Nonprofit fundraising can be compared to many things, but for me basketball is the most apt analogy. Strategy, adaptation, talent, and teamwork are crucial in both.
After the excitement of the one-and-done, win or go home college basketball tournament, the NBA playoffs can seem like a slog. Each round is a best-of-seven series, and can stretch to almost two weeks in length. These long series help separate the wheat from the chaff. Any team can beat another on any given night, but a seven game series (usually) ensures the better team comes out on top.
The level of play generally increases during the post-season. During the 82-game regular year, even the best teams take a night off now and then or rest their starters. Now that every game truly matters, every player brings the best of their talents.
So how does this all relate to nonprofit fundraising?
An Evolving Strategy Is a Winning Strategy
When basketball was invented in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith, players were not allowed to dribble the ball. They stood with two feet on the floor and could only pass or shoot. As recently as 1979 the NBA had no three-point shot, adopting it only after several years of use and popularity in the American Basketball Association. Rules have changed to adapt to the tastes of fans and abilities of players
Legendary college coaches like John Wooden and Bobby Knight forbade a shot on offense until four passes were made to probe the defense. Even today, there are still NBA teams that play a version of the traditional slow-down offense, with set plays that rely on using as much of the 24-second shot clock as possible. Right now those teams are sitting at home while others that have evolved into the contemporary, up-tempo “pace and space” offense are advancing through the playoffs.
Just like in basketball, in nonprofit fundraising there are fundamentals that make up the foundation and new strategies and tools that advance the game. While fundraising mainstays like direct mail and fundraising events are still critical, new ideas and methods like social media and mobile giving apps must always be evaluated and integrated. Large, dominant causes can sometimes rely on the same old set of plays and find the world has passed them by, opening the door for more agile organizations.
It Takes A Complete Team
Everyone knows the superstars of today’s NBA: names like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant. These players often seem to transcend the game, able to take an entire game on their shoulders and will their teams to victory. They’re also ubiquitous in their marketing appeal, constantly on TV hawking shoes, deodorant, cars, and cell phone carriers.
Their individual skills may differ, but one aspect of the game they all have in common is the ability to make their teammates better. A true star facilitates the entire team, understands the talents of each player, and helps steer them into being the best overall team they can be. Why? Because basketball is a game of five players on the floor. One-against-five aren’t good odds if you’re trying to win it all. Every squad needs its star, its starters, and its role players to truly be successful.
In a nonprofit organization, no matter how large or how small, it takes an entire team to reach fundraising goals. One superstar can’t carry the load of the entire operation. From marketing and development to outreach and event planning, everyone from the starters to the backups have to contribute to the maximum of their respective abilities. Otherwise you’ll be sitting on the sidelines of the nonprofit fundraising game.
Past Success Is No Guarantee
In this year’s playoffs, perennial contenders the San Antonio Spurs had their season ended by the up-and-coming Los Angeles Clippers. The consensus difference maker among the sports literati was hunger. The Spurs have been to six NBA finals series in the last 15 years, winning five. The Clippers, on the other hand, are making just their fifth playoff appearance in that same time span and have never won a championship. They are among the favorites to take home the trophy. They’re young, adaptable, and generally seem to have fun playing the game and being where they are. Never before has there been any reasonable expectation of winning.
Now that they’re here, they’re hungry. They wanted it more. Instead of resting on the laurels of a breakout season and expecting to win in crunch time, they doubled down on effort and hustle. The dynasties of yesterday (Lakers, Spurs, Pistons, Heat) once looked unbeatable. They always won, and would continue to do so. Except that they haven’t. The young scrappers with coaches looking for ever newer and better ways to play are starting to take over.
Nonprofit fundraising can be susceptible to this same kind of inertia. Organizations that have had years or decades of success find themselves on the outside looking in. Conversely the young upstarts open to changing with the times can take advantage of this complacency and put themselves in solid competition for donor dollars.