7 Things the Cleveland Browns Taught Me About Fundraising

I was born on the East Side of Cleveland. This means that I was fated (cruelly) to be a Browns fan. For the unaware, this means watching:

  • A team that has not won a championship since 1964
  • Over 22 quarterbacks start games since 1999
  • Multiple displays of grasping defeat from the jaws of victory (see: Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble)
  • Your team get whisked away to Baltimore, only to have the old Browns win a Super Bowl four years removed from “The Move”
  • Your team come back as an expansion team in 1999, only to post two winning seasons and one playoff game for a record of 86-180


Such is the misery of being a Browns fan. But adversity is a great teacher, and many of those tough lessons transcend the environments in which they were learned. I’ve seen some of the most incredible failures, yet I’ve taken these losses and applied the lessons to my work as a fundraiser.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned from the Browns about fundraising.

1. Know the rules.

The Browns are known for committing penalties frequently, and often at the most inopportune times. Just this week, the Browns were penalized 12 times for 188 yards. Moving backwards is NOT a good thing. Some of this comes from ignorance to rules, and some from execution and discipline. The same holds true for fines levied against fundraising operations. It’s essential to keep up with annual Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Payment Card Industry (PCI), and Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) revisions.

Then, it’s a matter of implementing that compliance by communicating changes and accounting for them in your standard operating procedures. Staying on top of these regulations is tedious, but the consequences of being non-compliant could derail or nullify your great results.

2. Focus on the most significant numbers.

This week, our QB threw for 372 yards! That’s great, right? While it likely helped a few fantasy football coaches win, it didn’t do much for the overall success of the Browns. It’s easy to get caught up in big numbers, but sometimes the smaller numbers do a better job of explaining your successes or shortcomings. How many touchdowns did the Browns score? One. How many touchdowns did they give up? Three. How many times did they fumble or throw an interception? Three. How many wins did they get? Zero.


The same is true with fundraising metrics. You made 600 prospect calls this month? Great. But did they turn into substantial moves in your major gifts pipeline? Did any of your hundreds of proposals become a gift or a new endowed fund? It’s essential to concentrate on the key performance indicators that truly define your success, especially when you’re working with so many data points. Focus on the important over the interesting.

3. Invest in the future.

Sometimes you need to let your talent develop and learn. (Well, not with the Browns. Rookies are thrown into the fire for an immediate payoff.) However, it’s important to keep your eyes set to the future. Planned gifts and long-term pledges create a financial foundation for your organization. Building those pledge and bequest reserves now will set you up for success later.

4. Intangibles matter.

The NFL draft is the highlight of any Cleveland fan’s season. So much promise. There’s nothing like seeing a tall, lightning-fast defensive back like Justin Gilbert get drafted to your team. But what you can’t see is how quickly that player learns or how seriously they take their work.

The same holds true in prospect research. Someone who looks like a great prospect on paper might not be worth cultivation once you gather more qualitative information. For example, attitudes towards your institution might be the missing piece between a high-capacity prospect and a significant gift. You can measure affinity and connection through event attendance, volunteerism, and Facebook interactions. Is the prospect particularly fond of a faculty member? Does the person have an established relationship with a member of our governing board? What relationships and spheres of influence do they have through former student activities?

By vetting your data and incorporating non-quantitative details, you’ll add efficiency to the workloads of your major gift officers. It’s important to qualify prospects thoroughly so that gift officers are spending time with the best prospects.

5. Know when to start over again.

If the ever-spinning carousel of players wasn’t enough, the Browns’ front office has also gone through a large amount of turnover—eight head coaches, seven general managers, and who knows how many position coaches since 1999. These personnel changes have led to many changes in philosophy.

I’m not suggesting a purge of your entire advancement office. However, you should conduct an annual assessment and revision of your programs based on key performance indicators. Don’t be afraid to change or eliminate facets of your programs that aren’t helping to accomplish your goals.

6. Laugh at your failures.

Self explanatory. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Mistakes happen. As long as you maintain the relationship between your cause and your donor base, well… just have a sense of humor.


7. Cherish wins of any and all sizes.

If and when we ever win a Super Bowl, it’s going to be incredible. But there’s only one champion per year (and 31 losers), so even making the playoffs can be amazing.

That said, if you’re struggling, there’s always something you can do to move towards a win. You can always fundraise for important areas—student support, annual giving, endowments—and make an impact without winning everything. Do what you know can move your team towards a win, and the fundamentals will pay off.

While knowing what to do is great, sometimes knowing what not to do is more valuable. Unlike the Browns… at least I figured out how to be good at what I do. However, I still love them. (See you Sunday.)

Matt Gullatta is the director of advancement services at Ashland University. Since becoming an advancement services professional in 2007, Matt has made it a personal mission to make data accessible, reliable, and fun! You can find Matt on Twitter, likely chasing down big data and analytics trends or posting animated GIFs.

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