(Photo by Flickr user Howard Lake used via a Creative Commons license; image has been edited)
Fundraisers are some of the hardest working folks I know. We know how to hustle, and we’ve spent time studying best practices. We know what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to asking people for money.
Yet, there are a lot of non-fundraisers out there who think they know how to fundraise, too. And all too often we fundraisers fall into the sometimes-precarious position of reporting to CEOs or executive directors with little fundraising experience, who then report to a board of directors made up of a group of individuals who also have minimal experience with asking for gifts.
Before you get any ideas, I want to note I am only partially speaking from my own prior experiences; I am also adding in lots of things I’ve heard from my fellow fundraisers. Normally I would credit these wise unicorns for their wisdom but in this instance it’s easier on all of us to remain anonymous.
So, anonymity in place, let’s dive deep into the most important thing to know about being a fundraiser: There is no magic formula for raising money. No silver bullet, no secret strategy that everyone but you knows, no automatically approved request from Oprah (or Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg).
Non-fundraisers, here are three things your fundraising team wants to tell you — but can’t.
1. Fundraising starts with a plan.
That is, a solid strategy for each of the various channels by which you intend to raise funds, of which there are many. We write it all down: how many appeals/events/campaigns/
Given that we put so much time and effort into making our plans, it’s incredibly frustrating when you have a constant flow of extraneous suggestions coming in from non-fundraisers.
What works for one nonprofit could be a dead end for another; it all depends on your situation.
Just because the Ice Bucket Challenge was a huge success for ALS doesn’t mean that it’ll be a sure thing for your organization. What works for one nonprofit could be a dead end for another; it all depends on your situation. And you can be sure that we as fundraisers have already thought it all through before committing it (or excluding it) from our plan.
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Having things thrown at you all the time is frustrating (especially when you’re a one-person fundraising department). These suggestions often directly contradict the plan you’ve outlined and they take time away from the strategies that we as fundraisers know to be fruitful.
The time I spend planning and executing an unexpected 5K run fundraiser that will raise $10,000 will severely impact the amount of time I have to build strong relationships with major donors that could give $100,000 in that same time span.
There’s a reason I didn’t include a 5K in my plan for the year; the return on the time invested in such a huge project isn’t nearly as high as time invested in other activities — not to mention the amount of time it takes to research and politely decline the various suggestions coming in from staff, board members, volunteers and donors that don’t end up happening.
2. Donors give to the cause, not to a person.
At the end of the day, donors are almost always giving to your organization because they care about the impact your nonprofit has on the community. They are not giving because of you personally (and I’m not talking about peer-to-peer fundraising here). So, when a fundraiser leaves an animal shelter and joins a social justice nonprofit, they’re not very likely to bring a whole host of donors with them to the new organization.
And yet, I have lost count of the number of positions I’ve seen advertised where it is implied that the new fundraiser should bring their whole LinkedIn network with them.
I have lost count of the number of positions I’ve seen advertised where it is implied that the new fundraiser should bring their whole LinkedIn network with them.
Many of my friends and colleagues have been passed over for promotions because they supposedly don’t have the “right” connections needed to take the organization to the next level, and their org instead chooses an outside hire.
Nonprofits are always looking for that (nonexistent) silver bullet. Why invest time and resources into professional development for your mid-level fundraiser when you can hire a director-level fundraiser who can bring their own network of donors to the organization?
It’s often presented as a learning opportunity for the mid-level fundraiser, who will turn around and find a new job where their hard work will hopefully be respected. That leaves the new, director-level hire (who may have very recently been a mid-level fundraiser in a similar situation) without any support as they begin their new role.
The nonprofit is immediately dissatisfied with the lack of progress in bringing in money immediately — which brings me to my next point.
3. Raising money takes time.
Donors need to feel a connection to your mission; they want to hear from you more than once a year when they receive your letter asking for more money. Fundraisers are responsible for building relationships between the organization and the donor. And relationships take time.
If you’re doing it right, your plan includes touchpoints with your donors throughout the year: impact reports, updates on new programs, invitations to tour your facility or attend an appreciation event, personal stories from individuals that your organization has supported.
Fundraisers are responsible for building relationships between the organization and the donor.
When the time comes to ask your supporters for a donation, they are ready for it. They’re invested in what you do and they understand exactly how their gift will support your mission.
The time it takes to build that relationship with a donor is entirely dependent on the donor; it may take a few minutes, months or years. Forecasting how those relationships will build for dozens, hundreds or even thousands of donors can be difficult (especially if you’re new in your role and unfamiliar with your supporters).
We as fundraisers do our best, but at the end of the day the donor doesn’t care when our fiscal year ends or how behind we are on this month’s goal. They will make a gift when they’re ready.
So, a quick recap of things that fundraisers want the rest of the nonprofit community to know:
- Invest in professional development opportunities for your fundraiser(s). Promoting a mid-level fundraiser who has spent years building relationships with your donors will very likely prove to be more fruitful than an outside hire that will need to put in time getting up to speed.
- Trust your fundraiser(s). Take their opinion into account when it comes to building a plan. Don’t push new projects or events onto them (especially if you will then get upset that they don’t meet their goals).
- Stop thinking there has to be a better way. I must repeat: There is no silver bullet. Fundraising takes hard work, a coordinated effort and time. When you quit searching for a magician and instead put in the effort, results will follow.
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