The Nonprofit Guru

“Heart String” stories: Telling Your Organization’s Story January 6, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — reneeherrell @ 9:00 am

“If you want people to understand and identify with a complicated concept, tell a story about it.”

-Donald Miller, Author and Storyteller



This video demonstrates that how you tell your story will change how people will respond – and will result in donations to your nonprofit organization.


Andy Goodman, author of Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes, says that “sometimes you may find it particularly difficult to explain what you do in a concise and compelling way.”


In his storytelling workshop that I attended in 2013, Andy shared a story that demonstrated a number of facts about welfare. After the story, he shared the actual statistics – that did not actually line up with the story. However, what made the greatest impression on the audience and the message that they walked away with – was the story.


As nonprofits, we need to develop our “heart string” stories that help convey the programs we produce and the statistics we are trying to change or increase.


How do you write a good story?


According to Donald Miller, author and storytelling guru, “stories are terrific tools for communications. They instruct, provide rest, give us inspiration and help us learn empathy for others.” Stories are “a sense-making device.”


If you want to convey how your organization helps the community or a certain population, tell a story about an individual you were able to help with your services.


When telling the story, clarity is key. Miller says that “within a story, life seems to be clear” but cautions that the storyteller that “the more a story rambles and wanders, the more it feels like real life and the less people will engage.”


To gain clarity, you need a structured plot.


Miller’s storytelling formula:

  1. A character has a problem.
  2. Then meets a guide who gives them a plan and calls them to action.
  3. That action either results in comedy or tragedy.


In the case of your nonprofit “heart string” story, the guide is your nonprofit (services or the program manager implementing the programs) the action will result in success for the character.


I agree with Miller that, “good stories don’t happen by accident. They are formed and molded and edited so they are clean and clutter free.” I encourage you to spend time writing out your heart string stories – whether the story will be told live in front of a group of potential donors or through a compelling direct mail letter. Rehearse the story so that it is clear, concise and to the point. Don’t ramble and keep it short.


Ask for Advice, Get Money Twice December 15, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — reneeherrell @ 12:42 pm


Although the artist Pitbull is not my usual “go to” for fundraising advice, his latest pop song “Feel This Moment” featuring Christina Aguilera has solid fundraising advice:


Ask for money, and get advice

Ask for advice, get money twice.


There is something very valid in Pitbull’s lyrics. When approaching potential donors, it is often better to ask for advice than to ask for money.


It follows my favorite fundraising magic statement:

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 12.40.52 PM


When we ask individuals for “advice” instead of “money”, we are telling them that they (and their ideas, opinions and feedback) are important to the organization. We are also sharing our upcoming project or need within the organization that will require additional funding. This invites the individual to become our organization’s collaborator. In order for a donor to give, they must understand that there is a need. When you make them part of the conversation around the need, there is a higher likely hood that they will want to help fill this need.


Feasibility studies are another way to strategically ask for advice from current and potential donors. While the study is meant to determine if the project is “feasible”, I see the real value as an opportunity to sit down one-on-one with individuals and ask for their advice. While I am asking for their advice, the organization is gaining buy-in for their project.


As fundraisers, we have heard that involvement leads to investment. Asking for advice is a way to “involve” an individual with your organization. Often we are looking for reasons to meet with our long-time supporters or engage new supporters. Sharing with them about what the organization is currently doing – and then asking for their input is a valuable way to engage the donor.


Utilize the advice you receive wisely:

  1. Shape and better the proposed project.
  2. Gain an understanding on whether the individual is interested in financially supporting the project or not.
  3. Create an appropriate donation solicitation for the advisee.

Join me at the San Diego AFP Luncheon on 12/5! December 1, 2014

Filed under: AFP,Overhead Fundraising — reneeherrell @ 12:18 pm

AFP San Diego Chapter Luncheon Workshop – December 2014

Title: Keep the Lights On: The Overhead Myth

Date: December 5, 2014 at 11:30am -1:30pm

Location: Mission Valley Double Tree Hotel, 1515 Hotel Circle South, San Diego, CA


Moderator: Renee Herrell



Judy McDonald, Parker Foundation

Peter Ellsworth, Legler Benbough Foundation

Senator Dede Alpert (Retired) Girard Foundation


Session Description

Fundraising for overhead has always been a challenge for nonprofit organizations. Funders often focus their giving on programs. The “overhead myth” is centered on the idea that nonprofits are valued by how little they spend on overhead. Overhead includes salaries for non-program management, office space, office technology, and office supplies – the non-sexy budget line items of a nonprofit organization. Often nonprofits get caught in the “Nonprofit Starvation Cycle”, a vicious cycle that starts when funders have unrealistic expectations of how much nonprofits should spend on overhead and value nonprofits who spend little on overhead. To meet these unrealistic expectations, nonprofits begin to skimp on overhead and misrepresent their costs to make their overhead look smaller to receive funding – thus perpetuating funders’ unrealistic expectations. Three local funders will speak about why they fund overhead through the foundations they represent and how to positively shift the culture and mindset around nonprofit overhead.


