We often see development office activity slow down after the holidays. With the fall push of engagement efforts, annual giving solicitations, and special events behind them, development professionals often express a need to recharge. But recharging need not be associated with inactivity. Some distance runners will tell you that a flat course is grueling because the same muscles are used throughout a race, whereas hills provide a chance to use different muscles. Instead of easing off activity, the early winter can be a time for “using different muscles.” With an intentional plan, January and February can provide moments of programmatic growth, personal professional development, and, yes, a time of recovery. Here are some ways that advancement professionals can make the most of “down time.”
Stewardship: So many of us regret the amount of time we are able to devote to donor relationship building and stewardship. Winter is a great time for meaningful stewardship (not to be confused with impersonal, blanketed donor recognition). Use this time to connect with donors and tell them the impact of their gifts. Personalize these communications. Better still, invite them onsite and show them their gifts in action.
Tend to your major gifts portfolio – be intentional and flexible: Do you have any open major gifts requests? Now is a good time to ask these prospects if they have considered the proposal, to invite questions, and to schedule a follow-up meeting. If you learn that there’s a reason that the request is not resonating, now is the time to search for another funding priority that matters more to your donor. Just because prospects do not like the funding opportunities that you have presented does not mean that they won’t support your organization. We are all goal-oriented, and, yes, many of our goals are directly tied to specific funding priorities nested neatly inside of a formal campaign. However, if our prospect is engaged and has demonstrated interest outside of the area of request, your institution is best served when you pursue the opportunity identified by your donor. Craft an approach that speaks to the donor and seek permission to present and discuss it.
Go whale watching: A fundraising friend maintains a list of “distant whales,” those prospects with unimaginable capacity but less-than-ideal inclination. It’s a small list (perhaps 10 prospects) that is not as actively managed as the rest of his portfolio, but given their financial wherewithal, the time spent on these individuals, regardless of their inclination, can be justified. This friend reports that his light touches over many years have been productive. Perhaps the term “watching” is misleading because it suggests a passive approach. To be clear, he is engaging and deliberately sussing out these prospects’ passions. Once he has identified where their passions intersect with his institution’s goals, he is afforded a chance to draw these prospects closer.
Chop away at your back-burner database work: If your prospect screening ratings aren’t in your database, now is the time for that quasi-manual migration. If you had four events in a three-week period, and not all attendees were recorded in the database, now’s your chance. If you still haven’t conducted prospect research on newly added constituents, now is the time.
Support institutional strategic planning: Very few nonprofits move so fast that advancement officers do not have a sense of what is coming their way. If your Board has been discussing facility needs, the importance of accessibility, or a desire to increase staff salaries, the writing is on the wall that a campaign might be in your future. Until a campaign is approved, Boards and administrations operate along their own schedules and are not often concerned with specific development timelines. If you see that campaign in your future – no matter how distant – now is the time to begin informing the Board “what a campaign might look like.” Given the ramp-up requirements for campaigns, it is never too early to begin creating an awareness of its requisite components. In the name of setting the stage for success, many institutions must pause to build an effective program before engaging in campaign work; the sooner your Board has an awareness of what’s needed, the more likely you can spring to action the moment a campaign is identified as a strategic imperative. Create awareness now of what your office needs to conduct a campaign, so that your institution doesn’t miss a step.
Hold a staff retreat: Why do so many offices hold their retreats in the summer? Yes, the fiscal year has closed, but the nature of our timetables doesn’t necessarily allow for an operational course-shift in mid-summer. What better time to workshop and brainstorm than at a moment when there is adequate time remaining in the fiscal year to execute these thoughtful plans? It’s worth noting that retreats also work well with volunteers. Regardless of who is in the room for a retreat, once the plan is built, use it to inform staff and Development Committee plans and decisions.
Go back to school: Winter is a good time to hone your skills. Attend a conference or sign up for a class in a related field: communication, marketing, or even accounting. Maybe now is the time to work on CFRE credits. Consume articles written by or webinars featuring industry leaders. There is wisdom within our professional associations, and we are all lifelong learners – never stop growing!
With the frenzy of the fall behind us, we all have a moment in the early winter to pause and take inventory. If we identify and prioritize our opportunities, we may be deliberate in making the most of the early part of the calendar year. When we recognize that winter is a season that isn’t slow, so much as less kinetic, we may capitalize on its critical strategic importance and net tremendous programmatic and personal gains.