Fish Stories

I was visiting with the staff of a small human services agency the other day. I asked them how they liked their board of directors, and they were generally positive, until it came to talking about the board’s attitude about development.  At that point, their calm professionalism fell away, replaced within seconds by apoplexy.

The problem: the dominant voice on their Development Committee was the director of development at an affluent private college. This board member had a terrible time understanding the fundraising challenges of the agency.

“She doesn’t understand,” said the Executive Director, “because raising money at her organization is like, like…  like shooting fish in a barrel!”

I get his point. Think about it. An elite college (or a summer camp for wealthy kids, or a prep school) has a known universe of core potential supporters: their alumni. These alumni have an established loyalty. Even if they have mixed feelings about the institution, they at least have an emotional connection and identification. And most of them are well off, many of them very wealthy.

Raising money at these places requires skill and hard work, of course, and the size of the gifts and campaigns creates a lot of pressure on staff. It’s not easy. But it’s very, very different from development work at the kind of agency I was visiting.

Let’s look at that agency’s situation. Those with emotional ties – their clients – are for the most part low-income. No development potential there. The agency has to work, and work, and work to develop relationships with potential donors in the community. Instead of shooting fish in a barrel, it’s like they’re fishing at the side of a trout stream, casting out, trying to lure supporters, one at a time. It’s terribly difficult, and it requires a lot of one-on-one interactions. The agency holds special events to build connections, but the status and draw of the annual meeting of, say, the Pope County Children’s Welfare Council doesn’t hold a candle to a weekend-long college reunion, where the wine and nostalgia and money flow freely.

The well-intentioned board member infuriated the staff of the nonprofit by her calm insistence that what worked at her vastly more privileged institutions would transfer over – simply and automatically – to the small social service organization. Even though that group didn’t have a wealthy pool of alumni with emotional ties to the institution. Or social status. Or research capacity. Or adequate staff. Or time.

This goes back to my core belief that there’s no cookie-cutter approach to development. What works for an elite college won’t work at a small nonprofit agency, and board members should keep that in mind before they make assertions that can be interpreted as condescending. They should instead work to help the agency fish at their stream. They should introduce the staff leadership to influential potential donors. They should throw a party. Make the ask. Give generously. And, yes, catch fish or two.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Julie McConnell
    February 24, 2012 4:23 pm

    Thank you Al for sharing this important perspective on behalf of the many small and mid-sized social service and non-profit agencies doing such important core work in our communities – expected to do so much more for those in need of assistance through the recession, while facing increased fundraising challenges and competition for limited philanthropic dollars. That pool of philantropic dollars can be expanded through the level of asks you speak to, large and small with the right mix of leadership and practical development expertise. Keep the fishing lines in the stream!

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