If envy could kill, this review would come to you from the beyond. I'm that jealous of the wit, clarity, and conciseness of Andy Robinson's new book about fundraising and his collaboration with Nancy Wasserman on nonprofit finances. Each book promises — and delivers — a one-hour guide to the essentials. How to Raise $500 to $5000 From Almost Anyone walks the reader through every step of the face-to-face fundraising process. And The Board Member's Guide is one of the best summaries I've ever come across on the subject and easily the most readable.
Robinson begins How to Raise with a direct challenge to taboos around talking about money and concludes with a lesson in meaningful and mission-focused thank-you messages. In between, he covers what you need to know to prepare for and conduct face-to-face fundraising. About developing a prospect list, Robinson writes, "Knowing people who have money is irrelevant; the question is do you know people who give money." Later, he notes, "the peer-to-peer concept isn't based on wealth or the size of the respective gifts; it's based on the fact that both donor and asker are deeply committed to the mission of the organization, and both make gifts that are significant to them."
For almost every volunteer and many staff members, making "the ask" is hugely nerve-wracking. Robinson stages it in four acts and offers a script for the reader to adapt. He starts with the letter to set up a meeting. Act II focuses on the initial phone or e-mail contact, and he offers specific examples of what to say and how to say it. In Act III, which is devoted to the visit, Robinson stresses listening and interpreting literally what the prospective donor says. Donor responses we might think mean "no" actually mean "maybe." As Robinson writes: "When you come to a maybe, your goal is to negotiate a next step that involves the prospect and moves him or her closer to a decision."
My only quibble with the book is that Robinson focuses on the ask and not on building and strengthening the relationship between the donor and the nonprofit seeking his support. So while the fourth and final act covers how to "close" and the different types of thank-you notes, there's certainly room for an Act V that would explore some of the techniques used to keep donors engaged with an organization over the course of their lifetime.
Of course, whether raising or spending money, nonprofits have clear obligations and responsibilities. Robinson and Nancy Wasserman tackle many of these in The Board Member's Easier Than You Think Guide to Nonprofit Finances, which opens with a hypothetical conversation and suggests that a board member who can answer half a dozen questions needn't read further. (How would your board members do?)
- What is the organization's annual budget?
- What are its current sources of income and what would the ideal mix look like?
- What are its largest expenses and what percentage of the budget do they represent?
- How much does it have in a reserve fund (if any) and when can it use those funds?
- What is its biggest financial risk?
- Does it use financial modeling tools (e.g., cost per unit of service) to measure impact?
The starting assumption of Robinson and Wasserman's ninety-page guide, which is designed to help you answer these and other questions related to an organization's financial health, is that board members, more than anything, must be effective at connecting money to mission.
In one of their many analogies, for example, they describe a budget as a map that helps the organization plan and monitor a course toward its goals. Most importantly, it highlights "forks in the road" — those points in the life of every organization when its finances and reality don't line up. In this regard, Chapter 17, in which the authors emphasize that board members must know how to read a balance sheet and income and expense statements, might be the single most useful chapter in the book. Similarly, in Chapter 14 they offer a crash course on what to look for in the financial documents and the questions you and your board need to ask when they aren't clear or you don't understand them.
Beyond these and other basics, they review the functions of a finance committee, why it's a good idea to have regular audits, how Directors & Officers Insurance helps an organization manage financial risk, and why it's essential that board members actively work to help diversify an organization's sources of funding. As Robinson and Wasserman write, "How you raise your money, and how you manage it, has a lot to do with your ability to define your programs and ultimately your identity as a nonprofit."
In short, for most nonprofit managers and consultants, How to Raise and The Board Member's Guide are enormously useful additions to any bookshelf, and I know I'll be adding them to my personal library.