Mary Cahalane is a nonprofit fundraiser consultant, copywriter and blogger with a passion for helping nonprofits fundraise better. She has been building successful fundraising programs for nearly 30 years and after spending a lot of time attracting funds for major regional theaters and community-based organizations, Mary launched Hands-On Fundraising.
Her services include program assessments, fundraising plans, annual giving programs, and donor communications. Her strategic approach on nonprofit work is only matched by her outstanding writing skills.
Fundlio: Welcome to our blog! We are thrilled to have you here and together provide nonprofit leaders with ideas on how to improve their fundraising strategies.
To begin with, please tell us what determined you to choose a career in the nonprofit sector and what has been motivating you throughout the 30 years you have spent in the nonprofit world.
Mary Cahalane: I found my nonprofit career through my love of theater. I began, not in fundraising, but in the box office of one of the country’s major regional theaters. A great place to start, it turns out. We dealt with customers all day and into the night, either on the phone or in person. We managed a great deal of money accurately. And every other department worked with us in some way, so we saw how the whole organization worked.
Building Strong Donor Relationships
When I moved to Connecticut, the area I was most interested in was development. Fortunately, another major theater had an opening. That was the beginning of a nearly 12-year journey of learning there. Not always easy, but a great learning experience for a first fundraising job!
What keeps me motivated? Helping other people. Either as a staff member or now as a consultant– it all comes down to being helpful. We’re lucky – we get to spend our days making the world a better place.
Fundlio: I’ve noticed you put a major focus on building strong donor relationships. Why are so many nonprofits and fundraisers failing at this crucial strategy?
MC: I’m not sure. Perhaps people get lost in the mechanics of fundraising.
But you can’t raise money without thinking about donors. And in my experience, donor relationships are the most satisfying part of fundraising. Are people complex? Does it mean you deal with a variety of emotions and temperaments? Sure. But it’s fascinating and so rewarding.
Fundlio: Our team has heard many stories of coaches dealing with stubborn clients who are not listening to their advice. We know you have helped many nonprofits develop fundraising strategies and raise more money – what are the most common misconceptions that fundraising professionals and nonprofit leaders are still sticking to?
MC: I’m not sure it’s stubbornness. But there’s a comfort in doing what you’ve always done.
The one thing I see often – whether in my mailbox or online – are organizations that pay lip service to being focused on donors, but are not. Their communications are all about the organization, not what donors make possible. It’s frustrating because they could do it right. But it seems to be a deeply ingrained habit!
Fundlio: A staggering number of people you have worked with describe you as a gifted writer. How important are good writing skills for a fundraising expert? What are the core pieces that a fundraiser should be able to produce?
MC: Well, thank you, that’s very nice of you!
Writing skills are important. But before good writing, I’d put good communication skills. You can always hire a professional to handle the writing. But you need fundraisers who can relate well to people. You need fundraisers who can communicate a compelling need. Otherwise, it will be hard to raise money.
Fundraisers must express why giving will help people (or animals or the planet). They need to be able to listen as well – or better – than they talk or write. They need to cut to the heart of the mission and express it with sincere emotion. Some people don’t write well but are wonderful in person or on the phone.
Every organization needs an internal case statement. That’s the document that movingly explains the “why” of their organization. If you raise money, you’ll need great appeals, both direct mail and online. Appeals should be balanced with expressive thank you letters. And you’ll need reports or newsletters to show donors the impact of their gifts.
Fundlio: What are the most important features of an effective fundraising appeal?
MC: It’s emotional and personal. Tells a great story. Expresses a compelling need. Has urgency. Gives clear directions and has a stirring call to action. And asks for the gift!
Fundlio: Please tell our readers why they shouldn’t avoid “ugly fundraising”.
MC: It’s dangerous to get caught up in the look of a piece if doing so undermines the function. Donors are savvy to slick marketing efforts. Sometimes “homely” feels more personal.
Donor communications have a distinct job. That job isn’t about brand colors or fonts. It’s not about looking pretty. It’s about communicating a need and the donor’s critical role in meeting that need.
Fundlio: In today’s digital age, is it still worth doing telephone fundraising? Would you recommend this tactic?
MC: Unless you’re able to be face to face with all your donors, the phone is the most personal way to communicate. It’s two-way, which gets you over the biggest barrier with written appeals. And it offers the chance not just to make a case for giving, but to listen and learn.
Great telefunders are great listeners. They think well on their feet. They react to what they hear. They don’t just read a script. They offer organizations a chance to relate person to person with their donors. That can be powerful!
Not every organization can hire or staff a telephone fundraising department. But staff, volunteers or board members can call – even if it’s just to say “thank you” and to listen to what donors want to tell you.
Fundlio: Many nonprofits still think that donors give because their organizations are great. Sounds legit, but this is in fact a big trap. Like you’ve said in one of your blog posts, donors give because they’re great. Based on your experience, what percentage of nonprofits are still following a self-centered approach? Have you noticed any changes in the last years?
MC: Everyone talks about donor-centered fundraising. But too often, that’s as far as it goes. That’s a real shame because you’re not making room for donors. And without donors, you’re not going to accomplish much.
I know we all work hard, day after day, to make the world better. But if crediting your donors means your mission will be more successful, why not set aside the institutional ego?
Our organizations are a means to an end for donors. We’re just the vehicle they use to do their good work. Passionate donors give more and tell their friends. They turn into volunteers who roll up their sleeves and work beside you.
If we stop blowing our own horns, donors will do it for us – and that’s much more effective!
Fundlio: Why do board members dread fundraising so much? What advice would you give to a fundraiser trying to get the board more involved?
MC: Because fundraising can be scary. If your idea of fundraising is “hitting people up” or “squeezing some money out of them”, it feels wrong.
And talking about money isn’t easy. When fundraising is transactional and aggressive, it’s not something most people want to do. I wouldn’t!
But when boards see it’s about sharing their passion for your work, that’s human. It’s understandable.
My advice is always about breaking the process down into tiny steps. This allows board members to get comfortable with the process. Begin with thanking donors – there’s no ask, and for most people it’s just polite.
And be sure board members are directly connected to the mission and the people you help. The closer they are to the work, the easier it will be for them to share their feelings with donors.
Fundlio: The access to fundraising resources may cause nonprofit leaders to experience the pressure to succeed all the time. So I suggest we finish this interview in a relaxed manner and explain our readers why they should allow themselves to fail from time to time.
MC: If you’re not failing, you’re not learning. There isn’t a successful person out there who hasn’t failed – sometimes in a big way. Much of fundraising is about failing smart. (We call it testing.) The strongest organizations encourage innovation and share what’s learned. But it comes from the top – you need an atmosphere that rewards experimentation.
Even the failures you cringe about years later teach you something valuable. Just be sure you’re paying attention to the lesson!
Fundlio: Thank you for your time and supporting us in our efforts to provide nonprofits with valuable advice!
MC: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity. And it’s been fun!
Do you have any questions for Mary Cahalane?
Did you enjoy the interview with Mary? We sure did! Do you have any questions in regards to building strong donor relationships or any of the topics covered during the interview? Let us know. We’ll be more than happy to answer your questions. We’d like to hear what you think too.
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