Three Thoughts on Technology (Especially in Fundraising)

Technology is a tool.

I have worked for too many places that serve their technology rather than the other way around. Real world practices end up being determined by what their technology – and especially their databases – will allow them do to. And this has meant some bizarre practices. How weird is that? I mean, would anyone accept a hammer that required you to be standing on one leg and facing away from the nail in order to use it? No. And yet we too quickly become willing to allow our technology to determine how we do things… even if that means we do things in ways that make no sense.

Or we end up not doing things at all. Database doesn’t handle moves management? It doesn’t get done. Can handle event management? We end up not tracking expenses… and thinking our events perform far better than they do. Why is that acceptable?

Obviously, there’s a relationship between our practices and our tools. Hammers leave callouses. Heavier tools can strain our muscles and shape our backs. So, yeah, to a degree our technology is going to influence our practices – and the shape of our resource development strategies. But rather than blithely accepting this, we should acknowledge and respond to how our technology influences us.

Tools are there to make life easier.

Following on the first point, look at your technology and ask this question: is this making things easier? I’ve seen organizations that have entire staff positions dedicated to being able to do things the way their technology wants it done – because it’s so complicated it takes an entire position to work it and work around it. Why is that okay?

It’s not!

If a tool isn’t making life easier – or, worse, is making life harder – get rid of it.

The single biggest problem I see with organizations and their technology is inertia. We get used to doing things the way our technology demands they be done. We get used to culling through mailing lists by hand because our database can’t handle households. We get used to the shape our offices take as they form, like a pearl, around the grain of sand that is bad technology And eventually… we can’t imagine doing things any other way!

Let your real world practices and strategies determine what your technology needs to do – that is: what it needs to help your with.

If it’s doing those things, good, you’ve made excellent technology choices.

If it isn’t, get rid of it and find another solution.

Some Thoughts on MultiState Nonprofit Registration

If you’re part of a small nonprofit organization that solicits gifts in multiple states, you’re probably a little familiar with multistate nonprofit registration. This is the requirement that nonprofit organizations that are based in one state and ask for gifts in another state have to register with the second state.

So, for example, an organization based in Davenport, Iowa, that sends a direct mail appeal across the Mississippi River to its neighbor, Rock Island, Illinois, must also register as a soliciting organization in Illinois.

Now, just so we have some clarity on this and don’t cause anyone to panic, a few notes. First, churches are often exempt from registration. So a congregation in Davenport that sends a pledge form to a member in Rock Island probably does not need to register. Second, an organization doesn’t need to register in order to receive gifts. If someone from Rock Island sends a gift to the nonprofit in Davenport, that doesn’t mean the organization in Davenport needs to register. The organization only needs to register if it solicits gifts in another state. Third, there’s no firm ruling on how this affects online solicitations like emails, social media, or a nice shiny donate button on a website.

Multistate registration is required by something like 38 states plus the District of Columbia. For organizations that solicit in just a couple of states, that might be no big deal. For organizations that solicit in a lot of states – organizations that have a national donor base – it is a tremendous challenge. Even though there is a movement for a unified registration form, some states haven’t agreed to it, and the states that have agreed to it often require additional forms that are state-specific. In addition to the forms, of course, there are supplemental materials that need to be collected and fees that need to be paid.

For a large organization, this might be feasible (though I won’t claim that it would be easy). A sizable accounting department, with help from the development office, might be able to take care of these registrations in the normal course of business. For small or mid-size organizations, however, this is a serious challenge.

To give an example, I know of an organization with a national donor base that could not handle the work of all of these registrations in house. There simple wasn’t the staff with the necessary expertise (not to mention time). They hired a very reputable company that handles this work for them. The total cost – the service fee to the company, the registration fees to states, and other fees – was about $10,000.

That represents less than one percent of that organization’s budget (it’s about the same amount they actually spend on direct mail appeals each year). It also represents children not fed, families not housed, people not clothed, case management not provided, homes not repaired, and dozens of other tasks not completed. For a smaller organization, with a national donor base, this would be debilitating.