This panel discussion is based on the article I wrote for Huffington Post: The New Four-Letter Word in the Nonprofit Sector

Register here:

More information at:


Membership Engagement: Effectively Involving Individuals with Your Nonprofit November 24, 2014

Filed under: membership — reneeherrell @ 10:00 am

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 7.23.15 AM


For my full article, click here:


Huffington Post Article: Billion Dollar Blow Out November 12, 2014

Filed under: Huffington Post,Major Gifts,Nonprofit Education — reneeherrell @ 3:45 pm

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For the full article read below of click here to Huffington Post.

If you had a billion dollars, would you give it all away?


Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates did it and then asked others to do it.


Mark Zuckerberg has  to do it.


And one of San Diego’s leading philanthropists, T. Denny Sanford, has already donated a billion dollars and pledged to give even more.


In total, 127 of the world’s wealthiest individuals and families have signed the infamous giving pledge to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.


Sanford’s philanthropic philosophy is to “aspire to inspire before you expire.” In fact, Mr. Sanford plans to give away all of his money to charities before he passes.


Sanford’s latest aspirations led him to team up with National University Chancellor Michael Cunningham, a man who Sanford respects for “his vigor, vitality and direction.” Together they created the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy.


Sanford’s $1 million gift to National University, California’s second-largest private, nonprofit university, comes with a vision: to not only positively influence nonprofits but the leaders that serve these causes. According to Sanford, “there are great schools for philanthropic organization management and administration but we didn’t see a school in the market that would specifically support nonprofit fundraisers.”


As you can imagine, fundraisers approach Mr. Sanford quite often asking him to support their causes. He probably knows fundraising pitches better than most fundraising staff members. And because of this, he wants to help fundraisers hone their craft in order to better engage philanthropists – like himself – to support very important causes. Through the Center, “nonprofit’s frontline people will be taught how to properly and professionally present the cause that they represent to donors and the community.”


“There are so many great causes that go unfunded or are poorly funded. I really think this system and methodology at National University will be very, very effective in educating nonprofit fundraising leaders.”


Sanford has sage advice for nonprofit professionals. Keep the fundraising pitch focused on the cause and make it as simple to understand as possible. The ‘Sanford rule’ – as he calls it – is that you must be able to tell your charity’s story in a way that your grandmother would understand it in no more than a 10-story elevator ride.


“Oh, and sign up to take workshops and classes at the Sanford Philanthropy Center at National University.”


There will be no shortage of students for National University’s new nonprofit education offerings with 1.4 million tax-exempt organizations in the United States that represent the 3rd largest workforce among U.S. industries (behind retail and manufacturing) and reported 1.6 trillion in revenues (National Center for Charitable Statistics).


It is Sanford’s intent to take this program to other educational institutions throughout the United States because not every nonprofit leader can come to San Diego.


Sanford says that the education offerings will “not be out of a book, they are going to be hands-on.” The Center’s mission is to effect positive change through the development of nonprofit leaders and teachers through the offering of inspirational and impactful programs that meet 21st century global needs.


The Sanford Education Center officially opened its doors in La Jolla, CA on September 18th. The state-of-the-art-facilities include a lecture hall space, capacity for 150-plus people and integrated video technology where many of the workshops, seminars and classes in the Master of Arts in Cause Leadership will be held.


“In one way shape or form, all nonprofit employees are in the business of raising money. There are no schools nationwide that do a significant job for the people who are on the frontline of nonprofits meeting with donors – until now.”



The A-ha Moment of Raising Major Gifts November 1, 2014

Filed under: Major Gifts — reneeherrell @ 10:00 am

A year ago, I started working with a new client who wanted to dramatically increase their major gifts program – a program that had existed in result of mostly unsolicited donations. We spent 3 to 6 months poring through donor lists, noticing giving patterns, identifying relationship managers, creating individual cultivation strategies and solicitation amounts for each donor.


Time passed and no solicitations were made.


As we were coming up on our deadline for raising major gifts, the CEO of the nonprofit told me that she was disappointed that we were not making our major gifts goal.


