Fundraising Horses and Scarcity Mentality

Fundraising Horses and Scarcity Mentality


9 February 2021


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Before I start into today’s post, I want to remind you that I’m collecting five-year value information again, Time to Update the 5-Year Value Metric. If you could run a couple of reports on your database and send me the results, I will report out what I learn next week. (I don’t need names! Just two numbers.)



For years, I’ve been preaching that so-called “support services,” including fundraising, should be separated from mission work in the Strategic Planning process. It seems obvious to me: figure out where you want to go and then figure out how much gas it will take to get there.

So WHY don’t we all do that?

The answer is connected to scarcity mentality.

Scarcity mentality leads to an unreasonable concern about overhead – which reinforces the scarcity mentality.


I define Scarcity Mentality as the belief that the pie is finite and getting smaller, and that donors will give more when they see how much we squeeze from every dollar. When we believe in scarcity, we take pride in doing so much with so little, and we assume that everyone will think more highly of us because of it.

And that becomes circular. The more we focus on how little we are spending on support, the smaller our vision becomes. The smaller our vision is, the less likely it becomes that people will increase their giving to us, even as they increase giving to other organizations. And that reinforces our commitment to keeping our costs low – money is scarce.

Here’s the truth: People give because they believe in the organizational vision. The bigger the vision, the bigger the giving. The most successful organizations talk less about how little they are spending and more about how much they are doing in service to that vision.

The truth is that there is a LOT more money available for land conservation than we are currently raising. And our problems raising it are related to vision much more so than local economics.

I would be interested in your thoughts.


First – strategic planning.

The mental model Nancy Moore and I (working as Conservation Consulting Group) use to guide organizations through strategic planning is based on the simple idea that you need to define where you want to go before you can choose the appropriate strategies to get you there.

Where you want to go is not limited by available resources. It’s not limited by the horses you rode to get here.

It’s limited by vision.

I will acknowledge that not everyone accepts this idea. Some argue that “pie-in-the-sky” thinking can lead to false hopes and demoralized leaders. I respectfully disagree. I believe it is important, at least every once in a while, to quantify where we think we’re going in the long view and build consensus around that.

Once we agree on what the horizon looks like and the general direction we need to go to get there, we can determine how far we might be able to get in the next five years (or within any other timeframe).

And we can budget for that.


Five-Year Budgeting

This budget thing is a difficult but important final step. Budgets inform the various players what the timing expectations will be for revenue generation, including fundraising. Until you have a five-year budget vision – a fundraising destination – you can’t know whether the horses you rode to get HERE will get you THERE.

The vision, strategy development, goal-setting, and budgeting for mission work all needs to come before the strategy development, goal-setting, and budgeting for support work. The five-year budget NEED, determined by the strategic planning process for mission work, becomes the five-year VISION for the support services work.

In the absence of a five-year mission budget, the supporting goals have no context. As a result, Communications, Membership, and Fundraising goals often end up vague, arbitrary, and insufficiently supported themselves.

I’ll give you an example: One Strategic Plan I recently reviewed proposed a membership goal of 450 members. Why 450? No one could answer. It was arbitrary. And because it was arbitrary, the current strategies for recruiting and renewing members were never questioned – much less evaluated.

They kept riding the same horses they had always ridden.

Annual investments were never increased, because that would have increased the overhead and taken money away from mission work. The result was that the organization never moved from the 280 members they started with.


Many fund development strategies take several years to develop (membership growth and capital campaigns, for example), and both staff and board need time and resource investment to build appropriate capacity. But without a clearly articulated mission need, and in the presence of Scarcity Mentality, organizations are less likely to make that investment.

Arbitrary goals disconnected from mission are rarely taken seriously.

The horses themselves are rarely questioned, and further investments in support services are considered only in direct competition with investments in mission.

Instead of saying this is what we need to spend NOW on fund development so that we can meet the needs of mission five years from now, we end up squabbling about what we can cut to balance the budget.


And here’s the connecting leap:

  • When the fundraising goals are arbitrary,
  • When the strategies (horses) are never questioned,
  • When short-term investments in capacity-building are considered competitive with mission work,


When these conditions exist, organizational leaders are only able to manage how much is available for mission work by squeezing what they allow to be spent on support work – including fundraising and building membership.

The insidious thing is that it feels good – like we’re being fiscally prudent – we’re doing so much with so little.

And it leads to squeezing a sixth year out of a four-year computer, not replacing decrepit, second-hand furniture when it can be duct-taped, leaving our office walls unpainted another year, replacing paper communications with electronic, and asking part-time employees to volunteer extra hours. Doing more with less – and eroding our ability to accomplish our mission in the meantime.


What’s wrong with that?

Donors give money because of their belief in the mission and their belief that the organization can actually get it done. Efficiency rarely trumps actual results in donors’ decision-making. Sixth-year computers, decrepit furniture, and peeling paint do not communicate to donors that you have your organizational sh** together.

Projecting a successful organization will raise more money from more donors than projecting an efficient organization.


Scarcity mentality, and the associated pride in “doing more with less,” may seem prudent in the moment, but has the potential to sap organizational energy away from more important activities – like building an organization that can actually get more of the mission work done and attracting donors who share a bigger vision.


So, if this is you and your organization, go back to your Strategic Plan. Imagine a future state in which all that work is actually getting done. Ask yourself, “What kind of organization do we need to be to get THAT done?”, “How much would THAT cost?”, and “How many members will we need?

Then make a plan for raising that, and make sure you also budget appropriately for that vision.


PUNCHLINE: The horses you have been riding might not be the right horses. They might be sacred cows.


Cheers, and Have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


PPS: Much of this post was originally published in November of 2017.


Photo by Travis Soule courtesy of



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  • Sharon Weaver
    Posted at 10:04h, 09 February

    Thank you for these good reminders and good advice about planning.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 07:55h, 10 February

      Sharon – Thank you so much for the comment!

  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 09:35h, 09 February

    I couldn’t agree more David. Donors want to and will support success, express your success in everything you do.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 08:00h, 10 February


      I appreciate your commenting so much. You are a rock star. I have received notes from several land trusts these last few weeks – you among them – essentially saying that 2020 was not only better than they had hoped, but MUCH better. I believe it’s this combination of positivity and emphasis on success (rather then need) that is the common denominator. Thank you for being such a shining example!