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Board Retreats: Don’t Skip the Fun

Today we’re going to talk about fun.

Running a successful nonprofit organization is a lot of hard work. There are animals to save, people to feed, art to be created – the list goes on and on. On top of all of the world bettering, comes the day to day operations. Your organization not only has internal leadership, but a board of directors. This group is entrusted to not only making sure the organization does things right, but does the right thing. Again, a lot of hard work by a lot of people just trying to make the world a little better.

Back to the fun. With all these responsibilities it’s important that you don’t skip the fun at your next board retreat. We’re not talking about putting “fun” as an agenda item between strategic planning and lunch. More like weaving fun into the entire retreat.

Don’t skip the fun at your next

board retreat!

Here are six ways to put the fun in your next board retreat:

1. Don’t conduct regular board business at the retreat. I understand that this is difficult, but it is a real momentum killer. When there is that “one little item to cover while we’re all together” it is tempting to address it at the beginning or at the end, but that “one little thing” rabbit holes into a lot different directions. Avoid this. Find another way to address it like an e-mail vote or a conference call a few days before the retreat.

2. Be active. Skip the room with just room for a conference table; find a space that accommodates moving around. Do some work sitting, some standing, some outside in the fresh air. Mix up the agenda so it isn’t the same person talking most of the day. More active participation will lead to better results because everyone feels heard and included.

3. Mix up the groups. Every board has natural groups so you need to do some prep and put retreat teams together that are counter to the natural groupings. Then change the groups throughout the retreat. Encourage board members to interact with someone they don’t already know well. If you have new members attending, ensure that they are interacting with longer-serving members. Again, this allows everyone to feel heard and included.

4. Combine team building with retreat objectives. Team building exercises don’t have to be standalone items that appear to distract from the objectives of the board. For instance, if you want board members to work on their elevator speeches, have them do it in pairs. When I facilitate a retreat, I work with board and staff leadership to establish objectives THEN I look for ways to weave in fun exercises that relate to those objectives.

5. Laugh. The work your organization is doing is important and likely not a laughing matter. But, when a board laughs together they form bonds that will serve them in the future. Use an exercise that allows board members to laugh at themselves and each other.

6. Include your mission. Your nonprofit has a unique mission and personality so be sure to include that in your retreat. This also allows your board to really immerse in the mission and remember why they joined the board in the first place. For example, if you are an arts organization do something creative. Help the board make memories together so they can work better together to support the mission.

Don’t be afraid of having fun at your board retreat. Retreats provide an opportunity to move the work of your board forward and help your board build relationships to better serve the mission.

We’d enjoy the opportunity to discuss how we can help make your next board retreat fun and successful.

“Why” – No Longer My Least Favorite Word

person with difficulty and questions in studies
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When my children were toddlers, why was my least favorite word. I heard it a million times a day about everything… literally EVERYTHING. But now, more years than I’d like to admit removed from the constant questioning, why has become one of my favorite words.

“Why? Why? Why?”3 year olds everywhere


As a fundraising instructor, it is my distinct privilege to meet many nonprofit professionals and learn about their organizations. Most of them spend their days thinking about what and how but the outside world (translation: donors, funders) care about the why.

Simon Sinek has a great book, Start With Why, and TED Talk on this topic. His theories are targeted to the world at large but I think they have a very specific application to the fundraising profession. We should always aim to talk in why, not what or how.

So how do you find your why?

One way is to imagine the world without your organization. What does that look like? Who isn’t served? Who isn’t saved? Are good things gone? Do bad things happen? When I teach I call this the It’s a Wonderful Life exercise. The world without your organization is your why.

Your why may look like this:

  • animals die
  • children can’t reach their full potential
  • diseases kill people

It’s likely not a pretty picture so you can see how using the why helps donors see why giving to your organization matters. When you invite others to join you in changing the world, you are looking for people who don’t want these bad things to happen. Your organization provides them an opportunity to make a difference in the world — save animals, help children, cure diseases.

