Changing boats, patching leaks, and fundraising

“Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” — Warren Buffet

This sage advice from billionaire investor Warren Buffet fits the situation of fundraisers as surely as the business folks to whom the wise man’s comment was delivered. If ever there was a leaking boat, it’s the fundraising program of most nonprofits, faith-based included.

stick_figure_bailing_water_4837With retention of first-time donors hovering around 23 percent and repeat donors at 61 percent across the sector (2013 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report), fundraisers are bailing fast just to stay afloat. But despite the energy expended, we continue to lose donors faster than we’re bringing in new (105 out for every 100 in).

If you find yourself in one of the leaky vessels, it’s time to take stock of what you’re doing. Specifically, I encourage you to look closely at three issues — your message, your methods, and your metrics.


Really, it is. And all the more so if you’re up to your knees in (hot) water. Before setting sail with a patched up version of last year’s fundraising plan, ask yourself:

  • Was it something you did (or didn’t) say that drove donors away? People give because they want to make a difference for their communities, their world, their God. Your organization’s budget woes aren’t really their concern. Your mission success is. Over the next couple of months, engage in candid conversation with lapsed donors about your messaging. What could/should you have said to hold their hearts? What are the messages that matter most to the men and women who support your organization?
  • Are your actions speaking louder than your words? Your messaging may be right but your delivery methods wrong, at least when it comes to holding donor loyalty. Over the next couple of months, take a close look at who responded positively to your various fundraising methods and who didn’t. What should you stop doing or at least do differently to hold the hearts of greater numbers of donors?
  • Do the metrics you are tracking hide the holes in your fundraising effort? In my experience, organizational leaders (including board members) skim the surface of the fundraising data available to them. With eyes fixed on the easy metrics – things like total in gifts received and total number of donors of record – they miss the holes in their program. Where should you be digging deeper into the data? What are the numbers that will propel your program forward?

Adjusting to a new vessel isn’t easy. It takes much energy to change. But so does patching up the old boat or continuing to bail. As for which expenditure of energy will yield the better results, well, you don’t need a billionaire businessman to give you the answer. Just put down your pail and jump to a new ship.

For more on the theme of change and fundraising, see:

Finder/keeper beats loser/weeper, every time

Three steps beyond simply getting by

If donors pipe their own tunes, what are fundraiser pipers to do?



What's your take on this topic?

%d bloggers like this: