CharterFolk Contributor Alex Johnston – Does Fundraising Feel Like the Biggest Drag On Your Joy and Your Impact as a Social Entrepreneur? Are You Ready to Try Something Different?

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Alex Johnston, the president and founder of Building Impact Partners

I provide Alex’s bio below.

Alex Johnston is the president and founder of Building Impact Partners, a philanthropy advising practice that has helped its clients give away over $1 billion since its founding in 2012.

The author of Money with Meaning: How To Create Joy and Impact Through Philanthropy, Alex is also a Certified High Performance Coach and has worked with dozens of donors, philanthropy advisors, and social entrepreneurs seeking impact and more joy across their lives. Alex is a member of the Entrepreneurs Organization and serves on a number of nonprofit boards including FaithACTs for Education and the Trust for Learning.

He lives in New York City with his wife, Caroline, and their three sons.

Does Fundraising Feel Like the Biggest Drag On Your Joy and Your Impact as a Social Entrepreneur? Are You Ready to Try Something Different?

Hello CharterFolk! Let’s talk about fundraising. For many of you, it’s been getting harder lately. I’ve been working as a philanthropy advisor for the past 12 years and over that time I’ve fielded countless calls from amazing non profit leaders, including many in the charter community, who are at their wits end trying to raise the resources they need to carry out their work. In the last year or so, these calls have been getting even more intense. The idea that it’s getting harder for so many extraordinary non profit leaders to resource their work feels crazy in a world where wealth is ever more concentrated and so many ultra-high net worth individuals have genuine intentions to gear up their giving. Through our philanthropy advising practice at Building Impact Partners, I’ve been sitting right in the middle of this, and I’m feeling more motivated than ever to do anything I can to help those on both sides of this dynamic get more money flowing to where it is most needed.

So, in this spirit, I want to share some of what I’ve been seeing and hearing about what’s going wrong in the world of fundraising and philanthropy from the perspective of non profit leaders who are out there doing the work and trying to raise the resources they need to keep doing that work. And if anything in what I’m about to share resonates with your experience, I want to invite you to explore a different approach to fundraising through a series of free webinars that I’ll be hosting over the next several months. 

But before we get to that, let’s take a deeper dive on what’s been going wrong.

It’s Getting Tough Out There: Key Fundraising Challenges Nonprofit Leaders Are Experiencing

  • Disappearing donors: nothing changed on your end, in fact, you and your team are doing the best work you’ve ever done, but when it comes time to renew support, funders are telling you that you are no longer a fit, or they are pulling back, taking a pause, etc.
  • You’re running out of ideas about who else you can ask: it feels like the universe of deep pocketed donors who might conceivably take an interest in your work is already mapped out and it’s not that big to begin with.
  • You hate how raising money seems to pit you against other leaders: and organizations and how those with the sharpest elbows often seem to get ahead.
  • Your board isn’t actually helping you very much: they make supportive noises and say they’ll step up when you ask, but ultimately you’re pretty much on your own when it comes to fundraising.
  • You feel like you’re letting down your team and those you serve: you KNOW in your bones that what you are doing is poised to deliver extraordinary impact, but you’re struggling to bring in the resources to make it all happen. You’re starting to question whether you’re really cut out for this job. You can’t imagine a worse feeling than having to lay off great people and let down those you serve because you can’t seem to figure out the fundraising part of your role.
  • If there are any aspects of your identity that make you feel different from the dominant culture, fundraising is making you become even more aware of them: and with each fundraising disappointment, you’re wondering just how much tax you might be paying on those differences.
  • Exhaustion and burnout: you love so many parts of your work, and you feel deeply called to serve, but fundraising just sucks the life out of you and leaves you feeling discouraged, depleted. You feel like you are living under a constant cloud of stress and worry. When you get to the end of the day you never get to feel like you are actually done. Your  to-do list that just gets longer and longer.
  • You feel like the whole system of philanthropy is deeply flawed: this feels way bigger than you and some days you’re not sure how to stay hopeful.
  • You’re catching yourself wondering what it would be like if you just quit it all and tried to build a new life: as a chef, a novelist, a florist, a farmer or whatever you imagine might bring you less stress and more joy. Maybe then the effort you put in every day would at least feel more directly connected to creating something real, even if you have to settle for stepping away from your dreams to make the biggest contribution you can as a change agent.

Even When The System Is Broken, How You Show Up Still Matters

If you feel like you recognize yourself in any of these challenges, you are not alone! Chances are you already know this from having had many conversations with peers and colleagues. You probably also know that there’s a lot about your fundraising experience that’s outside of your immediate control–there’s no question that there are all kinds of things wrong with the world of philanthropy at a systemic level.  

