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Blogs by Jennifer Phillips

Fundraising Ethics, Made Simple

jenny-phillipsRemember Highlights magazine? It’s a children’s publication that features a comic called “Goofus and Gallant”—two boys facing pint-sized ethical challenges in every issue. Naughty Goofus would push to get ahead in the line, while nice Gallant waited patiently for his turn. Or, generous Gallant would share his dessert while greedy Goofus got sick from eating too much candy.

The fundraising profession is challenged today by much more pernicious behavior. The death of Olive Cooke in the U.K. and the egregious fraud of four American cancer charities are alarming. It is critical that honest fundraisers respond with energy and dedication to protect our philanthropic mission.

With that in mind, the simple clarity of Goofus and Gallant is as relevant as ever. And here’s how it breaks down:

GOOFUS would:

– Put his head in the sand and hope no one asks.
– Refuse to communicate around the issue.
– Respond defensively to concerned donors or community members.
– Assume he has nothing to learn.
– Continue business as usual with no pause to assess his organization and tactics.
– Refuse to work transparently.
– Take cues from the bad guys.

GALLANT would:

Diversity in Fundraising: Embrace It! Here’s How.

jenny-phillipsIn case you missed it, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s new president, Rhea Suh, offered a terrific call to action last month. In an interview with Brentin Mock at Grist, she spoke bluntly about the need for big environmental groups to intensify their commitment to diversity. “The [environmental] movement is really vulnerable for being too insular,” she said. “Diversity is not simply just reflecting demographics. Diversity is really about content, it’s about substance, it’s about what we do, why we do it, and how we pursue it.” As Mock points out, this gels nicely with Robert Bullard’s call to name 2015 the “year of diversity” for U.S. environmental nonprofits.

I agree, and not only with regard to the environmental sector. Organizations and movements will never be as effective or noble as their missions suggest if they don’t pursue a diverse body of constituents—from employees, to donors, to the communities in which and for which they advocate.

But here’s the catch: This introduces a challenge for fundraisers.

diversity board - JP PostIt is difficult to deliver the same or increased revenue year after year, while also pursuing donors from outside your core market. Whether we are talking about racial, socioeconomic, or generational diversity, it can be very scary to rock the boat. We know that changing the makeup of a donor file is expensive—a message that has not always been well received by higher-ups. Add to this a general discomfort around discussing race and diversity, and you can see why too many fundraisers avoid the issue entirely.

While this tension is real, it can’t be the end of the story. Here is a roadmap for fundraisers who are rising to the occasion:

1. Align fundraising strategies with your organization’s priorities.

If diversity and inclusion are at the top of the list, your job is to figure out how your department will support that strategy. Get on the same page with your nonprofit’s leadership—listen to their concerns, internalize their vision, and devise collaborative strategies.

2. Overcommunicate on investment and expected outcomes.

Educate your board and executives on the investment required to make their vision a reality. Project and re-project ROI; provide long-range forecasts; and communicate, communicate, communicate. It will be essential for you to bring everyone on board with whatever short- to mid-range impact you anticipate. Otherwise, the initiative may be killed before it has time to blossom, and you will be held accountable. Make sure you and your senior leadership are on the same page regarding how to define success, as well as the metrics and timeframes for assessment.

3. Make the most of historically high performers.

Be relentless about ROI, net per donor, and retention from this group. You will need your high performers to anchor your program, so that your diversity and inclusion initiatives have the room they need to grow.

A Day at Nationals Park With Avalon!

A Day at the Park with Avalon!


On June 9th, Avalon celebrated its annual Summer Fun Day with a trip behind the scenes at Nationals Park in Washington DC. With our storied tour guide Bob at the helm, we took a trip inside the stadium, with visits to the Red Porch Restaurant, Diamond Club Lounge, Shirley Povich Press Box, and Visitor’s Clubhouse. We even spent some time in the Nationals’ dugout! Avalon had a great time learning about the history of DC baseball, chatting with Bob, and coincidentally seeing star left-fielder Bryce Harper rehabbing a bit on the field – truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


We finished the day with a reception lunch at Bluejacket Brewery. From the delicious food to a fun atmosphere to great service, it was precisely the best way to celebrate. And, making the occasion even more special, we toasted our colleague Kate Cecchini Beaver, Senior Data Manager, on her tenth anniversary at Avalon. You know Kate best as the brain behind our Merlin Performance Reports; we love her not only for her impeccable data work, but also for her fun personality. Happy anniversary, Kate!


