Fundraising Tuesdays

It’s Tuesday morning and as I dash out the door, my husband hands me a box of new #2 pencils. Last Tuesday, he gave me three rolls of toilet paper and the Tuesday before that, a fistful of pocket change. “Happy Fundraising Tuesday,” he says with a quirky grin. Fundraising Tuesday has become a way of life, at the office and at home.

I run a small, community nonprofit organization in Sun Valley, ID whose staff consists of four part-time employees – office manager, community planner, director of outreach and development and me, executive director. We use a collaborative approach to achieve our mission, working with elected officials, developers and citizens. When I started at this job, I was the first executive director and the first full-time paid staff. I was hired to expand this nonprofit from a citizens group operated by a volunteer steering committee to one that would have a long and sustained effect on growth in our community. During my first year on the job, the office manager and I were the only staff and we did everything – programs, financials, public relations and fundraising.

Like many nonprofits, we were understaffed and worked long hours to compensate. We found it difficult to put aside our “real work” in programs for the long-term planning and commitment that raising money requires. Though I had never run a nonprofit organization before, I knew that fundraising required a plan and habitual attention. I tried a variety of strategies to make fundraising a regular event. I created a mental schedule: Monday mornings I would call major donors, Wednesday afternoons I would research foundations and for a couple of hours on Thursdays I would prepare the new direct mailer. Our office manager was swamped with administrative work, maintaining our database of donations, keeping track of the bookkeeping and typing, mailing and faxing all the documents I was generating for our programs. I felt that fundraising was my responsibility alone.

Nevertheless, our programs demanded attention, board members wanted project updates and financial reports and members called for assistance in their neighborhoods. My efforts to raise money were mostly a series of unrelated events as time allowed. Desperate for help, I called on our volunteer board of directors to become involved in fundraising. The board formed a fundraising committee and we spent hours in meetings discussing our fundraising strategies. The committee embarked on a major-donor upgrade and raised about $11,000. A few days later we met for our next event, a phone-a-thon to lapsed members. The committee members were exhausted and in sore spirits and nerves wore thin. It was the last event we attempted and the fundraising committee was soon disbanded. It was too much to ask our inexperienced volunteer board to lead the fundraising charge. They would help periodically, especially on specific development tasks that were structured and had a clear beginning and end. Well into our fundraising dilemma, our staff grew to three, adding a community planner. We developed exciting programs and garnered the support of elected officials and community members.

Frustrated with our limited success raising money, I realized my mistake had been trying to fundraise alone and then attempting to turn development over to the board of directors. In our staff-driven organization, we needed to use the same creativity, synergy and collaboration we applied to programs to raise funds. We had to raise money together, and it had to become part of our corporate culture. During this time, I enrolled in a series of training sessions with fundraising consultants Stephanie Roth and Andrea Seale. When I complained that fundraising distracted us from our “real work,” they said that fundraising had to become an integral part of our “real work.” While there, I developed a detailed fundraising plan that included a variety of fundraising strategies. Andrea assured me that the plan was solid.

That’s when Fundraising Tuesday was born. The day we chose didn’t matter as much as our commitment to spend a full day each week raising money for our important causes. We wouldn’t accept distractions from our mission; phone calls were routed to our answering service, no meetings were scheduled, and we didn’t do anything that wasn’t directly related to fundraising. The first month of Tuesdays was extremely successful. We refined our fundraising plan, developed a schedule to implement it and identified who was responsible for each activity. We used a white board to track all the tasks. It was essential to write down each detail, including deadlines, so that staff could review their commitments during the week.

Then something terrible happened. After a month of successful Fundraising Tuesdays, we let program work creep back into our Tuesday lives. We started answering the phones again, working on programs and attending functions with board members. For almost two months, we did fundraising when it was convenient. Little by little, we no longer accomplished any consistent development work at all. Fundraising Tuesday had to be resurrected. On one Tuesday, I arrived at the office with breakfast goodies and plenty of enthusiasm. At our morning fundraising meeting, I made the pitch for reinstating our original idea – an uninterrupted day dedicated to the fundraising mantra, nothing else. As it turned out, everyone on staff was frustrated by our waning commitment to Fundraising Tuesday. That morning we pledged to commit our time on Tuesdays to fundraising only. Later, when a board member insisted that Tuesday was the only day he could meet to discuss a proposal, I told him staff wasn’t available because of fundraising commitments.

It took us several weeks, but we adjusted to our new discipline. Now Fundraising Tuesday is a routine. On Tuesday morning staff meets to review our fundraising plan. We consider upcoming deadlines and identify the tasks needed to accomplish them, including who, when and how, and the details are recorded on the white board. These meetings typically last an hour and include a recap of last week’s activities and a plan for the current week. Sometimes we use the meeting to create a new mailer, brainstorm for an upcoming house party or refine a proposal to a foundation. Whatever the topic, these meetings are open, collaborative sessions that focus on implementing our fundraising plan. When the phone rings, someone invariably chants, “It’s Tuesday, don’t answer it.”

Why does Fundraising Tuesday work? Every other workday brings surprises and immense challenge. On Tuesday, we have only one thing to accomplish – raise money and resources. Phone calls don’t interrupt us and long meetings don’t swallow our day. Tuesday is simple and straightforward: a reprieve from the challenging work of affecting growth in our community. I am relieved when I wake up and realize it is Tuesday. As I walk into the office and hand our office manager the box of # 2 pencils, I smile and say, “Happy Fundraising Tuesday.”

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