Best of Times, or the Worst of Times for Nonprofit Fundraising?

At my local community college, enrollment is up 30 percent but the budget remains flat. Between 30,000 and 60,000 nonprofits disappeared last year and two-thirds of all charitable nonprofits experienced decreasing or stagnant contributions in the first nine months of 2012, according to GuideStar.

At the same time, tech moguls gave 1.4 billion to charity. Fidelity Charitable, an affiliate of Fidelity Investments, took in $3.6 billion, making it a record year and the stock market is at its highest level in five years.

So is it the best of times, or the worst of times for nonprofit fundraising?

I say increase and decrease come in their own time. It's a law of nature. Change is the rule of life. "Doing good" doesn't entitle you to defy mother nature. When you are working for an important cause, you can't depend on fundraising being stable or unstable. If you want to know how to get donations for nonprofits, be prepared for both the best and the worst of times.

Twenty five years ago I was organizing a worldwide teleconference. In those days people weren't used to technology, especially as a means of fundraising. It was a hard sell. But it was a good cause and I believed in it, so I just put one foot in front of the other; step by step calling people and explaining why I thought they would benefit.

I had set a personal goal of raising one million dollars, but had absolutely no idea how it would be accomplished. Later, nationwide and worldwide teleconferences became common place, but this was my first one and it was challenging.

As a child, I loved Psalms 23:6 "Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life." (In my youth, I thought it was about someone named Shirley following me.) In my quest to raise a million dollars, "mercy" was following me, because there was no logical explanation for why people said yes. But they did. Later, the organization held many teleconferences but that first one (the most difficult one to sell) had the highest enrollments.

"The impeded stream is the one that sings." -- Wendell Berry

In the worst of times, when you are doing something that is good for the world, and you believe in it, an extra dimension enters the equation. Even with scanty resources, you can accomplish something worthwhile. You don't need big fundraising ideas. You don't have to "fake it till you make it." Every individual possesses both higher and lower natures. Appeal to the higher nature in your potential donors. No matter what is going on in the economy, as long as you don't become hopeless, you can help people respond to the high and good within themselves.

Think of how birds fly. They whirl and turn, speed up, dive, climb and soar at exactly the same time. Watching them, it is impossible to know who is leading. Still, one bird is the leader and the others respond. The leader's intention causes the other birds to change direction.

It is the same with human beings. On an inner level, we relate our intentions subconsciously to others. At a time of crisis, be careful not to relate your hopelessness. It only takes one person to make changes for good in the world. Even in the worst of times, you could be that person.

Two women that I know are very much alike. As students, both were better than average, both are personable and both -- as young businesswomen -- built successful small companies. Later, these two women sold their businesses and wound up living in the same town. Both, it turned out, volunteered at the same large museum.

But there was a difference. One woman couldn't find one friend at the museum. The other became a successful president of the Board of Directors.

What happened? On the first day, they both went through "orientation" and discovered that at this museum you don't volunteer, you are volunTOLD. The slow progress frustrated both of them. But only one was able to disengage and accept the situation humbly. She could see solutions, but was able to remain outwardly yielding.

The other let her ego get in the way. She wanted to fix everything quickly. She started pointing out what was wrong with their fundraising efforts and how it should change. (Even the best nonprofit organizations can be improved -- but not instantly.) The woman who went on to become president of the Board of Directors created lots of change; but she did it by working like nature, slowly and imperceptibly until one day the fruit ripens.

Big actions don't always make the biggest difference. A church in upstate New York made one small change and quickly raised so much money that it went from deep in debt to solvent. The change was simple. Anyone could do it. This two minute video tells what they did.

Let small actions be part of your creative process. Just as a playwright keeps everything in suspense until the last minute, that is how the success or failure of nonprofit fundraising goes. Often, the answers to fundraising dilemmas arrive "out of the blue." When I was first attempting to raise a million dollars, we hadn't even thought of a worldwide teleconference. I had no idea that the solution would come in that form. While I was struggling to enlist support, I had no idea that it would transform into a popular fundraiser and one of my best fundraising events.

2013: Will it be the best of times or the worst of times for nonprofit fundraising? Either way, nonprofits need to be prepared for both.