The Nonprofit Guru

Little by little, a little becomes a lot January 2, 2013

Filed under: Leadership — reneeherrell @ 10:38 am

Do you remember this “I Love Lucy” clip?



Sometimes I think this video is a good example of what is often happening in nonprofits. Nonprofits are often under-staffed and the staff wears multiple hats with to-do lists that are too long and unrealistic. And bless their hearts, nonprofit staff work so hard to get it all done – often staying late and working weekends. Sometimes things don’t get done or they slide off the to-do list because there is not enough time, resources or expertise. It often feels like the chocolates are coming too fast on the conveyer belt and staff members are trying to wrap them or hide them or eat them in order to avoid them not being wrapped.


This same principal applies to our lives as nonprofit leaders. Often we want to make big changes and try to move a mountain in a day without the right resources, expertise or help. Change often doesn’t happen in one day. It is an ongoing, long-term shift in direction.


I found this great saying on a friend’s Facebook page: Little by little, a little becomes a lot.


As you enter the year, remember that it is the little consistent steps and changes that take us to our ultimate goal. The key is pacing and keeping at it every day.


Happy New Year!


Elevator Culture: Getting out of your comfort zone December 21, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — reneeherrell @ 12:00 pm

This morning I was thinking about changing a culture. It is actually something I do for a living – changing cultures in nonprofits. It starts with the nonprofit wanting to increase their fundraising, launch a capital campaign or engage their Board further in their activities. In order to do this, often the culture of the organization needs to change. To increase fundraising, they need to implement additional or new fundraising activities. To engage the Board, they need to find new opportunities for Board members to engage and then actively pursue the members to be part of the activities of the nonprofit in a meaningful way. This is a change in their “business as usual”.

However, it is not easy to change a culture. A great way to look at this difficulty is to put your self in an elevator. Last week, I was riding the elevator up to my room at the Omni Hotel San Francisco.  The culturally acceptable way to ride an elevator is to remain amazingly silent (I even feel the urge to breathe quietly), not talk to anyone else in the elevator (even if you know them) do not look at anyone else in the elevator, and fix your gaze on the lighted numbers until the elevator doors open and everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief (especially me, because most likely I was probably holding my breath trying to be so quiet).

  • What if we started engaging people in conversation in the elevator?
  • What if looked around the elevator and smiled at others who were riding along side of us?

This would be changing a culture.

As I was saying, this is not easy. Even me, who can chat anyone up at anytime (Lord help all those poor unsuspecting people who sit next to me on an airplane. By the end of the flight, I will know your dreams, fears and at least one of your most embarrassing moments as well as the names and ages of your grandchildren). Like I said, I can engage just about anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Yet, on an elevator, I obey the culture. I do not talk to my neighbors and I stare silently ahead. Which is fine and dandy on an elevator. But what if you wanted to accomplish something that is above and beyond your “business as usual”? Can you continue to do the exact same activities and expect bigger and better results?

I had a client who needed to desperately increase their fundraising. They were in the red every month and the majority of the staff were in the process of jumping off the ship because of the organization’s financial instability. If the organization kept on the path they were on, they would have to close their doors.

So, I went in and did what I do: I helped them revamp their fundraising program, tweaking their current strategy to be more effective and produce better results and I recommended implementing new fundraising efforts and building the structure they needed to accomplish this. And guess what? Every time I presented a new strategy, they nodded their heads and then proceeded to do exactly what they had done the year before. Why? Because doing what you have always done is within your comfort zone. Like riding an elevator and not talking. If you suddenly started chatting up the person next to you, it would be uncomfortable because “elevator culture” dictates that you are to be silent and do not engage the people around you.

This client did not increase their fundraising, but they kept the status quo that was ultimately much more comfortable.

