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Wanted: Fundraising Bright Spots

What can we learn from organizations that fundraise well?

How are some social change organizations beating the odds to achieve breakthrough results in individual giving? Help Jeanne Bell and Stephanie Roth, and the entire nonprofit sector, find out.

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Two years ago, when CompassPoint and the Haas, Jr. Fund set out to understand the ‘revolving door’ in the nonprofit development director role, I could never have anticipated the depth of emotion we would find: Development directors feeling scapegoated for falling short of unrealistic performance expectations set by executives and boards… Executive directors frustrated to the point of burn-out that their boards won’t raise money for the organization as they are “supposed to...”

It’s not hyperbole to say that we encountered a lot of pain and profound frustration in our research for UnderDeveloped: A National Study of the Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising. In the end, the data suggested a much larger problem, of which the development director ‘revolving door’ is just one powerful symptom: many organizations important to healthy communities and progressive social change have been unable, despite their best intentions, to establish the skills, systems, and culture to support a robust fundraising program.

Research showed the problem is real. Now what do we do about it?

The feedback from across the country was consistent: “You have captured the problem exactly; now, what do we do about it?”

That’s why I am so grateful that the Haas, Jr. Fund wants to go beyond naming the problem and help find solutions. With their support, CompassPoint and Klein & Roth Consulting are embarking on a research project to study what works. Specifically, we are going to be looking at “bright spots”—social change organizations that have built strong individual donor programs.

Why focus on individual donor capacity? Because we believe it offers a range of important benefits including spending flexibility, year-over-year budget reliability, and constituent engagement, to name just a few. But getting from a non-existent or chronically fledgling individual giving program to one that is central to the organization’s business model and identity has proved daunting to thousands upon thousands of organizations.

Seeking Bright Spots

Inspired by the “bright spots approach” developed by Jerry Sternin and popularized in the book, Switch, by the Heath brothers, we’re going to conduct an in-depth exploration of how ten social change organizations are beating the odds to achieve breakthrough results in individual giving. Instead of analyzing the problems, Sternin looked for positive deviance—“observable exceptions recognized by their peers as producing results above the norm with only the same kinds of resources available to others.” Similarly, we are going to dig into the what and the how with each bright spot to surface for all of us who aspire to their success the replicable steps we can take as well as the pitfalls and dead-ends to avoid.

How You Can Help

Our first step? Finding the bright spots. That’s where you can help. Do you know a social change organization (or more than one!) that has built a strong individual donor program and sustained it over time? Are you such a group? Nominate potential candidates for this national research study by emailing by March 27th. Please include in your email the name of the organization, their website, and the email of your contact there, if you have one. We look forward to bringing practical guidance, and just as importantly, hope, to the field later this year; stay tuned.

Jeanne Bell is CEO of CompassPoint, a national, nonprofit leadership and strategy practice based in Oakland, CA. She is on Twitter @JeanneBellNP.