Creating Urgency in Charities and Non-Profits

The leaders of charitable teams are responsible for empowering their staff. While many of them cite that it was a sense of duty and the desire to make a difference as the primary reason for taking the job, these leaders must be able to balance their personal drives and daily execution with the strategic and transformational goals set out to maximize the impact of the organization. While resource constraint is a reality, there is a fruitful strategy currently being used by the most innovative leaders to unleash the inner-power of their team members.

The best way to achieve success is by working smarter, not harder, and it’s easier than you may think.

The vast majority of leaders who successfully empower teams to reach ambitious goals, articulate their jobs differently than the VP level or director level staffers articulate their jobs. The senior representatives typically talk about either the organizational strategic priorities or team building. The VP level teams speak about goals like increasing mid level pipeline, or increasing retention.

With donor retention rates as low as 45.5%, there’s clearly a need for something innovative.

A common thread from several different charities is that they believe technology plays a role in transformational change, but many fail to achieve cross-organizational buy-in whether it’s budget, staff or vendor support etc. This creates a great deal of fear of failure, and had led to the predominant attitude that maintaining stagnate with their inner workings is better than failing.

Costs continue to rise, leaders feel the pressure, and often aren’t sure what next steps to take.

This brings up another valuable point. It is crucial that they (leaders) have the ability to differentiate between stress and pressure. While most people understand that stress is generally a bad thing (which can lead to a plethora of other problems), they still tend to interchange the terms quite frequently. Stress refers to a situation that is accompanied by too many demands and not enough resources to meet them, rather than pressure which is a situation in which the outcome of is dependent on performance.

Pressure creates a sense of urgency. Stress gets you nowhere. So if you’re feeling the pressure, build urgency into your culture.

The world is moving and growing and changing faster than it ever has before and it’s impossible to keep up without having the ability to change and adapt as quickly as the market does. Data solutions are the way of the future, and without them, many organizations will fall behind. But how can you get your organization on board with an adjustment as large as this?

According to John Kotter, a foremost expert on how to implement change effectively, the first step in his eight step plan is to create this sense of urgency.

But how does an organization do this?

Kotter also identified four tactics to do just that:

  • Bring the outside in;
  • Behave with urgency every day;
  • Find opportunities in crisis;
  • Deal with the “NoNos”.

Now let’s define these in a charitable environment.

Bringing the outside in, or, creating an outward focus is exactly what it sounds like. Typically, an inward facing organization will miss new opportunities (or threats) coming from their constituents, competitors, or changes in the sector overall if they’re too focused on their own internal workings. Charities are trying to squeeze the most out of what because it’s what donors expect of them; however, this approach is illogical if they hope to advance and improve.

An example of this is looking strictly at their database. Data should be treated like a muscle, i.e. it must be used frequently in order to improve. It also needs exposure to outside stimuli to grow. A lot of organizations say their data has been scored/screened, or have purchased some kind of wealth data, but are they actually using it to gain any kind of additional perspective? Are they digging deeper with tools that are available to them? Looking for hidden patterns? Are they bothering to take note of the behavioral information that is provided for them from the very people they recruit and serve? Or are they just working with what they have, convincing themselves it's enough?

In order for a leader to behave with a sense of urgency in the day-to-day, they must be able to lead by example, to make decisions with confidence, and act on new ideas quickly without exhibiting stress or panic. This creates a culture of expressing urgency without a loss of control. It proves the individuals running the organization are confident.

It proves they love what they do.

They’re the ones who are proclaiming that they MUST keep fundraising, and that they don’t have the time for distractions. They're the ones who are willing to invest in new and innovative technical solutions to improve their overall ROI, and they’re the ones seeing the most success.

For another example of this, we can look at the fact that the turnover rate in the charitable sector is among some of the highest of any industry. Instead of being seen as a negative, it should be looked at as a place to gain fresh perspective. New fundraisers see where the gaps are, where new opportunities are, and where things can be improved. This in itself creates a different kind of urgency, one that rests within the actual improvement of the organization as a whole.


They’re the ones who are the most receptive to new ideas. If time constraint has historically been a problem when it comes to innovating, new employees are an excellent force of new information without needing to invest time in research. They are also willing to work with new software. They could very well be the push (other) leaders need to start down the path of newfound success.

Within a nonprofit, a crisis could range from a number of people unsubscribing to the inability to acquire new donors. An example of major crisis, however, could be the board losing confidence in your leadership capabilities, or a high profile major donor pulling their gift.

What opportunities can be identified in instances similar to these?

Take for example the case of two major cancer foundations who merged when one of them saw a large decrease in their donations, impacting their operations. They were forced to cut a quarter of their staff and close 27 offices. However, after the merge, they saw an increase of 11 cents from every dollar going back into the cause. Arguably, an improvement that spawned from urgency when it looked as though they might go under completely and merged instead. Another solution? This deficit could have been prevented entirely if they had been using the right kind of software, a software that could have recognized this decrease in gifts before it became a bigger issue. The problems they were facing would have become more visible much earlier on and there would have been time to prevent it all together.

Addressing the individuals who are working against proposed change are essentially what Kotter meant by dealing with the “NoNos”. These types of employees will exist in every organization. Rather than focusing on their act of resisting change, ask yourself (and them) why. Where is this resistance coming from? Is it stemming from fear of failure? Past experience? A leader should address these employees by challenging them, or putting them on a path of empowerment and success rather than discrediting reservations entirely.

Teach them to feel the same sense of urgency you’re trying to instill. Listen carefully to where their hesitation comes from and suggest alternative measures or tools you and you team can use to make the process more streamlined - you’d be surprised at the results.

Leaders never stop. They must have the ability to balance the overarching goals of the organization with the motivation and drive of their staff. Creating urgency from the top down ensures that it touches and impacts every piece; whether they’re the strategic priorities, or increasing donor retention at an annual level.

It's about working smarter, not harder.

Your team needs additional resources in order to do their job the most effectively. For example, your advancement officers should be interacting with donors, not spending those hours trying to identify who those prospects are. With all the data tools on the market that are available to non-profits, it’s the perfect time and opportunity to begin identifying how your organization can be improved.

Bio: Kristopher has over 18 years of marketing experience in both Canada and the USA and 8 years experience in fundraising for Canadian charities. With an emphasis on multi-channel direct marketing, Kristopher has managed over $7 million dollars in annual donations integrating direct mail, digital including predictive modelling, face-to-face and telemarketing strategies to drive growth and lifelong donor journeys. 

“The concept of digital fundraising today must include predictive modelling/machine learning. Including machine learning in the mix ensures that you’re driving down your cost of funds raised while ensuring that no donor feels overlooked because you’re providing meaningful, personalized stewardship touch points at the right time in their donor journey.”
-Kristopher Gallub, Fundmetric Fundraising Liaison