Turn Why? — the question I used to dread from my toddlers — into a powerful fundraising tool. We’re happy to work with your organization on finding your own why and how to best integrate it into your fundraising work. Contact us to learn how we can work together.

Book Review: Soundtracks by Jon Acuff

I’d never thought to call them “soundtracks,” those voices in my head that have an opinion about everything I do. (Sometimes they sound like my mom.

But more than anything, it’s my own voice and it’s often not positive. Until I read Jon Acuff’s new book Soundtracks, I’d never thought to name that as overthinking and do something about it. I’m so glad I read this because it has already been a game changer, with lots of easy and quick to apply lessons for me. 

Jon defines overthinking this way: “when what you think gets in the way of what you want.” Using that framework, he made me realize how often I do that and what a productivity killer it is. 

The book is loaded with practical suggestions to combat overthinking. Here are a two that resonated with me:

  • Borrow from the best – I don’t have to come up with new soundtracks on my own. I can borrow from the famous and the close by. He even makes suggestions that I am using. I’ve also started paying attention to the people around me and gotten some good ones there.
  • Don’t fight it, flip it – Once I identify the negative things I’m telling myself, rewrite the soundtrack. Instead of “This will never work,” I’m trying “This is a great idea with a lot to learn from it.

Soundtracks offers tons of suggestions for new soundtracks to replace the broken ones. My new favorite is “Feeling uncomfortable is just a sign that my old comfort zone is having a hard time keeping up with me.” Anyone want to join me in claiming that one? 

A few years ago, I was delighted to meet Jon when he spoke at the Nonprofit Leadership Center of Tampa Bay’s Leadership Conference. Since then, I’ve read (and laughed through) all of his books. He mixes humor and practical advice in a way that sticks with me. This latest does not disappoint. I laughed, I highlighted and I’m on a path to replace my broken soundtracks. 

Grab your copy today and join me! After all, we could all stand to be a little nicer to the person we spend the most time with – ourselves.

It’s Not About the Taxes

tax documents on the table
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With tax season upon us, our thoughts (and probably a board meeting fundraising topic or two) turn to deductible charitable donations.

Do donors take advantage of tax benefits? Yes, some do.

Do donors give for tax reasons? No, most don’t.

This distinction is important and should shape how you ask and how you thank donors.

Start with how you ask:

Don’t lead with “we are a 501C3 organization…” Only accountants care about your tax status. When you talk about your organization, lead with how you change the world.

  • “We save lives…”
  • “We create jobs…”
  • “We make the world a more beautiful place…”
  • Insert your organization’s mission here…” (If your mission statement mentions your tax status, put that at the top of your priority list to revise.)

From your website to social media posts to fundraising letters, look for anyplace you use “tax deductible” and substitute “world changing” for a more impactful appeal. Most people give money because they are asked, not because of how it impacts their taxes.

Continue when you say thanks*:

The IRS has specific requirements donation acknowledgments. However, there are no rules saying you have to use only that language – that’s the minimum required. Go beyond that with a sincere expression of how much the donation means and how it will change lives. Don’t be boring, this acknowledgement is the first building block to your next ask. Your nonprofit is doing important work – you’re making our community a better place to live! Show the donor that their gift matters in doing just that.

  • Tell a story.
  • Share a photo.
  • Share the joy you felt when the gift was received.

Taxes are an inevitable part of our lives and certainly a consideration in our work. However, they must be kept in perspective when we communicate with our donors and remember that we are inviting people to help us change the world, not help them with their taxes.

*This blog post should not be considered legal advice, so please speak to an attorney/CPA to make sure that your communications meet the legal requirements set forth by the IRS.

Be One: If You Are a Volunteer Manager, Volunteer.

releasing a dolphin
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One of the most important lessons we can use to improve our work: be one. Become a mystery shopper and do some field research. We’ll be sharing how you can do field research throughout your organization, but today let’s focus on volunteer management.

