Successful fundraising is often described as part-art, part-science. For most fundraisers I know (myself included), the art-part of fundraising is the more familiar and natural of this balance. It’s second-nature to read in between the lines of a text, to listen for what a donor leaves unsaid as much as what is directly stated, and to appreciate that a well-placed image or bit of formatting can take a text to the next level.
The science-part, though: oof. This is where the true challenge lies, but thinking like a scientist is what makes the difference between maintenance fundraising and transformative fundraising.
It makes the difference between fundraising because you have a budget to meet and fundraising because you’re solving a problem, making an impact, and changing lives.
It is the difference between fundraising blindly and fundraising with a strategic plan.
I’d like to suggest that as nonprofit professionals, there is a particular kind of scientist we should emulate: the applied physicist (yes, this is a real job, apparently). Lucky for all of us in the Thread community, we happen to know an applied physicist to use as a model: my husband.
So by way of Dr. Diorio, submarines, and satellites, let’s elaborate on why a strategic plan is absolutely essential for next-level fundraising. This will make sense, I promise.
To begin, I will confess that after 10 years together, I still don’t 100% understand what my husband does for a living. I know his official title is “Principal Engineer,” but he prefers to be called an applied physicist. I know he used to specialize in fluid dynamics (translation: how liquids move) and go on weeks-long submarine trips with the Navy (yes, that really happened, and he always smelled terrible when he came home). And I know that he now works in aerospace and supports something to do with satellites, which are not the same thing as submarines.
While my husband loves doing physics for the sake of it (to wit: he stayed home on Friday nights as a high schooler to do more physics homework), he’ll also tell you that doing physics is much more stimulating and meaningful when there’s a real-world problem to solve. It’s when he’s applying the precepts and tools of physics to a specific problem that he can make a difference with his work.
So how does my husband’s physics fandom relate to fundraising?
Think of fundraising and your development plan as the general field of physics. It describes the range of strategies and approaches at your disposal to raise the revenue you need to operate, just as physics encapsulates various mathematical methodologies.
Now in the same way the “applied” piece of applied physics does, a strategic plan articulates the real-world problem that needs solving, or the desired impact your organizations seeks to make. In physics, that might be making submarines stealthier and harder to detect or increasing the defensive resilience of satellites in orbit (and no, I don’t fully understand those last few words either). In the nonprofit world, it’s the larger reason why and to what positive purpose your organization needs more revenue.
Now you can absolutely do physics isolated from a material problem (better known as just doing homework), just as you can fundraise without having strategic goals. However, when you apply physics to a stated problem, that’s when the world changes: satellites gain resilience and submarines go faster. And when you fundraise with established strategic goals, that’s when the opportunity for life-changing impact becomes real. That’s when you’re not just fundraising to maintain your operations, but you’re fundraising to ensure someone else’s life tangibly improves for the long-term.
Moreover, when fundraising stems from a strategic plan, it has greater power because you can now specify the exact right methods to use for your strategic goals. You move from using general fundraising strategies to highly targeted and relevant ones. Some general physics equations will work on both submarines and satellites (so I’m told by my husband), but the fluid dynamics equations he used on submarines are not much help in liquid-less outer space. What the problem is will determine what tools to use, to the effect that how you should fundraise depends on why you’re fundraising in the first place.
Doing physics for fun can be wonderful for some people (my husband included), and fundraising for fundraising’s sake can raise money. But to really make change in the world, we nonprofit professionals need to embrace our inner applied physicists as much as our inner artists. We need to embrace the power of strategic planning for development, of defining the problem to be solved, so we can choose the right tools. Then we will be able to ride our submarines straight into space.