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Last week I celebrated the benefits of experimentation – both in the kitchen and at work. This week, I have been thinking that trying new things should be done in moderation, because too much experimentation can backfire.

For our family dinner last Sunday, I cooked the entire menu using recipes I had never tried before. As a result, the pork shoulder was dryer and tougher than it was supposed to be, I learned that most of my family does not like braised cabbage, and the russet and sweet potatoes au gratin should have been baked in a different casserole dish for optimal consistency. Nobody complained, of course, but I would have been happier if at least one of the dishes had a “wow” factor.

The next day, I found out I did not get a fundraising job I had wanted. I’d never been asked to do an oral presentation during a job search before. I struggled. I had a hard time getting my head around the assignment – I needed more guidelines, or permission to create my own, and I didn’t ask for them. So, I asked some friends for advice, did some online research, put together a PowerPoint show, and figured I’d just go for it and see what happened.

I didn’t rehearse. I didn’t rehearse in front of people. And in a two-day series of interviews during which I met with two dozen people, my presentation experiment stood out like a sore thumb and ultimately played a big role in my not getting the job.

I can console myself all day long with the many examples of failures leading to success – among them, this five-minute talk by my New Hampshire neighbor, the inventor Dean Kamen. But the truth is, sometimes it’s safer to stick to something you know. I know how to make great chicken parmesan, if I remember to pay attention. But I don’t know how to give a great presentation with minimal preparation. Maybe I never will, but today I am going to my first Toastmasters meeting to see if it’s something I can learn.

At least the bbq pork I made from the leftover roast was delicious.

March presented me with some serious challenges in time management, and I’ve had to take some time off weekly posts to attend to more pressing matters. But I’m back! And I want to talk about pyramids.

Not only are pyramids fascinating from a historical point of view, they offer a handy way to illustrate important concepts in today’s world. Most of us grow up with constant exposure to the food pyramid. Fundraisers all know about the donor pyramid. These two have a lot in common.

For example, in the food pyramid, the base is made of the most frequent foods we’re supposed to eat –grain-based edibles like rice, pasta, and bread. Next up are the fruits and vegetables, then meat and dairy, and at the very top, fats and sweets.

Likewise, a donor pyramid starts at the bottom with a large number of donors. Like the grains group at the bottom of the food pyramid, these donors don’t contribute a lot of calories/dollars, and they’re not intensely flavorful. Yet, they are crucial for basic survival. Do you see where I’m trying to go here?

Let’s say mid-range and major donors are like the fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat. Lots of flavor and color here, great caloric/nutritional punch, but you need to start being a little careful … you don’t want too much fruit at the expense of vegetables, or too much dairy at the expense of nuts and beans. You don’t want too many donors at this level interested in capital projects, at the expense of program support.

Finally, the peak. This is where the most delicious food resides, like this chocolate caramel cheesecake I made last Sunday. This is where the most wealth comes from in the donor pyramid – those dense, high-calorie, delicious donors who can supply the seven- , eight-, or nine-figure gift. But like cheesecake, too much of anything so potent can be dangerous. Just as too many Americans choose cheesecake instead of brown rice too many times, too many nonprofits chase top-level donors at the expense of the pyramid’s base.

If you think your nonprofit might need to shift its focus to the bottom of the pyramid for a little while, you might want to think of it as a healthy shift in diet.

(Speaking of which, I highly recommend this weekend cleanse by the ubiquitous Dr. Oz. The photo is my attempt at juicing kale. Not so easy if you don’t own a juicer.)

Raw potatoes and burned hot dogs. Or maybe it was the other way around – burned potatoes and cold hot dogs. At any rate, it was a camping trip meal my kids will never let me forget. We were in the Franconia Notch State Park, and it was pouring rain. I had a camp stove I didn’t know how to use very well, and a poorly-made pan. Our supper that night was barely edible, to put it kindly.

If you’ve ever cooked under trying circumstances, with tools you didn’t know how to use or that didn’t work very well, you know what I mean.

Similarly, if you’ve ever tried to execute a fundraising strategy without a good, functional database, you face serious challenges.

“At a minimum, organizations should have good demographic data on who they serve,” says  Isaac D. Castillo , one of the speakers in a recent (and interesting) chat with the Chronicle of Philanthropy about using data to boost fundraising. Later in the same chat, his colleague Andrew Niklaus mentions that, with fundraising software, you get what you pay for. As with any tool, this is also true.

In my experience, too many nonprofit organizations don’t even have basic demographic data, and if they do, it’s not in a program that allows you to access it easily. I once worked with a program that required manual entry of a series of date ranges and other data, and would only print – not display – the one resulting data point, using three sheets of paper each time. It was like trying to cook in the rain, with a dimestore aluminum pan.

What are your experiences with the tools and technology you need to do your job?

Not only is my head is spinning with last-minute holiday obligations, but it’s filled with thoughts of what this time of year means. After reading more about the winter solstice, I’ve been ruminating about the immense good fortune most of us have to be living in such abundance.  For centuries, January through April were traditionally famine months in temperate climates like mine. This reminds me of how very new – and maybe fragile – our current food storage and distribution systems are.

At the same time, I came across the best fundraising blog ever, Nell Edgington’s Social Velocity – and her reference to nonprofits’ “starvation cycle.” This term is new to me but it’s been around for some time – the article I’ve linked to is from 2009. In a nutshell, funding overhead is not sexy, but it is necessary.  I think the same applies to the issue of human hunger. And again, I feel lucky.

