The "3 P's" of Small Shop Fundraising Success
Updated: Mar 1
The leap from development team member to development team leader is one of the scariest steps in a fundraiser’s career. While we all aspire to do bigger and better things for ourselves, the increase in responsibility and accountability can be daunting.
When I made this leap, I was ecstatic about the opportunity - I landed a job supporting a cause I cared deeply about at an organization that was well-respected in the community. At the same time, I knew people who had burned out at this phase of their careers, so I knew I had to approach it carefully.
I was fortunate to spend three years in that role and to help the organization grow. It was a tremendous learning experience that helped shape me as a fundraiser. That said, like all small shop fundraising roles, it had its fair share of challenges.
That’s where the 3 P’s of small shop fundraising success come in. My inspiration for the 3 P’s came years before I took that job; when my wife and I were buying our first house, the real estate agent shared an old saying that there are 3 L’s that matter in real estate:
Location, location, location!
Just like location is everything in real estate, this is the key to survival as the lead fundraiser:
Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize!
When you’re working in a small shop, there’s a good chance you have to hit a big goal with a staff that might be smaller than you’d like. Part of the excitement of the job is being able to do a lot with a little…but that’s also where a lot of the stress comes in.
One day you can close a big gift and feel on top of the world. The next, you might get an unpleasant or negative message from a donor and feel completely defeated. That cycle of highs and lows can be a recipe for burnout, and it contributes to the retention problem our sector continues to grapple with.
Prioritizing is the key to slowing this cycle down and making the job sustainable (and enjoyable!). These are a few of the tactics you can use to manage priorities as a small shop fundraising leader:
Learn to “triage” your work: When navigating the tasks that came across my desk as a Development Director, I liked to divide them into three categories:
Mission-critical: The tasks that had to get done no matter what. These were the big grant applications, the appeal letters, thank you notes, etc. If these weren’t done, the organization (and my job) would be in jeopardy.
Important, but less time-sensitive: These were the things that had to be done, but that I felt comfortable delaying for work that was mission-critical. This was a category for things like redesigning the website or rolling out a new volunteer initiative. If there were too many tasks piling up from the first category, this would be where I’d reconsider timelines or think about bringing in a contractor to help.
Aspirational: Then you have the things you’d LOVE to do but probably don’t have the capacity for at the moment. In my small shop role, that was a planned giving initiative: it was important for long-term growth and needed to happen, but we had to hire more help first. As much as I would have loved to do it, there are only so many hours in the day, and I knew it was impossible to set this up while keeping up with mission-critical tasks. These are tasks to pursue during your slow periods or as you add fundraising staff, volunteers, or board members to take on new roles.
This is where a lot of burnout arises in these roles. We try to do it all, and we give everything equal importance. That can only work for so long, though. As we juggle too much and don’t give the most important tasks the attention they need, the work suffers, and our mental health takes a toll. Don’t be afraid to divide your tasks out and focus on the things that need the most attention.
It’s also important to remember that even in a small shop, you’re a leader and can delegate tasks. Consider which tasks you can delegate to volunteers and support staff to keep high-priority tasks moving as efficiently as possible.
Set Boundaries: This goes hand-in-hand with triaging your work. Sometimes a board member, boss, or stakeholder may want an aspirational project moved to the top of the priority list. In a previous job, I called it my Prince Harry Problem:
Prince Harry just spoke out about this issue - we should try to get some money from him!
In a perfect world, yes, Prince Harry would be our most important donor. In reality, nobody at our organization had Buckingham Palace in their network, and I knew the odds of getting through to him were exceptionally low. I also knew that if I invested my limited time in a pursuit like that, other tasks would suffer.
That’s where it’s important to learn how to say no. I expressed my appreciation that people looked at current events with our organization in mind and suggested situations where we could do that - for instance, if he started a foundation with open grant competitions or began to develop a focus on our market. Otherwise, I educated them on our current priorities and refocused the conversation.
Don’t Forget Self-Care: Above all else, take care of yourself. Use your PTO, don’t check your email on the weekends, and remember to focus on the most important things in life. Surviving in a small shop leadership role is exhausting, and if you don’t stop to take care of yourself, you’re almost guaranteed to experience burnout.
Leading a small fundraising shop is some of the most exhilarating work you can do as a fundraiser. The work can have its pitfalls, but if you learn to prioritize, you can thrive in a role like this.
Are you getting your feet wet as a fundraising leader and needing help? Our team of nonprofit fundraising consultants at Team Kat & Mouse has all been in your shoes - drop us a line for a free consultation!