At the same time, the way you show up still matters. You may be doing (and not doing) certain things that exacerbate your negative experience with fundraising and undermine your own capacity as a force for change within this larger system. What makes me say this? I’ve spent the past 25 years wearing hats on all sides of the fundraising world, including the last 12 years at Building Impact Partners, a philanthropy advising practice that sits in the space between the donors we advise and the organizations they fund. I spent the last 5 years writing a book for ultra high net worth donors and their philanthropy advisors looking to gear up their giving in ways that maximize both social impact and joy for all concerned.

So let me go a little further and share some of the most common fundraising misconceptions and mistakes that I see nonprofit leaders making, particularly when the going gets tough. And if you feel like you might resemble any of these remarks, I’ve been right there with you myself. I’ve made every single one of these mistakes in my own journey as a social entrepreneur, often many times over!

You May Be Inadvertently Making It Harder For Yourself:

Top Fundraising Misconceptions and Mistakes Nonprofit Leaders Are Making

  • Approaching all “funders” as if they are same: not recognizing key distinctions between individuals and institutions and between staff and principals when it comes to roles, motivations, and decision making powers.
  • Binary thinking: Either I’m going to get a donor who really gets me and is ready to accelerate my vision on my terms, or I’m going to end up having to take money from someone for whom I’m just the hired help to carry out their strategy, with no power to discuss terms: take it or leave it.
  • Not really knowing why even your largest and most longstanding donors are supporting you: not understanding their interests, the results they care about, and their reasons why.
  • Assuming that maximizing the impact of their dollars is the only thing donors care about: when deciding who and what to fund.
  • Focusing only on financial capital: and not recognizing the alternative forms of capital that donors (and you!) are bringing to the table.
  • Doubling down on trying to better explain your vision, your strategy, and your solution if you don’t seem to be getting through to a donor: believing that a donor’s lack of understanding must be their main barrier to action–not paying attention to challenges related to their aspirations, their skills, and their mindset.
  • Focusing so much on nailing your pitch that you leave meetings without being able to recall much of anything the donor might have said.

Fundraising Fixes That Aren’t Working

There are also some common approaches that you may be taking to try to fix your fundraising challenges. And while there are positive aspects to some of these, chances are these fixes are not really working either. 

  • Hustling harder: this is often our default setting as mission driven social entrepreneurs. Throw any obstacle in our way and we’ll just work harder to get over it, around it, through it. There are times when grit and digging deeper are essential aspects of leadership. But applying for every single RFP under the sun or combing through every donor database usually isn’t the answer. If what you are already doing isn’t working, simply doing more of it is likely to produce burnout rather than breakthrough. You need to apply your energy in new ways if you want hustling harder to actually pay off rather than simply adding to your exhaustion and overwhelm.
  • Hiring help: if you’re already hustling as hard as you possibly can on that fundraising treadmill, hiring help is often the next fix you try. This can definitely provide some immediate relief to your workload. But unless you bring in someone who is all about helping you reinvent your fundraising approach (and there are some brilliant fundraising consultants and professionals out there) you may just end up with more people crowded onto the same hamster wheel.
  • Hiding and hoping: let’s be honest, there are some days when this is where all of us end up–deploying our best avoidance tactics and hoping that something might break our way. This isn’t all bad–fundraising avoidance often involves making yourself super busy in other parts of the work where you feel like you can really get results. And who knows, maybe tomorrow will be the day when you finally get the news that it’s your turn to get one of those magical grants from MacKenzie Scott. 

If anything in what I’ve just shared is resonating–if you are experiencing some of these symptoms of the fundraising treadmill, making some of these mistakes, and trying some of these failed solutions then I’m guessing you might be open to trying something else. And you may also have noticed that some of your peers actually seem to be enjoying the fundraising work that they do–and that somehow they also seem to be finding the resources they need for their work without burning out. If you’d like to know what it is that they are doing differently, I want to invite you to a free training series I’m hosting: Fully Human Fundraising.   

Through a series of monthly webinars, we’ll be walking through a practical gameplan based on  the Four R’s of Fully Human Fundraising:

  • Relevance
  • Relationships
  • Referrals
  • Reputation

While this won’t solve for everything that’s wrong in philanthropy and fundraising, I know from lots of work behind the scenes that these 4 elements are at the heart of what many of the most successful non profit leaders are doing when they engage with donors, philanthropy advisors, and all those who play a role in the resource engine that supports their work. In this series we are going to help you to transcend the dominant paradigm of transactional, scarcity-based fundraising, instead showing up in ways that align deeply with your own lived experience and that create openings for donors to learn and grow in their own journey towards more meaningful giving. And the best part is that the more of us who approach fundraising in this way, the more our individual efforts add up to shift the whole system so that resources flow more abundantly and joyfully to where they are needed most.

I’m kicking off this series on Monday November 6th, from 12:30-1:30pm ET, and continuing on the second Monday of every month into the New Year.  Click here to register and join us on November 6th!  We’ll also send out a link to everyone who registers to access replays so don’t worry if joining live isn’t your thing.

With best wishes to all in the CharterFolk community–wherever you are in your fundraising journey!