The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a rule of thumb as follows: 1: a method or procedure based on experience and common sense, and 2: a general principle regarded as roughly correct but not intended to be scientifically accurate. The first known use of a rule of thumb is circa 1658 and not a recent development.
Here are some you may hear every so often:
“Never stare a gift horse in the mouth.”
“When life deals you lemons, make lemonade.”
“When birds start perching on the lawn, it’s time to mow it.”
And I am sure you can come up with many more. Are there truths to be learned from them? Sure. But, as the saying goes, “they’re not etched in stone.”
There is one rule of thumb a graduate school professor of mine shared that is timeless and of great import. And I sincerely do believe it holds up to the test of time.
His rule of thumb is a well-known universal axiom – one that I know not only makes good sense but is a directional arrow every fundraiser should faithfully follow. It’s the 6Ps and it goes like this: “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.”
What I like about this rule of thumb is that it serves as an inner compass to guide you in your work — as a fundraiser and no matter what line of work you do. Let’s be frank. If you don’t make the effort to properly plan a special event, don’t expect great results.
A wonderful mentor I once had was Dennis J. Magid, the president/CEO of an exceptional long-term care facility in Fairfield, Connecticut. Dennis was a brilliant fundraiser and very successful as a CEO. He always reminded me when we went into a board meeting that if you’ve done your homework well, then you will have written the minutes of the meeting before you walk in. He was right.
I worked with another senior executive who was intimately involved in the seating of nearly 1,400 guests at our annual dinner. While he worked with a knowledgeable team, he took the ultimate responsibility for situating every guest in the ballroom and his work was impeccable. This is a serious project and you can understand that there is little margin for error, especially when some guests can be very sensitive as to where they are seated. Planning this properly is a priority.
Let me be more specific. Planning special events are never “last minute” affairs. We don’t suddenly sit down and map out the detailed logistics of a major gala the day, week or month before the event. At minimum, such an affair requires six to eight weeks of planning and likely a three-month campaign. There are a host of details to attend to including, but not limited to, save the date notices, invitations, site choice, catering, honorees, awards, program, publicity, couvert pricing, sponsorships, entertainment, audio-visual, supplemental fundraising activities and the list goes on.
Times have changed and doing things certain ways just because we always did them so — or following “Tradition” — as the song in “Fiddler” goes - no longer holds water. I recall attending endless committee meetings to prepare for a major event. Today, most folks don’t have the patience, time or energy to hold constant meetings with committees. In some cases, the organization’s development staff goes it alone; in others, lay leadership handles the details; and then there is everything in between.
What is important is that adequate planning time occurs to develop the strategies needed to assure a successful affair. If you cross all your “t’s” and dot all your “i’s” you can generally expect to achieve your financial goals. In some cases, there are other goals you can accomplish, and these include marketing and public relations goals, artistic and aesthetic objectives and so forth.
What holds true when planning a special event applies in other instances as well. For example, when working a major gift, the fundraiser should do sufficient research about the background of the individual being approached. Knowing a philanthropist’s giving history, interests, likes, dislikes and so on generally helps result in a successful pledge. When conducting a direct mail campaign, it always helps to examine other nonprofits’ successful campaigns and learn from the experts. The 6Ps is applicable in numerous areas of our lives.
So, do you think rules of thumb are for the dumb? I say, “It is what it is.”
By Norman B. Gildin
Norman B. Gildin has fundraised for nonprofits for more than three decades and has raised upwards of $93 million in the process. He lived in Teaneck for 34 years and now resides in Boynton Beach, Florida, and currently is the national director of development for The Aleph Institute. He can be reached at [email protected]