If you are a volunteer manager, volunteer.


By volunteering for another organization, you can have first-hand experience to strengthen your own volunteer management and volunteer program. Using the things they do right and wrong, you’ll take back ideas to improve your program and strengthen your volunteer base.


Here are some things you can learn from your experience serving:

  • Recruitment – pay attention to how you are invited to volunteer. Strong volunteer programs use a targeted approach to find the skills they need. How did they find you? Did they make it easy or hard to show your interest in being involved? Are there creative techniques you could adapt to fit your organization?
  • Training/orientation – when you begin your volunteer work, notice how they orient you to the mission and culture of the organization and how they train you for your volunteer assignment. Do you feel comfortable? Did you have enough information to do the job effectively? Did you know who to ask if you had questions?
  • Appreciation – during and after your volunteer service think about how you were made to feel. Organizations often customize their volunteer recognition to fit the particular volunteer. Take note of how they do that with you. Did you know that your service mattered? Did you feel appreciated, or just like a “thank volunteer” box was checked?
  • Continued engagement – following your time with them, take note of how the charity keeps you engaged. Did they look for additional ways to keep you involved? For instance, inviting you to volunteer again or make a donation.
Here’s a fun sample from Meals on Wheels of Tampa that I received because I volunteer for them.

Don’t be afraid to ask your coworkers and board members to share volunteer experiences from the charities they support. This will allow you to create a library of samples – good and bad. 

Every organization approaches the care and management of volunteers differently. That means there are an endless number of lessons to be learned with your hands-on experience and field research.

What Be One post would you like to see next? Contact us and let us know what field research we should get into next.

Be One: If You Are a Fundraiser, Give.

cash dollars hands money
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One of the most important lessons we can use to improve our work: be one. Become a mystery shopper and do some field research. We’ll be sharing how you can do field research throughout your organization in upcoming posts, but today let’s focus on fund development.

If you are a fundraiser, give.

One of the most effective ways a fundraiser can expand understanding of how a donor feels is to be one – be a donor. Besides a gift to your own organization, make donations to charities you respect and see how they treat their donors. You might be surprised and learn a thing or two – on what you can add to your process, or how you can be sure to improve on their ways.

Things you can learn from your gifts:

  • Online giving experience – take notes on the number of clicks it takes you to get from the starting point to the gift completion. Notice where the giving button “Give Now” appears and if it is obvious. If you give from a social media channel, take note of that experience. (Check out Does Your Online Giving Pass the Test?)
  • Thoughtful stewardship – no matter if your gift is online or a check through the mail, be sure to notice how the organization makes you feel about the gift. Hopefully, you feel appreciated but how did they accomplish that? And if you didn’t feel appreciated, think through why not? Maybe the form letter is outdated, or feels just like another form letter.
  • Donor communications – following your gift, see if the organization stays in touch with you. What communication channels do they use? How are there messages? Do they use photos effectively? Also take note of the frequency of the communications. Just as with stewardship, ask yourself how the communications made you feel.

  • Subsequent solicitations – after that first gift, be mindful of how quickly and how often they ask you to give again. Notice if the subsequent solicitations acknowledge that you’ve made a previous gift.

Don’t be afraid to ask your coworkers and board members to share examples from the charities they support. This will allow you to create a library of samples – good and bad.

I added this to my collection of good examples the day I received it from Prospect Riding Center.


Because fundraising is about building relationships, you can learn things long after your gift is made and apply them to make improvements in your charity’s development efforts. Remember to be one – if you are a fundraising, give.

Keep an eye out for our next Be One post on volunteering, or you can subscribe below to get our posts straight to your inbox.

Take Control of Your Online Learning

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Online learning is here to stay. From 1-hour webinars to multi-day conferences, we’ve shifted to virtual training out of necessity. It appears that it’s here to stay. Take control of your online learning to get the best out of the time you invest in yourself. Try these techniques:

Be aware of your own challenges
Each day brings unique challenges. Before you log into a virtual training program, take a quick check of the day’s challenges. Try completing this sentence: “I enter today feeling… and thinking…” Knowing what’s on your mind will help you get off to a good start. 

