October 13, 2021

How to Deal with Unrealistic Fundraising Expectations

“How do you handle a board that sets astronomical fundraising goals?

Janet asked this brave question at an Association of Fundraising Professionals luncheon.

Why was it brave?

It exposed Janet’s vulnerability, frustration, and fears for herself and the nonprofit she served. Perhaps you have the same concerns about fundraising expectations at your nonprofit.

Unrealistic fundraising expectations drive wedges between boards and CEOs and CEOs and development staff. Likewise, expectation disagreements contribute to staff turnover, donor churn, and fundraising disappointments. Instead of motivating, they discourage.

When you’re assigned unrealistic expectations, you have three choices. You can

  1. Begin your job hunt.
  2. Do your best work and ignore the pressure. After all, everyone has the right to dream big!
  3. View unrealistic fundraising expectations as a career-building challenge you can solve. (Why career building? Unrealistic fundraising expectations are common in the sector.)

If you choose the third option, you’ll dig into developing realistic fundraising estimates. Your success will support your self-esteem, refine your skills, and improve your organization.

I’ve developed the following solution for the clients I work with to establish attainable and defensible fundraising expectations. The fix includes a three-step process. Each contains homework and board work.

How to Deal with the Blue-Sky Revenue Number

1. Determine the Unrealistic Fundraising Expectation’s Source 

Your Homework

Take a deep breath. Now reduce the “what they are doing to you” from being front and center of your thinking. This is not easy. After all, you know that pushing back on fundraising expectations will be seen as suggesting you aren’t willing to work hard.

The reality, however, is it is not all about you. Fundraising is a team sport. (Watch What is the Board’s Role in Fundraising? for more.) Hallucinatory expectations usually reflect the goal-setter’s lack of knowledge and wishful thinking mindset.  

Instead, focus on how the heck the board established the forecast.  

Your Board

Discover how the board determined the estimate. What are its origins? For example, my client was given a goal to raise $5 million in donations in five years. Current contributions were a quarter of a million dollars.

What was the goal’s origin? The board chair. He believed that the nonprofit was worthy of it and ought to be able to raise it. Besides, he liked how it sounded and thought it would motivate staff and impress the community. (It did neither.)

Rarely will the unrealistic goal’s basis include a thoughtful analysis of giving patterns and marketplace trends. Or that the goal was paired with a budget and resources to meet it, such as staffing level, new skill development, and full board engagement in fundraising. (See Boards and Fundraising.)

While it’s unlikely that the board used best practices to set the estimate, you may discover that a thoughtful analysis did take place and that the goal isn’t a blue sky after all.

Okay, stop rolling your eyes!

My point is that by understanding the birth process, you may discover some serious thought has occurred. And, if it hasn’t, you plant a seed that record-breaking fundraising involves more than bold proclamations.


Most fundraising targets stem from:

  • the funds needed to make the budget work, or
  • the money raised by another envied nonprofit, and
  • the belief that setting astronomical goals motivate others.

Before moving on to the next process step, work out the goal’s history. 

2. Offer Solutions and Realistic Fundraising Options

Your Homework

Determine realistic fundraising expectations based on three conditions.

  1. Minimum:  What is your fundraising expectation based on a similar effort as this year? Adjust your estimate for windfalls and waning advantages.
  2. Medium: What is your projection based on a robust effort in the new year? Consider new resources, your donor stewardship efforts, and quality improvements.
  3. Maximum: Finally, what goal would you set if you with the full engagement of your board and staff, plus resources to launch your fundraising to the next level? This one should scare but not awaken you at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat.

Optional: Along with the fundraising estimates, develop options to close the budget shortfall caused by your reduced calculations. In addition, read and follow the steps outlined in How to Set Realistic Fundraising Expectations

Your Board

As the CEO, share your fundraising concerns with the board chair. Determine with the chair if you need a task force or if your fundraising committee will translate the vision into a plan. Remind your chair that bold goals demand a plan. And, of course, everyone on the board will want to know what the board members will need to do to meet the goal.

Whatever you and the chair decide, your fundraising estimates form the backbone of this step. You grasp the gap. Help others to see the challenges.

In this step, translate the stated goal into practical plans or, with others, change the goal. Bring the challenge out of your office so you don’t have to paddle this overloaded and tipsy canoe alone.   

3. Create a Best-Practice Process to Set Fundraising Expectations Each Year

Whether you archived your maximum, minimum goal, or neither, by all means, avoid future unrealistic fundraising expectations. Many nonprofits get into a cycle of setting unrealistic fundraising expectations only to be disappointed and frustrated time and again.

This final step replaces setting unrealistic expectations from your nonprofit’s bad habit repertoire. It replaces them with a laser-clear process. 

Your Homework

To succeed here, embrace something you may have forgotten. You’re a fundraising professional and know what works when raising funds for your nonprofit.

Is this true even if you’re new to the organization and fundraising?

Most likely.

If not, dig into this bevy of fundraising posts to continue your education. Start with 7 Drivers of Nonprofit Fundraising Success.

To complete your homework, outline a process your nonprofit will use yearly to set expectations. Include your timeline of when the process will start. What publications will be consulted for economic forecasts? Who will be asked for input? What is the best way to include your new approach in your calendar, so you drive it? Again the post, How to Set Realistic Fundraising Expectations, will help.

Your Board

Your overt objective with this step is to determine and educate your board about setting income goals. The underlying goal is to boost your relationships with your board to higher ground. 

Fundraising expectations are best set via discussions and with your board’s inside-outside perspective of what is happening in your community. Your new fundraising projection process helps the CEO to give the board what it needs to do this job. 

All in all, you seek a partnership with your board based on mutual respect so your nonprofit taps the expertise and talent of all. Watch 3 Board Fundraising Planning Musts that Get Remarkable Results for more about what boards need to do to co-create fundraising planning success.

Don’t miss out on getting your board on board. Subscribe to Karen’s CEO Solutions for free practical nonprofit tools and innovative insights just for nonprofit CEOs in your inbox.

Need more help? Karen is available for a mini-consult or more. Click here to email or here to set a time to chat.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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