Overhead Matters

March 19, 2016 § 1 Comment

Well, it has happened again. A high-profile charitable organization has come under fire for questionable spending, putting the entire charitable industry on alert. Earlier this year, the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) was hit with allegations of lavish spending on travel and and organizational events. Sadly, but predictably, this story has caused some journalists to scrutinize overhead expenses for all nonprofits.

As Dan Pallotta, founder of the Charity Defense Council, says, “Overhead expenses are necessary for raising funds for maximum program impact.” The preliminary response by the Charity Defense Council to the Wounded Warrior WWP story shows that, while the percentage of overhead expenses to fundraising results is higher than some other comparable organizations, the amount of money that they raised is so much greater, it is clear that the programmatic impact of that funding is huge. The data visualizations in the report bear this out.

Fundraiser Grrl speaks my mind:

When someone talks about how wasteful nonprofits are and how they spend too much on “overhead.”


This is about as articulate as I can get, sometimes.

If you’re in the nonprofit world, you should really be reading Fundraiser Grrl. It’s very cathartic. But I digress.

It’s unfortunate that the anecdote of questionable actions on the part of one organization will call into question the overhead spending practices for the entire nonprofit world. Certainly, the optics for the executives of the WWP are pretty bad, but in fairness, that should not shine a negative light on the rest of us.

But this is also an opportunity to bring to light some things about charitable work and fundraising that are often misunderstood.

Prospect Development Pride Month was started, in part, in response to situations like this. I could go on here about the value of prospect development, and the importance of overhead expenses to a successful nonprofit, but I have already done that, and my colleagues are doing it so much better. Just follow the #ResearchPride hashtag on Twitter, or search for it on Google, and you’ll see what people are saying, and you’ll find some really wonderful blog posts.

Also, check out the mission and “Five Functions” of the Charity Defense Council. Their work is helping me to better articulate the value of what I do for a living.

#IAmOverhead #ResearchPride



Prospect Development – it’s all about relationships

March 11, 2016 § 3 Comments

I am pleased to dust off this old blog, and join many of my esteemed colleagues in fundraising in observing Prospect Development Pride month. I can’t think of better inspiration to join the chorus of advocates for this profession.

The profession of prospect development is often misunderstood. One thing that many people do not realize about is that, at its heart, prospect development is about relationships. This is true even though we primarily work on the back end, rarely having the opportunity to interact with donors, and even while the introvert stereotype fits many of us (myself included). One of the fundamental areas of prospect development, as outlined in the Body of Knowledge of the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA), is relationship management. Yes, we focus a lot on technology and information. but those are just the tools we use to help manage the complicated and messy nature of human and institutional relationships. It is easy to forget this, even for those of us in the profession.

Prospect development professionals care deeply about those relationships, and we are invested in the success of the relationships of our donors with the institutions we work for. What we do in building and maintaining institutional memory will ensure that those relationships will thrive for years, and ensure that donors will continue to have a positive experience with their philanthropy.

The relationships with our front line colleagues are also important. I used to joke that in prospect research, we specialized in delayed gratification because we would gather information and write wonderful profiles on fascinating people, and then never find out what happened regarding their engagement. But when we work in partnership with fundraisers, there is a flow of information back and forth, a real synergy that benefits building successful donor cultivation strategy, and this is very satisfying. James Rygg’s Thank You Letter to Fundraisers echos my sentiments exactly. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with my front line colleagues.

One thing I often hear prospect development professionals say is that they love to learn. It seems to me that our relationship to the day-to-day work is one of love and respect. This field appealed to me at first because it felt like an extension of my work in graduate school. The subject was different, but the process was very similar. There are always new things to learn, whether it’s the fascinating distinguished alumni, the latest research resource, or a new information management tool. The constant challenge of learning keeps us engaged.