This was a tough conversation for a consultant to have. We had clearly outlined the strategy for soliciting each donor including how, how much, when and why. But the CEO had not set the appointments and made the solicitations. I was at a loss on how to approach this conversation.


The good news is that our tough conversation turned into an “a-ha moment” for my CEO client. She admitted that she felt she didn’t have the confidence to ask for a major gift and more importantly – if she asked for a major gift from these individuals she had had a relationship with for years and years, she would ruin the relationship.




The good news is that fundraising is all about relationships! And this CEO has incredible relationships because of her ability to create meaningful relationships with individuals.


As a fundraiser, it is your job to give individuals the opportunity to donate to the organization you represent. Once you have cultivated a meaningful relationship with your potential donor, it is time to “pop the question” or make the solicitation. The solicitation is fueled by the relationship that you have cultivated between the potential donor and the organization.


Let’s get back to my client story because it has a good ending. Once we identified the “road block” that was standing in the way of my CEO asking for major gifts, we were able to talk through it. She shared that she felt she lacked confidence to ask. I shared how her relationships with these individuals is what fuels major gift asks and that her asking for a donation was honoring the relationship she had developed between the individual and the organization. Plus these individuals have capacity and an inclination to give. I argued that they would be insulted if she did not ask.


In the end, the CEO made some pretty big asks and received some pretty big checks. In one meeting, she made her thoughtful solicitation and the donor admitted that they had only planned to give $1,000 (a tiny amount compared to her ask). The wife immediately wrote another $1,000 check to the organization – which means my CEO left with twice as much as the couple intended to give. And the couple agreed to consider the larger solicitation as they were interested in the projects it would fund.


I recently spoke with Chris Weil of The Weil Family Foundation and he shared with me some indicators that an organization is ready to start soliciting major gifts.


  1. The organization has a track record of successfully executing on its stated mission.
  2. The organization has a hard won and loyal group of supporters.
  3. The organization has demonstrated financial responsibility.
  4. The organization has a loyal, hardworking, and enthusiastic board of directors.
  5. The organization can make the case.


I would add one more:

  1. The confidence to make the solicitation. This can be learned and developed in any CEO or Development Officer.


For a the full list of indicators and descriptions – especially in light of a capital campaign and new initiative or program, please read Weil NPO_Expansion_Indicators.


Social Media and Fundraising October 23, 2014

Filed under: Direct Mail,Social Media — reneeherrell @ 9:00 am

Tweet Fundraising

While online giving constitutes only 10% of total philanthropic giving, the average online gift is $146 vs. the average direct mail gift is $38. This build a pretty strong case for your organization to conduct fundraising online. While social media is a wonderful way to help promote fundraising campaigns – it is the messenger, not the message. Read on to learn more about how to strategically utilize social media to support your online fundraising.

Fun Facts about social media and fundraising

  • Social media augments, but does not replace traditional fundraising techniques
  • Social media is a tool to spread your organization’s fundraising message; it won’t create the message
  • Giving drivers for fundraising are still the same (e. still need to send out a year end appeal). Social media spreads the word about the year-end appeal to current and potential supporters
  • Social media is a two-way relationship between the organization and its followers. The organization must engage followers in a meaningful way first, before asking them to support the organization
  • A mature social media following and engagement takes time to build
  • Utilize The organization’s social media followers to spread the word about the organization and its fundraising appeal
  • Since we often/naturally trust our friends over media reporting, utilize the organization’s friends (e. Action Team, Superintendents, education advocates, etc.) to gain support of the organization’s social media through their social media followers
  • Ask a donor to make a $1 donation for each new “like” that the organization gains on Facebook, follower on twitter or new email subscriber
  • Organizations can buy likes on Facebook through an ad function that allows for highly targeted marketing to specific zip codes, demographics, people who would have an affinity towards your cause and any other desired criteria

The “do’s and don’ts” of social media and fundraising

  • Always post a photo with any social media post
  • Successful online fundraising campaigns are visually stunning and engaging
  • Do not conduct a competition on Facebook (e. the first 10 people to make a donation, will receive…); it doesn’t work.
  • Social media is a popularity contest; be outwardly verbal but not desperate; not surprisingly, desperation will not make you popular
  • Never post on social media platforms in the first person; social media outlets are the “voice” of the organization, not a person (even though a person is actually typing the posts)
  • Target the majority of fundraising promotions and efforts through Facebook as it has tools most conducive for this and people are more accustomed to respond to Facebook fundraising pitches
  • Do not use to twitter to make the fundraising pitch; use it for news and updates


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