Category Archives: Polaris Non-Profit Solutions blog

Tracking the journey of the Polaris Non-Profit Solutions, LLC, team as we guide nonprofits to success.

Three Things Donors Want to Know

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 2.20.36 PMBy Tim Kubatzky, CFRE

Thank-yous are essential to donor cultivation and the next ask, so we usually take the time to get this step right. But, because thanking is so important, it makes sense to regularly take stock of our stewardship efforts.
Donors of all types and levels want to know:

  • Did you get my gift?
  • Did you use it like you said you would?
  • Did it help?

I’ve noticed THREE BIG TRAPS in the stewardship department that correspond to these donor queries. The first is not acknowledging a gift quickly. The second is not reporting back on the use of the gift, and the third is the lack of accounting for results.

For most gifts, the simple solution is to establish a quick and efficient gift process. Send the first acknowledgement as soon as possible, then follow up with more elaborate thanks in keeping with the size and complexity of the gift. The larger and more complicated the gift, the more it bears watching. Unusual gifts or gifts from a key constituent need thorough follow-up to make sure the funds are handled correctly and an appropriate thank you reaches the donor.

Pay attention to any restrictions or preferences a donor places on a gift, and make sure it is used appropriately. Remember, no one at your organization is as invested as you are in making sure gifts are used appropriately. Once you have used the gift, report back to the donor so they are assured their gift went to the program or area for which they intended.

Many of us miss the opportunity to reinforce the giving decision—and build donor loyalty—by sending only a gift transaction receipt, the minimum requirement under the IRS guidelines. That is a lost opportunity to let your donors know that their gifts, when combined with those of others in the annual fund, allowed you to do great things! For an excellent recent take on this topic, including examples, see Simone Joyaux’s post in the Nonprofit Quarterly.

Your work is not done when the gift comes in. You have to follow up relentlessly. Anticipate snags in the process. Over-communicate. Calendar out major gift reports, even if the donor does not require them.

Foundations have started a conversation on stewardship around “outcomes versus outputs.” Donors who are confident you used their gifts appropriately still want to know that the program they support is actually working. Mario Morino’s book Leap of Reason is provocatively informative on this subject. A parallel conversation about accountability comes from Dan Pallota, who has a great TED talk about how using overhead costs as a measurement of effectiveness in nonprofits is wrong-headed.

To be accountable for the results of your programs you first must know what you’re trying to accomplish. Then, you must be able to document the difference you are making in the world, or at least in your corner of it. Only then can you communicate results to your donors.

In summary, three of the most important best practices of stewardship are to:

  • Acknowledge gifts quickly
  • Keep donors informed
  • Be accountable for results

Your goal is to be a step ahead of your donors, so they never even have to ask:

  • Did you get my gift?
  • Did you use it like you said you would?
  • Did it help?


Crises can be scary if you’re not prepared

halloween-clip-artAs we approach Halloween, stores are decked out in all manner of decorations and costumes designed to scare, terrify and horrify you.

As a professional public relations professional, nothing frightens me more than an organization that does not have a viable crisis communications plan.

And, yet, too few do.

Oh, they might have a giant binder with pages and pages of scenarios and prescriptions for what to do if X happens. But in the midst of a crisis, who has time to locate the binder and find the appropriate scenario? And, who will you call if some or all of the people listed in the precious binder are no longer with the organization?

Every crisis is different and there is no way to predict every possible scenario that could strike an organization. Let’s start with the official definition of a crisis: anything that can harm the operations and/or reputation of an organization.

That leaves a lot of leeway.

A crisis can include natural and human-caused disasters, ranging from floods, tornadoes and hurricanes to embezzlement, client injury or death or someone hacking into your computer system and stealing or destroying data.

Note: not every crisis will become a media story. But by having a plan in place you can better address the impact of a crisis on your employees, clients and other stakeholders.

Rather than wasting time on developing unwieldy documents that are likely to be useless and outdated before you finish printing and distributing them, develop a one-page plan and keep it handy.

When I worked for a faith-based social service agency with multiple facilities and services lines throughout two states, I produced such a document on hot pink paper and sent it to all the managers. Regardless of how they filed, stacked or dumped their paperwork, that hot pink paper was going to stand out when they needed it.

Here are the basics of a viable crisis communications plan:

  • Know who you need to get to the table.
  • Develop the talking points.
  • Designate a spokesperson.