Of course none of this would work if I didn’t have a good relationship with my employer, if I didn’t feel passionately about its mission. I am inspired to go to work every day knowing that what I do effectively empowers young women to be thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and change makers. I feel privileged to work at Bryn Mawr College, an institution that is demonstrating the relevance of liberal arts in the evolving economy.

Finally, the community of prospect development professionals is truly second to none. I continue to learn so much and to be inspired by what I see my colleagues doing their organizations. Never have I encountered such generous professionals, willing to share their knowledge and experience, and mentor peers and those coming up in the field. One common trait among us is that we all seem to love to learn, and that opportunity never ceases in this field. We encourage that in each other.

Research Pride Month gives us the opportunity to “come out” as Helen Brown so aptly put, and educate those who don’t know what it is that we actually do. It also gives us the opportunity to remember why we love what we do, and take such pride in it.

Many thanks to Helen Brown for her leadership and starting Prospect Development Pride Month, and to all who helped organize it.


Philanthropy Readings – May 2014

May 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Fundraising numbers look good so far for 2014! This is great news!

Meanwhile, some very funky things are happening in the world of philanthropy:

World Vision’s Flip-Flop on Hiring Married Gays Shows a Stunning Lack of Foresight. I quite agree, and I can’t really imagine that changing the organization’s position will be good for its image over the long term. I’m disappointed by its decision to cave to the pressure of vocal evangelicals with extreme views. I’m even more disappointed that the same religious zealots who lift their voices so loudly to oppose same-sex marriage remain silent about the new anti-homosexuality law in Uganda, a country where World Vision has a strong presence. The new law makes homosexuality a crime punishable by imprisonment, and it has created a climate of violence and fear for gay Ugandans, their family, and friends.

On ethics and gift acceptance, UCLA has rejected a $3 million pledge from Donald Sterling after revelations of his truly despicable, racist remarks that were recorded and later released in the mainstream press. This is a big gift to turn away, but it’s a good decision by UCLA. They would have a hard time justifying publically acknowledging a gift from such a notorious donor. The other remarkable part of this story is that the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP was going to bestow a lifetime achievement award on Mr. Sterling later this month. Needless to say, that award has been rescinded, and the president of the NAACP chapter has resigned. How on earth a man like Sterling could even be considered for such an honor is hard to understand.

More philanthropy news of the weird: Google CEO Larry Page Has a Weird, Troubling Definition of Charity. The fact that this guy seems to be proselytizing his confusion of capitalist investment for charity is troubling. The article rightly points out that the problem with this confusion is that a corporation is motivated first and foremost by staying profitable, and a nonprofit organization’s first priority is its mission. Let’s hope this is an idea that doesn’t get popular traction.

On a related topic moving in another direction, the “effective philanthropy movement” was dealt a blow last month when the Flora Hewlett Foundation decided not to renew funding to support research on nonprofit financial performance. “Philanthrocapitalists,” as they are called, believe that nonprofits should be run more like businesses, with specific performance benchmarks and metrics. Holding nonprofits to the same standards as a corporate model isn’t often an appropriate measure of an organization’s efficacy, and it sounds like the Flora Hewlett Foundation has come around to this opinion, as well.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that nonprofit organizations are at a disadvantage because there are few women in leadership positions. Thus, they tend to overlook opportunities to engage with more women philanthropists. I work at a women’s college, and as such, our primary constituency is women. Among our highest-capacity donors, so many women have been virtually ignored by other organizations, paying primary attention to their husbands. It’s indeed a lost opportunity.

The May 8th Chronicle of Philanthropy has several pieces about how organizations are working with data to identify likely donors. It seem that statistical analysis (though those of us in this business have been busily establishing these best practices for years) is taking the spotlight in fundraising. The lead article quotes Josh Birkholz wisely advising readers not to give up the tried and true practices of peer screening and prospect research, but that data analysis “should be a voice at the table.” The same issue has an article that is basically a case study about the Human Rights Campaign, and how the organization used statistical analysis to convert activists into donors. Subscription required.

