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Matt Kupec originally published this post on his fundraising website

How often as fundraiser leaders have we sat in a meeting when we heard somebody say “fundraising should be easy” when discussing a particular project which is short on funds.  At the same meeting, another executive across the table chimes in and remarks that that “we should launch a fundraising campaign today” to get the money.   And then there is a groundswell of support to the idea as all members of the executive team collectively join in to support the initiative!

Well, we’ve all been there.  It feels like we are in the middle of an avalanche we can’t stop!!  The only person at those meetings not talking is often the fundraiser, the expert, who will be responsible for raising the “quick and easy” money!  But who cares what she has to say!!

I’ve sat in meetings where the similar issues were raised during strategic planning sessions and the next day the top two executives of the organization were in an newspaper editorial board proclaiming a fundraising campaign would be launched and that “$500 million” would be raised to support the building of the capital projects on the campus!

Lo and behold, the next day the story ran with the headlines that the organization had launched a nearly billion dollar effort with $500 million being funded from fundraising!!  Ouch!!

So how do we keep these well-meaning individuals who don’t know much about fundraising from spreading the word and announcing campaigns to the public that haven’t been discussed or planned?

So how do you manage fundraising expectations when every organization needs money and there is a greater emphasis being placed on our ability to secure these critical philanthropic dollars to support truly important initiatives?

I have worked as a fundraiser for over 35 years at six non-profit organizations from universities to non-profit social enterprises to major healthcare organizations.  While different in mission and objective, all these organizations looked to the fundraising team to bring in more money to fund the ambitious goals of each organization.

Here is a list of some of the thoughts involved from my years as a fundraising executive that helped me deal with these questions.   I was responsible for leading and managing fundraising teams with as few as 10 staff members to as many as 250 staff members so I believe these recommendations are good at any scale of fundraising operation:

  • Case Statement

A key to any fundraising program is to have a very clear understanding of what you are trying to raise money for and what are the funding priorities.  This is a key element of “inspiring a shared vision,”  where the process has been engaging with team members and volunteers and most everybody has bought into what needs to be the focus of fundraising.

This helps you deal with reasonable fundraising expectations.  If your organization takes the attitude that you will raise as “much as you can for everything” then you are going to have a great many disappointed people and departments in your organization at the end of the campaign.

Fundraising simply can’t fill the gaps for everything.  This was a lesson I learned from another of my mentors, Paul Fulton, who as chair of UNC’s historic fundraising campaign he talked often about “raising the right money.”  This is a tough conversation when you have to tell people that you can’t raise money for them because of organizational priorities.  They are not happy.  But at least they have been told up front and won’t be disappointed at the end of the campaign where they had high expectations only to have very little money raised for them.

  • Communicate

Communications is such a key element in managing fundraising expectations.  Keeping everybody on the same page is paramount.  And I mean everybody – the CEO, senior leadership team, the Board, the staff, volunteers and the organizational team.  Make sure everybody understands what you are trying to accomplish with fundraising – how much you are trying to raise, for what purposes, how it fits into the overall strategy of the organization.   It is critical that all these constituent groups are communicated with on a regular basis.  Remember fundraising is a team sport.  If you have the entire organizational team engaged and involved you are helping your chances of fundraising success.

Communicate regularly and frequently to all the groups.  I would communicate almost daily to the CEO, weekly to the Board executive leadership, monthly to the full Board and quarterly to the entire organizational team.  Styles and types of communication and frequency of communication is determined best at the organizational level.  But communicating is a must!!

  • Celebrate

One of the key factors of leadership I learned early in my career is the need to celebrate when something good happens.  It doesn’t have to be a huge celebration and the world shouldn’t stop for the celebration but celebrating with your staff, team and volunteers is a great technique to keep your staff and volunteers engaged.  Celebrate appropriately when a goal has been reached, a gift closed, or to acknowledge the great work of a team member.  As a leader look for all the opportunities you have to celebrate.  This is very important!

  • Push So You Are Not Pushed

This is one of my favorite pieces of advice for any fundraising leader. It is important that we are aggressive and seek to establish challenging goals for the fundraising program.

We must set the bar high, not because we want to but because our organization needs us to be even more successful than we have been in the past. I am not proposing outrageous goals but I am submitting that it is very important to push the status quo, seek higher returns and be viewed as aggressive leaders of the fundraising program.

If you don’t, and you are not viewed as an aggressive leader who will push to reach unprecedented heights, than the CEO and Board will push us! So, get out in front on this one and set an aggressive target.

  • Place in Context

I have learned from many executives in my career.  Some of these great lessons will be a source of a future blog.

But one lesson that was reinforced to me came from the legendary football coach Mack Brown.  Mack, as you may know, is in the college football hall of fame.  What he did better than anybody was to place the issues he dealt with – wins, losses, players graduating, recruiting rankings, etc. – in context.

For example, when Mack was the coach of the University of North Carolina he would always talk about one of the team goals was to win the “state championship.”  That simply meant that UNC had to beat  NC State, Duke and Wake Forest to self-proclaim itself as the “state champion.”

When Mack got it rolling at Carolina and had the Tar Heels ranked in the top #10 on consecutive years it was pretty much taken for granted by friends and supporters that winning the “state championship” was no big deal as the Heels were competing for the national championship.  Mack would even have a signed autographed football in his office highlighting the “state championship” in North Carolina.  But many of us were not impressed by that seemingly low aspiring goal.

In 1997, Mack became the University of Texas new head football coach.  To this day, Mack’s leaving continues to be a major setback even some 20 plus years later.

Well guess what happened in the first year at UNC after Mack left?  The Tar Heels lost to NC State and Wake Forest and didn’t earn the self-proclaimed “state championship.”

I will never forget when Mack called me one day – and Mack is a great, great friend who I admire like crazy – and started to give me some grief about  “wouldn’t you like to be state champs now?!!”

What a great lesson!  It is important to put things in context.  We have become so jaded and numb to big numbers and accomplishments!  University campaigns are now bringing in $6 billion!!  We often become nonchalant when discussing accomplishments and our pride in those results.

Put things in context when motivating your team and organization on fundraising issues.

UNC finished a $2.38 billion campaign in 2008 of which I directed.  It was a great campaign, mobilizing the entire campus and securing money that continues to make a difference in Chapel Hill.

But, when I told people that we raised $2.38 billion, I just wasn’t getting the kind of excitement I felt we deserved.  Sure, people would say “wow” and “that’s a lot of money,” but it was more ho-hum than the kind of feedback we thought we deserved.

So, I did some research to see if we could place that number in context to what other campaigns had raised in the past.  Much to my astonishment, we found that the $2.38B Carolina First Campaign was at the time the 5th largest completed university campaign in U.S. history!!  That’s right: 5th largest  in the entire history of American University fundraising campaigns!  Now when we told staff, donors and volunteers that fact there was a much prouder and “oh wow” response that made everyone associated with UNC even prouder!

Good luck with your fundraising efforts.  Please remember the few simple recommendations I have mentioned here, incorporate them into your daily strategy and I believe you will enjoy even greater fundraising success!  At the end of the day, our students, faculty, scientists, researchers and patients will all gain when we fundraisers do our jobs even better!!

About the Author

Matt Kupec is a fundraising professional with 32 years of significant higher education development experience.  He has directed three major university fundraising campaigns and nearly $5 billion has been raised under his leadership.  He has led the fundraising programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hofstra University, Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute and HelpMeSee, a New York City based non-profit.