Category Archives: Fundraising Talk

Commentary, discussions, and guest posts on fundraising issues.

My First Year As A Fundraiser. It’s Only Just Begun…

By Marianne Ciok

I have just completed my first year as a major gifts fundraiser. Previously, I worked in the insurance industry in sales and service. This change was not due to necessity but choice. I wanted to contribute in a different way.  After completing my certificate at BCIT and volunteering at nonprofits, while working full-time, I felt I was ready.

The first year of changing careers from profit (sales) to nonprofit (major gifts) was like learning a new language. How do you “translate” or transfer your skills from profit to nonprofit?

First, I let go of all my preconceptions from the for corporate sector.   I said to myself “I know nothing, let’s start from square one, listen, ask questions, be open to ideas and suggestions.” This can be a humbling but liberating experience. I just absorbed everything around me and then as I started to increase my knowledge it was easier to integrate experience and skills to improve.

Like learning a language the key is communication. At the beginning I acknowledged that I would encounter a few difficulties. I possess the basic skills and principles to connect with people but an important step was to integrate them in my new career. Again, as in learning a new language you have to place your trust in those around you. Observation is imperative to learning. The beauty about starting new is that you do not have to have all the answers! Have an open mind to understand the mission and what could be improved in the future.

An instructor once told us in a fundraising course that you do not have to be the smartest person in the room. In other words, you do not have to know it all. I would take it a step further and say just listen and ask questions in the beginning. I call this stage “ inquisitive motivation,” inquiring why something is done a certain way, what is the result when it is done that way, and whether that was the expected result.

I realize that there will be a few stumbling blocks on the way. Sometimes I may use the wrong word: Like in Spanish, “cerveza “and “servicios”. The pronunciation may be similar but the meaning is very different! Most people understand and give you some leeway to make a few pho phas. Most people are patient, encouraging and happy to help you correct your mistakes. Then the most critical point is to follow through, follow through, follow through. Follow through is key to integrity.

As in learning a language, it takes time, dedication, motivation, and the willingness to put myself out there. The mistakes are all mine, I own them, correct them, and rectify them. But the achievements are mine too, and that feels great!

When I am learning something new, whether it is a language or new skills, I go back to the purpose. What is my purpose for doing this? What is my purpose for asking this question?

Leaving my comfort zone and preparing for the journey broadens my experience. I immerse myself in the terms, processes, procedures and yes, even politics. To surround and submerge myself in the organization’s culture is imperative to progress.  Intensity is vital to learning and progression.

People respond to others trying to learn while passionate about the cause. Whether the mission is to help the disabled in poor countries or interact with a person in a foreign country. Starting off I left my experience aside my first few months. I wanted to hear how they explained processes to me. I wanted to listen to donors describe their perspective on the organization or cause.

In the beginning my conversations were simple. As in learning a language I am building a repertoire of tools and building blocks. Once I master the basic terms and steps to stewarding a donor, the language flows smoother and communication becomes more relaxed. Less time will be spent on wondering if I am saying/doing it right and more time on conversations, solutions, resolutions and expanding my knowledge. Learning sometimes involves uncertainty to become more proficient and less self-conscious.

And I know (cue the Carpenters)…it’s only just begun!

Marianne Ciok is a Partnership Development Representative with cbm (Christian Blind Mission) Canada. Previously, she was in the insurance industry as an insurance agent selling home, car, pet and commercial insurance in BC.  Marianne started in 2014 as a major gifts fundraiser shortly after completing her Fundraising Marketing Management Certificate from BCIT.

Five Key Questions Your Donors Should Be Asking You

Heather Ferguson

By Heather Ferguson

Donors with the discipline to ask these five strategic questions and non-profit leaders with the discipline to answer them will find a common framework that will bring added clarity to their discussions.

I was flipping through Fortune Magazine online the other day when I ran across five key strategic questions for private equity investors. (Dan Primack, July 9, 2012)

Reading through, I realized these five questions could apply to major gift philanthropy and could be equally helpful to anyone wanting to understand the potential of a non-profit to achieve its goals. Even the non-profit leaders trying to secure those gifts would benefit.

So here are the five questions and below, my own commentary. I like these questions because each one speaks to an important part of an organization that donors should understand, but the questions relate to each other to form a whole.