Changing the culture of your organization or even your personal culture, means stepping outside of your comfort zone. It means trying something different – anything different – to see if you can start producing different results. It can be simple. Like today, I needed to write this blog. I had an idea about elevators and changing culture, but couldn’t put it together in a coherent way. So, I kicked around my place, drinking coffee, changing the sheets on the bed, and organizing the mail and still no clarity for the blog. I was hanging out in my comfort zone hoping for inspiration to strike.

Yet, I have the blog written as you can see. I had to get out of my comfort zone. So, I threw on my tennis shoes and hopped on my beach cruiser and went for a short, but effective coastal cruise. In the fresh air, my brain could bat around ideas and bring up new ones. The scenery – blue skies and the glittering ocean – provided a well needed distraction in order for my brain to sort out my thoughts. And viola, this blog was written!

This all being said, when you want to increase fundraising or simply become inspired to write a blog, you need to get out of your comfort zone.


Because that is where real change happens.


And where you find success.


Direct appeal winner: Opportunity International December 4, 2012

Filed under: Direct Mail — reneeherrell @ 8:30 pm

I recently received this fundraising appeal from Opportunity International in the mail.



In my humble opinion, they did a terrific job with this appeal.

The messaging is simple: girls are not in school.

The donor can help change this: $1 a day will allow girls to go to school.

The keys to their success:

  • Pictures of the girls that a donor will support
  • Facts to build the case for why support is needed
  • Opportunities for donors at multiple dollar amounts: $20 for school for one month, $80 for one trimester, $160 for 2 trimesters, etc.
  • Beautiful lay out that is simple to read and understand quickly
  • Dynamic colors and design

The only negative feedback I could provide was that the mailing was probably very expensive to design, print and mail.


Capital Campaign Killed the Annual Fund November 27, 2012

Filed under: Capital Campaign,Direct Mail — reneeherrell @ 8:30 pm

I have the song “Video killed the radio star” buzzing through my head right now. It seems appropriate for the title of this blog: Capital Campaign Killed the Annual Fund.

When preparing for a capital campaign, one of the poignant discussions is how the capital campaign will cannibalize the annual fund. Often, I will advise clients that they may want to look at holding their annual fund goal the same for the five years of the campaign or even reduce it by 10%. Sometimes we will build in an additional 10% into the campaign budget to cover the loss of annual fund.

Frank Pisch, President of Compass Group says, “With coordinated planning, your annual fund should increase during your campaign period. You will be adding new donors, upgrading current ones and asking many of them to make a capital gift as well. Be clear and definitive and use this campaign time to educate your donors as to what it takes to sustain your organization. Both annual and capital needs are important. Pursue them assertively.”

And then I was introduced to a new way of thinking with Colorado Rocky Mountain Schools. They put in place an aggressive plan for increasing the annual fund each year while raising $10 million through a capital campaign. Lisa Raleigh, Director of Development, shared with me her numbers and thoughts on the annual fund within a capital campaign.

  • 2008/2009: Annual Fund raised $448,000
  • 2009/2010: Annual Fund raised $498,000
  • 2010/2011: Annual Fund raised $525,000 (year capital campaign kicked off)
  • 2011/2012: Annual Fund raised $512,000
  • 2012/2013: Annual Fund Goal $530,000

Although they saw a slight decrease in the annual funds raised this past school year, they still had an increase in their annual fund since they started the capital campaign.

The benefits of the capital campaign to the annual fund:

  • When a donor committed to a campaign 5-year pledge, they were also asked to make an annual fund 5-year pledge. This ensured that the donor did not reduce their annual fund gifts in favor of making a campaign gift. AND the development team started each school year with a nice round number of pledged annual funds towards their total goal
  • Reaching out to donors through the auspice of the campaign, opened the door to re-engage lapsed annual fund donors.
  • When a donor wasn’t interested in making a campaign gift, often they made an annual fund gift instead.
  • “Increased our confidence in asking donors for what we need.”

