285,000 for Share Our Strength. Here’s how:


They laid the groundwork: Share Our Strength CEO, Billy Shore, spoke with the Shake Shack’s senior management about their program to end childhood hunger, No Kid Hungry. The team was inspired and created The Great American Shake Sale.

They trained employees and had fun with it: Every employee was trained about childhood hunger and the importance of making the ask at the register: “Would you like to donate two dollars to end childhood hunger?” Many of the stores had fun with the campaign and created a party-like atmosphere.

They incentivized customers: For every $2 donation, Shake Shack gave a $5 coupon for a free shake.

The rest is history. In Waters’ book, you can read his meaty sections that follow this case story, such as “How It Works in 1-2-3,” “Things to Remember,” “Pinups 101,” and “Steal These Ideas!” Who wouldn’t want to read a section called “Steal These Ideas!” in each chapter? Brilliant.

Joe Waters’ 40 case stories—each profiling a different way to partner with companies—in Fundraising with Businesses will have you highlighting passages and writing notes in the margin. When you see businesses in your community, ask yourself how you might build a partnership where the employees and customers can be part of something greater—your cause.

By Denise McMahan, Founder & Publisher, CausePlanet

See also:

The End of Fundraising: Raise More by Selling Your Impact

How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money

The Influential Fundraiser: Using the Psychology of Persuasion to Achieve Outstanding Results

image credits:,,

Leave a reply

Tired of asking for a check?

The single strategy of asking companies to write a check is tired. You can leverage a corporation’s involvement in many other creative ways that will help raise more money for your organization.

Nine themes

Joe Waters, cause marketing expert, gives 40 specific, practical strategies you can implement now to further your profitable relationships with businesses. They fall into nine categories: point-of-sale, physical go-tos, social media online, deals, direct gifts from businesses, money from employees, required actions from consumers, nonprofit celebrations and special opportunities.

Seven steps to success

If you follow Waters’ seven steps, you can increase your business fundraising results. They include looking at your assets, targeting your supporters, getting your boss’ blessing, focusing on your brand, maintaining a diversified fundraising plan, preparing for competition and seeking professional fundraising help. Waters offers invaluable advice from 20 years of fundraising experience.

Join us!

REGISTER NOW! Join me for a lively discussion about practical strategies you can use to fundraise with businesses with author Joe Waters.

Questions in this interview will touch on the book’s following highlights:
Apply literally dozens of case stories, instructive reminders and highly creative ideas to incorporate business partnerships and revenue into your fundraising plan.

Yield incredibly rewarding company collaborations by adopting the author’s recommended ideas, visual examples and steps for implementation.

Gain inspiration for growing your corporate involvement beyond the single strategy of asking for a check and identify what companies want from nonprofit partners.

Tap into your business partner’s numerous assets, including customer loyalty and employees’ desire to engage in the community.

Image credit:,

Leave a reply

How to run a powerful, purposeful board retreat

There are many good reasons to conduct a board retreat: to create or revisit the organization’s mission, vision, and strategic plan; clarify roles and responsibilities; orient new members; reconnect and re-energize a stagnant board; and/or address critical issues or opportunities, to name a few. However, bringing the entire board together in person can be a challenge. So, to get them to come—and really want to be there—you need to create a focused, meaningful, and enjoyable experience for everyone. Here are some ideas for board retreats that really hit the mark.

Design and Planning

First, identify the purpose and specific outcomes you want from the retreat. Is it time for strategic planning? Are you trying to solve an important organizational issue? Do you need to revitalize a stagnant board? Schedule a planning meeting with the organization’s CEO, board chair, and other leadership team members as needed to determine the retreat purpose and outcomes; learn what’s most pressing for the organization; better understand board dynamics; and assess board engagement, strengths, weaknesses, etc. In addition, discuss timing, duration, location, number of attendees, etc. You don’t need to finalize all the details yet, just enough to develop a draft agenda.

After meeting with organizational and board leaders, it’s a good idea to have brief “input” conversations with some or all board members to understand their views, gather topic ideas and get participants excited about the retreat. Input conversations can last anywhere from 20-40 minutes. Some sample input questions include:

  • What do you think is working well with the organization?
  • What would you like to see the organization do more of, do better or do differently?
  • What do you think the organization should stop doing?
  • What are three things the organization should focus on over the next 12 months?
  • What is your vision for this organization over the next three years?
  • What would help you feel more engaged and useful as a board member?
  • What would help the board work even more effectively together?