Click here and see below for photos from our spectacular event! 



What’s Next for the Overhead Myth?

right and wrong decisionDMAW’s annual meeting included a timely and important discussion of charity evaluators, impact strategy and that controversial measure of nonprofit effectiveness—the overhead ratio.  The panel, “Charity Watchdogs, Donor Perceptions and the Overhead Myth” featured an impressive lineup, including:

  • Steven Nardizzi, executive director, Wounded Warrior Project
  • Dan Pallotta, founder and president, Charity Defense Council
  • Bunkie Righter, director of business development, Guidestar
  • Art Taylor, president and CEO, BBB Wise Giving Alliance
  • Andrew Watt, president and CEO, Association of Fundraising Professionals


Three conclusions stood out to and, frankly, inspired me that evening: an alignment of interests among the parties represented, a call for strategic responsibility, and a related call for better and braver messaging. 


Alignment of Interests


Contrary to popular belief, charity evaluators, nonprofits and impact prophets don’t need to duke it out.  While nuanced arguments remain, the big players in this debate share some important commitments.  Most importantly, they are committed to the work that nonprofits do—maximizing benefits to their constituents and local communities. 


Each perspective is exactly that—a perspective on how nonprofits can best go about their work.  The so-called “watchdogs” are evaluating nonprofits in order to safeguard the public trust and donors’ commitment to philanthropy writ large.  Nonprofits are doing the work they do best—addressing the needs of their constituents and executing their missions.   And those who prioritize impact are urging nonprofits to think bigger and do more. 


They offer different angles on a shared concern—strengthening and scaling the missions of nonprofits around the world.  A hostile or oppositional posture does nothing to further that purpose.  To that end, Dan Pallotta rightly suggests that we stop using the word “watchdog,” favoring instead a collaborative framework.


Strategic Responsibility


Smart nonprofit leaders understand the root causes of an organization’s overhead, as well as the high-altitude decisions that have led there.  They also understand the decisions that can either change that result or maintain it.  And they own the responsibility to make those decisions purposefully on behalf of their nonprofits’ missions and stakeholders. 


Steven Nardizzi offers Wounded Warrior Project as a compelling case for choosing one’s overhead ratio.  For example, Wounded Warrior does not accept government funds, a commitment that increases the nonprofit’s overhead ratio, yet gives it a stronger position when advocating for injured service members on the Hill.  They have likewise refused sponsorship from companies selling alcohol, again choosing to accept a higher overhead rate on behalf of Wounded Warrior’s constituents, who suffer from higher than average rates of substance abuse.  This example teaches us that overhead ratios aren’t a circumstance happening to nonprofits—certainly not the strategic ones.  Like Nardizzi, nonprofit leaders should put their strategy first and stop managing to rigid overhead thresholds. 


The thresholds are counterproductive when they cause nonprofits to underreport costs or spend inadequately.  They generate bad decisions that result in withering donor files and stunted potential.   We agree with Dan Pallotta that, in order to grow, nonprofits must increase their investment dramatically—and we agree that most are not investing sufficiently.  Nonprofit leaders are too often afraid to authorize the very growth strategies that will enable them to do more for their constituents.  Stanford Social Innovation Review has called this the “Nonprofit Starvation Cycle.”


Institutional Messaging


The tough reality here is that nonprofit leaders must get comfortable discussing these matters.  They have a responsibility to morph stakeholders’ concern for overhead ratios into more substantive conversations about an organization’s strategic mission.  Peter Kramer recently made a complementary case for candidness in The Chronicle, addressing the need for complete and specific financial discussions between nonprofit leaders and funders.


Last week, Andrew Watt urged the DMAW audience to “change the tide” on this discourse, reprimanding us all for failing to communicate what we do and why.   This is a tough, but vital, call to action.  Nonprofits need institutional communications strategies and marketing strategies, not just fundraising strategies—and they should be prepared to invest there too. 


Fundraising professionals who get this—both within nonprofits and in counsel to them—should lead the charge to clarify message across departments and throughout hierarchies.  We must advocate for our nonprofits to invest as required.  And we must coach our colleagues through this process.  Why us?  Because we are experts at messaging—it is the cornerstone of our impact as fundraisers.