Why having to constantly fundraise is good
How can I find a really big donor?
What the questioner is seeking is what many executive directors put on their wish lists: “a sugar daddy.”
Pardon the sexist connotations to this old timey phrase of “a sugar daddy” – it could just as easily be a “sugar momma” these days. The point of this phrase is that there is an allure to a donor who comes along and funds you to such an extent that your need to fundraise is significantly alleviated. This can be an institutional funder or a wealthy individual who takes a particular interest in your work. The phrase captures the allure ("the sugar") and the dependency (the "daddy") involved in this situation.
A sugar daddy is certainly an alluring gift. Who wouldn’t want to be freed from having to locate new donors? Who wouldn’t want to concentrate more of your time on your primary work of serving your clients?
There’s no concrete strategy to getting one. It’s almost impossible to proactively acquire such a donor. Sugar daddies are those rare phenomenon that just plop into your lap. It could be a wealthy individual who has something in her background that makes her identify with your cause. Or it could be that a foundation’s new strategic priorities just happen to magically and perfectly align with your organization.
But if I can’t give much advice on how to fulfill your wish for a sugar daddy, then at least I can offer this consolation: sugar daddies usually aren’t very good for you.
At least a couple of my clients have something resembling a sugar daddy – either an individual or a foundation – and I notice a recurrent set of problems.
The first is that the organizations don’t feel the urgency to broaden their fundraising base. In both cases, the prmary funders communicated a wish that the organizations diversify their funding source over time. In both cases, there was minimal action taken on this until very late in the game. It’s human nature to act on what is most urgent. If funding is taken care of for the next year, then that urgency is going to get directed elsewhere.
This means the organization is regularly exposed to the huge risk of the sugar daddy going away suddenly. A number of organizations have gotten wiped out because their big donor lost money in financial crises or scandals (the Madoff scam was particularly damaging to a set of small nonprofits in New York).
The second problem is even more dangerous and the one I most care about. I believe having a sugar daddy jeopardiazes not just funding for the mission, but the mission itself.
Most nonprofits exist to serve some aspect of society that is otherwise isolated, ignored, or neglected by key institutions. The homeless, the orphans, the immigrants, and others often are suffering because they aren’t properly integrated with the rest of society. The nonprofit’s mission is to help make that connection for their clients.
Fundraising forces you as the leader to engage with key social actors. It’s a mistake to think that fundraising is a distraction from your work with your clients. Rather fundraising is how you serve your clients in this critical function of connection.
Fundraising forces you to get out there and meet people, important people. Good fundraisers know they constantly have to hunt and gather, turn over rocks, sniff around. This means spending the time to seek out relationships with business people, philanthropic figures, government figures, community leaders, and more. Experienced nonprofit leaders will tell you about some helpful information they gained in fundraising that didn’t necessarily lead to a donation, but did lead to a strategic partnership, to learning about an important community development, to finding out about a new strategy, and more. All of that networking led to some favorable outcome for their clients that the clients, by themselves, could never have achieved.
I can testify that this dynamic is true in my own line of work. For a consulting firm like mine, new business development is the equivalent of fundraising. And I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t sometimes get tired of going out there and pounding the pavement. I’ve wished for my own version of a “sugar daddy:” that one big client that would pay all the bills in one big project.
But the regular discipline of having to uncover leads, cultivate them, learn from them, and stay in touch means I am regularly in touch with what is happening in my sector on a wide variety of issues. And that helps me serve my clients. For instance, right now a potential client who works in youth development is asking me whether I can help him ascertain candidates for a merger. I know the candidates in the field pretty well, having met and talked with many of them. The only reason I developed that body of relationships and knowledge is because I had to hunt and gather in their space, looking for business. Because I didn’t have a sugar daddy.
Fundraising doesn’t just pay the bills so that we can serve our clients, fundraising itself is how we serve our clients.