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mirrorAs we round the corner into early fall, many nonprofits are preparing for their year-end annual appeal letters. Don’t get started too late.

According to a Google study, the number of donation-related searches was up significantly in September 2012 vs. August 2012. Engines are already being revved up.

When you carefully consider the dollar amount you need to raise, how critical the funding is, and what you will use it for, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in your organization’s needs. As you begin composing thoughts on the language and design of your appeal, go beyond yourselves!

A recent blog post in the Chronicle of Philanthropy reminds us that successful interactions with donors focus on their philanthropic needs.

After you have drafted your communication, follow up by asking yourself if you have…

  1. compellingly explained who will benefit from a gift and how they will benefit.
  2. thanked the donor for past support.
  3. shared a meaningful story of recent success.

All of these speak to a donor’s need to make an impact and be appreciated—not to help your organization raise money for its own sake. Supporters want to directly benefit people, places, animals—whatever it is you are doing that is important to them.

What has worked well in your organization’s appeals? We love examples.

-Susie Bowie
Community Foundation of Sarasota County

990On Friday the Community Foundation of Sarasota County hosted a free workshop about every nonprofit board and staff member’s favorite topic, the IRS Form 990.

Since your treasured 501(c)(3) status means that your organization’s assets are the property of the public, it is the job of the staff and board to be good stewards of those assets and to be transparent with an annual information return.

Organizations with gross receipts over $200,000/assets over $500,000 must file the standard Form 990. Those with gross receipts under $200,000/assets under $500,000 must file the Form 990EZ. And those with gross receipts under $50,000 must file the Form 990-N.

Thanks to our friends at Cavanaugh & Co, LLP who developed and led the session, understanding the form 990 in all of its glory was extremely helpful from the point of view of a donor.

The Form 990 focus is on transparency, but like your Giving Partner profile, it can be a splendid storytelling tool if used to the max.

Here are 5 key takeaways from the workshop:

  1. Invest some time in sharing your impact on the Form 990. Use the daylights out of Schedule O to write about the program accomplishments of your organization. (Tip: You already have this text prepared for the program section of your Giving Partner profile. Repurpose your time and efforts!)

  2. Involve your team in the IRS Form 990 preparation. The numbers may come from your treasurer, your CFO or your accountant, but you can put the skills of your grant writer, the “English major” on your board, or the marketing/development team to work on the narrative portions of the IRS Form 990.  (Tip: Give your draft 990 to an “outsider” who can review it for clarity and impact before you file.)

  3. For Pete’s sake, get those policies! The IRS wants to know if you have a Whistleblower’s policy, Document Destruction policy and Conflict of Interest policy. We also ask about them in The Giving Partner(Tip: We have sample policies if you need them.)

  4. Small nonprofit? Consider kicking it up a notch. If your organization has gross receipts under $50,000, you are only required to file the 990-N—the “postcard” that does not include financial information. Think about filing the 990 EZ instead. It will take a little longer, but this form will provide a donor with much more information about your organization.

  5. Emphasis on good governance is big. Nonprofit board members should not be engaged in activities related to your organization that materially benefit them (or their families) financially. Disclosure is important. Board members should review your IRS Form 990 before it is filed.

Many thanks to Steve Spangler, CPA and to Dave Hochsprung, CPA, partners at Cavanaugh & Co, for taking the time to share with us.

For a copy of their presentation, e-mail Susie@CFSarasota.org.

-Susie Bowie
Community Foundation of Sarasota County

What insecurities play a role in your nonprofit or philanthropic work?

Here’s one of mine: I never feel like my cup of knowledge is full enough. With so many access points to information—traditional media outlets, word of mouth, social media, years of collective experience from others, new ideas transmitted in thousands of ways—how can I make sure what I’m doing will result in the most good? Even more critical, that my actions will not inadvertently hurt someone?

Last Thursday on my way home from work, I nearly caused an accident while breaking hard to avoid hitting a dog making its way across US 41. I turned around, parked nearby and got out of my car with the plan of coaxing the dog across the street at the right time. I didn’t know how it would play out, but I knew I wanted to help immediately.

