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Know Your Organization

by Tony Poderis

You start the process of becoming a fund-raiser for an organization when you first become involved with the organization. That's when you begin to acquire knowledge about an organization, and acquisition of knowledge is the first step in preparing to raise money. To sell any product, it is important to know just what the product is and what it does. It makes no difference whether you are a waitress explaining the intricacies of the specials of the day, a computer salesperson pitching the new improved model, or a solicitor in a fund-raising campaign.

If you are the person running a campaign, you must make sure your solicitors have access to information about what the organization is, what it does, and why money is needed in the furtherance of what goals. If you are the person asking for the money, think about how you would go about making your request without that information. Yes, you will on occasion find people who will give because you ask rather than give to the cause, but that is the exception and --this can't be said often enough ---you cannot rely on the exception to support your organization.

New board members should be invited to attend a formal orientation session exposing them to what the organization does, how it is important to the community, why its services are necessary, and what their role will be. Volunteer solicitors in a campaign should be given the same information. Professional development officers need to steep themselves in the workings of the organization from their first day on the job.

Your Mission -- It Is Not What You Do, But The Difference You Make In The Lives Of People

No matter what your position or role in an organization's fund-raising efforts, the mission statement is the single most important thing you must understand. The mission statement outlines the organization's values and purposes, programs and services, and hopes and dreams --- its priorities. Printed on the back of a schedule, gracing the first page of an annual report or emblazoned on a lobby wall, it purports to delineate the whys and wherefores, explain the purpose, and elucidate the value to the community of an organization. It is, or should be, a statement of an organization's reason for being and its strengths. As such, it is the first statement in the litany of fund-raising.

Making The Case For Support

You can't make the case for support unless you know your organization's strengths. Neither can you expect to succeed without an understanding of its weaknesses and perceived negatives. I remember a campaign I worked on during my first year in fund-raising. A hospital was trying to raise money to build a new 200-bed facility to replace its existing 100 beds. Sounds reasonable at first blush. The problem was the hospital only had a 40 percent occupancy rate. Our job was to raise money to add 100 beds to a hospital which already had 60 empty beds. There goes the argument for needed expansion.

However, we understood that seeming weakness in our case and why it existed. As a result, we were able to to eliminate the perception of it as a negative argument against our campaign. The hospital was better than half empty because it was antiquated. Doctors didn't want to send their patients there. The solution was to build a new hospital, and the community needed the additional 100 modern beds.

My point is this: If your organization has a weakness that can be perceived as a fund-raising negative, you don't ignore it. You face it head on, take the offensive, and turn it into a fund-raising strength.

New and forming organizations are fraught with weaknesses and perceived fund-raising negatives. To begin with, the community got along without them in the past. How does a new organization know it is needed now? Has it done a market analysis? Is there a compelling reason for the organization to exist and for specific people to support it? The answer to those questions can be found by asking one question, and it is a question every organization new or old must ask at the onset of every fund-raising campaign. It needs to be asked about the organization in general and the specific purpose the campaign is supporting.

Who Cares Enough About Our Organization To Give Us Money?

Remember the TV detective Kojak, played by the late Telly Savalas, who was always asking, "Who loves ya, baby?" Well, the question fund-raisers need to ask of their organizations is the same, although it is more likely to be phrased, Who cares about us and why?

Let's go back to the mission statement for a moment. If an organization's mission statement is truly in sync with what the organization is doing, it provides a way to help identify who cares about it and why. Or put another way, it explains who benefits from the existence of the organization.

For nearly all community organizations there are two primary beneficiary groups:

  1. people who directly avail themselves of its services.
  2. a much larger grouping of people who, while they do not avail themselves of its services, nevertheless indirectly benefit because of what the organization does for the community.

That latter group benefits because of its geographic proximity. For example, an arts education organization obviously benefits those who enroll in its classes. They and their families would therefore be high on its list of donor prospects. However, all of those who live within the area from which it draws students also benefit because of the value such an organization has to the community. The availability of arts classes makes the community a better place to live and arguably has an effect on property values and the desirability of the community as a place to do business. Therefore, all of those persons living within the organization's service area are logically also prospective donors. Business and civic leaders likewise may never take a class, but they too benefit --- even more strongly than the pubic at large, it can be argued --- because of the positive effect the organization has on a community in which they are even larger stakeholders than the average resident.

Don't Look To Distant Benefactors

When it comes to the solicitation of corporate contributions, area of service and geography are often important deciding factors. A company rarely gives to a community organization that does not provide service to an area in which a substantial number of its employees either live or work. To put it bluntly, a corporation usually must have a facility or business connection in an area if it is to be successfully solicited.

It is possible for your organization to have a unique quality that would cause people with no stake in your geographic area to care about it enough to provide support. An inner-city housing initiative, for example, might draw the interest of national foundations and philanthropists from other communities because of its potential for replication. But you shouldn't count on distant benefactors. That would be the exception, and you can't rely upon the exception for support.

Money usually stays close to home, and conversely when it moves out of your area, don't expect it to come back for regular visits. Once a big donor, one who may have supported you for years, leaves town, his sense of philanthropic responsibility will be transferred to his new community. While he may remember you fondly and treasure his years of affiliation, he may no longer benefit from your services and therefore may no longer care about you in the same way.

Why Do You Need To Raise Money?