I’m sure that the logic behind multistate registration is to protect unwary residents from being scammed by fake ‘charities’. I’m also suspect that some states see this as an opportunity to bring in a little revenue. But I am also absolutely sure that there is a better way to do this. For example, what if every organization that is registered with the IRS was exempt from these requirements? The IRS could share its list of legitimate organizations with the states. That would protect the unwary and remove a burden on nonprofits that would much rather use those registration fees to help people.

So, perhaps rather than a movement for a unified form that would be used as part of the package sent to some of the states, we need a real push for national — and only national — nonprofit registration.

It Does All Belong to God. That Doesn’t Mean It All Belongs to the Church. It Sure Doesn’t Mean It All Belongs to Your Church.

My wife is a pastor of a local congregation of the United Church of Christ. That means that she sometimes receives mail from fundraising consultants looking for clients. Recently, she got a mailing that included these two paragraphs (emphasis original):

Why aren’t their people giving as they could or should? It’s not the economy which goes up and down like a thermometer. It’s not unemployment, though many people have simply quit looking for work. And it’s not that they don’t love the Lord or want to see their church grow and abound.

The reason people are not giving as they could or should is that they have never been trained to give. They have never come face to face with the fact that God owns it all. They have never realized that all of us own exactly the same amount – zero – and that we are managers and stewards of what God has entrusted to us.

Sigh. This is an attitude I see a lot in fundraising for religious organizations. It is frighteningly common belief that being a good steward of God’s gifts means using those gifts to support one particular organization: my organization. In the church, it looks like the paragraphs I quoted: people who are good stewards of God’s gifts will give those gifts to my church.

And that’s just not true.

Being a good steward of God’s gifts means doing with those gifts what God calls us to do with those gifts. And while many people are called to give to the institutional church or to a particular congregation, many people are called to give to other organizations as well (or instead). I believe that God really does want us to support education and the arts; God really does want us to help refugees and support human rights; God really does want us to save the rainforests and keep rhinoceroses from going extinct.

God has a lot of work for us to do. Sometimes that’s going to mean giving our gifts to organizations other than our congregations. Sometimes, that’s even going to mean not giving our gifts to our congregations.

Because sometimes, our congregations are terrible stewards of those gifts. Sometimes, our congregations aren’t doing the work that we’re called to give to. Sometimes, our congregations are more focused on maintaining an institution than being a force for good in the world.

And most of the time, when people aren’t giving, it isn’t because people don’t understand the importance of giving.

It’s because people haven’t been given a reason to give.

So this letter had some things right. When people aren’t giving to a congregation, it isn’t because of the economy, it isn’t because of unemployment, it isn’t because they don’t love the Lord. But it also isn’t that they’ve never learned to give.

But it may be because that congregation hasn’t made a strong case that it is a worthy recipient of those gifts. And making that case is what congregations should focus on.

Development Is a Program

Recently, on a forum I frequent, I came across this question:

Fundraising seems like a full time job. How do you do it when you’re the only employee of your nonprofit, and you have to do it all, from programming, accounting, marketing, events, and fundraising?

I responded on that forum, but I wanted to take a minute to flesh out my response here.

One of the mistakes that a lot of nonprofits make is thinking that development is something that they do in addition to their programs. Often, those nonprofits believe that development is something they do in order to support their real work: it’s how they raise the money to feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for abandoned animals, and so on.

I believe that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of nonprofits and the role of development. I believe that development is part of the mission of every nonprofit.

In a sense, every nonprofit has two sets of clients. One is the group of people we usually think of as clients. The other is the donors who support the organization. You see, one of the purposes of a nonprofit organization is to be a conduit for the power of its donors to change the world; every nonprofit is an organization that donors give through, not just to. People who want to feed the hungry do that by giving through nonprofits that feed the hungry. People who want to house the homeless do that by giving through nonprofits that house the homeless. And so on. Those donors might do other things as well, but one of the ways they take action is through their giving.

Once a nonprofit sees this, it can begin understanding its donors not as potential sources of funding, but as people who it is serving.

Realizing that doesn’t make fundraising any less work. It doesn’t diminish the size of ‘doing it all’. But it does change the nature of that work. Once the only employee, and the Board, and volunteers, understand that fundraising and stewardship are part of the mission, they can integrate that work into the work of the organization. And that can make an unbelievable difference.

