9.19 Fundraising After Your Founder Leaves

Dear Kim:

I have been working for 10 years as the director of a social justice nonprofit that I founded. Since we have no development director, I’m the primary fundraising staff. I am considering leaving my position to stay at home with my young child. Many of our donors were brought into the organization through me, and I’m concerned some of them may stop giving if I’m no longer on staff. What can I do over the next three-four months to encourage as many of them as possible to remain part of our work after I am gone?

Leaving Without A Lurch

Dear Lurch:

Yours is a common dilemma of founders, but with the foresight you are showing, you should be able to move donor loyalty away from you and to your organization fairly easily if you keep a few things in mind.

1)      Some of the donors will use your leaving as their excuse to stop giving.   They gave because they liked you and wanted you to be successful, but the cause is not their priority.  These often include family and long time family friends. 

2)     Some donors would have stopped giving anyway.  Every organization loses about 1/3 of their donors every year because of factors outside of the organization:  divorce, job loss, moving, or other causes become more important.  Some people only give to new organizations, and once an organization is established, they move on to another new organization. 

So whatever the donors do, please don’t take it personally.  To keep as many donors as possible, over the next few months, do the following:

  1. Begin now to prepare people for the fact you are leaving.  Make a list of all the people who would assume they would hear it from you and start calling them.  Set aside a day to call them all in a row.  Once you announce you are leaving, word will spread.  The reason you are leaving is commendable and clearly not about the organization. 
  2. Make sure everyone who talks about you leaving says the same thing.  People will try to give advice:  “Can’t you bring your child to work?”  “Can’t you work part time?”  etc. You need to remain firm, “I want to be a full time parent for awhile.” 
  3. See as many donors as you can, and bring along a board member or key volunteer.  That person should be prepared to discuss how the organization is going to stay the course, and how grateful the organization is to you, in part because of the infrastructure you have built that enables you to leave.  When appropriate, and as often as possible, ask the donors to please continue to give generously.
  4. If possible, raise a small pool of money from your closest and most committed donors to help with the transition.  You did not say if the organization is planning to hire someone to take your place, but if so, that money can help pay the bills while they get settled into the job. 
  5. Reassure people that you will be available to answer questions and give advice.  (Don’t worry—many founders are shocked by how little their advice is sought after they leave.) 
  6. Once you have the date for your last day, and the name of the person who will be doing your job, send a letter to all your donors and funders welcoming the new person and talking about program plans for the future.  Post this on your website and use social media to spread the word.

I have founded a couple of organizations myself and I want to reassure all founders—you can leave.  You will be missed a little, and the organization will move in directions that you may not entirely understand, but you have done your part by founding and running the organization for awhile. A good organization is bigger than any one person, even the founder, and it is a tribute to the skill of the founder when the organization can move on and leave us behind.