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What’s in a word?

In our consulting work, we often hear certain words defined differently and used interchangeably:

• Do you use mission or vision when referencing the raison d’être of your organization?

• In creating your strategic plan, do objectives support goals, or is it the other way around?

• And what about advancement and development? Is each synonymous with fundraising, or are there important differences?

While Webster might disagree, we think there is more than one answer to the first two examples, at least when they are used to describe how many human service organizations strive for strength, health and effectiveness. Whatever the definitions, we believe it is important that such words are used consistently across the organization to promote common understandings among decision makers and active support among stakeholders.

In providing consulting services for church-related nonprofit organizations, however, we have found there are important distinctions to be made between advancement, development, and fundraising. The latter two may be interchangeable terms; advancement, however, is a different matter.

Articulating the differences and relationships among these words, and considering them carefully as you build strategies to interact with your stakeholders can make a dramatic difference in garnering necessary support for your organization.

To “advance” means to “move ahead.” To accomplish that result, an organization must develop genuine relationships with a sufficient number and the right sorts of stakeholders. When that has been successfully done, these friends will offer support in five specific ways:

• Giving their time as board members or volunteers at the quilt auction.

Praying regularly for your organization and the vital work it does.

Participating in estate planning seminars and special events.

Advocating for your organization within their church, work and social circles.

• And, yes, making generous, regular financial contributions when invited.

We believe that each form of support is essential for your organization’s overall well being and that none is more important than another. We also contend that, for maximum effectiveness, you must build an advancement program that actively invites your stakeholders to offer support in all five ways–not just money–and that you must truly recognize and value each of these gifts.

Having suggested that fundraising (development) is just one component of the broader advancement effort, we understand that the need for more financial contributions is often the driving force behind an organization’s desire to build relationships with stakeholders and, therefore, the focus for much of our work. Even if that is the case, however, an adequate understanding and application of the advancement concept are essential to securing fundraising success. Here are some examples to illustrate the point.

1. When soliciting financial gifts, invite donors to support you in the four other ways described. They will welcome the opportunity and become even more invested in your organization.

2. To create the best list of potential new donors, first identify those friends who are already giving their time or praying for your organization.

3. It goes without saying, don’t visit donors only when inviting a financial contribution! Think of other opportunities to create strong relationships.

4. Give careful thought to what it takes to build genuine relationships with stakeholders–regular communication, honesty and openness, promptness, genuine interest, and more–and be certain your advancement activities reflect those attributes.

5. If you list contributing stakeholders in an annual report, be sure to include among names of “friends” all those who supported your organization, not just those who gave money.

Our name is Advancement Associates for a reason. Likewise, we believe that building an advancement program—not just a development program—will make a “defining” difference for your organization too!


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Selecting the best software for your development needs

For the last 15 years, Peter Graber has helped to lead the fundraising work of Mennonite Mission Network and its predecessors. Mission Network works from the Mennonite Church USA offices in Elkhart, Ind. and Newton, Kan. Prior to that role, Graber spent 10 years as a computer consultant and programmer. Given his expertise in both fields, we asked him to share what he considers the most important functions of fundraising software.

If you manage a nonprofit, someone has certainly tried to sell you one kind of fundraising software or another. As the capabilities of computer hardware have expanded, as the “web” has become ubiquitous, and smart phones nearly so, fundraising software continues to adapt and offer new capabilities. With so many choices–and each with a price tag—it takes some careful consideration to determine how you want to use fundraising software in your organization.

The primary task of fundraising is to build a relationship of trust and appreciation between the organization and its supporters. And the gold standard for accomplishing this task is personal one to one interaction. Since that is only possible for a limited number of people, we engage in many other relational strategies to maximize the connection between supporter and organization. The strategies you use will depend on many factors including the size of your organization, the nature of its work, the size, demographics and geography of your supporter base and the participation of volunteers in your organization. Fundraising software can be used to enhance your productivity and increase the level of personalization you can provide in almost any situation.


At a minimum, fundraising software provides a place to store information about each donor in a way that it can be easily retrieved. Much of the time you will be working with this information in an office environment, but because development work happens at all hours of the day, sometimes across a large area, you will need access to your donor information from remote locations. As mobile devices become more capable, remote access is becoming even more robust. There is a cost, but when you are on the road half of the time, it is important that you are able to stay well connected.

While development principles remain constant across organizations, each organization is unique and often requires keeping track of special bits of information about donors that other organizations would not need. The more customizable the software, the more likely you will be able to use it effectively for these unique purposes. It is also important to consider what kind of security systems are required. Often, almost everyone in the organization needs access to the “name and address” information, but only a few need to see gifts, and fewer still, personal information.