Another woman had also pulled over. Her plan was to immediately start walking across the southbound lane to get the animal. When she got close, she frightened the dog and it ran, getting hit by a car in front of us.

Good news: the dog continued running and disappeared out of harm’s way. Bad news: we couldn’t find it.

Our “helping” didn’t work out according to plan. In fact, we may have made the situation worse.

Sometimes in the world of philanthropy, we act too quickly because someone with financial or political power believes he/she has the answer.

Sometimes we are guilty of taking too long. We wait, gather information, convene, massage consensus-building conversations, and in the process, lives can be lost or too much time is wasted.

What’s the right balance? This question always begs an answer. In our world, more information will always be just beyond our fingertips. Predicting the future is not included. So we have to make difficult decisions. (Who was it who said that the worst decision is not to make one?)

With the help of meaningful conversations with brilliant people in the Hull Fellows program at the Southeastern Council of Foundations, here are some realities I am slowly coming to terms with:

  • There are lots of gray areas in community and philanthropic work. There will not often be a path to one “right” approach or “ultimate good.”
  • Donors, funders, nonprofit leaders, fundraisers and program officers will always do well to make space for huddle time with others before leaping forward.
  • Philanthropy may not always fund a solution, but it will always fund more knowledge when we take the time to learn from the results of our programs or approaches.

What challenges do you experience in your personal or organizational approach to work in philanthropy or community benefit?

Special thanks to Sarah Kinser, communications director at the Arkansas Community Foundation, a Hull Fellow who inspired this post with her recent reflection paper focused on “net good.”

-Susie Bowie
Community Foundation of Sarasota County

If you can answer these questions, it’s a good thing. If everyone on your staff and board can answer the questions in the same way, that means you have achieved great (and rare) discipline in your key messaging.

  1. What is your organization hoping to achieve over time–what’s the “end game” here?
  2. What specific methods do you have in place to measure your success?
  3. What are two compelling illustrations of your organization’s success in the last month?
  4. Is your organization’s board actively engaged? How?
  5. What are your three biggest sources of revenue?
  6. What are your organization’s five greatest needs?
  7. What plans and policies does your organization have in place to direct its strategy and operations?
  8. How will a gift of time (or dollars) make a difference?
  9. What other organizations in our community are doing similar work and how are you different?
  10. How are you collaborating with them?

Can you rattle off the answers right away? Could your board members do it?

If the answers don’t make your organization sound like a shining investment for a prospective corporate partner, donor, board member or foundation, carve out a plan of action! Tackle one at a time.

Remember, everyone at your organization is a potential “good impression” legend for you. You never know where the next donor or star board member will come from. Empower your team to be ambassadors!

Hint: All answers can be found in your profile online at www.thegivingpartner.org.

Have a great weekend.

-Susie Bowie
Community Foundation of Sarasota County

For years and years, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County has offered trainings and workshops to help local nonprofit staff, board members, and volunteers build effectiveness and knowledge in fundraising, communications, leadership, governance, finance, human resources and many other areas of nonprofit management.

Beginning last year, our monthly rotation of classes started focusing on what we now know about real nonprofit capacity needs through the profiles developed in The Giving Partner.

For example, we quickly learned that less than 25% of all organizations have a written communications plan to guide them in integrated messaging and objectives for increased awareness with key stakeholder groups.

So we offered a communications training (packed house), complete with a thorough explanation of the benefits of a communications plan, examples applicable to nonprofits of all sizes and mission focuses, and details about how to put a thoughtful plan together.  In closing, we provided a template that could be customized based on organizational complexity, needs and special circumstances.  We received great feedback.

Fast-forward one year later: approximately the same percentage of those original organizations have a written communications plan uploaded in their Giving Partner profiles.

Training is important. But it’s not useful at all without a personal commitment to get ‘er done.

We’re not kidding ourselves; we know you get back to your desks to find hundreds of e-mails and calls to return. People with real needs. Board members with questions. Volunteers requiring your attention.

Today I spent eight hours in a productivity workshop to help me unlock the tremendous potential of Outlook to manage my calendar, contacts, staff and tasks.