Who is at the table and who should be the spokesperson depends on the crisis. If the CEO of a company has done something wrong, he or she should not be at the table and certainly not talking to the media and stakeholders. If a pastor’s child has been injured during a church mission trip, the pastor should not be expected to carry the burden of going to the meeting and making public statements.

Those at the table should be a small, thoughtful, informed group of your stakeholders. They could include your executive team, the chair or president of your board and a professional with communications expertise.

The crisis communications team’s charge is to gather the following information:

  • what happened,
  • who is involved,
  • who is likely to be involved,
  • who do we need to inform,
  • what are we doing to address the event, and, if possible,
  • what are we doing to prevent this from happening again?

The answers to those questions will determine your talking points. In most situations, attorneys are going to join the fray and will advise your organization to say nothing so you avoid admitting liability.

That is the absolute worst thing to do.

When you hear that an organization has refused to comment or could not be reached for comment, the default assumption is that the organization has done something wrong. People will remember and hold onto that assumption long after the crisis has abated.

It is imperative and possible to say SOMETHING, while not assigning blame. Saying something makes your organization more human and humane. That goes a long way toward building or rebuilding your reputation when you need it the most.

The final important step is to designate a single spokesperson for your organization. The reasons are simple: you make sure an approved, single message goes out. Your organization needs to instruct all internal and external constituents that all questions are to be directed toward the designated spokesperson, who will use the agreed-upon talking points to respond to questions. All stakeholders must get the same information to avoid conflicting messages.

If the crisis rises to the level of a media story and your spokesperson is not media savvy, he or she can contact a public relations/media relations professional for help and practice on delivering the message and responding to questions. (Identify that person when you develop your plan.) Your spokesperson needs to be genuine, not slick, when delivering the message and able to stick to the agreed-upon talking points.

Using the talking points, your spokesperson can say:

“This happened. We deeply regret that it happened. We are doing everything possible to address this situation. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who are affected.”

The spokesperson can read it as a prepared statement or distribute it electronically. If he or she is comfortable taking questions, he or she can respond, but must stick to the talking points. Stick to the facts. Avoid speculation and giving a rambling response. Keep it short and sweet.

Above all, there are two rules to follow when answering questions from the media to avoid damaging (or further damaging) your organization’s reputation:

  1. Don’t lie.
  2. Acknowledge when you don’t know the answer to a question and that you will get the information to the questioner as soon as possible (and do it).

Once your organization has developed the skeleton of its crisis communications plan, it is incumbent upon the organization’s leadership to practice it regularly. Brainstorm with your staff and stakeholders about possible scenarios, even ones that make you uncomfortable. Check the headlines and do “what if this happened to us?” Walk through the steps of who would be called to action, what the talking points are and who will be the spokesperson in each scenario.

During such practices, encourage participants to think way outside the box about what could go wrong and affect your organization. You might even head off a potential crisis.

If you make it a regular practice to discuss and test your crisis communications plan, your organization is more likely to come out of a terrifying situation whole.

Katherine Kerr holds an Accreditation in Public Relations and has worked in public relations and news for more than 30 years. She is the president of Polaris Non-Profit Solutions, LLC, and can be reached at or (512) 705-7696.

For a downloadable version of this post, please click Crisis Communications_Polaris NPS10.14.

After the #IceBucketChallenge

We knew it was only a matter of time before we got tapped for the #IceBucketChallenge, the phenomenon that is sweeping the globe.

And we were.

However, here in Central Texas we’re in the midst of a multi-year severe drought, so dumping a bucket of ice water over our heads seems a bit, well, wasteful. We’ll opt out of the cold shower and make a gift to support research into treatments, cures and prevention of the neurological disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is a noble idea.

Meanwhile, all over the world, nonprofit staff, boards and volunteers are trying to figure out how they can replicate the #IceBucketChallenge to benefit their own worthy organizations.

Nonprofit staff are being told they need to come up with something that will go viral (never mind that you can’t make anything go viral; it has to be an organic process in which people buy into the idea and they choose to participate). Already a group in India has started a copycat movement called the #RiceBucketChallenge, which encourages people to feed the hungry (also a noble idea).

Professional fundraisers are shaking their heads, wringing their hands and issuing statements that while the response and the cause it benefits are just wonderful, this isn’t a sustainable fundraising model that helps nonprofits in the long run.

And they are right.

Giving needs to be a cultivated mindset if we hope to see transformative impact

Philanthropy isn’t as simple as creating a video showing folks getting doused and gasping from the shock of icy water. Nor is it be about wearing a yellow wristband (or the rainbow of copycat wristbands that followed) to demonstrate that you are among the cool folks who are in the know and do the right thing.