Two Challenges When Raising Money from Churches

My official title is ‘church relations associate’, so you might think that I spend a lot of my time relating to congregations. And, since my job is to raise money, you might think I spend a lot of time raising money from congregations.

I don’t.

I spend far more of my time relating to – and raising money from – individuals. Yes, I visit congregations. I preach. I attend events. I ask them to send groups to volunteer. I ask them for money. But I spend more of my time on direct mail, social media, email, our website, phone calls, and personal visits with individuals.

Here’s why: raising money from congregations is hard. The amount of effort it takes to raise $1,000 from a congregation is generally exponentially larger than the amount of effort it takes to raise the same amount of money from an individual or family. This is true for two major reasons. First, many congregations are themselves under a great deal of financial pressure. Second, decision making authority in congregations tends to be dispersed.

Financial Pressure in Congregations

Let’s be honest, a lot of congregations – especially, but not only, mainline congregations – are facing immense financial pressures. We live in an era of rising employment costs, aging memberships, shrinking congregations, and a million other realities that mean that congregations have less money to spend on more things.

This fact is easily illustrated by looking at employment in churches. As I write this, there are eight congregations in the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ (my own denomination) actively searching for a pastor. Seven of those positions are part time, and one of them is part time and temporary. Five of the congregations have a membership of under 100 people (two more have a membership of 100 people). Five of them also have total budgets under $100,000 per year.

I’m not going to claim that those congregations are representative of mainline congregations, but I suspect that more mainline congregations look like these congregations than don’t.

And how many of them are in any position to make a financial contribution to another organization?

The simple fact is that more congregations are facing these kinds of financial pressures. And when they face these pressures, one of the first things they try to do is cut their budgets. And when they try to cut their budgets, one of the first places they look is their mission spending, whether that’s to their denomination or to outside organizations.

Decision Making in Congregations

It’s easy to imagine that the best route to a gift from a congregation is through the pastor. After all, the pastors have real authority within churches and can be powerful advocates for missions that they believe in. Even if the congregation is thinking about cutting their total mission spending, surely the pastor can make sure that a particular line of mission spending is kept… or even increased!

And that’s true… up to a point.

The fact is that in most congregations, the pastor has some – but nowhere close to all – of the decision making power. When it comes to mission spending, the pastor is a lone voice. Decision making authority rests with the stewardship committee (which raises the money), the finance committee (which designs the budget), the mission committee (which makes specific recommendations about mission spending), and the congregation (which must approve all of these decisions in some way). The ability to make decisions is dispersed across committees and individuals throughout the congregation.

And who those individuals are – whether they act alone or as part of a committee – can change from year to year or even month to month.

That means that you, as a fundraiser, never know quite who to approach about that gift. And given the variety of budget making processes in congregations, you may never quite know when.


That leaves fundraisers seeking money from churches in a tight position. We’re talking about raising money from an organization that probably doesn’t have money to spare. And we’re talking about doing that without a clear picture of who to speak to or when to speak to them. That is not an idea position to be in when asking for money.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask congregations for money, of course. It just means that you need to recognize the limits of doing that. You are far better off focusing on individuals. And, if you want to raise money from congregations, equipping those individuals to be advocates within their own congregations.


Kill Your Darlings

“In writing,” says William Faulkner, “you must kill your darlings.”

We all have favorites. In writing, we have favorite stories, favorite words, favorite phrases, favorite structures, and so on. We also have our favorites in fundraising: the channel we just have to use, the model we just have the follow, the even we just have to throw. I’d almost bet that our favorites give us a fundraising fingerprint. Someone who paid close enough attention, given enough information about style and demands, could identify each of us.

But here’s the cold, hard fact: it doesn’t matter if something is your favorite. It only matters if it works.

It doesn’t matter if you love your database, or an event, or a letter, or a picture, or a story. It only matters if it generates money for the cause.

There are limits, of course. Some things – the unethical, the illegal, etc. – are absolutely off-limits.

But, in general, if it doesn’t work – even if it’s beautiful – kill it. And if it does work – even if it’s hideous – keep it.