What are you reading?

What I’m Reading – March 2014

March 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

I was inspired by this wonderful post by Helen Brown: Coming Out. I have written here before about prospect research and its misperceptions. It’s frustrating for those of us in the profession to be so consistently misunderstood and intentionally misrepresented in the press. The latest example is this piece by CNN. Helen speaks for many of us when she says that it’s time for us to come out, come into the light and represent with pride what it is that we do. Prospect researchers are essential to fundraising, and it’s well beyond time for us to speak for ourselves. I join Helen in celebrating March as Prospect Research Pride Month.

Speaking of coming out, CASE Currents cover article in the February edition is about welcoming back LGBT alums to campus. I like the article’s approach. The author counsels that schools need to acknowledge the pain points and the historical wrongs that some have likely experienced while they were students, while showcasing what things are happening now to make LGBT members of the campus community, including alums, welcome and safe. I co-wrote an article in 2001 about lesbians in philanthropy for APRA Connections (available in print). I’m glad to see the wider fundraising profession take this topic seriously. It’s about time.

More on LGBT philanthropy, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that Disney is going to stop charitable gifts to the Boy Scouts of America because of its discriminatory policy towards gay adults in leadership positions in the organizations. I applaud Disney in this decision. There are numerous Boy Scouts in my neighborhood, and I always feel so bad when I pass these kids as they are trying to raise money for their troops. I always just say no, thank you and continue walking. But I want to question the parents about their decision to allow their children to participate in an organization promotes discrimination. What values are they teaching their children? It’s a shame.

But I digress…

This article that was in the New Yorker in February gets at the question: “Does philanthropy by the most affluent among us make up for the negative consequences of inequality?” I remember in college and graduate school, before I had an inkling that I would have a career in fundraising, discussing with my peers the question of whether or not philanthropy necessitates the division between rich and poor. I tend to think not, though I do agree with this article that philanthropy by the 1% is not going to solve the problem of poverty. Nevertheless, the super rich have a responsibility to give, as we all do. Philanthropy should be a priority for everyone.

More on the philanthropy of the 1%: Meet the 12 Most Generous Tech Leaders – and the 6 Least. While this piece offers in depth profiles on each person, it also offers an interesting perspective about capacity versus actual philanthropic giving. The article also examines the question that the super wealthy and super busy face: Give now or later? Like me, the article leans towards “now”, stating “It’s not that complicated to put big money to good use.” Indeed.

And even more about how the 1% give, here’s a fascinating piece by the New York Times about the pros and cons of how American philanthropy is impacting science research, in light of shrinking government grants. The article asserts that, “[t]he availability of so much well-financed ambition has created a new kind of dating game.” It also points out that “the United States risks losing its leadership in invention and discovery.” It’s really long, but well worth the read.

Another one by Helen Brown: What your capital campaign is missing. For gosh sakes, find out the capacity of your prospect pool before declaring your campaign goal! As I say this, I freely admit that I have worked with more than one organization that did not do this. But I do share Helen’s opinion on this.

The Chronicle of Higher Education gave an interesting behind-the-curtain look at university fundraising by profiling Villanova’s kickoff events for its $600 million campaign. Subscription required.

Finally, I just want to give a shout out to the Veritus Group Passionate Giving blog. There is just some great writing here about major gifts fundraising. It is now in my RSS feed.

What are you reading?

What I’m Reading — February 2014

February 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Philanthropy Trends: The more things change, the more they stay the same

In the readings that I have focused on this past month, what I have been seeing is new trends in philanthropy, and yet more of the same.

Following on last month’s analysis of mega-gifts and increased philanthropy, there have already been numerous announcements in 2014 of huge gifts. This includes Harvard’s largest gift from a single donor, Ken Griffin gave the University $150 million, announced on February 19. Since the beginning of the year there have been many gifts of $50 million or more. You can receive weekly news alerts for these gifts by subscribing to NOZA.