Nor should it be about cutting off your hair or shaving your head to help or show support for cancer survivors, or occasionally stuffing change into plastic boxes at fast food restaurants or texting a donation during a hastily produced telethon after the latest disaster.

While those gifts cannot be discounted and the organizations who receive them appreciate them, they are in reality fleeting feel-good acts that lack long-term impact. Philanthropy should be much more than a cause de jour.

We propose the #365BucketChallenge which encourages you to be thoughtful and strategic in your giving, The #365BucketChallenge urges you to commit to making recurring gifts to support the infrastructure and services provided by nonprofits, many of which are just as obscure as ALS was before the #IceBucketChallenge.

Are you in?

Faculty Milestones & Fundraising at CASE IV

By Tim Kubatzky,  CFRE

I had the great pleasure of presenting a breakout workshop at the CASE IV Mini-Conference  on Saturday, August 2, at the Pearl Hotel on South Padre Island. We talked about the wonderful and sometimes challenging opportunities to raise funds to celebrate faculty milestones. The development office often ends up very involved in these efforts if not completely in charge of them. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you plan for a successful and fitting tribute.

Who are the prospective donors? Alumni with fond memories of the professor or administrator, certainly. How about colleagues from your school or academic peers from other institutions? Did the professor have connections to an industry group or do research for companies? Some professors are known for their continuing education or certification prep courses and may have admirers outside your own alumni base. Don’t forget family and friends.

How much can you expect to raise? Goal-setting is an inexact science, but agreeing on a goal and defining how the funds will be used help give your fundraising effort momentum. The number of prospects, their financial ability and their level of interest are all factors in determining the goal. Do you have a lead donor who will get things rolling, or a person or foundation who will agree to backstop the goal so there is no possibility of falling short? You may want to define the tribute gift broadly at first–say a faculty excellence fund–and avoid calling it a fellowship or chair until you have those endowment minimums in sight.

What method will you use to raise funds? A retiring professor with corporate connections might be a candidate for a gala with table sales, while a professor who influenced international students might be better served with a mail/email campaign. Tailor your methods to your honoree and your constituents, and choose a one-off event, a traditional campaign or a crowd-funding drive based on what is most appropriate and has the best chance of success.

Do you have buy-in from decision-makers? If you set out to honor a faculty member with a tribute suggested by alumni, family or friends, make sure from the start that the intended gift is acceptable to the president, provost, dean or department chair. Ideally, the gift will honor the professor while meeting an institutional priority. Get your approvals before the word gets out to your constituents.  Development shouldn’t steer the ship–we just make sure it has enough fuel to get to port.

The elements that make for good faculty milestone fundraising efforts are the same ones that work for major gift planning of all sorts. The good news is that these faculty milestones are not uncommon, and we should embrace them for the wonderful opportunities they are.

If you would like a copy of the slides please email me at

How to be a newsmaker

katherinekerrKatherine Kerr presented a media relations primer over lunch on Tuesday, July 1 at the Williamson County Marketing Alliance in Round Rock. In a talk peppered with a few tales from the trenches, both as a PR professional and as a reporter, she shared tips about building mutually beneficial relationships with reporters. A little bit of awareness about how newsrooms work goes a long way toward getting ink or airtime for your cause. Email Katherine if you would like to receive the handout or if you know of a group that might enjoy having this conversation.



Top Three Reasons to Launch a Campaign (Money is only #3)

 There was a time when it seemed as though every non-profit organization was either in a campaign or planning one.  Since 2008, only the heartiest institutions have launched full-scale campaigns, as many others have opted to shore up annual operating funds or focus major gift work on special projects.  With the economy rebounding, it may be time to re-evaluate the benefits of a multi-year capital or comprehensive campaign.

  • A campaign gives urgency, purpose and meaning to long-range planning. It focuses the board and staff on the mission and how best to execute it in the current environment. A campaign defines institutional priorities.
  • A campaign provides a framework in which your story can be crafted and told. Presenting your case for support to potential donors and volunteers allows you to find those who share the institution’s values and will become enthusiastic partners in the mission. A campaign tells your story.
  • A campaign translates dreams and plans into goals and resources. As your board, friends and community rally to your cause, their gifts and pledges fuel your shared objectives. A campaign raises the resources necessary to fulfill your mission.


Case statement for late 1990s $75 million campaign for Southwestern University.
Case statement for late 1990s $75 million campaign for Southwestern University.