Operating “in a vacuum” generally refers to action taken without any connection to other people or events. It’s hard to imagine in any context how being in a vacuum is a positive.
When leaders in our sector use this phrase, there are actually two definitions, and you may need to consider whether one or both are evident in your nonprofit. One definition is a more philosophical one that is internal to your organization, and one is more of an external and strategic approach to your outbound communications.
Lawrence Jackson defines the internal “vacuum” challenge as being a conflict of culture between an agency’s program and its development. In the Australian-based Fundraising and Philanthropy magazine, he writes, “As a general observation, marketing and fundraising people tend to be cut from a different cloth than client service folks. Both are essential but often don’t speak each other’s language too easily. They usually sit in different parts of the organization and can be deeply suspicious of each other, sometimes for good reason.”
RMA has defined the external vacuum challenge in its TIPS as being when outbound communications, such as a direct-mail appeal letter, are sent without the support of any framework that builds awareness or understanding of who you are and why you exist. We’ve used a “gardening” metaphor to explain this problem, as if tossing seeds on the bare ground would yield the same result as when soil is prepared and all variables of climate, season, temperature and moisture are taken into account.
The two definitions are not unrelated. You’ve got one or both vacuum problems if:
1. Your mission isn’t clearly articulated, repeated, and amplified, right on the lips of every stakeholder and staff member—regardless of role. It seems as though we never finish harping about mission communications and elevator speeches, but it is astounding how few nonprofits really excel in this regard.
2. Your development messaging is focused on what you need (i.e., dollars) instead of the larger picture of why you are doing this work, how it is done, and most importantly, the outcome.
3. To Lawrence Jackson’s point above, you’ve got friction between your development and program goals, a different culture, personality clashes, and insufficient empathy between the “silos.” Simply put, you’ve got to make sure that your product matches the way it is being sold.
4. Every time you touch a prospective or existing donor, it’s an outright ask. The primary purpose of some phone calls, blog posts, eblasts, or printed material had better be to update and inform. Obviously you always include the link or the envelope for a gift, but your motive should be to educate and engage.
5. You’re valiantly (foolishly?) trying to be all things to all people. Setting sail for the horizon without a strategic goal and defined objectives is another form of “vacuum,” since there are no coordinates for you to base decisions on.
6. You don’t spend sufficient time doing community outreach—like speaking to a Rotary Club or other grassroots groups that include the people you serve and/or the people you would like as volunteers and donors. Remember the gardening metaphor? This is the “soil preparation.”
7. Your development director has accepted a restricted donor gift that is not supporting the heart or future of the organization. Your staff must collaborate to align organizational needs with donor motivations, both of which shift over time. Meanwhile, make sure your board has approved a gift acceptance policy.
8. You’re operating without a defined donor development strategy, identifying how many people give at certain levels and what should be done, when, to cultivate them. “People give what they can, when they can, and we’re grateful for anything anytime” is not really a strategy.
9. You’re not familiar with the electronic, broadcast, or print media in your area or your industry, and so you don’t push out useful news releases, you don’t pitch feature stories with great photos, and don’t offer good on-the-spot quotes to journalists.
10. You’re not considering your competition, both literally (knowing what other nonprofits do related work in your industry and appeal to the same donor passions) and figuratively (looking at what other ways are your target donors being asked to give time and money). Nonprofit professionals are often loath to even use the term “competition,” since it sounds so commercial and corporate. Others are so naively smitten with their own efforts, they can’t imagine that it isn’t wholly unique and unquestionably admired.
Vacuums are great for housecleaning, but not so much in fundraising. We’d love to hear how you’ve avoided fundraising in a vacuum, or turned things around, in your organizations.