Nigel Harris & Associates


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Scrambling up a steep mountain at the end of the financial year

A Wonderful Time of the Year … But it Could be Better!

The ‘final quarter quickstep’ is the dance we do every financial year as we scramble for the fundraising result we want. How can we change the dance steps to be more effective in achieving the result we need to serve our purpose?

A wonderful time of year

The next three months – April through to June – are a wonderful time of year to live in Brisbane. The climate is at its best and there is a lot happening across the city, and beyond.

We have a good share of public holidays through these months as well, which means a little extra time to spend with family and friends.

Of course, if you’re a football fan like me (AFL in my case) there’s also a new season getting underway which brings its hopes and promise – at least for the next few months!

There is a lot to like about the months of April, May, and June. And there can be a lot not to like about those same months as well!

Scrambling to meet budget

As the last quarter of a financial year for many organisations, it is that challenging time when the reality of meeting financial targets kicks in, alongside of the preparations of plans and budgets for a new financial year. In my previous executive leadership role, I found this final quarter to be the least enjoyable time of the year – by a good distance.

There was so often a scramble to meet budget as we entered the months of April, May, and June. Knowing full well that the time to exercise any real influence on a financial year result was well past, it made that final quarter push even more challenging – even desperate at times. The analogy of horses and stable doors often loomed large, as did that sense of déjà vu when the reality of actions not taken or enabled in current and past years came home to roost yet again.

Even in those years where financial year results looked solid, well out from the year end, there was still the big lifting of new year’s plans and budgets to be tackled. And in years when results were strong and exceeded expectations, there was still a level of angst, debate, and tension around during these three months. More so when results didn’t meet expectations, whatever the reasons may have been.

It’s not unusual – but what is normal?

All of this is normal, understandable, and even reasonable in the course of business. And there shouldn’t be exceptions from the norms of business behaviour and expectations in the non-profit sector, just because it’s the non-profit sector.

Except of course if those expectations and the assumed norms don’t align with the realities of the business at hand.

For non-profit organisations that derive revenue from government, through grants, contracts and other funding, or have their own earned revenue streams, through commercial enterprises or other trading activity, the assumed norms and expectations are usually clear enough. The patterns are generally well established and understood.

Different patterns

However, when we look to philanthropy and fundraising programs, the patterns begin to change. We move from logical and mostly predictable models of revenue to behaviours and programs that will offer much less certainty and much more variability in revenue expectations.

The critical question, for management and governance leadership alike, is to what extent do we understand, plan for, and measure those variables as we consider philanthropy and fundraising practice in our organisational revenue mix?

Questions to ask

Here are some questions that you could ask to test the completeness of your approach to fundraising program oversight.

  • Is your operating plan and budget a stand-alone twelve-month plan, or part of a longer-term business and financial plan?
  • Are you measuring your fundraising performance through your profit and loss statement, and even then with an annual view – or less?
  • Or are you measuring the drivers of fundraising outputs as a critical source of predicting returns, and over multiple years?
  • Are you using benchmarks or ratios based on ‘conventional wisdom’, rather than any evidenced based sector data?
  • And, are you seeking to compare results that have no defendable basis for comparison, rather than creating robust and relevant internal benchmarks that provide actionable insight and analysis of performance?
  • Are you planning for and investing in the progression of relationship development over sufficient time to create meaningful and enduring donor experiences?
  • Or are you simply chasing money because you need it and planning accordingly?
  • Have you calibrated the investment in people, programs and systems in a way that meets your planning and budget expectations? Or are you merely hoping for a good result? Or worse still, a windfall?
  • Have you created a long term, sustainable business and financial plan based on the market realities and a clear understanding of stakeholder behaviours, so that you can best serve your purpose?
  • And finally, are you giving yourself every chance to be effective in serving your purpose, or are you creating artificial, and even illogical, constraints and limitations on your people, programs and ultimately purpose?

 A different approach

Taking an informed and expansive approach to planning, resourcing, measuring, and assessing fundraising programs is fundamental to philanthropic engagement. An approach framed through strategic context and an uncompromising focus on the purpose being served and the aspirations of the people who support that purpose.

Ultimately it is much less about what any organisation may need or want, and much more about why the organisation exists, what it does, and how effective it is in serving its purpose.

An obvious benefit of this approach lies in the social contribution it enhances. It also has the added bonus of framing the end of financial year experience in a different light. A light that is no less challenging and accountable, but is far more informed, contextual and leads to more focused activity that serves purpose.

This won’t mean that April, May, and June will take on a lighter tone. There will always be challenges, frustrations, and barriers to serving purpose, as there will be the anticipated results alongside of the surprises and delights. However, taking a more complete view, and understanding the subtle nuances alongside of the bleeding obvious, will make for a more balanced, inclusive and effective path to serving purpose.

If you are curious to understand more about the factors that shape fundraising strategy and performance assessment, here is a link to a paper that takes a deeper dive in to this topic.

Nigel Harris AM