Additionally, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in February that in 2013 there was a “surge in giving” from America’s wealthiest, including notable gifts like Mark Zuckerberg’s $1 billion (with a B) to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, $750 million from Texas oil tycoon George Mitchell to his family foundation in support of sustainability, and $500 million from Phil Knight to support cancer research at Oregon Health & Science University.

Is the mega gift actually back? This article from Forbes says that it will not be long for this world, according to a new survey of young beneficiaries.

According to Chronicle of Philanthropygifts to colleges and universities are trending upwards, with a ten percent increase over 2012. Alums are giving larger gifts, though the number of individual donors is trending down. Personally, I’d like to see what we in the business call higher participation levels. Everybody: give to your alma mater! It’s important.

This article from Spear’s (a magazine about wealth management), supports transparent philanthropy. That is, it opposes anonymous giving. I found this to be a refreshing piece in the way it shines a light on the complications and administrative burdens to a charitable organization that are required by anonymous gifts. Though the article doesn’t focus on this, I do support non-anonymous giving if only for the fact that standing as an example to others in the community and may encourage others to be more philanthropic.

More from the Chron of Phil on philanthropy trends from the One Percent: Some are criticising the signers of The Giving Pledge for not giving towards the world’s most urgent problems. Donors gave more in 2013, but some say that many are joining more for public relations purposes, and some sign but are not giving to capacity right away, making their philanthropic plans for later in life. Defenders of The Pledge say that it influences more effective giving, and encourages philanthropy in general. Additionally, there is a focus on recruiting international donors.

Talking of which…

USA! We’re Number One!

But just barely. Forbes analyzes the 2014 BNP Paribas Individual Philanthropy Index, concluding that American donors give more that other countries, but by a slim margin. The article notes:

This is particularly striking given that the U.S. is the source of the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.

Spear’s has some interesting analysis on the results of the study, too.

This month in “Duh!”

So, about that up tic in philanthropic gifts? Yes, it does signal economic recovery, I suppose, but also, it requires trained professionals and strong, positive organizational culture. While the focus is on health care, two new studies by the Association of Healthcare Philanthropy conclude that there is a direct correlation between investing in fundraising professionals and increasing fundraising revenue. You can read about it in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (subscription required).

Local News – Philadelphia

U. of Pennsylvania Official to Lead William Penn Foundation

News near and dear to my heart, Kim Cassidy was confirmed president of Bryn Mawr College. Anassa Kata!

Villanova class does good through documentaries – Students at Villanova are learning how to make documentary films that tell the story of local charitable organizations. Doing good.

Cool, Random, and Noteworthy:

Pope’s Harley goes for $327,000 at charity auction – That’s right, the Pope had a Harley Davidson, and the proceeds of its sale went to support a soup kitchen in Rome. This Pope is super bad. Like, totally sick. Just saying.

This could fit into the local category too: Local fundraising consultant Pamela Grow wrote a very nice piece on her blog about what motivates people to give: It’s personal. Amen, sister.

I enjoyed this piece from the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) by Fay Twersky, the director of the Effective Philanthropy Group at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. She argues against “strategic philanthropy”, and advocates for more risk, and less certainty in philanthropy. She gently and subtly presses for less focus on outcomes and metrics and more creativity, innovation, and learning from beneficiaries. How very Silicon Valley.

In a similar vein, and also from SSIR, Phill Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy writes about Five Myths that Perpetuate Poor Philanthropic Strategy.

What are you reading?

What I’m Reading — January 2014

January 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of the most exciting stories about academia this month was the White House Summit on Higher Education. 140 college leaders, including Bryn Mawr College President Kim Cassidy (my employer, featured in this article on NPR about the Summit), gathered at the White House earlier this month to discuss and explore ways they could collaborate to better serve low-income students through their college experience.