  1. What is the company’s core strategic plan?
  2. Are we the right owners to execute on the strategic plan?
  3. Does the company have the right CEO to execute on the strategic plan?
  4. Is the company earning an appropriate return on invested capital?
  5. Is the company gaining market share?

1. What is the company’s (read: Organization’s) core strategic plan?

This is about vision, programming, revenue streams and culture. The core strategic plan is about the big, big picture. In my charitable work, both management and governing boards see their strategic plan as their bible and put much time and effort into creating it. Donors don’t need to see the whole plan (boring bedtime reading for them – I can attest). If it really guides the organization, its contents will come across in spades during meetings, and in whatever presentations and proposals are required.

What donors want to know is your overall direction as an organization, what goals you consider important and how you plan to execute them. This is about your programming and your impact on society and it is heartening to know that this is the first question a prospective donor should ask – whether you are dealing with the arts, with a social issue or anything else that demands a non-profit solution. Donors who feel they can trust your vision and direction as well as your plans to execute will feel ready to ask the next, more incisive, questions below.

2. Are we the right owners (read: donors) to execute (read: understand and support)… the strategic plan?

This question raises a challenge for philanthropists just as much as Fortune intended it for private equity investors. All of us, no matter our net worth, want to make the world a better place and each of us should have a personal policy in place that governs our giving. For most, if not all, existing non-profits and charities offer vehicles that allow us to change the world in meaningful ways. Not surprisingly, the more money you give away, the more complex the act of giving becomes.

Savvy donors have a vision for their philanthropy. They know what they want to achieve today but they also know, as their giving gains a track record, what they want it to achieve in the future. Thinking of philanthropy as a living growing program means that philanthropists have to determine the fit with their program. I used to know a philanthropist who gave and volunteered widely. He took a personal interest in our mid-sized charity because he wanted to see it grow and he knew he had the means to support that. As a result, he earmarked his substantial annual gift for whatever we needed at that time, after discussion with him. That allowed the charity to allocate funds from less flexible donors and also make a fit with his philanthropic program. The charity functions as their vehicle for making the world a better place – each to his/her means and talents

3. Does the company have the right CEO to execute on the strategic plan?

In the first two questions, the philanthropist/investor is looking for fit – the right cause to fit with their philanthropic goals. In this question, they start to drill down on the organization and I find it telling that it starts with leadership and, by extension, culture.

I would expand this question to include the leadership team as a whole. The right CEO at the right time is crucial but the ability of the management team to execute on the strategic goals, the depth of talent within the team (eg: who can take over if the CEO gets hit by a bus, or a board of directors), their collaborative skills and emotional intelligence all make or break a great organization. If the CEO is not supported by a great leadership team, or is “tone deaf” when recruiting the right leadership team all is truly lost.

4. Is the company earning an appropriate return on invested capital?

The key concept in this question has to do with “invested capital” and whether or not that investment is generating the societal impact the organization anticipates or desires. Understanding the relationship between the staff one hires, the promotional materials generated or the research and development incurred against the impact of that investment on creating the non-profit solution is crucial to determining the value a non-profit generates for society. A prospective donor might determine it using this simple example.

If a non-profit creates a school program for instance, and the curricula presented at each school cost, say, $10,000, it may be difficult, or in some cases even impossible to find a donor willing to fund that program. The donor may feel that the cost of $10,000 per school against the number of students benefitting from that program does not justify the expense. In that case, the cost (for each school) and the impact (number of students exposed to the program) do not create a strong enough value proposition for funders.

Let’s say the non-profit is able to reallocate its capital investment so the program runs in two schools or even four schools for the same price. In that case, funders may feel the number of students exposed to the program may be more in line with the cost and be willing to fund it. Securing donations to the program now works because the “unit economics” now works.

5. Is the company (organization) gaining market share?

Anyone who thinks non-profits are above anything as crass as market-share should think again. The sheer proliferation of non-profits in Canada speaks to a healthy marketplace of ideas about the best ways to improve our world. In such an environment, competition for scarce resources leads inevitably to a discussion of market share.

The beauty of this question is that it pulls the lens back to the bigger picture and looks at your overall track record with other donors. Your individual programs may be good, bad or indifferent but what is your organizational track record like, relative to your size and historical goals? Do you do something different from everyone else – or do you do something better than everyone else? What is that thing that brings others flocking to your side – choosing your organization over others? A strong track record of success can obliterate a couple of misfires on the program side and this question makes sure your successes and also your challenges are accounted for.

The TakeAway?

