Thank you to GiftWorks for having me lead a webinar for them recently.

The topic was “4 Simple Steps to Raising All the Money Your Nonprofit Needs” which is one of my favorites!

We had SO many questions from listeners that we didn’t get them all answered.  So, I thought I’d answer them here so that everyone could benefit and get some fundraising ideas to use.

I grouped the questions by category, since many were similar.  If you read along and have something to add, please share your comments.


Building a donor base

Q: What would you recommend as the “first step” to getting started in fundraising to build a base?

Q: What suggestions do you have to reach out to new donors?

Q: How do I increase my donor base?

A: Growing your donor base is a “must-do” activity for ANY nonprofit. You simply must be adding new donors each year just to maintain your numbers. You’ll always have people moving away, passing away, and going away.

The simplest place to start the search for new donors is with those closest to your organization – Board, staff, volunteers, friends, and users of your organization’s program or services. Then move out into the community to groups that support your work like churches or civic clubs. Sometimes in groups there are multiple opportunities for donors. The club itself might make a donation plus each individual member could become a donor. Ask community partners and collaborators for a gift. And don’t forget to ask your vendors for a donation, too.

The best way to find new donors is to clearly define your average current donor or your ideal donor and go find more just like them. This is commonly called a donor profile. Is your average donor male or female? Educated? Married? Have children? Live in a particular area of town? Listen to a particular radio station? The better you can describe your average donor, the more likely you can find more just like them.


Telling your story

Q: Do you recommend pulling the donor into your elevator speech? In other words, should the elevator speech include language that refers to the role the donor plays in the organization?

Q: What is my story? We write grants, do community assessments and help other organizations provide services in our county.

Q: We are an organization that works on forest restoration and offers public programs at our nature center. What is a life changing story example for us?

A: Telling your story is essential to good fundraising. When you can pull your donor into the story, do it. It helps the donor imagine herself being a more integral part of your work in changing the community.

When your organization does something other than direct service, it can be more difficult to tell your story in a passionate way, but if you dig, you’ll find that there’s always a compelling piece at the bottom. For an advocacy organization, you’re doing important work on behalf of someone (maybe someone who can’t speak for themselves). For a community support, you’re making it easier for other organizations to do what they do in the county. For forest restoration, you’re protecting the land for future generations. I promise you that you can find the sizzle in your story if you keep looking.


Unit of service

Q: Our donor base is all over the map in terms of personal wealth. We house homeless women and children. I’m interested in the idea of tangible “units”. If we break our budget down by number of families, months, days, etc. – is there an amount that is too small or too large? I.E. $1,666/month per family or $54.80 per day per family?

A: Great question. Different nonprofits have different units of service. When I worked at the local food bank, our unit of service was one pound of food, which cost us about 27 cents to receive and distribute. Other organizations, like those serving kids after school, may have a unit of service of 1 hour for 1 child, and that cost may be hundreds of dollars. It is what it is. Decide on what your unit will be and be prepared to explain to donors how that one unit of service makes a difference (this is the key). I think $54.80 per day per family sounds reasonable for homeless women and children. Remember you aren’t just providing housing – you’re also providing them safety, food, counseling, referrals, and probably lots more.


Electronic mail vs snail mail

Q: We’re a green recycling organization and we don’t like a lot of paper mailing. It’s not part of our mission statement!!! What can we do instead? Social media is iffy!

Q: Are electronic newsletters as effective as hard copy–snail mail?

Q: We stay in regular contact with our supporters by EMAIL (mostly action alerts, and some donation asks), but can only really afford a once-annual DIRECT MAIL mailing. Do you have any suggestions in that situation?

A: Email or regular mail – that is the question so many nonprofits are asking these days. The answer lies in your donors’ desires. If they want to receive information from you via email, then send it email. If they want paper in their hands, send it regular mail. It’s tempting to want to switch to email to save money, but if that’s not what your donors want, then it’s a waste of time and effort.

Who says you can’t do both? Electronic newsletters can be a great addition to an overall communications campaign. A combination of some print and some electronic communication is what a lot of nonprofits are doing these days and seeing good results. The important thing is to stay in touch regularly with your audience. Don’t just show up in their inbox or mailbox when you want money.

A have a client that is an environmental group and they’ve switched to all electronic newsletters and sprinkle in a few paper things periodically. If you want to go to all electronic communications, just make sure it’s what your donors want. Add social media or maybe a text campaign (using cell phones) to add a little spice.


How often to ask

Q: How often should we ask donors for a gift throughout the year? And should we be asking for different things? How should these letters change each time?

Q: Once someone has made a donation do you still send them the multiple requests during the year?

Q: Is there a good ratio of times to communicate with a donor and asking for donations?

A: Asking once during the year is definitely not enough and asking once a month is probably too much. Somewhere in between is a sweet spot that your donors will respond to and not be irritated. Even after someone has made a gift, you want to give them a few more opportunities to give. I recommend asking for a gift 3 or 4 times per year. That’s roughly quarterly. And it doesn’t all have to be through the mail. You can use a combination of an event, mail, and in-person requests, or other techniques. You definitely want to be communicating with your donors throughout the year in addition to the times you ask for money. Don’t just show up with your hand out. Send interesting, well-done newsletters 2 or 3 times during the year to let the donor know how things are going. Send a Holiday card with no ask at all. Find ways to connect with your donors just to get to know them or to let them know you’re thinking of them. It’s all part of building good donor relationships.

