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Small Shop Survival Guide

publication date: Apr 8, 2019
author/source: Cindy Wagman

If you’re in a small shop and lucky enough to have some professional development budget (or be awarded a bursary), you likely have had a similar experience to mine, at my first AFP conference.

I was a recent grad with a degree in women’s studies, ready to change the world! With a lot of networking and a good helping of confidence, I landed my first fundraising job at a women’s shelter. I was their first and only hired fundraiser. It was a cause I cared deeply about.

So, there I was, at my first fundraising conference. I was nervous. I didn't know anyone. I felt a little bit alone in this huge conference hall. But I was also excited and ready to learn from our sector's best and brightest.

They delivered. I spent the whole day inspired and in awe.

I took all that energy and excitement and the next Monday, I showed up at the office, ready to go, bursting with ideas.

I was hit hard with reality. How was I supposed to take all of this information and put it into my day-to-day work? I couldn’t figure out how to replicate that work in our organization and for the cause I cared deeply about.

Over the years, I’ve “climbed” my way up the nonprofit ladder and now I share my learnings on how to get things done in a small shop. I call it the Small Shop Survival Guide.

This guide is designed to help fundraisers turn ideas into action and bridge the “best practice” and “small shop reality” divide.

1. Building Bridges

In my experience, people see fundraising either as a “necessary evil” or “icky” and therefore, most nonprofit staff want nothing to do with it. That usually leads to deep silos within an organization and makes fundraising a whole lot harder. To overcome this challenge, I recommend building meaningful relationships with staff and breaking down those silos.

What worked for me? Meeting with staff one-on-one (often buying them a coffee) to hear about the organization and their work from their perspective. Involving staff in fundraising, whether it be through thank you calls or having them talk about their work directly with donors. Having lunch with staff (when time permits). Seeing them as stakeholders in the same way we see donors as stakeholders.

This helped me build that ever elusive “culture of philanthropy”, allowed me to tell better stories and just be happier at work overall.

2. Stick to the Plan

One time, I wrote a letter to Oprah. When I share this experience with others who work in small charities, they all understand that experience. They’ve had to write to Ellen Degeneres, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, etc.

Often, the people around us just don’t know about fundraising. There are many resources available to teach them, at increasingly lower costs online.

But another tool, the tool I want to share with you, is your fundraising plan.

I’ve used this as a tool to focus everyone and get them on the same page. An annual fundraising plan builds engagement (you should be involvementing others), clearly maps out your activities, sets goals, and facilitates reporting.

3. Focus

Do you have enough time in the day to get everything done? Do you leave work on time every day? Do you take lunch breaks? Ha! These are trick questions. Most people in small organizations are on the edge of burnout.

These are not just problems in our sector, but across all industries. Everyone is always so busy. It’s like a badge of honour. But guess what - busy doesn’t get results.

There are some simple things you can do to better use your time. These are my favorite time-management techniques:

The pomodoro technique - set your timer for 25 - 45 minutes and focus on one thing. Turn off distractions. Bam - just like that, you’ve done your thank you calls or booked your next donor meeting.

Block your time - we lose so much productivity when we switch gears, so block your time to focus on like-things. For example, I’ve seen people focus on annual giving on Mondays and major gifts on Wednesdays. Put time to get work done in your calendar to protect that time. Start and Finish - instead of starting and working on 6 things simultaneously, try to start and finish one thing before moving to the other.

There are of course many other practices you can implement to be more effective and efficient, but these three are enough to get you started.

4. Break the Isolation

One of the best things that came out of that first congress for me was a new friendship. I met Emma, who also worked for a women’s shelter, also as the only fundraising staff person. And guess what? She had all the same frustrations!

I had someone to call if I had a question that no one in my organization could answer. I had a proofreader who understood fundraising. I had someone to vent to!

Most importantly, I also had someone to keep me accountable.

Research shows that if we just tell ourselves we’ll do something, we generally won’t. But if we commit that goal to someone else, we have a 65% chance of completing it. And if you commit to someone else with an accountability appointment, you will increase your chance of success to 95%.

Accountability buddies are so valuable - leverage conferences to make meaningful connections or reach out to other organizations in your community to find other fundraising friends!

Cindy Wagman is the President and CEO of The Good Partnership. She stands for women's equality and social justice. With a degree in Women's Studies from Queen's University, an MBA from the Rotman School at the University of Toronto and over 15 years of fundraising experience, I see fundraising as a tool for change. I started The Good Partnership to empower small nonprofits to have more fundraising success so that they could fund their important work.

If you don’t have a fundraising plan, fear not! You can download her free plan template. She also has a series of videos that will walk you through how to fill it out.

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