Fundraising Effectiveness: Activity vs Productivity

Ellen Bristol

May 29, 2019

About the Author

Ellen Bristol

Ellen Bristol, President of Bristol Strategy Group, is a nonprofit thought leader in fundraising effectiveness and nonprofit management optimization. She has a passion for helping small to medium sized nonprofit organizations, NGO’s, and social enterprises build and grow fundraising capacity, adapting classic principles of the process-management discipline to this all-important strategic function.

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A close-up portrait of an elderly, desperate, mad, looking crazy, desperate man, going insane, isolated on a white background. Human emotions extremes. Loneliness, grief, family loss.“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.” If you’re trying to raise money the way you always have, then you’re just reinventing the same old wheel, or worse. It’s time to stop obsessing over the way you DO fundraising and start changing the way you MANAGE it. DOING fundraising is all about activity.. MANAGING fundraising is all about productivity: getting better results with the same or less effort.

There is really nothing new under the sun, but sometimes you have to stand in the shade to see what you’re missing. (Forgive me, I’m on a cliche kick today.)  I read hundreds of posts, articles, and training offers about fundraising every week – ok, maybe it’s just dozens; it only seems like hundreds – and they always seem to rehash the same old stuff, like:

  • Cool ideas for events.
  • Writing effective thank-you letters.
  • Telling your story.


These are certainly useful skills. If you don’t know how to write a thank-you note or tell your story I beg you to learn. But are these really the solutions you need? Programs like these are  about activity. I don’t think our sector suffers  so much from activity problems. It suffers from RESULTS problems. Some examples:

  • Donor retention rates.  Donor retention rates are the RESULT of  your strategies for  communications and stewardship. If you haven’t defined the level of retention you’re seeking, it hardly matters which activities you trot out.
  • Staff Turnover.   Development officers only last about 16 months, barely enough time to find (a) the bathroom and (b) the gift acceptance policy. Desirable levels of staff turnover (.e. LOW) are the RESULT of thoughtful recruitment, clear performance expectation, and effective methods for coaching your team.  
  • Upgrading current investors. The ability to upgrade giving levels is the RESULT of thoughtful strategies for acquisition and retention, combined with good prospect researh and consistent stewardship. 
  • Fundraising team engagement. This phenomenon is the RESULT of clear performance expectations, access to good prospect research,  and effective coaching support. The lack of these things leads to something undesirable: high levels of Ask Reluctance.
  • Adequate, predictable cash flow.  This is a truly strategic issue, the RESULT of careful management, good record keeping, and insightful reporting.  What’s the flip side? Inadequate, insufficient, unpredictable cash flow.  Boo, ugh.


According to our research, plus insights from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project and Giving USA reports, fundraising organizations suffer much more from lack of productivity than they do from lack of activity. In fact, sometimes the level of activity is so frenetic it obscures the lack of results. See what we have learned about our sector in the second edition of our bench-marking study Fundraising Down the Drain 2019: The Leaky Bucket Study 2019,  revealing the results of 1400+ Leaky Bucket Assessments of fundraising-staff productivity. It truly illuminates our sector’s overall failure to invest in productivity.  It is due for publication by June 15. Please sign up to receive your copy as soon as it is published.


If you have not completed the Leaky Bucket Assessment for your organization, please do so now! It’s free, it only takes five minutes, and you’ll get your results immediately.


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