You want to change the theme of each mailing, but the Ask doesn’t have to be significantly different. At the food bank, our appeals always asked for support to feed the hungry, but our January letter might focus on the hardships that winter brings (people have to decide whether to buy groceries or pay the heat bill), our Spring letter might talk about the impact made on the grocery budget during the summer when kids are out of school, and so forth. It’s a way to change things up a little bit and educate the donor at the same time.


How to make a good ask

Q: How do I prepare a good ask letter? What are the buzzwords?

A: I’m not sure there are any good buzzwords but I have a few recommendations for you for putting together a good letter. Write a simple letter that tells a story and invites the reader to take action (make a gift). Keep it conversational – write like you talk. Write simply and clearly, avoiding jargon and acronyms. Most importantly, make it easy to read. Short paragraphs and simple formatting will go a long way toward making it easy for the donor to read.

If you’ll look on my blog, there’s a whole category of articles about direct mail. I encourage you to read through them for more tips on putting together a good letter.


Premiums for donors

Q: Do you tell donors about “what they will receive” for their gift? Example: Telling donors that we will give them X if they donate X amount of money…

A: I don’t recommend giving donors anything in return for their gift. When you do, it becomes a transaction and not a gift. Transactional fundraising is usually a one-shot exchange of money for something that the donor wants. Transformational fundraising is about the donor’s desire to change a life.

Think about Girl Scout cookies. (I’m not knocking Girl Scout cookies. My girls were scouts and I’ve sold bunches of cookies!) The donor gives money and gets cookies in return. But what’s the likelihood of that same donor buying cookies from that same troop of girls again? Not so hot. That’s because the donor doesn’t necessarily have a particular tie to that troop. They might if they are related to one of the girls, but otherwise they don’t. There’s a transaction taking place here of dollars for cookies.

People who come to your golf tournament or 5K run or other special event are probably there because of what they’re getting and not because they care deeply about your cause.

What you want instead are donors who give because they care about the work your organization is doing. They want to see your nonprofit organization succeed in carrying out its mission. They give because they want to change lives. I call this transformational giving. They give to transform a life or a situation. These donors will give for years to come if you build a relationship with them and treat them well.

What you want to do instead is to tell donors about the impact their gift will have. “Your gift of $25 will provide a family in need with everything they need for a warm holiday dinner.”


Fundraising & the economy

Q: Many organizations are experiencing a down tick in terms of giving. How can we encourage donors to give when wallets are tight? How can we also maximize their giving?

Q: I work for a non-profit devoted to animal care. Are there certain approaches I should be using which are unique to this situation, especially given the economic climate?

A: Here’s my take on the economy: yes, there are lots of people who have lost jobs and are facing difficult times. But there are a lot more people who have not been impacted and are just scared. The most important thing for you to do as a fundraiser is to stay focused on your organization’s mission. Your mission is not in a recession and you must do whatever it takes to raise the money your organization needs. I promise you if you keep telling your story and asking for a gift, you WILL raise money, even in today’s economy. It doesn’t matter what kind of nonprofit you work with, this is what you need to do.

Don’t pay attention to the news. As a matter of fact, I encourage you to avoid the news and all their “doom and gloom” about the economy. You just keep telling the story of what you’re doing and keep asking for donations.

I have clients that are raising more money this year than ever before and it’s because they’re focused solely on helping the people they serve.


Raising money for staff and space

Q: We are an almost totally staffed by volunteers, so most of our expenses are operational expenses. How do we quantify the amount of a gift to something tangible when what we really need is more staff and space?

Q: We are an all-volunteer non-profit that has recently purchased the historic home and garden. How can we ask for funding for a paid administrator?!!

Q: What advice do you have for a new non-profit who doesn’t have a building and needs to purchase everything?

A: New nonprofits and those run by all volunteers have unique challenges of their own. When you need space, you need space and when you need to hire staff, you need to hire staff. I have a client that is in this situation right now and we’re explaining to donors how the new staff position (Program Director) will magnify the impact of the organization. In other words, we’re sharing how many more people will be served by the nonprofit because of the new Program Director. We’re sharing how adding this one staff person will leverage the organization’s ability to make a difference in the community.

When you go looking for money for buildings and staff, start with those closest to the organization (Board, staff, and volunteers). Ask them who else in the community you should be talking to. You might be surprised what you can uncover when you start turning over rocks. You may find a company who would be willing to give you free space or a free building (I’ve seen it happen). Just keep talking about it to anyone and everyone.


Upgrade donors

Q: what approach would you use to get a donor to increase their donation for the next year?

A: Good thinking! Upgrading donors is a great strategy for increasing revenue. Step 1 is to build a relationship with the donor. Communicate with them. Tell them what’s happening with your organization. Then ask for an increased gift, explaining how their larger gift will make a bigger difference in your work. When a donor feels involved and engaged, she’s happy to give you more money.