On the topic of trends in philanthropy and fundraising, prior to the World Economic Forum, the Huffington Post posted this piece, Philanthropy as an Asset Class. The author posits that philanthropy needs to be a strategic part of the solution to the world’s economic problems, along with government and business solutions.

“Philanthropists have the capacity to articulate a vision and actually implement it over a realistic time frame by exercising the requisite skills, expertise and efficient deployment of private resources. These are luxuries rarely accessible to a President or Chief Executive.”

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that charitable giving in 2013 increased by at least 13%, and the return of mega gifts is being interpreted as an economic rebound.

On the topic of data and metrics, there always seems to be interesting things to read. This month, the NP Quarterly posted a piece on the tyranny of metrics. Being a data and numbers person, I’m a believer in metrics. It’s important for any organization to be able to measure their progress to goals, whatever that may be. But I’m not so sure that it makes sense for those metrics to be uniform, such as with the model of Charity Navigator. How each organization determines success or failure perhaps requires a diversity of measures.

On the subject of data integrity, the New Yorker published this very troubling piece about an organization that sent out a piece of mail to a constituent addressed in part to “Daughter Killed in Car Crash.” How on Earth does something like that happen? It all comes down to internal processes and maintaining data integrity. What a nightmare for all involved. Let it be a lesson to us all in this business. 

On prospect research, an article in CASE Currents asks “are prospect research services worth the cost?” (subscription required). The title of this article, “The Massive Potential and Frustrating Pitfalls of Big Data” is misleading. “Big Data” is a real buzz term these days, an attention-grabber in a headline. But analytics and prospect research are really different topics having not much to do with each other. Also, I didn’t appreciate the sensationalism of the title questioning the value of prospect research in fundraising. The content of the article itself was generally good, and indeed ended in a positive place affirming that yes, indeed research is effective and important. The author consulted many well-known research and prospect development professionals, and it speaks to many of the reasons why information tools and professional staff are a good investment in fundraising. However,  it raises the typical privacy concerns that we are called on the debunk each time an article like this is published. It seems to me that an article like this that questions the value and ethics of our profession comes out about once a year. At least this lands in a positive place, but it leads and attracts attention with a negative introduction.

On leadership and management, the Harvard Business Review reports that employees who feel appreciated are better performers. Oh, really? Duh.

Finally, the January 26 edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy has many interesting reads, including the Outlook 2014 section with segments about what nonprofits should start doing, and what they should stop doing. Also, here are some nonprofit superstars doing some really cool stuff we should all know about. It also gave a nice shout-out to the humorous Tumblog of some friends of mine, When you Work for a Nonprofit. This blog is a good daily coffee break. I recommend it.

Happy reading!

Patience and Persistence

August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

The mantra for taking the long view on fundraising

This ongoing recession is putting many into crisis and panic mode, including nonprofits. The scarcity mentality is inspiring some organizations to contract instead of expand. Fundraisers are have to work harder to make their goals, and some organizations are being forced to make difficult choices.

I have always taken the long view on fundraising; the work you do today may not result in a major gift tomorrow, but perhaps next year. It’s an exercise in patience and persistence.

I read a blog post recently from the ML Wagner Group that has some sage advice for small nonprofit organizations in terms of setting up fundraising infrastructure. What I like about this piece is the emphasis on information management, whether it is about communication, establishing clear policy, or relationship management. Investing in your information management systems may sound expensive at the outset, especially to organizations with limited means. But an organization’s information is probably one of it’s most important assets. Investing in the infrastructure to manage it wisely is critical for your long-term fundraising success.

Information systems that work well will support the relationships with your constituents and donors and ensure their continued engagement and support. By taking the long view of fundraising and embracing the mantra of Patience and Persistence, organizations can look at this economic downturn as an opportunity to learn from this situation. Organizations can take the opportunity to build their institutional memory strategically so when the next economic downturn happens they will have loyal and engaged constituents there to help see them through tough times.

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