Five Ways That Pressure Benefits Fundraising

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Fundraising requires pressure, but it has to be just the right amount: too much pressure and we implode, too little and we underperform.

Mother Nature shows us the benefits of pressure. Consider the pressure that a forest is under from the threat of wildfires. The ecological benefits of wildland fires outweigh their negative effects. A regular occurrence of fires can reduce the amount of dry debris thereby lowering the likelihood of large wildland fire. Fires often remove alien plants that compete with native species and remove undergrowth, which allows sunlight to reach the forest floor, thereby supporting the growth of native species.

The ashes that remain after a fire add nutrients often locked in older vegetation. Fires can also provide a way for controlling insect pests by killing off the older or diseased trees and leaving the younger, healthier trees. Burned trees provide habitat for nesting birds and mammals and a nutrient base for new plants. When these trees decay, they return even more nutrients to the soil. Overall, fire is a catalyst for promoting biological diversity and healthy ecosystems. Fire fosters new plant growth and wildlife populations often expand as a result.

Wildfire is real pressure for a forest, and everything about it applies to your fundraising program.

Questions to Explore

Exploring these questions will help you discover the right focus for what pressure you need in your fundraising program.

These questions are meant to stimulate your thinking, but please add other questions that are the most relevant for you.  Or call me to discuss your dilemma and I can suggest what questions may be worth exploring.

  1. Reduce Dry Debris: What about your fundraising program should end or be reformed? I bet you know instantly. If not, look to remove the debris of low return/high-cost approaches. Also, put in place a method for evaluating your return on investment. So many fundraisers do not know if what they are doing works well. That must change.
  2. Remove Alien Plants: Why do we still mail a summer letter appeal that has such a low return? When was the last time we had a donor focus group, a development audit, or considered using advanced prospect research to learn more about our current donors? Remove the aliens of assuming that what worked still works, and that best practices in fundraising don’t apply to you!
  3. Ashes are Valuable: A stalled campaign, a donor rejection, plateaued giving – these are all valuable experiences to deeply evaluate with both your development team and with the executive team. With your evaluation, be specific about the improvement steps. If you don’t know how to conduct an evaluation there are terrific materials on how to do it here.
  4. Controlling Insect Pests: If your board doesn’t know much about the fundraising profession, why are you asking them about your new plan that you spent three months devising? Can you limit the review to the executive team, or just share it with the few board members who understand fundraising? A huge pest is how underfunded development programs are, a recipe for disaster.
  5. New Habitats, New Growth: Giving Tuesday requires a significant social media presence, but you don’t have that platform. Maybe you should divert that energy into a more personal year-end drive? You’ve never had a campaign but you think you have the need for one, should we at least talk to a consultant about how to evaluate if we’re ready? Would a professional feasibility study help us better understand the path to new major gifts? Should we consider starting a monthly giving program?

Stress vs. Pressure

If you’re feeling stress, that is different from pressure. I encourage you to pause and examine those feelings because it is fertile ground for deepening your fundraising approach. Ask yourself, what is the source of the stress, what is the trigger for it, how have you dealt with it before, or not?

Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D., a world-renowned psychologist and senior author of “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most,” (Crown, 2015) highlights the critical difference between stress and pressure. Weisinger says that while we all face both stress and pressure in our personal and professional lives, there’s a clear distinction between the two. “Stress refers to the situation of too many demands and not enough resources – time, money, energy – to meet them. Pressure is a situation in which you perceive that something at stake is dependent on the outcome of your performance. Stress may involve a variety of problems that lead to feelings of overload. A meeting that runs late, a long list of emails that need responses or several looming deadlines that need to be addressed may cause a fair amount of stress. But that doesn’t mean you’re under pressure.

Pressure involves feelings–often of an anxious and fearful nature–of a “do or die” type situation. When you’ve only got one shot to get it right–like being at-bat in the ninth inning of the World Series with the tying run in scoring position, or a presentation to a client or job interview–you’ll experience pressure. To help you hone this distinction, Weisinger recommends that any time you feel the “heat,” ask yourself, “Am I feeling overwhelmed by the demands upon me, or do I feel I have to produce a specific result?”  If your answer is the former, a feeling of being overwhelmed, too many demands and not enough resources, you are stressed.  If you are in a situation or entering one in which you feel you have to deliver the goods, that’s pressure.”

Overall, I encourage you to welcome pressure and explore the deep questions deriving from it. Doing so will help you grow. Pace yourself, though, and choose the pressure points well so that you can make the most of it.


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