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Board Fundraising Topics

Fundraising from a Burning Platform

There’s a phrase in management – the burning platform – that refers to a situation in which people are forced to act, because the alternative is worse. A crisis moment: we can’t stay where we are because the ship is burning up underneath our feet, so we have to jump (the actual impetus for the original metaphor).

The choices faced on a burning platform are powerful – an organization can’t maintain the status quo, so business as usual is not an option. What results is “immediate and radical change due to dire circumstances,” according to change management theory.

In nonprofits, this radical behavior change often includes fundraising. 

When nonprofits go through a “near death” experience, all hands gather on deck. Often, programming may be robust but many years of financial strain have spiraled inward, resulting in excessive debt and inability to pay essential bills.

Other times an external factor such as the loss of a large contract or grant precipitates the crisis.

A crisis management plan is drafted, which usually combines juggling/postponing fiscal obligations – and a laser-like focus on raising the funds necessary to make it through.

Executive directors who were formerly “allergic” to fundraising charge ahead. Board members who were previously reluctant to mine their connections overcome their scruples. Funders step up to the plate, even asking peers to come to the table.

All the reasons why peer-to-peer fundraising was avoided in the past still exist – but they don’t matter. The alternative is worse.

There’s a lot to learn from crisis-induced fundraising motivation, for non-crisis attempts to shift an organization’s philanthropic culture.

First and foremost is that people can overcome inhibitions if their incentive is high enough. Crisis-driven motivation comes from a desperate attempt to avoid catastrophe; but positive rationales – an extraordinary opportunity, a breathtaking vision, can also work to inspire out-of-the-ordinary behavior.

The next lesson is the “cannot be ignored” factor: that when people are driven to focus on fundraising as their number 1 priority, it happens. When it’s “nice but not essential” – it’s much less likely to be followed through.

And finally, hidden in the process of gathering stakeholders to create a crisis management plan, is the camaraderie factor. No longer is it the lonely executive director figuring out how to make payroll, or the board treasurer warning deaf ears of alarming long-term trends. There’s truly a team approach to moving the organization past the rocky shoals.

While no-one would ever want to create a burning platform where none exists, some of these factors can, in fact, be adapted to transform an organization’s commitment to fundraising.

If the will is there…