top of page
  • Sharron Batsch

Old Mother Hubbard's Cupboard Syndrome

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

We have written about the issue of a fundraiser’s legacy many times over 30 years and our belief is little has changed.

Successfully acquiring donations is the ultimate goal of all organizations but what about all the other information that provides the charity with its wealth. What about its ability to build relationships?

We equate information with wealth, once it has been collected. It is what a charity knows about its donors that support relationships; this becomes knowledge that remains regardless of staff turnover.

When you look into a database only to find donations recorded, we need to ask “Does the charity and its fundraisers understand the job?” “Where is all the other information on donors?” In essence, this question is profoundly linked to the ability of a charity to succeed much less to sustain itself.

To understand our perspective, think of a beautiful house. From the outside, it looks perfect. Now, open the front door and what do you see? Could it be a hoarder’s delight with things everywhere? Is this how your charity might function? It looks good from the outside but the internal workings are chaotic and the donor database is mostly empty, much like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.

What would happen if everyone left your fund development department, never to return? This is what happened with one charity and then a high-value donor came knocking with an important question about a project he was funding. The answer was enlightening. You may wonder what he thought when no one could give him a reasonable response.

In our recent interview with Ralph Young, a past Chancellor of the U of A, successful businessman and philanthropist, he related just this situation about a gift he had given for a specific project. The development team had all resigned. When he connected with the development office, no one could provide details about the project or its progress. Where did the information go? Who is ultimately responsible to ensure good methods are employed?

We believe it is the charity, which needs to define its expectations so that all staff understands how they contribute over the long term, and where staff change won’t expose the charity to risk due to the loss of data, information, and knowledge. Remember, good intentions are not enough when you are managing thousands of dollars of donor goodwill. Good people come and go but the charity needs to be sustainable regardless of this reality.

What do we mean by content? A charity needs to understand and know its supporters. Consider foundations that could provide grants. ‘Need to Know’ information includes gifting criteria, the names of staff members who accept grant proposals, dates or time frames proposals are accepted and the history of outstanding requests, declines, and awards.

When placed in a donor management system versus binders, access is accurate and accessible and staff can react in a timely manner. How long would it take your charity to assemble a list of its grants over the last 18 months including requests, declines, and awarded? Would your response be two or three minutes, two or three hours, or maybe a week?

Consider corporate donors and what the charity needs to know about them. This might include their giving criteria, the contact information of staff members who can help the charity, when dates proposals are due, what sort of support the organization could offer, and their type of business. These tidbits offer the charity an entrepreneurial advantage.

Private donor information, depending on how well they are known to the charity, might include information on family members, specific interests they have in supporting the charity, family pets, relationships in the community, plus, plus, plus. Not all private individuals will have data but as the relationship grows so does the charity’s knowledge about the donor. A well-defined coding system is preferable for accurate access through the donor management system used by the charity.

In our many years working with the charitable sector, we have found the amount of information housed in a useful form is almost non-existent, even though the tools are present to easily capture this data. In a recent conversation with a fundraiser, they commented that how each person on their team captured donor data was determined by the team member, not the charity. This equates to an inconsistent approach if the data was collected at all and a recipe for failure.

Content is wealth. It supports relationships by offering talking points that turn into touchpoints with donors. New staff can familiarize themselves with donors based on what is known about them and why they support a charity.

If every staff member did what they wanted, you would find Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard or vacant databases with little to offer. The outcome is often donors who feel more like a money source and less like a lifelong contributor.

The charitable sector manages billions of dollars annually. In Canada, CRA has some oversight, but what about oversight related to how the charity runs internally. A chaotic environment, often run by untrained staff who are responsible for donor management practices, puts the charity and its funding dollars at risk. What if a charity could say to prospective donors the following?

  1. We have an annual training budget and all staff engaged with fund development are required to be fully trained which ensures data is recorded correctly.

  2. We have an organizational strategy for all electronic tools, to access our resources in seconds, not minutes or hours.

  3. Senior managers all participate in adding to our organizational history.

  4. Fund development managers can all use the donor management software and collaborate with data entry to ensure all campaigns and appeals are properly defined.

  5. We have specific policies and practices for all forms of data management, which we adhere to allowing, for corrective actions where needed.

  6. We invest in continuous improvement but all within the context of our current methods of information management.

  7. Our investment in these methods has continued to improve our productivity and our charitable dollars.

  8. Staff change will no longer put us at risk as our methods and policies have enabled us to continue to work regardless of change.

  9. We have developed a high-performance work environment to achieve our goals and maintain high-performance staff.

  10. We have more time to invest in building relationships with our valued donors, so we are a true donor-centered organization.

Change starts at the top. We challenge executive directors to invest in change which can be implemented quickly and show instant results. Write these changes into the charity’s bylaws so that no one can ignore them, so chaos doesn’t return in the future.

As a final note, don’t say you don’t have time. Everyone has time for their priorities which affects their business.

May HOW become your mantra not CAN’T!

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page