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Setting Realistic Expectations About Income

Jim tries to present 200 slides in a 15-minute budget presentation.

Instead of 10 percent, Helping-Out decides to become 90 percent donor funded.

“Next year,” your board chair announces, “will be the year we are in the black.”

At a recent workshop, participants wished for a magic wand to help them set realistic expectations. Who wouldn’t want to own a wand like this to whip out from their top desk drawer—especially when it comes to nonprofit income issues? Setting realistic expectations helps one to personally and professionally plan for accomplishments, improve satisfaction, and reach outcomes. Setting realistic non profit income expectations helps your organization to stretch toward stability and obtainable growth, without stretching you out of shape. While we can’t promise you a wand from Ollivander’s specialty wand shop, this article will empower you to set realistic expectations.

What are realistic expectations? They are expectations that forecast future achievements with reasonable accuracy. Realistic expectations represent reasonable stretches and interesting challenges, and create eustress, the good kind of stress.

Why We Set Unrealistic Expectations

The most common reasons, and the way they sound, include:

Failure to appreciate a task’s complexity. “Besides the mailing list and letter, we forgot that we need to design an envelope and pledge card for this annual appeal letter.”

Failure to dedicate time. “I was trying to launch this new service and prepare for our special event.”I planned to contact the foundations this month. I never put it on my calendar and the month just flew by.”

Failure to account for boredom. “I made 10 calls to donors this month; after the 10th call I couldn’t think of anything fresh to say to motivate myself.”

Lack of resources and/or a strategy to get there. “No problem. We’ll increase donations by 50 percent to meet our expenses.”

Failure to recognize the power of fear. “Our non profit board said they were committed to developing individual donors, but so far they have not given us any names of their friends.” “I was afraid to tell them that increasing donations by 25 percent was unrealistic, even with a plan.”

Setting Realistic Expectations

How can you establish good plans about what can be done? This article focuses on the soft skills surrounding setting realistic expectations in non profit organizations. Because income needs are such a huge non profit concern, we focus our examples on it.

1. Start Right. Setting realistic expectations begins after you have clear goals, strategies to reach them, and you have identified priority activities. Take, for instance, creating new donors. To create more donors you need more relationships. You create these by contacting donors and offering them opportunities to enter into greater interaction with your organization. Linking with donors is an activity you control. It’s an area to set realistic expectations. Start right, with setting expectations where you have control.

2. Be Specific. Know what you want to achieve. Keeping in contact with all donors, while desirable, is not specific. Keeping in contact with all donors with a monthly newsletter, and the top 25 with a quarterly telephone call, is specific.

3. Break Warehouse Tasks Into Daily Allotments. If you need 120 new non profit members, ten a month is conceivable and one per day is “meal sized.” Break down yearly, monthly, and weekly goals into daily disciplines. Schedule the essentials each day. Start small. Do one thing for 30 days and then add another. See chart for donor development

4. Set a Best Guess. Confirm with Data. Data collection helps you to set realistic future plans. “I expect to make ten calls in an hour.”  After three hours on three days, you make six, twelve, and eight calls respectively. Therefore, eight or nine denotes a realistic number of calls in an hour.

5. Correct Midcourse. Just because you set a goal doesn’t mean you can’t change it. Learn by doing. You discover that a donor telling you, “No, I don’t want an appointment,” is quicker than the answer you want, “Yes, let’s meet.” Adjust your goal to 20 donors, or 5 appointments. Correct mid-course for achievement and reality.

6. Study Achievement. Examine expectations met. What helped? Why were you successful? Did Saturday’s event draw twice the number that a weeknight drew? Record and tally achievements as you complete them. What was responsible for your success? What process did you use? Repeat successful elements.

7. Measure Right. Especially when you enter a new territory, seek out others’ experience. What do your successful peers do? Can you find an industry standard? Board members are often astounded to learn that direct mail for new names will cost more than it earns. If you expected to make money on a mailing, but failed to meet your costs, you may be suffering from unrealistic expectations and experiencing a success.   

8. Identify Causes of Failure. Often expectations reveal themselves as unrealistic only in hindsight. In this case, use the experience to study the cause of the failure. What got in the way? Can it be avoided, or must it be accommodated?

9. Reward Consistency. If contacting five donors per day is the minimum amount of activity necessary for your success, and this requirement is completed regularly–reward it. Sometimes expectations are quite realistic, but without a reward or with a penalty, the plan fails. Check. Is the expectation realistic but the culture unsupportive?

10. Create an End. The goal is often to raise as much money as possible for your organization. This goal is unreachable and unrealistic. One can always earn another dollar. One can always contact another potential donor. Set realistic expectations around 1) your needs, 2) what you raised last cycle, 3) your resources (i.e., will you have more or less time to devote to the effort this cycle?), 4) environmental events, and 5) an endpoint. If you surpass your goal early and have more resources, raise it mid-stream. St Boniface College in Winnipeg increased its capital campaign goal this year to $15 million after it met a lesser goal in record time.

11. Learn the Facts Behind Others’ Expectations

Often others set expectations for us. When these appear unrealistic, seek to understand how they were established. This takes courage. “I’m excited to work in increasing revenues this year by 50 percent. What is the plan to do that? Have we ever done it before? How did it happen? What activities are underway to make it happen? Has anyone ever done this here or in our field? Too many unrealistic expectations develop around non profit budgets, because income is needed to balance expenses. You need a development plan that is a plan with skills and resources to pursue it.

Fortunately, you don’t need a magic wand to develop realistic expectations for your successful non profit organization. They will take work, knowledge, and skills. With this article you increased your magic power, so use these soft skills to set realistic expectations in your non profit organization.

Do you need help with income planning at your non profit organization? Or even the pre-steps, identifying your goals, strategy, and essential actions? If yes, let’s talk about how we can help. Call Karen today at 941-924-4860.

To learn the seven sources of non profit income, click here

To learn how non profits earn income in the aggregate, click here and here.