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Fundraising Remotely: Increasing your Chances of Success

by Deb Nicholson on April 2, 2020

Controlling the technology we use is especially important during "lockdown" because non-digital work and communication options may no longer be available or safe. Some free software projects are serving exponentially more users during this pandemic than they've ever previously seen. Meanwhile, people are depending more heavily on their remote gigs, so it's essential that we keep paying the developers who maintain and improve the software we're all using. Conservancy wants to make sure that freedom-respecting, community-driven software projects can keep up with demand and continue their important work.

Many of us in tech are lucky that we can work remotely, without too much being very different on the work side. However, many projects will need to adjust their fundraising. This year's season of casual, in-person at-a-conference funding asks just won't be happening. We'll be doing all of our corporate and large donor fundraising via phone, video call or email for at least the next several months.

One of the things about in-person conversations is that you get plenty of instant feedback. How excited is the donor? Are they glad that they've made time to talk to you? Does the person you're talking to feel personally invested in your software project or is this purely a business decision? (Hint: it's often a bit of both.) Without the rapport that's easy to establish in-person, you'll want to take a minute to carefully craft your email communications. It's a good idea to get on the phone or do a video call if you can, but people may be reluctant to commit their time to be asked for money. We've written up some tips to help community-driven free software projects with their remote fundraising.

Be mindful of the circumstances of the person you are contacting. Don't start your fundraising conversation as if everything were normal right now. You can't copy and paste last year's ask and expect it to be successful. Most people's lives have been profoundly affected by the pandemic and people could be dealing with sick relatives or friends, immuno-compromised co-workers who are worried about groceries or vague, but pervasive anticipatory grief. More than ever, you'll need to be courteous with people's time, be gracious about rescheduling and be prepared to hear, "Please, just put it into an email." You'll want to make your fundraising requests efficient and answer the questions your donors have -- before they have to ask them. You'll want to acknowledge that we're all going through a difficult time before you talk about anything else.

What is the donor getting out of donating?

Imagine yourself in their shoes. If you don't know the answer to this, you'll need to find out. Perhaps another person associated with your project knows your contact or used to work at the company you're approaching. Take a look at what else the company or donor has funded and how they talk about their recent donations. Maybe they've even told you themselves when they donated to your project last, saying something like, "We're always happy to help keep Linux secure. Keep up the good work!"

Is it very clear how your project will be spending its income this year?

A financial plan that is tightly coupled with your technical roadmap makes things much clearer for potential donors. If you had to explain two or three things that you are prioritizing in the coming year at say, a virtual high school reunion, how would you phrase it? You wouldn't list the libraries and discuss all the things you don't like about your API. You'd say something like, "This year we're increasing interoperability and working to better support folks running smaller instances of Foo." Then tell the donor that you're going to be paying developers to work on those two big picture goals.

Is there something you're working on that is very timely?

For example, Etherpad's collaborative editing tools now include video, so Etherpad hosts may need more tools to help them support the increased bandwidth for their all-remote teams. Is increased capacity or internationalization illuminating the need for different security measures or more translating? Whenever something very timely is part of your roadmap, be sure to mention it to your potential donors so they can choose to donate now, when their support is likely to be the most impactful.

What if some of your use cases and upcoming plans are really cool, but extremely detailed?

Make a blog post about the exciting, but wonkier, bits of what you're doing. You can easily link to these posts for donors that do want more detail. You might even find that these public posts help you find some modest donors or contributors who are interested in helping with some really specific aspects of your work. Documenting your technical challenges could help another free software project down the road with a similar conundrum. Pay it forward!

The short version is that you want to think about your work from a potential donor's perspective when you are asking for money. Be respectful of people's time and mindful of the things they may be dealing with that aren't your request. Make your case clearly and succinctly so that folks can quickly see how your work fits in with their goals. Don't make folks have to circle back with a bunch of follow-up questions, because they just might not get around to it. When you write your email, make sure you word things in a way that makes it easy for the person you are writing to simply forward the email to their boss or to someone else in the company who may have access to additional budget. Make sure there's enough brief context included so that someone else who doesn't know you or the details of the project could understand what you're talking about. Stay safe and good luck with your fundraising!