Turning Beneficiaries into Assets (and Why It’s Not a Good Thing)

Sometime around 1739, the founders of London’s Foundling Hospital were the first people in the modern age to use the word ‘philanthropy’ to mean the project of forming “a voluntary enterprise of private persons, moved by ‘an Inclination to promote Publick Good.’”1Robert A. Gross, “Giving in America: From Charity to Philanthropy” in Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History, edited by Lawrence J. Friedman and Mark D. McGarvie (New York: Cambridge, 2002), 37 This is what philanthropy means in the modern world: private wealth used for public good. The ‘public good’ that the creators of the Foundling Hospital had in mind, though, wasn’t just the good of the abandoned children they cared for. They believed that the children could be molded into model citizens – “useful hands” and “good and faithful servants”2Robert A. Gross, “Giving in America: From Charity to Philanthropy,” 37 – who would work for the expansion of English power. Of course, this meant that those children would be encouraged to support the interests of their benefactors, who held power, privilege, and prestige.

I bring this up because Maeve Strathy at What Gives? – a blog I really quite like – recently applauded a little linguistic trick that I find… disturbing:

On Monday, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Evelyne Guindon, CEO of Cuso International. I was recording a podcast for Blakely and Evelyne was my interviewee this time around. (Stay tuned for the podcast, by the way!)

Evelyne said something that really resonated with me. She referred to the beneficiaries of their work as “assets”.


I absolutely loved that.

I understand why Strathy loves this. We in the nonprofit sector, especially those of us who are fundraisers and communicators, love coming at ideas from new angles. And one of our favorite things to do is change the way we use language: it’s not a nonprofit, it’s for impact; it’s not charity, it’s philanthropy; we don’t inform, we involve; they aren’t a donor, they’re an investor! Sometimes, that helps us think and behave a different way. And, of course, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, saying “they’re not a beneficiary, they’re an asset” is supposed to help us think that this isn’t someone we’re helping, she’s someone who can contribute to society!

The problem is that assets aren’t living, breathing people with hopes and aspirations. They’re things (or people, or qualities) that are useful and valuable and, usually, owned. They serve a purpose. They exist to serve a purpose. They exist to serve a purpose for the person who controls them.

And so the young woman in Strathy’s example “isn’t the beneficiary of donor support; she is an asset that’s been tapped into through donor support. It’s like she’s a natural resource that just hadn’t been discovered yet.”

She is, in other words, a thing that can be put to use: a vein of ore, an oil reservoir, a forest that can be chopped down. She can be put to use. And the question we need to ask is to whose use she can be put. Is she being being empowered for her own good? Or is she being made into a good citizen of global market capitalism?

We also need to admit that there’s nothing wrong with being a beneficiary. There’s nothing wrong with needing or receiving help. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with helping someone. Helping is a good thing. Being helped is a good thing. Helping each other is a good thing.

Update: Strathy posted a follow-up.

Footnotes   [ + ]

How to Write Your Thank You Letter

One of the most powerful things that every fundraiser does is say ‘thank you’. It’s also something that a lot of organizations find difficult. There’s always the temptation to turn the thank you letter into a gift receipt, to ask for another gift, or to write about things that are more important to the letter writer than to the donor. Some organizations even forget to say ‘thank you’ altogether!

So I’m providing this short guide on how to write a thank you letter. For my examples, I’ll use the Greater Madison Animal Welfare Center, which I’m pretty confident is a fictional organization.

The Salutation

While all of your letters should be personalized, this is especially important for thank you letters. Select a salutation that fits with your organization’s voice, whether that’s formal (e.g., Dear Mr. and Mrs. Jones) or informal (e.g. Dear Jack and Jill).

Example: Dear Jack and Jill,

The First Paragraph

This may be the only part of the body of the letter that your donor reads, and that means that it has to do the heavy lifting. This paragraph should absolutely say ‘thank you’. It can also let the donor know that you know the amount of the gift and – in a general sense, what it was used for.

Example: Thank you so much for your gift of $100 to sponsor one of our kennels! Your gift is being put to work to provide a comfortable home for a dog until he finds his forever home. Thanks to you, a dog will have a warm, safe place to stay, along with good meals, medical care, companionship, and play time.

The Middle

This is a good opportunity to expand on what you wrote in the first paragraph. The most important thing here is to connect the donor to the good that her gift did. This isn’t about your budget. This isn’t about your organizational concerns. This is about the work that the donor has done by giving that gift. In other words, this is about the people you serve.