Like I often feel after a training, I’m a little overwhelmed, but I also feel excited about the possibilities. And like the trainings you attend, not every part of it was right for me or my work style, but so much of it could do wonders to improve my efficiency.

Now for the hardest part: the personal discipline to do what I agreed to do.

I’m hoping that John Annis will help me. He was my designated learning partner—we agreed to check in with each other, do certain things post-training, and hold each other accountable for them.

What’s your secret to success after a training? Do you often put your notes, ideas and realizations into action? Does it last?

We want to know how we can better support you after you attend one of our workshops.

I like the idea of an accountability buddy. We’re also open to your thoughts about how a coach or consultant could be assigned to you after attending a training to help you follow through and facilitate a process with your board or staff team. Talk to us. Let us know how we can help.

-Susie Bowie
Community Foundation of Sarasota County

P.S. We feel confident that your communications plan will be uploaded into The Giving Partner any day now! Do you need the template again? It’s not a cookie cutter, but a guide you can adapt to your organization. Just say the word, and we’ll send it to you.

 

IMG_4923Even the most well-worn woodland trail can be full of surprises as you make your way across bridges, around fallen logs, in and out of tall shadows, and through thickets that rustle with unseen lizards, squirrels and birds.

Our nonprofit work is never completely predictable either, and we have to adjust our plan based on shifting funding climates, the appearance of unexpected challenges, new potential partners.

But we all begin at a starting point, equipped with certain resources and a vantage point of the world that propels us through the work. Our vision for the community and specific objectives–the end points of the trail–await us. How do we get there?

While a good strategic plan includes trail markers to help you decide on the right turns, it’s also adjustable based on changing circumstances. It’s not a rigid course, but helps us know what to say “yes” to as well as what to say “no” to.

(As I recently discovered in a Western North Carolina hike with my husband, saying “yes” to the yellow trail near nightfall was a really, really bad idea. After 30 minutes of hard walking, we realized it didn’t connect with the parking lot. Ah, choices. They can be alluring and deceiving.)

Half of organizations with profiles in The Giving Partner do not have a strategic plan. Why?

Negative experiences with strategic planning are not uncommon. A voluminous “manual” that never gets used, or a strategic planning process that ignores key constituents or realities are often cited as reasons for not doing it. They are understandable. But it’s time to do it right; strategic planning is a process that high-performing organizations undertake and constantly re-visit.

“Real-time strategic planning” is a process described by David LaPiana in which an organization understands the ongoing nature of forming strategies. It guides us to our ultimate goals, but we can change our approaches to accommodate new developments in and around our organizations.

That sounds more natural, yes?

So reach alignment on your 2 or 3-year organizational goals and objectives, with timelines and specific mile-markers along the way, but allow the flexibility to adapt as the environment or circumstances change. Pull out your simple but powerful strategic plan at least once a quarter–or even in every board meeting–to make necessary adjustments.

This process will engage your board, get everyone on the same page about your big picture plan, and motivate your success beyond day-to-day activities.

E-mail me at Susie@CFSarasota.org for more information about how the Community Foundation of Sarasota County works with local nonprofits to facilitate meaningful strategic planning processes.

-Susie Bowie
Community Foundation of Sarasota County

More donors, funders and interested citizens are headed over to The Giving Partner to learn about your organization and its impact. On your profile, they can locate information about your board leaders and staff.

Do you also make it easy to find your organization’s leaders and contacts on your website?

In the pre-Giving Partner days, our Foundation spent a lot more time exploring local nonprofit websites looking for key contacts. In some cases, it was difficult or impossible to locate the names and information for the executive director or key staff such as development or communications professionals.

To connect with specific individuals, we had to fill out what I call a “black hole” form, where we shared our names in a little box, our e-mail in another little box, and the reason for our contact in a third little box. “Fingers crossed; someone could receive this and e-mail us back!” we thought.

A “contact us” form on your website can be a useful tool for general inquiries. Keep it!

But imagine these situations as you think about your constituents and stakeholders…

  • A foundation trying to contact you about an important opportunity.
  • A donor wanting to discuss a potential major gift.
  • An attorney needing information for a client’s will.

Make sure the names of your leaders are easy to find, and importantly, that there is an easy way to contact them directly.