In the last months, I have heard the phrase “challenging times” being used in a variety of contexts. So, I asked myself in what ways are these “challenging times” for fundraisers. In order to add credence to anything I might say, I thought I should begin by defining just what the word “challenge” or “challenging” means.I was surprised that the first definition was about an invitation to compete in something. Synonyms were words like provocation, test, trial, question, dispute, opposition and confrontation among others. The second definition was to invite to engage in competition or a contest. The synonyms were test, tax, strain, stretch, stimulate, inspire and excite. The more I thought about the two definitions that I found on BING the more I realized that they both have implications for a conversation about the challenges that development and mission advancement directors face today.
The definition of “challenge” as a noun seems to focus on competitiveness. How often do we as fundraisers talk about the competition in the mailbox, and now, in digital media? How does “our package” or “our message” stand out from everyone else’s? Internally, if we are doing our jobs well, we are constantly testing, questioning and measuring. We compare one campaign against another. We compare one year’s results against another. We analyze, we question, we dispute and we confront each other as we study the metrics that measure our efforts.
What challenges are we facing?
Externally we belong to various affinity groups, with whom we can compare our results with other Catholic or charitable fundraisers. The challenge is not only about keeping up with the “competition,” so to speak, it is also about constantly raising more money, finding new donors and reactivating former donors. We are challenged or find ourselves “tested” to find a solution to bridge the growing gap in our database between donors we are losing through death or disengagement, and the acquisition of new donors.
At the height of the Recession, we were confronted with budget and staffing cuts and high expectations to do more with fewer resources. Even though we have, for the most part, recovered from the Recession, our budgets and staffing needs are frequently questioned. Often we feel we are almost “on trial” as we try to justify our operational needs in order to meet the demands for more and more income from our programs.
A different kind of challenge and SWOT
Then there is the flip side of the meaning of “challenge.” It is the definition of the word as a verb. It is a call to action. It is about stretching, stimulating and inspiring. It demands more of what I would call positive or proactive energy than questioning, competing, disputing and confronting. This doesn’t mean thinking of “challenge” as a verb is less intense or difficult, but it does require a different way of looking at things. Many of us are probably familiar with the SWOT Analysis, which can be considered a very useful tool in strategic planning. It defines “what is” in order for an organization to be able to vision “what could be,” or “where do we go from here?” In this analytic process, current reality is divided into four quadrants: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats.
Why a "glass half-empty" mentality is common
In considering the SWOT graphic, I think it is fair to say that this kind of analysis exemplifies both definitions of challenge. When used in strategic planning, each quadrant includes some calls to action. However, sometimes I think we find ourselves focusing primarily on the right side of the quadrant. We, and often times those to whom we are accountable, tend to see the glass as half empty, rather than half full.
Of course, the amount of money we make available to our organizations to fulfill their missions is critical. Obviously, we want to raise funds as efficiently as possible. However, can we not sometimes simply celebrate that people of good will continue to support our mission? Can we not recognize all the good that is happening through the generosity of others? Can we not rejoice in all that we will be able to accomplish and the outcomes that will result for the benefit of others? Can we not sometimes realize that the fact that others are engaged in our mission is a strength and an opportunity, rather than seeing what has been received as “less” than we wanted?
Putting a positive spin on weaknesses and threats
Let’s focus on the other side of the quadrant where strengths and opportunities are found. If we think hard, we might begin to realize that many of the things we might normally choose to place under weaknesses and threats, perhaps, might need to be reclassified, or at least, reconsidered. Here are a few:
- Philanthropy is part of the fiber of American culture and society. It is no wonder so many nonprofits have been able to find support of their causes. The fact that there are so many charities is a testimony to American generosity, not a threat to our own ability to engage others in our mission. Just go to YouTube or surf the Internet and see the vibrancy of giving in the United States. There is a great deal of energy around giving at this time. The American public is choosing to support causes that reflect their values with a great deal of passion. How do we find ways to capture the desire to make a difference in ways that resonate with a person’s own deepest commitment to things in which she or he so strongly believe? This can be a time of great opportunity for us. How do we channel our energy and challenge ourselves to make it so?
- Direct Mail is not dead but it is evolving and cannot be the only way we seek direct response. The more we integrate our direct response program, the more income it will net. How do we challenge ourselves to create the appropriate organizational structures to better integrate our message? What is our game plan? Organizationally, do our present processes and procedures lend themselves to collaboration both within our organization and with the larger nonprofit community? How well does the software we use support an integrated system? How clearly do our consultants and service providers truly understand this integrated approach.
- While there are concerns regarding the changes in the charitable tax deduction and many of us continue to advocate for a universal deduction from which all taxpayers could benefit, the challenge for us today is to work collaboratively with financial advisers, major and planned gift consultants and others with expertise in the field to continue to identify ways to work with the new tax structures in ways that will benefit our donors. Among others, Robert Sharpe and Charles Schultz continue to offer practical advice to the nonprofit community in recognizing the opportunities in the new tax structure to encourage charitable giving.
- How fortunate we are to have donors who have faithfully given to us most of their lives. Rather than counting the number of donors we have lost through death, perhaps, we need to consider a different approach. How do we journey with our donors as companions in mission in their elder years? What can we learn from them about the meaning of our mission? Let’s listen to these faithful friends tell us what is most important to them. Let’s be motivated and inspired by their stories. Let’s invite them to help us see new visions. Let’s engage them in the future of our mission in ways we never dreamed possible.
Our greatest strengths and opportunities
In the end, I believe if we are looking for challenges to stretch us, stimulate us, inspire us and excite us, then the two words at the top of every fundraiser’s strengths and opportunities list should be: DONORS + MISSION. Within these two words we find our greatest strength and our greatest opportunities and therein also lies the sum total of all of our challenges. Focusing on our donors and thinking of them as “actualizers” of our mission impels us to stretch our understanding of the relationship of the donor to the mission and to our institutions, no matter how big or small we are. (“Actualizers” is a word coined by Jeff Shuck, Plenty)
Perhaps, the greatest challenge for all of us to recognize what we do is much more than fundraising. “Fundraising” puts the funds, money, as the focal point of our efforts. We are all about building and nurturing relationship. The relationships we build are not to a “fund” or money. These relationships are built in support of the vision, the mission of our organizations. That vision and mission is realized in the actions of the members of our organization, our ministries, and our services. It comes to fruition in the lives of those for whom our missions were founded. Therein lies our greatest strength and endless opportunities for these times and for all time.