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In Fundraising, as in America's Pastime: It's a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Updated: 23 hours ago

Fundraising is a Marathon

A few weeks ago Sharon and I were meeting over Zoom with a friend of ours when the conversation deviated into baseball. Our friend pointed out the baseball memorabilia on the shelf behind him, and then Sharon betrayed her Queens roots by showing us the Yankees mug she was drinking from.

Then it was my time to shine!

I moved my right arm in view of the camera, rolled up my sleeve, and showed everyone my commitment to baseball: a tattoo of the red, interlocking STL logo of my beloved St. Louis Cardinals surrounded by the years of their 11 World Championships (with room to add).

It’s been a common occurrence in my life that all roads end up leading back to my love of baseball. As a proud son of one of America’s best baseball cities, I look at many things through the lens of baseball. As my fundraising career has advanced, there’s one particular adage from the world of baseball that has shaped the strategies I share with clients:

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Baseball stands alone in the intensity of its schedule. 162 games packed into the hottest months of the year require a team to be built in a way that’s sustainable and resilient. The very best teams will have times that they struggle, and that mantra is repeated by broadcasters, players, and fans repeatedly.

A tough loss at the start of the season is just that: one tough loss in the midst of a 162 game marathon.

How often do we encounter the same thing in the fundraising world? A donor visit goes poorly. An event struggles with poor attendance. A new grant we were hoping to receive either doesn’t come in or comes in for less than we had budgeted.

These are the moments that deflate fundraising staff and take the wind out of our sails as organizations. But like a heartbreaking loss in April, we can’t let those things take our focus off the ultimate goal.

A successful fundraising plan is built first and foremost around an utlimate dollar goal. 12 months worth of tasks, targets, and funding streams should all lead toward that goal. There will be twists and turns along the way, but when setbacks happen, it’s key to regroup and continue the push toward the goal.

There are some important lessons from the world of baseball that can help us keep our focus on the ultimate prize and weather setbacks:

Be prepared to rebuild on the fly: Last year’s Cardinals season started with a horrible series of setbacks. Injuries piled up and incosistent play left the team struggling with little hope of making the playoffs. They didn’t give up, though, and changed their strategy by trading for a couple of savvy veteran players (including Jon Lester, who had tortured us both as a member of the Red Sox in the 2013 World Series and for years with our rival Cubs) to sabilize the team. The rest was history: after a franchise-record 17 game winning streak, the Cardinals surprised everyone and ended up in the playoffs.

As fundraisers, we all did the same thing after the start of the pandemic. How many of us hit major fundraising setbacks, financial losses, and hits to our stewardship efforts, only to rebuild, rethink, and find news ways to get to our goals? Just like I never thought I’d see Jon Lester in Cardinal Red, in 2020, I never thought I’d be planning a virtual gala. I hope we never have to fundraise during a pandemic again, but when setbacks happen, it’s important to get creative and keep the goal in mind.

Don’t Get Complacent: For every team like last year’s Cardinals that started slowly and surged in the end, there is another that started strong and got complacent. In the middle of that magical winning streak, the Cardinals visited Queens to play the Mets, who had been one of the National League’s best teams during the first half of the year. They were struggling when the Cardinals visited, though, and surprised many by failing to make the playoffs. A hot start wasn’t enough to compensate for a weak finish.

In the fundraising world, we see this often when a nonprofit secures a gift - a big win - and fails to properly steward the donor. The win is great in the moment, but if you don’t execute the correct process, the win will turn into a dramatic loss when it comes time to ask for a renewal. The renewal process is a marathon, and don’t get complacent along the way.

Train, Train, and Train Some More: All roads lead to baseball for me, and that’s true with Team Kat & Mouse. Our two offices, in St. Louis and West Palm Beach, are conveniently the most important home bases of the Cardinals. When the big league team plays under the bright lights of Busch Stadium during the summer, young players fresh out of high school or college train at the Cardinals’ facility in Jupiter, FL hoping to fulfill their dreams of playing in the Major Leagues. Players for the Single A Palm Beach Cardinals receive instruction, support, and training so they can achieve their full potential.

We relentlessly preach that nonprofits need to hire attitude and train skills - the same things a successful baseball team does. Those players in Palm Beach are there for their raw talent (and attitude) and coached to turn that ability into the skills that will carry them to St. Louis. A Find the right people does the same thing - they identify the ability and attitude that will lead to fundraising success, then provide the coaching and support necessary to help them achieve their potential.

The 12 months spent working toward an annual fundraising goal have more in common with a 162 game baseball season than we may initially think. There will be ups and downs, successes and failures, and unexpected twists and turns along the way.

The key is to remember the old saying: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

If your process is strong, you’ll be able to weather the setbacks and capitlize on the unexpected triumphs. Find the right people, give them the tools to succeed, and expect the unexpected. If you do these things while staying nimble, you’ll find success in the end.

Need help building your strategy for a winning fundraising season? Our team of nonprofit fundraising consultants is here to coach you to success.

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