Keep a to-do list handy
As you learn new things, you can be distracted by the things left undone. Capture those things that pop into your mind but don’t let them distract you from what’s going on in your course. Write it down and know that you’ll get back to it after you finish your class. 

Close the chat box
If the chat box is distracting you, close it. As an instructor, I often use the chat box for class discussions. But I also know that sometimes the chat box is a way for you to have conversations unrelated to the material. Be careful that you don’t let what’s going on in the chat box keep you from focusing on the topic.

Change rooms
If you’ve been working from home, you probably use the same location each day. To get focused, try a different room for an online training. I’ve shifted to the couch which these days feels like business travel. 

Turn off your e-mail notifications
Remove a major distraction by turning off your e-mail notifications. Remember that if you attended an in-person training you wouldn’t be checking your e-mail throughout a session. For online training, apply the same standard. You can always check your e-mail during a break. 

Set your “out of office” e-mail response
Use your e-mail “out of office” notification to let people know that you will be slow in responding. Event for a one-hour session, your colleagues will appreciate knowing why they aren’t getting your normal speedy response. 

Pretend you are away
Give yourself the work equivalent of a staycation. Take some time away from the grueling Zoom schedule and spend the time learning the things that will make you sharper when you get “back.” (But make sure your boss is OK with this before you attempt.)

No matter how long you spend in online learning, you will get the most out of it with these simple tips. 

5 Board Member Actions to Boost 2020 Year-End Fundraising

Attention nonprofit board members: now is the time for you to take action.  

cash coins money pattern
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It’s not too late – it’s never too late – for board members to demonstrate their leadership by engaging in year-end fundraising.  

As we approach the end of the year, board members should take some action to boost your nonprofits’ end of year giving efforts.  

  1. Give – board members should have already made your best gifts by now but still make a gift to support current efforts. If your nonprofit is having a year-end event, sponsor. If they are selling something, buy some. If they are sending a year-end appeal, make a gift.  
  2. Ask others to give – your friends and family should know that this charity is important to you. Now is the time to ask them to invest in this cause. If your nonprofit has special year-end drives (like toys or food), use that opportunity to tell the story and ask for donations.  
  3. Engage on social media – if you haven’t already, like, follow, join (whatever the appropriate verb)  your nonprofit’s social media accounts. During the final weeks of the year, make an effort to check the social media channels once a day and share, retweet, repost. This simple but intentional action can amplify your nonprofits’ reach. 
  4. Thank – start with the people you know who support your nonprofit. Reach out with an e-mail or handwritten note to tell them how their gifts have made the world a better place this year. After that, ask if there are additional donors you could contact with a stewardship message. Don’t forget social media channels for thanking, too. For instance, a post on LinkedIn to thank  corporate donors is a simple but powerful way to show appreciation.   
  5. Encourage staff – it’s been a tough year for everyone. This may be the most obvious statement I’ve ever written but it’s important to remember that nonprofit staff members have been under a tremendous amount of pressure for 9 months. Whether your nonprofit has been running at full speed or has had to curtail services, the stress has been real. Take a moment to write a personal note to staff members telling them that you see their hard work and it’s appreciated. Find a way to tell them that they are appreciated – by you and by the people you are all serving.  

If you are reading this in November: take action now. 
If you’re reading this in early December: take action now.
If you’re reading this in late December: take action now.
(seeing a trend?)
And if you are reading this after 2021 has started and year-end giving is completed, it’s still not too late to take action.  

It’s not too late – it’s never too late – for board members to demonstrate their leadership by engaging in year-end fundraising.  

5 Reasons to Make Your 2021 Development Plan Now

As 2020 winds down, you might be asking, ‘should I even bother to make a development plan for 2021?’  

photo of people having meeting
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I think YES!  