Using the information from your leadership planning meeting and input conversations, craft an action-focused agenda that incorporates the retreat’s purpose and desired outcomes. Some things to consider:

  • Avoid status or progress reporting. Instead, have participants review status reports ahead of time and focus sessions on generating ideas, solving problems, making decisions, etc.
  • Structure adequate time for building relationships. Schedule time to eat together, walk together and learn about one another. It’s ideal if you can hold a retreat over two days that includes a social dinner.
  • Build some flexibility into your agenda to accommodate hot topics or deeper dives into important issues.
  • Create discrete sessions with time blocks of one to three hours to help participants digest information, offer natural break points and provide variety. Have each session build upon one another in a logical order based on your goals.
  • As you create the agenda, decide what output you want from each session and plan for how to capture key issues, ideas, resources, outcomes and action steps from each session. This will make documenting the retreat much easier.
  • Schedule ample time (at least 45 minutes) at the end to discuss action items, accountability, takeaways, appreciations and other closing activities.
  • Decide on any supporting materials, resources and preparatory work. Make sure participants have the agenda, materials and instructions at least one week before the retreat. Communicate with board members throughout the planning process to answer questions, remind them about pre-work, help them with logistics, etc.


While it’s not uncommon for a board or staff member to facilitate a retreat, having outside facilitation helps every participant fully engage in the retreat. Also, an outside facilitator also helps reduce bias or undue influence and may notice and address board issues or dynamics not obvious to participants. Some other good practices for facilitation:

  • Start with a warm-up that gets everyone talking. An easy exercise is to pose a couple of questions that participants discuss with one or two people next to them. It’s good to include one personal and one organizational question.
  • Announce the retreat objectives and outcomes, preview the agenda, cover any logistics and discuss how participants can get the most from their time together.
  • Set expectations up front for how you will facilitate the retreat, such as balancing participation, managing interruptions, encouraging constructive comments, etc.
  • Capture highlights from each session using flipcharts, a note taker, recording device, etc. Some facilitators find it useful to use separate flipcharts for ideas, resources, action steps, “parking lot” or other categories as needed.
  • Check in periodically about participants’ comfort level, questions, concerns, etc. The more transparent you are as a facilitator, the more the participants can relax and trust the process.
  • After a long or complex session, briefly summarize highlights and outcomes. If there is time, ask participants to share their own takeaways from the session.
  • If the discussion veers off the agenda, refer back to the retreat objectives and outcomes. Ask if this conversation supports their overall retreat goals, if the topic supersedes other agenda items or if it can be covered elsewhere.
  • Have plenty of food, beverages, time for breaks and table toys to help quell the “fidgets.” Periodically check people’s energy and take a short break if needed.

Outcomes and Next Steps

For a retreat to be worthwhile, participants must know their ideas and decisions will actually go somewhere after the event. It’s equally important for board members to understand their own responsibilities to take actions after the retreat. Here are some ideas for documenting the retreat and creating accountable action steps:

  • After each session, capture key points and outline next steps, responsible parties and time frames. Use action verbs to clarify what needs to be done (write, call, review, schedule, plan, etc.).
  • The final session should be used to summarize all next steps. Discuss how participants will hold themselves and others accountable for taking action. In addition, invite participants to share takeaways, appreciations, personal commitments and other comments.
  • Consider pairing people to accomplish tasks. This helps boost accountability and build board member relationships between meetings.
  • Move away from a “minutes” mindset. Try to organize retreat notes logically rather than strictly chronologically. Participants won’t necessarily remember who said what when so it’s useful to group related ideas and actions together.
  • Suggest ways to incorporate progress checks from the retreat into subsequent board meetings. For example, if you do a strategic plan, organize future board meeting agendas to parallel strategic goal areas from the plan.

Board retreats can be powerful events that help clarify organizational vision, address complex issues and energize a board. With collaborative planning, a steady focus on the desired outcomes, skillful facilitation, and the willingness to hold people accountable, you can transform your board retreat from a necessary evil to the event of the year!

See also:

The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership

A Fundraising Guide for Nonprofit Board Members

Image credit:,,, and

Leave a reply

Welcome! Please provide your log-in information below.
Forget your password?
Enter your email or user name and your log-in information will be sent to the email on file.