Time Management for Fundraisers (and Everyone Else)- Kim Klein

Effective time management marks the difference between a good fundraiser and one who is not going to live up to their potential. This is because a fundraising job is never done and you are never caught up on your work, so you must be very clear about your priorities. The wide variety of tasks involved in fundraising are both exciting and one of the many difficulties of the job. Minimize the difficulties by using time and technology to best advantage.

 The main reason good time management will separate otherwise quite talented people from those who do well in fundraising is that the purpose of time management is to help make you happy. Excellent fundraisers are, by nature, optimistic. For example, we believe the next person we ask might respond with an enthusiastic “YES!!” However, our enthusiasm can wane under the pressures of a job that has huge responsibility without a whole lot of authority. If you are not able to set your own boundaries around your work and you don’t feel that the priorities you have are taking maximum advantage of your time and talent, you will soon be unhappy in your job, and, in what sometimes becomes a vicious circle, you will gradually be less effective.

Here are some guidelines for using your time to best advantage.

Every day:

  •       Reserve time when you cannot be interrupted. For one hour each day, do not talk to other staff, do not read texts, and do not check e-mail. Use that time for planning, writing, analysis of your fundraising results so far—anything that requires being uninterrupted. If you simply cannot set aside a full hour, then set aside 20-30 minutes two-three times a day. Like exercise, you will improve even with smaller chunks of time. 
  •       Create To-Do lists. Spend ten-fifteen minutes at the end of the day creating your to-do list for the next day. At the beginning of the day, review your to-do list. Unless something comes up that really can’t wait, do only those tasks already on your to-do list. Put new things on tomorrow’s list. Don’t plan to do more than can be done in about half to three- quarters of the day. The rest of the time will be taken up with stuff you must deal with that you did not plan for. If you plan eight hours of work in an eight-hour day, you will wind up working twelve hours. Plan four to five hours of work, and you will be done with a day’s work after seven or eight hours.
  •       Make sure thank-you notes are being sent. Ideally, a board member or volunteer is helping to write or personalize thank-you notes on a regular basis, or the executive director is sending a personal e-mail or adding a personal note to thank-you notes going to long time or major donors. But you must stay on top of this process.
  •       Make sure your database is up to date. Data entry is a task that can easily be put off in favor of more urgent tasks, but this is a mistake. Ideally, you have someone who does data entry for you. This can be a very detail-oriented and trusted volunteer, a part-time staff person or a dedicated part of a full-time person’s job. Even very small organizations have realized that paying someone to enter data is a better use of money than having the development director do it, which frees the development director to focus on more strategic work, particularly if you use a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system. Development directors are not always as precise as data entry requires, and our tendency can be to rush through this task, leading to misspellings and duplicate entries. This task is listed here under “daily” because this is the best way to keep up with it, but the important thing is to have a system and schedule for data entry and to keep current with it in the best way for your organization.Of course, when you use a volunteer or pay someone, you must be sure that the person understands how confidential these data are.
  •       Stay on top of other communication. Don’t put off difficult tasks such as sending a card to a volunteer who has just had a bad health diagnosis or writing your section of the e-newsletter, or setting up a meeting of the major gifts committee. Do these tasks on time. 

Every two weeks:

Review your fundraising plan year to date and note: what is right on schedule? What is ahead of schedule? What is falling behind? What is unexpected? What course corrections do you need to make to your plan? Who needs to be involved in deciding those changes, should there be some? Who will be affected, and who will tell the affected person? Remember, don’t plan on catching up—you probably won’t, so some set of tasks will need to be delegated or triaged. Doing this in-depth analysis every week means a minimum number of major surprises and maximum chance of meeting your goals.

  •       Watch for time sinks. How many times have we looked up at a clock and in total disbelief said, “How could it be four o’clock?” or “Where did the day go?” Sometimes this is a sign that we have been absorbed in important work, but sometimes it is a sign that we have used up our time doing a lot of stuff that seemed important but wasn’t, or that is important but could have been handled in a fraction of the time. Here are the most common time sinks.
  •       Internet Surfing. It starts out innocently. You are looking around for good examples of short fundraising videos because you are wondering if your organization should invest in one. You read what a few notable experts have to say, you follow the link to the samples, which leads you to a dog video which you watch because it is only two minutes and you deserve a break, then back to sample fundraising videos, which leads you to a video about how to supervise people who are working remotely, which you watch because you need to know more about that, which leads to a Ted talk, and, and and…three hours have passed. You are more well informed but no closer to deciding about a fundraising video. The blessing of having practically all the world’s knowledge just a click away, with more being produced every day, is also a curse. If you tend to get drawn into surfing, set the timer on your phone for 10-20 minutes when you are about to do research on the internet, and stop when it rings.
  •       E-mail is a great time saver to be sure, but it is often one of our biggest time sinks. You can limit the amount of incoming e-mail a great deal. Unsubscribe from anything that is not useful to your work or that you don’t read anyway. Don’t use work e-mail for personal communication. Don’t check personal e-mail at work more than once-twice a day. Delete without reading anything that has been forwarded to you that you know is not related to your work. Don’t feel obligated to answer every e-mail, particularly if you receive e-mail from people who are not and are never going to be important to your organization, and/ or whom you have never heard of and will probably never hear from again. Although a great deal of your work will take place on e-mail, you need to impose limits on how you use it. Some people check their e-mail only three or four times a day. Avoid the temptation to respond to work e-mail in the evening and limit how much time, if any, you spend on it on the weekend. This is particularly important if you work remotely. Being able to work at any hour of the day or night allows flexibility but too often leads to working all the time, which is not healthy for you or the organization. E-mail is not the boss of you.
  •       Social Media Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok and so on are fun, interesting, and have opened up ways to communicate that were unthinkable even a decade ago. These platforms and dozens of others that exist or will appear also give us many new avenues for fundraising and the ability to reach new constituents. But from a purely time management point of view, you must apportion your time to them only in accordance with the answer to the question: “Is this helping our organization raise money?”
  •       The telephone is much less of a distraction than it used to be, but with no net gain of time, having been replaced by texting, e-mail and social media. Even for the few calls you make, you will probably leave voice mail messages, so spend a few seconds before you call thinking about the exact message you are going to leave. Although friendliness and warmth are wonderful, “Hope you are well” does not need to be followed with “and I hope you are having time to enjoy this wonderful weather.” Ditto with “OK, take care. Look forward to talking with you. Great to hear your voice.” Pick one of those, preferably a short one.
  •       Chatty co-workers. Learn to sort out what kinds of conversations are important for maintaining morale and showing interest in other people and what conversations simply occur because you or your co-worker is procrastinating. Schedule social time with co-workers you like so that you will not have to steal time away from work.
  •       Calendars. There are hundreds of different calendar systems; find one that works for you. Many people find an electronic calendar system to be the most efficient. A great beauty of electronic calendars is that they can be synced, so you can have your calendar on your smart phone, your tablet, your laptop, as well as sync to an office-wide electronic calendar. So no matter where you are, you can easily look up and see what your current appointments are for any given day as well as know when a co-worker might be available for a meeting. The other great thing about electronic calendars is that you always have a backup copy. And because it syncs to your other devices as well as to the Cloud, a copy is available to you, even if you were to lose your smart phone or tablet. Whatever system you implement, note the dates of board meetings, the annual meeting, special events, proposal deadlines, newsletter deadlines, and any other meetings or deadlines that you can anticipate. Indicate how many days it will take you to prepare for any of these events, so you don’t schedule long meetings or big projects during those times. If you do this, you will have a clear visual picture that allows you to assess quickly: “Can I take on this commitment?” “Does it make sense for me to attend this conference when I will be exhausted from our annual retreat?” “Should we conduct our major donor campaign during our audit?”

Remember also that some of the days of the year will be used up by illness (yours, your partner’s, your children’s, and so on), by goofing off or not working efficiently, and by work emergencies that take precedence.

Finally, synchronize your to-do list with your calendar or get one of any number of apps that help you keep track of your to-do list, as well as collaborate with co-workers. Make sure that it syncs with the calendar function. Whenever possible, set your meetings, appointments, lunch dates, and so on by referring to the whole week or month. A day does not stand alone. Do you really want to have a 7 a.m. breakfast meeting with a major donor the morning after a board meeting that will run until 10 p.m.?

  •       Avoid bemoaning your busy life. When you say to yourself or others “I am so busy,” or “I don’t know how I’ll get everything done,” you tend to set up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Further, comments such as these don’t accomplish anything except to use up time. Most people are busy and few people finish everything. Tell yourself instead: “I can finish this. I have enough time.”
  •       Skip unnecessary conferences. Conferences, trainings, webinars, workshops, and seminars are the order of the day. They are both expensive and time-consuming and often not worth either the time or expense. This is even more true of the video conferences that have replaced in person meetings. Waiting for people to get on, waiting for people to unmute or unfreeze or to finish a long and boring report creates a temptation to text a friend or read email. Pretending your internet signal is weak gives you a way to turn off your video so no one can see what you are up to. However, you are not gaining anything from this because you are neither at the meeting nor are you really completely focused on another task. 
  •       Avoid scheduling too many meetings. Meetings are very important. There are ideas and ways of doing work that would only be thought of by a group of people talking together. As such, we want to create an environment where we look forward to most of our meetings. Further, a certain amount of the work we do at meetings is socializing and building camaraderie, which is crucial to a functioning organization. Nevertheless, some meetings are not necessary, and many meetings last too long. So, ask these questions of every meeting: is it necessary? Do I need to be there? Can I be there for part of it and not all of it? If you have any say in what will go on at the meeting, make sure there is an agenda with times for each item. Items tend to take the amount of time that is planned and with no clear end time, unimportant items can fill many minutes. If an item takes more time than was allotted, the facilitator can negotiate the need for extra time. 
  •       Keep track of next steps. One of the difficult things about working with individual donors is that this work has few externally determined deadlines, so you have to create your own.  Whenever you work with a donor or a prospect, make a note in that person’s record of what occurred and what you intend to do next. This information should be recorded in a separate field under the donor’s name in your database. Next steps are brief and often mostly reminders:  “Invite to Martina’s house party” or “Call with outcome of organizing effort in Roane County” or “Send policy brief as soon as available.” Then add a date by which you will do this. Contact-management software is very helpful for keeping up with these plans, but the calendar and task functions in most smartphones also do a great job as well or even a task list on a piece of paper. Find a system that works for you and use it. If you are systematic about your donors, you will have a date for each important donor or prospect on which you are going to do something to move along the process of building their relationship with the organization. Remember that you do not need to meet with each of these donors, and in fact, you shouldn’t.  Distribute the work of relationship building with other staff, board and volunteers and spend some of your time building the confidence of those people in building relationships with donors.  

A fundraiser’s job is often compared to that of the circus performer who balances plates on sticks by keeping the plates twirling and runs from stick to stick to keep the spinning going. If she misses, a plate falls and may break. The fundraising plan is the stick and the to-do list and next steps are the plates. This is how you keep your plates spinning and not falling. The overall idea is to have as little to remember as possible. You shouldn’t have things in your memory that you could record somewhere. This system frees you to use your mind to be creative or to learn new details about new people and write those down later.

Adapted from Fundraising for Social Change, 8th Edition, by Kim Klein and Stan Yogi



Kim Klein has just completed the eighth edition of her classic book, Fundraising for Social Change, co-authored with Stan Yogi, which gives examples of organizations and social movements that have demonstrated how raising money from individuals gives organizations maximum power and autonomy. She has a certificate in Spiritual Direction from the Rowe Center and believes the role of nonprofits is to, in the words of Peter Maurin, “create a world in which it is easy for a person to be good.”

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