Now is exactly the time to make a plan for moving forward.  

Here is why I think you should make a development plan:  

You will set goals for more than dollars raised. 
The only measurement of development is NOT dollars raised. You should also be measuring donor retention, new donors, contacts made to deepen engagement, board and volunteer involvement in fundraising. Create a development plan that addresses all of the key performance indicators you identify.  

You can activate everyone on your development team: fundraising staff, CEO, board members and volunteers.
Development is a team sport and now more than ever, you need the whole team working toward the same goals. Use your development plan to confirm who is doing what and when. Include goals and activities for everyone working on raising the funds your organization needs to accomplish the mission. 

You will know that things are changing and your plan can change.
Even in times of uncertainty, maybe especially in times of uncertainty, you will benefit from having a plan that provides a starting point for adjustments.  Your development plan should be written down but not in permanent ink. Go into it knowing that you’ll be making changes throughout the year. 

You can make hard decisions about where to focus limited resources.
This year we’ve overused the word “pivot” so we know that there will be tough choices ahead. If you are facing budget cuts, a development plan allows you to see the impact of reduction and make the best choices. A well-researched and thorough development plan addresses those changes.  

You will document uncertainties. 
Making a plan will allow you to note what is uncertain and set deadlines to make decisions about those. A plan doesn’t do away with unknowns but it can relieve some of the anxiety by putting them out in the open. 

Now is the time to take a clear-eyed look at the future and make a 2021 development plan that will serve your organization and the people who depend on it.  

7 Tips for Year End Fundraising in a Pandemic

How did you handle fundraising in your last global pandemic?

Author Jon Acuff recently reminded me that “this is my first global pandemic.” If you’ve been wondering how to handle fundraising for the rest of 2020 – you are not alone. No one is exactly sure how year-end fundraising will be impacted because no one has ever been here before.  

But that doesn’t mean you should throw your hands up in defeat. We can figure this out.  

The first question seems to be: will donors still give? The research results so far indicate yes.*

My biggest takeaway from the research: Don’t hold back on cultivating and soliciting your donors.

silver and gold coins
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Here are 7 things to make your year-end fundraising successful in a global pandemic:  

  1. Don’t just ask.
    Make sure that fundraising ins’t the only message your donors hear from you. Be sure that you are telling them how their previous gifts have made an impact on your constituents.  
  2. Listen to your donors.
    Be sure that some of your communication is two-way and that you are listening to your donors. Consider personal calls to key donors. Integrate a survey into your donor communications plan.  
  3. Be transparent. 
    Communicate honestly (and often) with your constituents about how the pandemic is impacting your nonprofit. If you had to close, tell them why and what is needed to reopen. If you adjusted services, share with them how. If you made mistakes, share what you learned and how you are improving.  
  4. Refocus on your mission
    While you may have changed the way you are doing things, your mission is still the same. Communicate how you are still changing the world. Donors want to help. Your job is to show them how their financial support will help people. Tell stories that demonstrate how they will make a difference.  
  5. Look at your past success. 
    Evaluate how you raised money last year. If you had in-person events, seek new ways to ask those donors. Find the other fundraising methods that worked and adjust as needed. You don’t have to start from scratch but you will probably have to try some new things.  
  6. Enhance your digital fundraising strategies.  
    Start with your website. Make sure that a visitor can find the donation page easily. For best year-end giving results, create a multi-channel solicitation using direct mail, e-mail and social media. Giving is not one size fits all. If you’re looking for best practices, check out Heather Mansfield’s 101 Digital Marketing Best Practices for Nonprofits.
  7. Make a plan for stewardship. 
    If you are asking, you’ve got to be thanking. Take it a step farther and provide donors with meaningful information about how their gift saved lives or changed lives.  

Hank Rosso defines fundraising as “the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.” You might feel nervous asking in these uncertain times, but who are we to deny someone the joy of giving?  

*If you’re looking for the details, here are two respected sources for research:
Association of Fundraising Professionals
IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy