For the month of April, I’m hosting the nonprofit blog carnival. A carnival is a mix of contributions from bloggers and readers on a shared theme, and I chose the theme, “best advice.”
I asked you the following question: What was the one, best piece of professional advice you ever got and why? How has it transformed your work? I also invited readers’ best single piece of advice for people who work at nonprofits.
There was an incredible response. Here are your answers!
1. Don’t show your underwear. Sue Edison-Swift nails the metaphor! “When asked to create a unit brochure or report on the latest reorganization or when expected to communicate the inner workings of the central office, I find it helpful to note that the organization of an organization–its unit structure, its regional geography, its reporting hierarchy, its carefully crafted strategic plan–provides the foundation for getting things done. Another word for foundation is underwear, and while the support and structure of underwear is important, it’s best not to show your underwear in public. Communicating about the organization of the organization to insiders answers their who-what-when-where-how questions. Communicating about the organization of the organization to outsiders–AKA constituents, clients, volunteers, donors–does little to answer their questions: So what? Why should I care? How do I get what I need? What difference do you make? Organization = Foundation = Underwear. Keep it on the inside.”
2. You have to ask to get the donation. Kirt Manecke, author of Smile, says, “The one best piece of professional advice I ever got was from my late Uncle Gene. My uncle, Gene Balogh, was a professional speaker and salesman who traveled across the country giving seminars teaching the construction industry how to sell. I work in sales and he always reminded me, “You have to ask for the sale.” When I became passionate about helping good causes raise funds, he’d say, ‘You have to ask for the donation.'” He notes, “Instead of thinking of what you’re doing as fundraising, think of it as helping people invest in what they care about. After all, if they were not interested, they wouldn’t be talking with you in the first place.”
3. Get to know your donors on a deeper level. Pamela Grow of The Grow Report recounts a huge fundraising challenge and how it proved the importance of getting “into” the hearts and minds of donors. “Make it a point, whether through surveys, phone conversations, in-person meetings, email, intimate events, and social media, to figure out what makes them tick,” is her sound advice. “Translated simply: ‘getting’ donor-centricity is the groundwork for sustainable fundraising, period.”
4. Don’t take it personally. Tanya Cothran of Spirit in Action tells us, ” Emotion can be my greatest enemy. When fundraising for our organization, saying the “ask” out loud is a daunting task for me. I usually know the person I was talking to quite well and it is hard to come right out and talk about money, even more so to ask for it. But most of the difficulty in asking is because my emotions are all tied up in the question. If someone says no to donating, are they saying no to me? Is it because of something I said? Probably not! Most likely, the reason someone says “no” has nothing to do with me personally, but because of their particular situation or because the work of our organization as a whole doesn’t fit their giving priorities.” Great counsel for fundraisers. (Jennifer R. Bosk emailed with the same thought.)
5. Remember you get the board you build. Dani Robbins of Non Profit Evolution says in a refreshingly personal and honest post, “The best advice I ever got as a nonprofit CEO was “you will get the board you build.” Up until that day, which I will never forget, I thought that since I reported to the Board, I should stay out of it. Boy, was I wrong! In addition to giving up the power to influence who would become the future leaders of my organizations, and as such, my future bosses, I also passed on the chance to educate my board about their governance responsibilities. I failed to use my position to strengthen the board and through them to strengthen my agency. Up until that moment, I didn’t understand that building the board was my job.” She goes on to share how to do that.
6. Connect with African American donors. Akira Barclay of Giving in LA explains how to do it: “Cultivating relationships with African-American donors requires strong and sustained institutional commitment. Particularly if your institution is overcoming a previous lack of commitment to actively pursue African-American donors the connection will not happen overnight. But those willing to make a long-term sincere effort will realize a healthy African-American donor base, the results of a history of relationships, trust and experience as an honest partner.”
7. Be bold. Elaine Fogel of Totally Uncorked on Marketing says, “Strive to be a game changer. Be the change agent the organization needs. Don’t be afraid to make recommendations that can help the nonprofit move forward in ‘living’ its mission. Yes, do it gingerly. Do it gently, but as Nike says, Just Do it!”
8. Be polite. Incredibly, Shari Ilsen of the VolunteerMatch blog had David Mamet as a high school instructor. He was full of wisdom on writing, but she tells a surprising story of his best advice: “He said, ‘If you take nothing else away from this class, remember this one thing forever.’ And then he wrote on the chalkboard in big, underlined letters: ‘Be polite!'” Shari recounts all the ways this has worked in her career.
9. Ask for help. Cindi Phallen of Create Possibility says, “A brilliant mentor of mine once told me that the only competent people he ever saw fail, were the ones who didn’t ask for help. I was at the beginning of my career as a nonprofit leader, and thought I understood what he meant. But as the years went on, I realized how critical that point really is in the complex nonprofit world. I’m not talking about making a repair with duct tape and rubber bands. I am referring to the real stuff – like how to increase earned revenue, or suggestions for managing a difficult staff situation, or what are effective innovation strategies.”