Because you want to personalize your relationship with each donor, especially major donors, it is important that your fundraising software allows you to develop a broad and deep profile of donors through recording notes of personal visits, information about relationships, education, employment, etc. This information will be especially useful at times of staff transition when new staff members must learn to know donors quickly.

Contact records

Keeping good records of each phone call, letter, or personal visit will provide valuable information for your own reference on future contacts or for other staff members when you are gone. Contact records can remind you of the names of your donor’s children and what you talked about a year ago. They are also an excellent way to track development office productivity. Only a very limited number of people should have access to these records and they should not contain information shared by the donor in confidence.

Contact planning

One of the most important questions development people ask themselves is, “Who should I visit or call?” Out of the pool of possibilities, which contacts are most likely to result in increased funding for my organization? The answer to this question is a complex mix of factors including:

• the timing of the last contact,

• the history of giving,

• the size of gift,

• the potential for increased giving,

• the presence of a planned gift,

• etc.

A very good use of donor software is the ability to view this information on a range of donors in a way that the most important potential contacts are apparent. At my organization, we select donors that meet a set of criteria and export a large set of information to a spread sheet. Logic within that spreadsheet then categorizes donors based on the information supplied. In addition to automatically highlighting key contacts, it allows the user to look more closely at the donor’s attributes and history to make a judgment about the need for a contact.

Recording and receipting gifts

Another major purpose of fundraising software is to record gifts. Of course the finance office can easily record the date and amount of gifts, but for effective tracking, much more needs to be included. You will need to be able to track memorial or “in honor of” gifts, gift designations, pledges, recurring gifts, matching gifts, on-line gifts, estate gifts and gifts of stock or other assets. None of this is simple and all of it requires the participation of finance staff as well as development staff.

Whatever system you use, it must be capable of receiving and receipting a gift within 48 hours so that a timely acknowledgement can be sent to the donor. If practical, I recommend that the receipting be done by development staff who is more in touch with donor communication issues than the finance staff. Finance staff often records the gifts and makes the bank deposits and the development staff uses these records to produce the receipts and other acknowledgments.


You will often want to communicate with your donors as a group rather than individually. Good use of software will allow you to do a mass mailing (electronic or paper) in as personal a way as possible. It will allow you to:

• select and combine groups based on a variety of characteristics,

• format names as donors have requested,

• mark records as to who has received what mailings and

• include personal information such as recent giving.


Once you have collected a significant amount of information in your database, you will have many options for reviewing this information. Most systems come with 100 or more standard reports and you can usually customize many more. One of the most difficult decisions will be to decide what information you want to track on a regular basis and how often you want to review the reports. While many different reports are interesting, not as many are actually useful. You should ask yourself what will actually make a difference in your decision making and when is that information needed?

Action tracking

Most fundraising software now has action tracking as an option. This lets you make a note about what needs to happen next with each donor, usually as part of recording the contact. That note can then be stored and you will be reminded at the time you have selected for that next step to be initiated. You are also able to look ahead and see how many calls, visits, and other follow up steps you have scheduled for yourself in the next week, month, etc. If the software is well integrated, the planned action can easily be turned into a contact report when it is completed.

Other uses

In addition to these primary uses of development software, there are many additional uses that may apply to your development environment.

• Events – If you plan donor events, there is software to help with invitations, registration, nametags, etc.

• If you use volunteers, there is software that helps you to manage volunteers by recording their skills and availability, hours worked, leadership tasks, etc.

• Donor research – Many companies now provide donor research, giving you information about people’s interests, past giving and capacity. Some of these are separate services and some are integrated into donor software packages.

• Planned giving – Encouraging planned giving is one of the most important tasks of development staff. Planned giving software allows you to produce illustrations specific to the people you are visiting. It is not a substitute for understanding planned giving, but an excellent tool that has proven effective in moving people towards planned giving decisions.


Once you have fundraising software installed, it is important that you make good decisions about how to use it. Without a good training program, you are likely to never really use your investment to its full potential. Training will allow you to explore the ways you can search and sort and manipulate information. It is then up to you to choose how to use the software to best enhance your relationships. Some of us are tempted to get lost in all the nifty things we can do and lose focus on our primary objective, building relationships. Training doesn’t end when the software is installed. Users need regular training to keep expanding their knowledge and proficiency. New users need hands-on training so they can become productive as quickly as possible.

In conclusion

Using fundraising software well is a complex undertaking. I have a few rules that help me deal with this complexity:

• Start with the most important functions and add more as you go.

• Remember that people are the most important resource and have no patience for software that wastes their time or fails to provide them with good information arranged in a usable way.

• Don’t scrimp on training. It does not save money in the long run.

• Insist on great training by people who know the business, not just the software, and who are good teachers, not just good salespeople.