The challenges of the capital campaign to the annual fund:

  • “While the five-year pledges have been wonderful to have confirmed years in advance, we have found that donors of all levels often choose one fund and decide not to give to the other, and in many cases it seems that the Annual Fund suffers more than the capital campaign, though we work hard to protect the Annual Fund.”


As you can see, there are a number of ways that a capital campaign can enhance – and even increase! – your annual fund. The added bonus is that the capital campaign significantly increases donor’s gifts and provides the opportunity for increased donations after the campaign finishes.

“Once the capital campaign is done, we will be in a position to really go after the Annual Fund in a larger,

more aggressive way, given our newfound confidence in making asks in general, and in asking for larger amounts.”


Year End Appeal 2012: Less is More November 20, 2012

Filed under: Direct Mail — reneeherrell @ 8:30 pm

This year, my best advice to my clients regarding their year end direct mail is: less is more.

I’m encouraging them to pull back on the massive mailing and just focusing on the people who actually give. A smaller mailing not only saves money, it allows you to personalize your appeals. I also am encouraging the use of email appeals to save money on the cost of printing and mailing letters.

Year-End Appeal Check List:

  • If you want to send to your entire database, send an email instead of a physical letter
  • For those consistent donors who need a physical letter (like your older donors), send one with a handwritten note
  • Include a personal story with a photo of the person you are telling the story about
  • Don’t send a long list of the things you accomplished this year or list all the programs
  • Do share the impact you have made with your program

Less is more.


Say “thank you” before you say “please” November 13, 2012

Filed under: Direct Mail,stewardship — reneeherrell @ 8:04 pm

Great stewardship of donors doesn’t always mean just saying “thank you” after they give you a donation. It means saying thank you all year long.

With the year end appeal upon us, we need to remember to say “thank you” before we say “please”.

The Living Coast Discovery Center sent out the postcard below as a “thank you” to all of their donors and supporters at the beginning of November. It was in preparation to send these same folks the direct mail appeal in December.

Here is great messaging that I worked with a past client, Behavioral Diabetes Institute, to craft and print inside a thanksgiving card like this one:

“As we celebrate the holiday season,

the Behavioral Diabetes Institute

extends Thanksgiving greetings

and warm wishes to those

who have so generously supported

the organization.

The Board of Directors and Staff

of the Behavioral Diabetes Institute.”


I just received this beautiful thank you note in the mail from Jewish Family Services. Well timed and a great message: “In the last 12 months, our Hand Up Youth Food Pantry provided 9,548 families with 274,701 meals and Foodmobile delivered 27,292 meals to homebound individuals. These are single parents, military families, survivors of domestic abuse, refugees, the unemployed, homebound seniors, and families like yours and mine that never thought they’d need help meeting a very basic need – food.” What incredible accomplishments — and as a donor, I helped make this possible! This “thanksgiving” card gives me a great feeling as a donor – that I am part of a bigger effort and was able to help these families in need.


What we can all learn from a 9-year-old fundraiser November 7, 2012

Filed under: Direct Mail — reneeherrell @ 8:00 pm
Tags: ,

Last week, I received this note in the mail.

  • It came in a simple hand-addressed envelope.
  • No bells or whistles or creative messaging on the outside to get me to open the envelope.
  • The letter was handwritten on a lined piece of paper and only a few sentences long.

And it is the most compelling fundraising letter I have received to date. No joke.



  • It is personalized to me. Not only is my first name used, the whole letter is handwritten.
  • The message is simple and compelling.
  • While I don’t have a connection to the school directly, I do adore the sender of this letter and want to support her efforts for this cause.
  • The ‘ask’ is clear and she has made it easy for me to donate through her step by step directions.
  • There’s a hand drawn picture. The sender took the time to personalize the letter to me.

What Chai has taught us about fundraising letters:

1. Make the message simple and direct.
2. Personalize it to the reader (handwritten, first name, picture)
3. Make it easy to donate.

Not surprisingly, this is not Chai’s first fundraiser. Check her out:




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