10. Be your authentic self. Jenifer Snyder, Executive Director of The mGive Foundation, has a strong post on why to avoid the pressure to be a certain kind of leader. She notes: “We live in a world now where conformity – gender or otherwise – is valued less and authenticity is prized more. Be authentic. Be yourself. The world awaits.”
11. Effort makes the difference. Vanessa Chase of Philanthropy for All writes, “My wonderful dad, David Chase, told me that, “Good things rarely happen by accident,” back when I was in University. I’ve had this quote from him on a post note at every desk and in every planner I’ve owned for many years now. What I love about his words of wisdom is that they apply to so many situations in our lives and it reaffirms my belief that a solid work ethic will carry you through any tough situations; many of which have been while working as a fundraiser.”
12. Work smart, not hard. Jeanette Russell of Salsa Labs advises, “Working smart, not hard, is not a statement about how many hours you should work, but rather how to get the best impact from your most important resource – your time. I can’t think of one nonprofit who has the time and staff to achieve their mission. Time for many groups, is actually more scarce than funding and must be used with the greatest respect.”
13. Network. Empish Thomas of the Center for the Visually Impaired notes, “In today’s workforce, who you know is just as important as what you know. I feel that for people like me who are visually impaired, it is even more essential to network and build strong working relationships that can help lead to career success. Employment opportunities and career advancement for the blind and visually impaired are pretty low with only 30% of us working and I have been able to maintain my employment over the years primarily through my connections.”
14. Write talking points. Joanne Fritz of About.com for Nonprofits notes talking points are typically thought of as soundbites for media, but taking the time to prepare your key messages is vital for many professional situations, including board meetings and job interviews! “Talking points. I never leave home (or office) without them,” she tells us. I totally agree.
15. Just write. Jake Seliger of Grant Writing Confidential says, “Something can be edited. Write something.” As a writer I appreciate this advice: “Taking an infinite number of workshops is not going to make the blank page any easier. Having something, anything, on the blank page is better than having nothing.”
16. Done is better than perfect. Tom Peterson of Thunderhead Works notes, “Not surprisingly, if we’re doing nothing because we’re not sure what to do, if we’re waiting for it to be perfect, our results will be nothing. People who make a difference, who find ways to tackle social problems, usually draw upon many years of struggling with an issue before they break through.”
17. Know your purpose and care passionately. Claire Axelrad of Clairification says you should never go on autopilot and keep asking “why” – “If you’ve lost your passion, can’t get it back, or never had it, consider doing something different. You’re not doing yourself (or other people, or your community, or the planet) any favors if you’re merely phoning it in. Life’s too short. Do it differently, or do something else.”
18. Know relationships are the key. Terri Holland says, “Yes, people is where it’s all it in the non profit fundraising pool. You MUST develop relationships with anyone and everyone. Do not discount anyone out of that pool of people… relationships are golden and having those relationships with donors, potential, past or present is where the pot of gold lies at the end of the fundraising rainbow.”
19. Integrity matters most. Lori Halley of Wild Apricot asked her colleagues for advice and got many answers, including this one: “Never trade your integrity for a paycheck. You can get more money later, but you’ll never be able to buy your integrity back.” She shares more in her post.
20. Volunteer. Greg Albright of the Right Hook Blog says, “The reality is volunteering is just as much for you, your career, and your business. As a long-time volunteer and volunteer recruiter, I can honestly say volunteering has done as much or more for my career, my business, and my quality of life, as it has for the organizations I have been involved with.”
21. Finally, some readers shared some wisdom in emails. Beth Kling says do less, focus more. Paul Miller is on the same page: ““You will get pulled a thousand different ways working for a non-profit. As a development director, if anything you are asked to do does not further development efforts, don’t do it. Stay focused on development.”
22. Amy Kusek says someone once told her, “‘If you are not getting no 50% of the time, you are not asking enough.’ It has been helpful in so many ways including helping me not dwell on the “no” and to stay positive about getting back out to make an ask. It also helps you be gracious when you get a “no” which I think helps long term.”
23. Claudia Herrold emailed with good writing advice: “This is a piece of advice that is applicable to many communications channels, not just for blogging: write for your least engaged member, not your most engaged (we’re a statewide membership association of those engaged in philanthropy). Following this piece of advice means that I: stay away from use of jargon and acronyms; make sure to give background links and context; keep it short; and talk about what it means/how it applies to their work.”
24. For those of you looking for a job in the environmental field, Lori Whalen lays out a list of ideas on her blog.
25. Last but NOT least, Deacon Lesley-Ann Drake wrote me with a great closing piece of advice: “Start where you can start.” She says, “This was given to me by Bishop Frank Allen (retired) of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Without that simple statement I would probably still be wondering if I should step off the cliff into the non-profit world, or not. The problems of this world are enormous and we can choose to be overwhelmed and frozen, or we can take that first small step and do something.” Amen to that.
Next month’s carnival is hosted by Erik Anderson at Donor Dreams blog. To participate, check out his announcement here. He is welcoming answers to the question, “If you could write an anonymous letter to a nonprofit board about something they do that drives you crazy, what would that letter look like and what suggested solutions would you include?” Should be a fun topic.