We'll be talking about this post in our online chat later today. Join us in #conservancy on freenode.net or if you don't already use an IRC client, you can come in through your browser. Just visit this page, and choose a nick (or nickname) and you'll be "in channel." Conservancy member projects are also welcome to contact our Director of Community Operations, Deb Nicholson, for project-specific help with their fundraising plans.

Tags: resources

How We Worked on Eliminating Bias in Our Hiring Process: A Small Organization's Story

by Deb Nicholson on June 20, 2019

We recently hired our newest employee at Conservancy, a Technical Bookkeeper. Adding one more employee to our small staff is a significant change for our organization and we wanted to conduct both an efficient and as unbiased as possible hiring process. This can be a challenge for small organizations and there must be agreement around this goal as well as a willingness to stick to a slightly more formal process. Everyone here at Conservancy was committed to crafting a process designed to remove as much bias as possible from the equation, so here's what we did.

Posting the Job

This is the posting that we shared with our networks. We specifically never implied that we expected applicants of any particular age or gender. We weren't looking for any particular type of educational history, so there's no mention of schooling here. In fact, we proactively stated that we were open to applicants from all different backgrounds. Since it's an unusual role, we were willing to train applicants who had a non-complete mix of the skills the job would use and we said so. Finally, we strongly encouraged folks from under-represented groups to apply -- not as a short-hand CYA, "EOE!" but in a specific way that we hope conveyed our belief that diversity is critical for our organization and our mission. We were so happy to be overwhelmed by strong applications from over thirty people who are passionate about software freedom.

Screening Interviews

First off, we asked all of the applicants the same questions, which we fully formulated in advance. It's important that you don't compare apples to oranges and keep the interview about the skills and qualities needed for the role you are currently interviewing for. For this first stage, no one on staff screened anyone they already knew well. We made an effort to stay on topic so we wouldn't be tempted to bias for "chattiness" or "culture fit." We also did not look at candidates on social media, in order to keep appearance, race and age from informing our first impression.

After the screen, we let all candidates know one way or the other whether we would be advancing their candidacy. Timely communication and a reasonably quick-paced process was part of our overall goal. While we didn't move as fast as we would have liked over the whole process due to our small size and large workload, we made sure to notify our candidates as soon as we knew whether they were advancing or not. A slow process increases the chance that your best applicants will have taken another job by the time you get back to them and there's absolutely no need to string people along that you don't intend to hire. The screen reduced the field to 12 candidates we were really excited to move forward with.

Technical Exercise

Since this opening was for a technical role, we needed to know about people's technical skills. We wanted to make sure we understood where our candidates were technically, without making assumptions about the experiences on their resumes. To do this, we organized a do-at-home exercise with a time constraint. There was no whiteboard and no audience while the work was being done by each applicant on their own machine. We told applicants they could look things up, because that is what people do when they are on the job. (They know there's a tool or library that could help them, but they don't quite remember the name of it or what the exact argument is that will help in a particular situation.) We allowed applicants to choose a time slot over a two week period to take the test, so they could schedule the exercise around current work or care-giving responsibilities.

Bias is unconscious. While we try to be good, unbiased people, Conservancy staff has all been subtly and not so subtly exposed to racist, sexist and ageist ideas and defaults throughout our lives. The staff members who sent the technical exercise to the applicants gave each person a two letter code name. We wanted the other two staff members who rated each applicant's answers to be able to do so without any information about age, gender, race or national origin interfering with their assessments. This process allowed us to identify our four top candidates, based entirely on their anonymous work product.

Final Interviews

For the final candidates, we wanted to schedule a longer interview. Again, we asked all of the final applicants the same questions. We tried not to let the conversation drift into personal anecdotes or irrelevant topics. We also worked to make sure the applicants had an accurate picture of the day to day tasks they would be doing and asked questions about how they would handle that work and the obstacles that are likely to come up during a typical work week in that role. We contacted the candidates' references and also asked all of them the same set of questions. We interviewed some amazing people for the role. The final interviews set up a very tough decision for us and the process strengthened our shared desire to continue expanding Conservancy's staff.

At the end of the day, we were only hiring for one opening and so we chose the best person for our current role. In the future, we might have multiple or complimentary openings that we'd have to jostle, but not today. We're very happy with the result -- welcome aboard Rosanne!

Tags: conservancy, diversity, resources

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