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Doesn’t the nonprofit sector attract the idealistic, self-sacrificing individuals amongst us? And wouldn’t that mean that mistakes are factors that just don’t happen? You have a passion to make a difference, there’s so much good you want to accomplish. But the charity sector has unique drawbacks and non-profit professionals make mistakes too. This happens often at the beginning of a career when abundance of vision and lack of experience merge. If you’re new to the nonprofit industry, and even if you’re not, this round-up reminds us of some common obstacles to dodge.


The human factor:

1. Spreading yourself too thin

Non-profit professionals often try to do too much where two or three people would struggle with the same amount of work. The jobs get finished but you could have concentrated on doing three things well – instead of six tasks badly – by getting the help you need. Learn to prioritize.


2. Spreading your staff too thin

Your people are dedicated, passionate, pushing forward, saving lives and changing the world. But it’s no guarantee that burnout won’t happen, rather the opposite. Learn to understand what can and can’t wait. Not everything is a train wreck.

Help your staff and yourself find balance; people who burnout are blocked and unhappy. Talk about this problem with your colleagues and get their input.


wrong way sign


3. Not paying key people properly

When he began, one successful non-profit manager worked for such a low wage, he felt worn out and utterly unmotivated. He rapidly moved on to an organization where he was paid properly and has been happily employed in the non-profit sector ever since.

New employees frequently face the double whammy of low pay and college-loan debt. Despite their commitment, nonprofit organizations often have trouble keeping young talent.

Non-profit work is hard work, requiring patience, dedication and aptitude. Employ people who are good at it and give them a living wage. Show your staff their skills are valued.


4. Not paying attention to your own professional development

Understand that nonprofits usually don’t offer the same professional development as regular businesses. When employing a nonprofit leader, vision usually comes before management experience and nonprofits often lack the extra funds for skills training. As a nonprofit employee, you need to be proactive when it comes to your career growth.


Marketing and other miseries:

5. Not using direct mail appeals as a tool

With online giving and social media flourishing, it’s easy to trivialize the value of direct mail appeals. After all, aren’t websites and social media the modern version of appeal letters?

It’s easy to discount direct mail appeals. Don’t… they’re a tremendous, budget-friendly means of reaching those donors whose smaller contributions can mean the difference between reaching fundraising targets or falling short of your goals.


6. Crafting direct mail appeals the wrong way

So, having decided to continue with direct mail appeals, do it right! A common mistake is writing direct mail appeals that overwhelm the reader with big, solid blocks of text. Break up the writing with the generous use of images and headlines to engage and stimulate response.

And don’t forget to personally involve the reader by the liberal use of the word “you” to create a compelling outreach. This article outlines how to write an effective appeal letter. (Read more about how to write fundraising letters or select from sample letters here.)


7. Using dull and uninteresting material to present your cause

Nonprofits have many opportunities to connect with their donors; the written word in brochures, appeals and websites describe the mission, introducing who or what the cause is serving. But facts, figures, statistics and reports can be mind-numbing and boring.

Raising money with boring materials is not the best way to encourage donations. People give because they are touched, their emotions are engaged.

Instead of making figures and statistics the primary focus, shift the spotlight. Tell of lives changed through the work of your charity or of one person whose life could be transformed by the services your nonprofit delivers. Move those boring but necessary statistics to their own section, where they can be easily accessed.


8. Thinking that fundraising was mostly about getting those big grants:

One of the first routes taken by nonprofits when planning their fundraising strategy is applying for those big grants. Grants are good but first you have to get them.

There’s enormous competition for the big grants from “rock star” foundations. Smaller, more achievable goals can be found with these little known resources.

While most foundations prefer giving for specific projects – easier to track the results – nonprofits need to raise funds on an annual basis. And when the grant is finished, you are faced with the choice of continuing the program or ending it. And this leaves you back at the beginning. Don’t discount the importance of a balanced fundraising strategy.


Principles to plan by:

9. Not remembering the 80 – 20 rule applies to nonprofits too:

The Pareto principle, aka the 80–20 rule (in short: 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes), works for nonprofits as much as for any for-profit company. While a strategy may sound good, it may not work if it breaks the 80-20 rule.

For over 100 years, businesses have understood that 80% of income comes from 20% of clients. This principle applies as much in fundraising as in business – analyze the giving in a campaign and you’ll see the pattern emerging; roughly 80% of donations are given by 20% of donors.

Keeping this principle in mind will help you allocate precious resources where they’ll produce the best results.


10. Not remembering the quantity-versus-quality argument:
This is closely related to the human factor in the first and second points. Trying all possible methods of fundraising and extending everyone in the organization to the max, is inviting burnout.

Some schemes take a lot of staff and volunteer time and leave funds on the table at the end of the day. Rather than doing too much, plan for high impact events and do them well.

There are valuable lessons in the mistakes we make – use them to improve your nonprofit career.
Have you made any of these errors? Or been on the receiving end of the results? Do share your experiences in the comments; we’d love to hear your point of view!


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