Computer/desk set up

Article by Mel Ulle

After 20+ years as a professional fundraiser I can say with confidence that our industry should win a prize for having the highest expectations and the lowest level of investment in our employees. The prize could be called, “Worst in Show” and it would feature a promo video of a barking gaggle of well-intended nonprofit leaders pointing to a spreadsheet and demanding answers. Then it would pan to a banged up and bruised fundraiser sitting behind a laptop shouting to no one in particular, “but you said the board would help.” Their hair falling out in clumps. Crumpled up McDonald’s burger wrappers, and half-eaten energy bars flayed across the desk. The Serenity Prayer taped to the wall. An old well-read and dog-eared Jerrold Panas book with coffee spilled all over it. You know the scene, you’ve been there before.

When I first started out as a nonprofit fundraiser, I would go to our public library to search for grant opportunities…IN A BOOK, and that book was often a year or two out of date. I would look up the foundation’s giving and set to work on writing a grant submission.

Of course, I had no training as to how to even write a flipping grant. I didn’t know that engaging the program officer would increase my chances of success by probably 10 times. I didn’t know to check out the board. I didn’t know anything.

There is no for-profit company on this planet that would hire a salesperson, give them zero training, send them to a local library to research potential customers and then ask them to go out and sell $500k worth of “good will.” That would never ever happen. And yet, nonprofit boards and Executive Directors place these insane expectations on development officers every day, and then have the nerve to complain about them.

So, what can we do? My suggested solution: affordable training for fundraisers. Simple right? The Hewlett Foundation honored us this spring by hiring our firm to train their grantees on, “Best Practices in Fundraising During COVID-19.” What we learned from our participants was remarkable. Allow me to pat myself on the back real fast by sharing some of the feedback.

“Hi Melanie, I hope you are doing well in this unpredictable time. When we chatted a few weeks ago, you recommended that I initiate a short-term fundraising campaign for the Trust, including leveraging social media by working with influencers to amplify a call to action, and creating urgency through a manufactured deadline.

I took your advice, and it was super successful.

In less than a week we:

We set a record for the most online donations we’ve ever had in a single day

Raised over $20K in just a few days, to fight dam proposals near the Grand Canyon

Partnered with a board member who has a large Instagram following (800K +) to share our CTA and got our message in front of thousands (almost 9K likes on his post)

Had a major donor offer a $5K match, and reactivated a past major donor who we had lost contact with who gave another $5K

And gathered over 60,000 comments to submit to the decision-making body

Thank you so much for helping me conceptualize this campaign and giving me the confidence to make it happen. I really appreciate your guidance, and wanted you to know how effective your advice was. I can’t wait to repeat this in the future and see how we can scale it up. Thank you so much!”

– Megan Hosterman, Grand Canyon Trust

This kind of feedback validates what I have believed for a long while. We need to support our growing fundraisers. We must give them the resources they require to be successful and we can’t fault them for not knowing what they don’t know. We’ve never helped them.

This summer, our team launched the PE Fundraising Academy with an online course, “Foundation Relations and Grant Writing,” an entry-level opportunity to learn foundation insights and grant writing methods that I have culled over 20+ years of asking for dollars. Some of the feedback we received:

“I really enjoyed learning from you and you kept cracking me up. I appreciated your candor and positive attitude and would 10/10 sign up for another of your classes.”

– Millie Lacy, Open Door Ministries

“This class was wonderful and full of fun and dedicated people. Thank you for organizing and sharing so much valuable information, with such good follow-up. I am very grateful. May you be blessed! I hope we cross paths again soon.”

-Sandy Ceas, Christos Collective

The reason our feedback was so positive is likely because we gave the participants real actionable advice, videos and documents they can reference forever. Our participants also heard each week from funders or nonprofit leaders who shared their expertise and real-world experience. This is exactly what I needed when I was a junior fundraiser.

Our firm is doubling-down on training. This is the missing link and this is where we have failed in a substantial way as an industry. Now, Philanthropy Expert is proud to be part of the solution. Reasonably-priced trainings based on real-world fundraising experience.

Please contact Kirby Lind at to learn about our latest training opportunities. This is gonna be good.

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