In her latest post, Edginton refers to “the nonprofit sector’s proclivity to endlessly beat around the bush, tell donors what they want to hear, and sugar-coat the truth.” This is something I addressed in my second blog post.  I think it will be a perennial problem for fundraising communications.

I’ll leave you with the best recipes ever for chocolate bark – I’ve kitchen-tested these myself with thrilling results. Now, I’m off to my errands and make a gift to my local food bank.

Happy holidays!

This time of year, lists get a lot of attention – but I use lists all year long. I have to-do lists, annual goals lists, holiday shopping lists, clothing shopping lists and – of course – grocery lists. This is a photo of one of my grocery shopping lists. People tend to react to it with either admiration or amusement.

I don’t care. My list makes me a better shopper. If I go without a list I inevitably buy things I don’t want or need, and I forget things I do need. If I’m planning a special meal or having guests, I use the white space on the lists to jot down other important things. I also have more general categories, like “other vegetables” to remind myself to take advantage of items that happen to be in season or on sale.

Just like I don’t shop without a list, I don’t like to do fundraising without a plan. If I do fundraising without a plan, I sometimes lose track of the mission. The difference between priorities – think eggs and milk – and distractions – think checkout candy — is covered nicely in a recent article on the Association of Fundraising Professionals website.

Without a plan, I might attend a social media webinar and think, wow! I need to do some Facebook ads right now. And without a plan, I might squander an entire day learning about Facebook advertising, putting a random ad together, and obsessively checking the ad click-through statistics.

On the other hand, if I have a plan, I can see that the end-of-year appeal will be going out soon. We may be a little under budget on that, so we can take some of that money and use it to advertise on Facebook. We’re interested in targeting donors in the 25-35-year age range, and Facebook ads let us do that. I’m going to slot it into the plan. Now it clearly serves my mission.

Like a good plan, lists are useful only if they are flexible. How does your fundraising work? Do you make a plan and stick to it? Do you find lists helpful?

Here’s my confession; I think Thanksgiving food is boring. I love to cook and I love to host, but that holiday menu is so, well, dull. Every item is pretty much its own thing. Turkey. Potatoes. Squash. Snooze.

As an annual fundraiser, I have felt the same way about solicitation methods. Phone.  Mail.  Email.  Egads. Taken singly, they are enjoyable, but not exciting. For me, the fun begins when I can think of ways to combine two or more of these ingredients into a tastier concoction. I’m pretty sure this is what they mean by multichannel marketing. Or, more specifically to fundraising, integrated solicitations.

When I host Thanksgiving, I know better than to mess with tradition. For example, I wouldn’t dream of putting wasabi in the mashed potatoes (which is something I’ve been seeing at local eateries.) Similarly, when I’m communicating with a group of donors, I understand that some are traditionalists. They like to make their one gift in December, and they like to give via the response mechanism in their annual solicitation letter.

And yet – don’t get me wrong, I enjoy eating the traditional meal as much as the next person – I am never as happy as when it’s time to be creative with the leftovers. Turkey sandwiches with slices of stuffing and a dollop of cranberry sauce are classic. So is the post-holiday pot pie. There are wonderful recipes for post-Thanksgiving turkey soup. For years, I didn’t know what to do with all that leftover squash, but then I found this delicious casserole.

In the same way, other donors respond to a mix of messages and methods.

These donors might like an email spiced with news about a favorite program, layered with links to giving opportunities and topped off with a fun holiday animation. They might like a phone call that wraps a personal thank-you around a meaty update on how their gift has helped, followed up by a mailed note. They could find themselves sampling a planned giving website that was served up as a link in a letter.

I’m all for keeping the meat and potatoes going strong, but I think the future in fundraising might lie in more flavorful combinations. What do you think?

Making Turkey Soup

Striped Bass

As a fund raiser working with limited resources, I’ve often found it easy to make decisions based on the old saying “fish where the fish are.” In other words, if my organization has 30,000 prospects but only enough resources to solicit 10,000, I will plan to solicit the 10,000 that have previously given to our institution.

Last week, I was lucky enough to literally go fishing, off the coast of New Jersey, with this charter company.  It was a new experience for me, and I was fascinated as the captain and the mate kept checking the sonar. We’d stop whenever we were above a large school of fish, and drop our lines, jigging along the bottom to tempt the striped bass.

It was a clear and cold run out to the fishing grounds, and we had spectacular luck. We caught our limit of bass in about an hour, and spent the rest of the morning zig-zagging along the shore, catching and releasing more bass, shark, and bluefish.

But at some point, about 10 a.m., the fish stopped biting. All of them.  Our guides said it often happens and they didn’t exactly understand why. Even the most seasoned outdoorspeople admit that they can’t do anything when the fish don’t bite. The sonar showed we were sitting on top of what they called a “pig pile” of bass, and yet not one of them responded to our lures.

I think it’s helpful to remember this can happen in fund raising, too. Sometimes we are appealing to the right prospects, but for some reason, they don’t respond. There could be any number of reasons, but they’re all beyond our control. You can do everything right — use the best technology to sort out our seas of data, hone the most alluring message to a sharp point – but none of it matters if the fish just aren’t biting.

The only thing to do is to refresh our dedication to our missions and try, try again. Is that how you cope?