Donors with the discipline to ask these five strategic questions and non-profit leaders with the discipline to answer them will find a common framework that speaks to different goals and outcomes for non-profit organizations, but remains realistic in an assessment of their value. A donation, whether large or small, is the grease that supports societal impact and allows non-profits to serve. A focus on the information donors need to assess an organization serves everyone.

Heather Ferguson, MCM, ABC, CFRE (2003-12) is a consultant living in Victoria BC. Her expertise lies in managing key accounts as well as non-profit management, major gift fundraising and content marketing communications. She is passionate about the non-profit world and is convinced we are on the verge of a golden age of doing good. Heather can be contacted at

Are We Missing the Most Motivating Stories?

Erica Branda

By Erica Branda, Branda Communications

I just watched the thought-provoking 2009 TED Talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which she warns of the dangers of representing any culture or person with a single story.

It made me think about the stories we tell in fundraising. Are we painting the whole picture? Are we missing opportunities?

According to the most recent Statistics Canada survey on volunteering and charitable giving in Canada, 82% of Canadians make financial donations, and the average level of giving is $531 per year.

Yet a quick (non-scientific) scan of the websites of some of Canada’s larger non-profit organizations tells me that all donors are wealthy. We do a great job of announcing million-dollar research chairs, big gifts for new facilities and large corporate donations.

Of course this is necessary. These large gifts represent the bulk of the dollars we raise, typically allow us to shed light on something new and exciting in our organizations and are most likely to be picked up by traditional media.

But where is the story about the 22-year-old woman working in an entry-level job who deeply believes in your cause and has committed to donating $10 every month? What is motivating her to part with some of her limited disposable income? There is likely something deeply compelling behind it and a story that will motivate donors of all shapes and sizes.

Social media gives us the opportunity to share these stories widely and demonstrate how our organizations are relevant to a wide range people. Publishing stories that touch the typical Canadian donor can help us tap into new networks and build stronger relationships with existing donors.

They say that your next major donor is someone who is already giving to you. Celebrating these people today can have a big pay-off in the future.

Erica Branda believes that people give to people, not organizations. After spending close to ten years creating motivating stories about donors and gift recipients as the Director of MarCom for SFU Advancement, she has founded Branda Communications.

Your Comms People Are More Than Publicity Agents

Heather Ferguson

By Heather Ferguson, Whale Communications

So here’s the thing. You are the Executive Director or CEO of a successful charity. You have the standard staff complement of Resource Development Officer(s) and Communications Officer(s). The ResDev people raise money and the Comms people publicize the cause. So far, so good.

But, there is a grey area here. Once the gift is pledged, who is the best person to spearhead your donor relations? If you have just a little leeway in staffing you can cover this gap, so how about using the person who is likely underused? If the name of the game is to keep people focused on what they do best, use your comms manager to create and run a donor relations program. Here’s why.

Taking care of donors, building on those relationships, making sure they get the reports they need, the telephone updates and invitations to events is everyone’s business. But the problem with something being everyone’s business is that it becomes nobody’s business. Each person takes on a fragment from the corner of their desk and sooner or later opportunities get missed and there is no coherence to any of it. Someone in the office has to be accountable for the bigger picture but you need your fundraisers focused on the calls that will lead to the next gift. Current donors, having given their financial support at least once, are part of a special group that demands special care.

A communications practitioner to understand the needs and demands of their audience while balancing those with possibly different needs and demands from the organization. A good comms person can design a solid stewardship plan around a high end donor that keeps the fundraiser involved, brings the ED or Board members in at the appropriate time and generally keeps the donor up to speed on the organization, its work and priorities.

In fact, for consistency of message, creating appropriate materials, and coordinating a wide range of needs, a comms person can best support this special group of current donors and help you keep your fundraisers focused on raising money.

