The difference between the most and least successful among us is the way we use our time. So argues time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders who wrote a piece for Harvard Business Review this month.

She argues that it makes sense to bring our “A” game to some activities. The better we do with those activities, the better the pay-off. Other activities, not so much, she says.

And the key for the truly successful is to do a good job of discerning between the activities that make sense for us to perfect and the activities that we just need to get done and check off the list.

Saunders, who is the author of several books including How to Invest Your Time Like Money, suggests that all of us should divide our tasks into 3 categories:

  1. Investment
  2. Neutral
  3. Optimize

Our investment activities are those that have a big pay-off. These are the tasks we should do well and to which we should apply extra effort because more effort yields a better return.  What she calls the “optimize” activities are the ones that are a poor use of our time, the things that keep us from doing more important and productive activities.  Those things, she argues, we should give minimal effort.

So many of us working in nonprofit organizations wear multiple hats. We work on grant proposals one day and electronic appeals the next. We book time to talk with corporate supporters about the sponsorship of the annual gala and then meet with volunteers about menus and decorations. Some of us specialize in only one or perhaps two types of fundraising activities, but many of us have our hands in multiple fundraising tactics. This makes the challenge of evaluating time use, prioritizing, and determining which activities are the best use of our energies both more difficult and more important.

Further complicating things is the research on donor retention which reminds us that keeping a donor has a bigger pay-off and smaller price than attracting a new donor. When calculating the ROI of fundraising activities Adrian Sargeant and Elaine Jay in Fundraising Management: Analysis, Planning, and Practice, remind us that we need to look at the life-time value of our donors and not simply their immediate return. So some activities—like thank you notes—might not seem like a great use of time (maybe in the “neutral” category?) until you factor in the fact that doing a good job of thanking a donor is one of the most important things you can do to retain a donor (bump thank you notes up to the “investment” category, then?).

For those of us working to raise funds, the question is which activities in which we are involved have a high return of value and which are a poor use of our time?

I would argue that any donor-facing activity is an investment activity—visits, calls, thoughtfully written communications.  These activities are high-value and result in richer, more rewarding relationships with the donors we cultivate. I would also argue that thoughtful, inspiring donor communications also belong in the investment category. Ken Burnett, author of Relationship Fundraising, highlights that the quality of communications is “the strongest factor underpinning donor trust and confidence.” And, I’d argue that some of the things we do with event planning volunteers is probably pretty low on the list. I used to work with an annual bowl-a-thon whose planning committee devoted at least one full meeting each year to deciding which color the event t-shirt should be.  With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that maybe I should have missed those meetings and let them just tell me what their decision was. Let me quickly add, though, that some of the experiences I have had with event planning volunteers has been good donor cultivation time.

For all of our efforts to professionalize fundraising and to establish clear best practices, we don’t have cut-and-dry answers to these questions. I think no one of us can answer for all of us that one type of activity or another is a high value activity or low value activity. What is clearly of value, though, is taking a moment to ask yourself which activities we should double-down on and which should receive the short shrift.

As you plan your week, ask yourself: which things on your to-do list are going to move the needle, which have to be done but carry no brownie points for doing well? And which should you give as little time and energy as possible? Then, give yourself permission to arrange your time accordingly.

Image Source: – Used with permission.

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