How your organization raises and spends money is knowledge a successful fund-raiser must also have at his or her fingertips. You need to know and understand your organization's budget so that you can delineate the cost of operation and how the money to cover that cost is to be generated. Nearly all non-profits are, by their nature, limited in their capacity to increase earned revenues, and many are unable to produce any earned income because they serve groups that cannot afford to pay.

The inability to produce enough earned income to cover the cost of doing business is why non-profit organizations must be fund-raisers. However, understanding your organization's capacity to produce earned income, knowing where such income comes or could come from, and maximizing it, are essential to developing a successful fund-raising campaign. If your prospective donors believe you could be producing more earned income, they will be far less likely to give of their limited philanthropic resources.

No matter what your role in a fund-raising campaign --- be it organization director, development director, campaign chairperson, or solicitor --- to operate at optimum effectiveness you need to be convinced your organization is maximizing its potential to produce earned income --- within the confines of its mission. That last part is very important. There are things non-profit organizations simply cannot do which are second nature to businesses seeking to improve their bottom line.

At the Cleveland Orchestra, when we were subjected to questions regarding our profit-making capabilities, we responded half-jokingly that we could not increase our productivity even if we played a Beethoven symphony faster than it was played 200 years ago. We could not speed up our assembly line, nor could we reduce the number of violinists required through automation. If the "widget" we produced was symphonic music, we could not cut costs by turning ourselves into a chamber orchestra and still produce our symphonic-music "widget."

On the other hand, we did need to demonstrate constantly improving efficiency in other areas of our operations. For a non-profit, being perceived as a lean, mean fighting machine is critical to optimizing the results of a fund-raising campaign. But budget cuts must not come at the expense of maintaining and improving service to the community and program quality. A non-profit that cuts back on the quality of its services will diminish its fund-raising appeal.

Before You Ask For Money, Know Your Organization

To summarize: If you are to raise money, you need to know your organization. There is no faster way to lose prospective donors than by being unable to answer questions and remove objections to giving. You need to know the organization's reason for being, its goals and objectives, its beneficiaries, and its operational and financial efficiencies. Know those things, and you know the organization. That knowledge will do more than prepare you to answer questions. It will give you the confidence and composure to pick up the telephone or knock on a door, and ultimately to sit in someone's office or living room and ask for money.

Knowing the organization is crucial to fund-raising, but without commitment, knowledge is worthless. There is a terribly hollow ring to words spoken in support of a cause in which the speaker does not believe. Volunteers occasionally find themselves pressed into service for an organization that their company or their boss supports but to which they have no real commitment. Keep in mind that, while these people can be effective fund-raisers, they do it by forcing themselves to "meet their quota." High on their list of priorities is figuring out a way to avoid the assignment next time. You will not be developing a pool of volunteers from which you can draw to staff future campaigns if your solicitors have been forced into service.

Knowledge and commitment are the two strongest tools a fund-raiser can have. Without knowledge, you cannot present your case to prospective donors. Without true commitment, you will not maximize the results of your efforts. If you are to raise money for an organization, know that organization and be committed to its cause.

Check Out How Well You Know Your Organization

  • We have a clearly defined, fully understood, and completely accepted mission statement that addresses the difference our organization will make for those it serves, rather than merely describing what it does.

  • We are certain that our services are different from others, are not duplicated in the same service area, and that they are needed. If we are planning a new organization, we should conduct a "market study" to be certain our services are, in fact, needed.

  • We take advantage of our strengths as we make our case for support, letting none of the good things we do be "well kept secrets."

  • We turn our weaknesses into strengths by first identifying those we are handling in a defensive way or ignoring, and then developing a plan of action to change them.

  • We have full access to information about what our organization is, what it does, and why money is needed in the furtherance of what goals. We have a "full disclosure" policy in effect at all times.

  • We can readily identify our principal support base from those personally touched, inspired, or motivated by what we do, and from those not directly involved, but who are influenced and impressed by what we do.

  • We know exactly what our operational budget numbers are. When it comes to raising money, if we do not know our expenses, we can neither set fund-raising goals, nor let prospects know our needs.

  • We can demonstrate constantly improving efficiency in all our areas of operation. But, we don't make budget cuts at the expense of maintaining and improving our service to the community and program quality.

  • We maximize earned income and constantly assess whether more can be obtained by increasing charges for services in order to lessen fund-raising pressure.


About the Author: Tony Poderis was for 20 years to 1993 Director of Development for The Cleveland Orchestra and its Summer Home, Blossom Music Center. He was responsible for Cleveland's largest annual institutional fund-raising campaign. Since 1993, Tony has been a fund-raising consultant serving all non-profit institutions' needs to develop and to maximize their potential to raise Annual, Endowment, Capital, and Sponsorship & Underwriting funds.

Tony's experiences have won him a wide audience. At many hundreds of seminars and workshops in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and Mexico over the course of his 30 years in fund-raising, he has addressed every facet of raising contributed income for social service, medical, educational, religious, and cultural institutions. He is a fund-raising Speaker/Specialist consultant to the United States Information Agency and the Mexican Government.

Tony is the author of a 115 page book on fund-raising published by FundAmerica Press titled "It's a Great Day to Fund-Raise!" In this publication, he has condensed his nearly three decades of fund-raising experience to provide a concise step-by-step guide to help all volunteers and professionals be as successful as possible as they carry out their fund-raising responsibilities for their respective non-profit institutions.

Visit his web site at for more information about his book and lots of other great fundraising advice.

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