Don’t plow more than you can fertilize: Sustainable fundraising practices for nonprofits, part I

Most nonprofit fundraising practices are not sustainable.

By that I’m not referring to the cost of reply cards and the stamps to mail them, nor am I referring to the salaries of development officers in comparison to most nonprofit budgets.

Instead, I’m referring to the well nigh universal nonprofit practice of attempting to grow by recruiting prospective donors totally unrelated to an organization’s existing donors.

Yes, I actually did mean what it sounded like I meant in the previous sentence. I’m questioning the sustainability of a fundamental practice of traditional fundraising. I’m suggesting that this practice, which we accept and employ uncritically and consider basic to our nonprofit survival, is:

  • not sustainable given the staggering growth in the number of nonprofits worldwide
  • a major contributor to fundraising anemia and mission drift among nonprofits
  • a major culprit in why the average American is no more generous today (as a function of percentage of income donated to charity) than s/he was fifty years ago before the advent of modern fundraising.

This contention is likely to raise more than a few eyebrows, blank stares, and dismissive contempt. That’s OK. Let’s consider this the Silent Spring of blog posts on sustainable fundraising practices for nonprofits. And to that end, let’s summon some of the wisdom on sustainability in general from the environmental movement itself.

Gannon Sims writes on a totally different subject in Call & Response this past week, but his summary of Wendell Berry’s “Jayber Crow” is too good to pass up and eminently applicable to the topic at hand:

In “Jayber Crow,” Wendell Berry tells the story of Athey Keith, a farmer determined to leave his land better than he found it. A true conservationist, Athey never plowed more than he could fertilize — with the manure from his own animals. When Athey looked over his land he saw more than he needed and he had more than he used. Athey knew the land and the land knew him. No one element of his farm took priority over the other. Feed, cattle, crops — it all mattered. He couldn’t have one without the other.

Then one day everything changed. Athey’s son-in-law bought a tractor. He was tired of the old way. He wanted something new and wanted it now. The tractor had a headlight and he could use it to plow after dusk. If he maintained the engine, the tractor didn’t need to rest. It plowed more land and faster than ever before. He learned that he could make more money by planting more corn than anything else. In his quest to replace the old with the new, the son-in-law lost the balance.

Lost the balance.

If there’s a phrase that aptly describes the state of modern nonprofit fundraising, that’s it. Aren’t we yet totally disgusted with wealth identifier indices, acquisition campaigns that cost more money than they raise, and pandering to the affluent in hopes of getting a donation (or even just an appointment or a referral)?

What’s the alternative? What does sustainability look like in fundraising practice?

Simply put, it means three practices:

  • Us being the lead giver to our cause (1) by percentage of our personal incomes, not total dollars given, and (2) comprehensively, meaning that our heads, hearts, hands, and pocketbooks are all fully involved in the cause. No more giving instead of volunteering or volunteering instead of giving, and no more delegating our involvement to professionals and experts “far more qualified” than we are to impact the cause;
  • Us restricting our fundraising only to those within our sphere of influence, and only in ways that promote comprehensive involvement with the cause, i.e., no more letting people write checks to “support” us. No more giving in place of volunteering to personally impact the cause. Henceforth we only accept money from people when money is part of a commitment to comprehensive involvement on their part;
  • All organizational growth deriving from us training those in our sphere of influence to spread the cause (1) only to others in their sphere of influence, and (2) only in ways that promote comprehensive involvement that includes but extends beyond financial giving.

What would be the result of the implementation of those three sustainable fundraising practices?

The end of the tragedy of the nonprofit commons, where a few nonprofits use bigger and bigger tractors to cultivate more and more acres in ways that make whole crops of human potential vulnerable to the diseases that prevent meaningful involvement in causes (i.e., “I did my part; I made a donation at the wine tasting event”) rather than building hearty strains of humanity personally and directly impacting the great causes of our time and being changed by that involvement in a sustainable nonprofit ecosphere.

In our next post on sustainable fundraising practices for nonprofits:

A husband and wife food pantry director team, formerly successful businesspeople, whose personal diet consists only of food items donated through their organization.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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1 Response to Don’t plow more than you can fertilize: Sustainable fundraising practices for nonprofits, part I

  1. Pingback: “Marketing is what happens when relationship fails” « Transformational Giving

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