Let’s look at an example. Jodie is a manager of major gifts and has just secured a large donation to her organization. Now she turns to Communications Manager Kent who works with her to design a communications follow-up plan for this donor. The plan might include the following:

  • A phone call and letter from the Executive Director. Kent will write the draft letter and send it to the ED for her to revise and personalize. He will also include a brief note on the background of the institutions involvement with that donor and their phone number and email.
  • An annual report on the status of program the donor supported and how their gift is being used. Kent will liaise with programming and with Jodie to obtain details and create the report keeping in mind an appropriate message and consistency of look.
  • Kent will also make sure the donor is informed of any news about the organization. Knowing that Jodie and/or the ED are the primary relationship holders within the office, he will likely alert one or both of them, write an email or news release and pass it on for them to send on to the donor. Likewise, if a board member or other volunteer is the primary relationship holder, he will alert that person and follow through to conclusion. As Jodie is the one who secured the gift, these protocols will have been worked out with her ahead of time.
  • Kent will make sure the donor is placed on invitation lists for events or can arrange for the donor to meet with Jodie and the ED for lunch or a meeting. Kent will also make sure that Jodie greets and speak with the donor at the event and that the agreed upon follow-up with the donor happens as it should.
  • Overall, Kent will take a broad strategic understanding of all current donor needs. He will strategize and offer communications advice as well as continuously check the program for consistency of message and coordination with other communications activities.

Kent’s training as a communications/public relations expert allows him to focus on things that are not directly related to asking for funds but which, over the long-term, can lead to bigger gifts. His coursework in stakeholder relations allows him to understand why Jodie needs to continue building her relationship with the donor and why it is important for the Executive Director to have a strong relationship too. Kent is really putting his publicity competencies to the service a smaller, highly targeted, mission critical audience.

Using a communications manager simply as a publicity officer is to miss the very real training in relationship building and stakeholder management their education provides. What’s more, it takes the job of donor relations off the side of Jodie’s desk and keeps her focus squarely on her core competencies. Keeping your people focused on what they were hired to do is the Holy Grail for small organizations but it’s still pretty tough when you are a large one too. Understanding what and how much your communications department can handle can help you to snatch that grail from its hiding place.

Heather Ferguson, MCM, ABC, CFRE (2003-12) is a consultant living in Victoria BC. Her expertise lies in managing key accounts as well as non-profit management, major gift fundraising and content marketing communications. She is passionate about the non-profit world and is convinced we are on the verge of a golden age of doing good. Heather can be contacted at


What Is #DonorLove? Donor, Don’t Hurt Me!


By Maeve Strathy

I’ve been talking about #DonorLove a lot lately, but what is it?

It’s a lot like being donor-centric. It’s about remembering that the donor is at the heart of everything we do as fundraisers.

So far in my career, I’ve only worked at educational institutions, but I’ve learned that my work isn’t about the school; it’s about the donor. The faculty and administrative staff and the variety of employees that are here to serve students and programs, they’ve got the school covered. I’m serving the donors. That’s what #DonorLove is all about.

#DonorLove has a natural fit with stewardship, for sure. From the moment the donor says yes to making a gift, there are myriad opportunities to show them love. Right then and there, for one thing! A sincere thank you with eye contact and a smile has a powerful effect. An additional thank you call within 48 hours to reinforce your gratitude will be well-received (and has a massive influence on retention). A hand-written thank you letter just for them is another special touch, and there are so many more.

But #DonorLove isn’t just about stewardship. Would it be loving to demand an in-person meeting with a donor if they preferred a phone call? If your planned giving prospect likes getting information by mail, aren’t you only serving your interests by calling them?

Why are you talking about the biggest fundraising priority at your charity when your donor has expressed already that they’re only interested in supporting a specific program?

Why did you make an ask on the first visit to meet your targets when it was clear that the donor would’ve benefitted from a few more discussions about the project you’re asking them to support?

#DonorLove isn’t about the fundraiser or the charity; it’s about the donor. It’s about showing them love and inspiring them to make big things happen with their philanthropy. It’s not about telling them about what you’re going to do with their money, it’s about enabling them to do something big!

We have the opportunity to make a lot of people feel really good about themselves and the world, and for the world to be made better, too.

Tell me how you’re going to show your donors more #DonorLove today!


And while you’re at it, register for The #DonorLove Rendezvous!

It’s taking place on Wednesday, May 11, 2016 in Toronto, and will be a day as fun, inspirational, and creative as fundraisers.

If you are ready for a stimulating day of learning all about putting donors at the heart of what we do, this conference is for you!

Learn more and register at


Maeve Strathy calls herself a Fundraiser. Full-stop. Right now she is developing the leadership giving program at her alma mater, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Previously she worked as an Alumni Development Officer at Trinity College School, where she focused on young alumni giving and programming. Maeve is passionate about enabling people to make a positive difference with their money. She’s so passionate about it that she spends her spare time thinking about it, talking about it, and writing about it on her blog,