Example: Dogs like Beauregard. Beauregard is a four-year old terrier to came to us last week. He’s energetic, friendly, and gets along with everyone. We’re sure he’ll find a forever home soon. Until then, your gift is providing a wonderful temporary home for him.

The Last Paragraph

Take just a moment to say thank you one last time and let the donor know how big of an impact she had.

Example: Thank you for partnering with us through your generous gift. We, and the animals we care for, are ever grateful.

The Valediction

Yes, the part of the letter where you write ‘Sincerely,’ or ‘Yours Truly,’ has a name! It’s the valediction. Don’t sweat this too much, but make it something professional, warm, and suited to your organization. Most nonprofits might use ‘Yours’. A church might use ‘In Christ’s name’ or ‘Grace and Peace’.

Example: Warmly Yours,

The Signature

There’s a lot of debate to be had over who should sign a thank you letter. Some people say that the executive director or president of the board of directors should sign letters. Others suggest that the people who run the program the gift effects should sign the letter for that gift. There’s a case to be made for each of those, and an easy way to solve the dilemma is to have layered thank you letters (i.e.the executive director sends one thank you letter, which is followed up by a letter from a program director).

There is one hard and fast rule, though: always hand sign thank you letters. Printed signatures are not acceptable.

The Postscript

The postscript is one of the most read parts of any letter. This is a great opportunity for a call to action, as long as that call to action isn’t asking for another gift. I recommend providing donors with a way to get more information about the work that their gift is doing. This might include an invitation to view stories on your website. And don’t forget to say ‘thank you’ one more time!

Example: PS: Thank you again for your generous support. If you’d like to see more about the work your gift is doing, please visit us at

That Pesky IRS Language

It’s true that our friends at the Internal Revenue Service mandates that your gift acknowledgements contains certain information. This information includes:

  • The amount of the gift or, if it’s a gift-in-kind, a description of the gift,
  • A statement about whether the donor received any goods or services in exchange for the gift, and
  • If goods or services were received by the donor, a good faith estimate of their value.

But this should not be the focus of the letter! If you’ve followed the example above, you’ve already included the amount (though you might want to include the amount and date again). So, if it’s a thank you letter for a regular gift, you just need a statement that the donor didn’t receive any goods or services in exchange for that gift. I prefer to put this in a small note at the bottom of the letter.

Example: For your tax records, and in compliance with 26 US Code§170(f)(8), this letter also serves as verification that no goods or services were given in exchange for your gift.


Hopefully, the template above is useful. The most important thing to remember, though, is that the thank you letter has a very simple job: to let the donor know you received the gift, to thank them for that gift, and to tell them that the gift is being put to work as they intended. If you keep that in mind – and an attitude of gratitude in your heart – writing a thank you letter shouldn’t be an arduous task.

Here’s the whole letter:

Dear Jack and Jill,

Thank you so much for your gift of $100 to sponsor one of our kennels! Your gift is being put to work to provide a comfortable home for a dog until he finds his forever home. Thanks to you, a dog will have a warm, safe place to stay, along with good meals, medical care, companionship, and play time.

Dogs like Beauregard.

Beauregard is a four-year old terrier to came to us last week. He’s energetic, friendly, and gets along with everyone. We’re sure he’ll find a forever home soon. Until then, your gift is providing a wonderful temporary home for him.

Thank you for partnering with us through your generous gift. We, and the animals we care for, are ever grateful.

Warmly Yours,

Jane Johnson
Executive Director

PS: Thank you again for your generous support. If you’d like to see more about the work your gift is doing, please visit us at

Date of Gift: September 9, 2016
Amount of Gift: $100

For your tax records, and in compliance with 26 US Code§170(f)(8), this letter also serves as verification that no goods or services were given in exchange for your gift.

Keep It Simple, Do It Well

A few blocks from my apartment is a hip little downtown restaurant. I went there not long after it opened and the food had all of the traits I’ve come to expect from hip little downtown restaurants: it was complicated, it was expensive, and it was… okay.

I’ve been back a few times since. Despite changes in the kitchen staff and the menu there’s a trend. It’s always complicated. It’s always expensive. It’s always… okay.

