When your strategy is strangling your revenue [MacGyver Fundraising]

MacGyver Fundraising: A series about getting it done in the real world

MacGyver was an US action TV show in the 80s (with a more recent reboot) featuring a brilliant professional problem-solver who could get himself out of any jam with whatever random materials were at hand. He always solved the most difficult situations. Fundraisers are a lot like MacGyver.

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When your fundraising is clear, strong, action-oriented, and donor-focused, that’s a good thing.

But there’s something that matters even more: Good strategic direction.

Many fundraisers do great work in service of flawed strategy. That’s the equivalent of being a fast runner in a race — but running on the wrong track. Speed is great, but it doesn’t mean much when you aren’t going full-speed where you need to be!

Here are some common strategic mistakes that can make all your hard work not do the job you’re hoping for:

  • Your fundraising is built around maximizing gross revenue. The main metric you should be watching net revenue. I’ve seen several fundraising programs that featured one big, elaborate mailing each year that raised a lot of revenue. But it was gross revenue. It looked like a huge success, but the high cost of the mailing caused it to raise poor net revenue. Net is what funds your programs. That’s your main goal for most activities.
  • Your fundraising relies on events to get cash in the door. Some events are good at raising money. But see above: How do they do at raising net revenue? And make sure you are counting the cost of staff time. Time and money spent managing events are not being spent on more sustainable activities. Worse yet, event donors have notoriously low retention rates. If you rely on high-grossing events, take a close look at all the factors — the event may be tanking your revenue.
  • You “rest” recent donors. There’s a myth that when a donor gives, she becomes “tapped out” for a while. She won’t give, and she may even react negatively to being asked for some period — often believed bo be four to six months. This is dramatically untrue. The person most likely to give is someone who has given most recently. When you rest recent donors, you are deciding for them that your most likely donors won’t give. The impact on revenue is severe.
  • You’re always chasing huge funding sources. Sure, it would be great to find a couple of big foundations, corporations, and rich people who could pour money all over you. It happens. The problem with that they can stop funding you just as quickly as they started. Or they can exercise control over your programs and even distort your mission. Cultivating many lower donors is hard work, but it’s how you create a sustainable portfolio.
  • You don’t have an upgrade plan for every donor. If your fundraising consists only of trying to get donors to give now and then, we are not maximizing your revenue. Your program should be built so donors can choose monthly giving, upgraded giving, or bequest giving. (And they can choose all three.) These areas are what make a fundraising program sustainable.

These are just five common strategies that keep organizations struggling to survive. Here’s how you avoid bad strategy:

  1. Learn: Read the blogs and books. Go to conferences. Ask experts.
  2. Belong to a community of fundraisers like yourself. Ask questions and discover what is working and not working for others.
  3. Outsource strategic and tactical fundraising help.

MacGyver Fundraising


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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