• Keep reevaluating how you are using the software, that the information you record is truly useful and that you are actually using it to inform your work.

• The cost of software is not necessarily an indication of its quality.

Those of us old enough to remember the days before computers realize that while it would be more difficult to do development without our computer systems, it could still be done, and done well. Fundraising software should not require you to compromise good practices in order to fit into the requirements of the software; rather, it should enable you to engage in good development practices in an efficient manner.


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“Developing” a bigger picture

Fundamental to photography is the art of composition, the way individual objects within a defined space combine to form a portrait. The more elements one is expected to work with, the more complex the task.

And what if the number of elements in the figurative viewfinder suddenly doubles, creating a virtual collage of colors, textures and patterns? Successfully merging the various fragments into one cohesive image is precisely the task at hand for Living Branches, a system of retirement living communities in southeastern Pennsylvania.

In June 2008, when Souderton Mennonite Homes (Souderton), Dock Woods Community (Lansdale) and Dock Meadows (Hatfield) officially became Living Branches, CEO Edward Brubaker had plenty of operational wrinkles to iron out, including approaches to fundraising. While the intent was always to merge the development functions of the three campuses, Brubaker took comfort in that fact that each department was, for the time being, working well on its own.

Nearly three years later, development discussions are picking up steam. The landscape looks different now: one development officer has retired, a second has moved into marketing, and the first-ever Director of Fund Development for the new entity has recently been hired.

Some details to be worked out are small. For example, this summer administrative staff will align software packages and merge donor databases. Decisions regarding special fundraising events also need to be made. Which should remain as they are? Which does it make sense to combine? Which could be eliminated?

Then there is another level of challenge: crafting an overall development philosophy that accommodates the emotional connections donors may have to one campus or another while, at the same time, encouraging people to see what Brubaker calls the “bigger picture” of Living Branches.

One doesn’t need to visit with the CEO long to detect a genuine caring and sensitivity for constituents that goes beyond far beyond business savvy.

“We recognize that donors have an emotional connection to the organizations they support. In bringing these organizations together, we don’t want to minimize the importance of those connections for the sake of easier administration,” Brubaker explains. “At the same time, Living Branches wants to invite our friends to connect to the entire organization.”

One development priority for Living Branches is charitable giving for benevolent care, funds through which the retirement community supports current residents who have exhausted their financial resources.

Prior to the merger, each organization had a fund dedicated to this purpose—the Agape Fund at Souderton and the Sharing Fund at Dock Woods/Meadows. Brubaker recognizes that, at least for the foreseeable future, some people will have a strong affinity to a particular campus. Living Branches plans to maintain each fund as a way to honor those sentiments.

Similarly, each year Living Branches receives memorial gifts that families want to designate to either Souderton or Dock Woods. “We want to show appreciation for the gifts we receive by allowing donors to connect with us in ways that are meaningful to them,” says Brubaker, “but we don’t want [giving to individual campuses] to be our main focus in the future.”

For this reason, a development task force is proposing creation of a third benevolent care fund to be used across the broader organization—the Living Branches Fund. “Many donors don’t care where their money goes as long as it is for benevolent care,” says Brubaker. “Building the Living Branches Fund, and thereby letting the organization designate how the money is used, is one way to help people see a bigger picture.”

Living Branches operates as a charitable 501(c)3 organization; that is one indicator of its commitment to those residents who, through no fault of their own, have outlived their resources. “If we didn’t offer benevolent care, we wouldn’t have a reason to do fundraising,” states Brubaker. “We would be just like any other business.”

And speaking of business, another intriguing question for the Living Branches development team is how to communicate a new identity to vendors and local businesses who until now have been asked for donations by both the Dock and Souderton communities. Because of the close proximity of the three campuses, there is considerable overlap among corporate donor constituents.

When asked how Living Branches might engage the business community going forward, Brubaker offers this scenario: “Businesses might receive a one-time ask through a personal visit or letter. As opposed to being invited multiple times for multiple events, vendors might be asked to partner with us, for example in our benevolent care ministry, through selected fundraising activities throughout the year.”

Brubaker is adamant about not expecting charitable gifts to help fix a deficit or subsidize those residents who are able to pay the full cost of care on their own, neither of which he considers legitimate objects of charity. “Donors want to give to specific needs rather than see their gifts just going toward operational expenditures.”

Personnel; software; special events; major donors and other friends; businesses and vendors. Exactly how the recently-merged organization pulls together the various compositional elements remains to be seen, and Living Branches has engaged AAI to assist the effort. What is certain is that the resulting image, as in photography, will be brought into focus through careful “development.” In the case of Living Branches, the term is literal, and Brubaker hopes it reveals not just a picture, but rather the bigger picture.