Before my fundraising career and before seminary, I was a cook. I wasn’t a great cook. I didn’t work in the finest restaurants in the world. There were no Michelin stars. But I learned to cook and still enjoy cooking at home.

One of the most important things I learned is that good food – good, delicious, soul stirring food – doesn’t have to be complicated. Good food doesn’t need dozens of ingredients or complex cook methods or detailed presentation. It can have those things. Those things can be fun. But it doesn’t need those things.

Good food can be simple. The best food, in my opinion, usually is simple. Good food – good, delicious, soul stirring food – is almost always a simple thing done well.

That’s true in a lot of things. It’s absolutely true in fundraising.

It’s easy to think that good fundraising has to be complicated. There are consultants and coaches out there who will tell you that it has to be complicated. They’ll talk about detailed donor segmentation, gift spikes, media schedules, and a thousand other details.

It can be overwhelming. It can be overwhelming.

So make it simple. Keep it simple. Do it well.

All fundraising really comes down to doing four simple things well: talking to people, sharing stories, giving concrete ways to make an impact, and saying thank you.

Those four things might be difficult to do. They might be hard work. They might involve long hours. But they’re not complicated.

And if you do those four simple things and concentrate on doing them well, all of the other things – list segmentation, ask targets, task scheduling – will take care of themselves.

3 Things That (Maybe) Worked in Fundraising a Decade Ago That Don’t Today

A while ago, I linked to this post by Carey Nieuwhof titled 9 Things That Worked in the Church A Decade Ago That Don’t Today.” I linked to it partly because I thought as many churches as possible should see it. But I also linked to it because I thought a lot of the things on Carey’s list applied to how nonprofit organizations raise funds. So I’m going to riff on Carey’s list a bit. I’m not going to talk about nine things, though. I’ll just do three.

Thinking People Will Automatically Give Again

Maybe there was a time we could rely on our donors to give to us. Maybe there was a time when all anybody needed was a little reminder to support an organization or a cause that they loved.

If there ever was such a time, it’s over.

It’s a well-known fact in the fundraising world that donor retention rates are terrible. According to Bloomerang – a donor management software company – median donor retention is 43% and first-time donor retention is only 19%. Think about that. Out of every 100 donors you have right now, 43 of them will be gone by next year. And those 100 brand new donors you brought on board? Only 19 of them will stick around. And that’s if you’re in the middle of the pack.

The simple fact is that donors don’t stick around unless we engage them appropriately. That means thanking them promptly when they make a gift, informing them about the good their gift has done, and involving them in our work.

Being Good Enough for Us

We often take pride in being good enough. We get thank you letters out in a time that seems reasonable to us. We publish a newsletter that looks good to us. We invite people to get involved in the ways we want them to be involved. We do what we think will keep our donors happy. And when those donors aren’t happy, we bemoan the fact that they just don’t understand.

Here’s the thing: there are about 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, and the average Baby Boomer gives to about four of them (the average Millennial gives to about three). We are always competing with a lot of other organizations for a very limited number of slots in our donors’ philanthropic inventories.

Being good enough for ourselves won’t work. We need to be better than the vast majority of those other organizations. We need to thank better. We need to inform better. We need to invite better. We need to stand out.

That’s how you get one of those four slots.

Being a Business

There was a time when nonprofits were businesses. There was a time when appeals eschewed contractions because they were too informal. There was a time when it was okay to talk about ourselves. That time is over.

Donors want to know that we’re professional. They also want to know that we’re people and that we’re passionate. They want to know that we’re passionate people who care about the things that they care about and who will help them realize their own charitable goals. Businesses don’t have that personality. They’re cold. They’re impersonal. They care about themselves.

That’s part of why so many businesses are leaving behind the business image; they know that people want to be involved in people.

We are people. We’re passionate people. We shouldn’t be afraid to show it.

So, What’s Not Working?

This is a short list and – let’s be honest – if it were a different day I might pick three other things that aren’t working.

As fundraisers, we face a lot of options about what we can do. We face a lot of rumors about what will work and soon won’t. How many times have I been told about the wonders of text-to-give or the demise of direct mail? It’s important to take stock of the things we’ve gotten used to and separate the wheat from the chaff.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is this: the chaff usually isn’t our activities. It’s our attitudes.

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