Matching funds

Q: Is having a matching funds fundraiser an effective way to raise funds?

Q: What advice do you have to get matching funds for a large donation?

Q: How do I start a matching gift, how do I find someone who would be willing to say (yes I will be willing to donate up to 10,000 if you find others to donate that amount.) How do I find that person?

Q: We have received an offer for a large donation, but it will not fully cover the cost of our specified project. Do you have any tips for using one donation as a “challenge” to help raise matching funds to complete the project?

A: Matching gifts are a wonderful way to stretch donations and raise double or triple donations. Often, a particular donor will offer to match any donations that are given to a particular project or during a particular time. It’s usually up to you, the Fundraiser, to recruit the matching gifts.

Most donors are happy to give a gift that will be matched dollar for dollar. They see their gift leveraging resources for you and they’re usually very happy to help. Who wouldn’t want to see their donation doubled?

Here are some tips for working with matching gifts.

1. Be very clear with donors how their gift will be matched. Some matching gifts are dollar for dollar but others are more and some are less. Make sure your donors understand how their gift will be matched.

2. Make sure donors know the condition of the match. Be clear about the timeframe the gift must be received in order to qualify. And let donors know if the gift must be cash or if a credit card can be used.

3. Get all the publicity you can for your matching gift. Recruiting gifts for a match can be a good way to gain new donors.

Matching gifts are working particularly well this year, so I’d definitely recommend you use this strategy for raising money.


Build awareness – year-end

Q: I’ve been told that the end-of-year holidays make it difficult to access decision makers. Should I still host a reception at the end of November to make the community more aware of what we do?

A: I’m thinking there’s more behind your question than what I can read. If you’re looking for decision makers, you must be approaching companies or maybe foundations. And yes, there will be lots of people taking lots of time off during the holidays.

A reception can be a really good thing or it can bomb. The best thing to do is to have individual people from your nonprofit (Board, staff, or volunteers) personally invite targeted people to the reception. You’ll get a better turnout. If you’re sending invitations to everyone on the Chamber list, don’t expect many people to show up. This is a BUSY time of year and people won’t willingly give up their precious time to a group they know nothing about.


Implement 4 simple steps

Q: Realistically if we engaged in your steps how long will it take to see a return to the organization?

A: It depends on a number of factors like how “known” your nonprofit is in the community, how sexy your mission is and how big your donor base is. I’ve worked with start-up nonprofits who have implemented these steps and raised more than $25,000 in their first six months.

The important thing is to take action. You won’t raise any money by sitting on the fence.


Reluctant Board members

Q: How do we engage board members to partner in simple steps that you outline. Do some of the same steps apply to bring reluctant board members along?

A: Ah, reluctant Boards. That’s a whole topic in itself! Yes, these simple steps should help bring some Board members along. But keep in mind that most Board members don’t know how to raise money and are scared to death at the thought. You may be able to educate them and get a few to agree to help with fundraising, but I seriously doubt you’ll ever get all of them involved.


Thanking donors promptly

Q: what if your organization (ours is a food bank) doesn’t have the staff or the funds for printing and postage to send the thank you within 48 hours for all the $5, $10, $15 donors and payroll deduction donors?

A: Then you’ll have to make some decisions about where to spend your precious resources of time and money. Figure out at what level you CAN get a thank-you letter out and do it. Maybe you decide that anyone who gives a gift of $50 or more will get a letter. Just choose something workable for you. And as soon as you can, figure out ways to acknowledge as many donors as possible. Not thanking donors is a kiss of death for fundraising.


How to spend my time

Q: My hours have been cut back and I only have 2 days a wk to devote to fundraising. How should I devote the limited time I have? We want to have a cultivation event in Feb with around 70 people and I am currently doing a project with our biggest donor (videotaping a donor profile). I am developing a good relationship with this donor and am hoping to make an ask after our cultivation event. But how much time devoted to individual donors vs events, etc.?

A: Your priority is your donors and any activity that will generate revenue for your organization. Everything else is second.

Within those revenue-generating activities, you may have to prioritize as well. A bake sale that nets $500 isn’t nearly worth as much of your time as a major donor who could make a $10,000 gift. Step back from the day-to-day details long enough to see the big picture and make some good choices about where to spend your time. Just keep in mind that not everything will get done. But if you focus yourself in the right direction, the most important things will get done.

A cultivation event sounds like a good idea. See if you can get your Board to help you with this project. If you do it right, it can be a great experience for them and help you get the results you want.

If you want more help managing your time and priorities, download chapter 1 of the Get Fully Funded system. It’s free and has tons of great tips and worksheets in it.


Indirect service nonprofits

Q: Most of your examples are with direct service nonprofits. What about advocacy system change nonprofits?

A: I think quite a lot of what I share in the 4 Simple Steps will work for advocacy groups. You need to be very clear about the benefit your organization provides to the community. That will help you more easily explain it to donors and the community.


Faith-based nonprofits

Q: Any special insight for faith-based nonprofits?

A: You have plenty to share so get out there and get to sharing! Seriously, the faith-based groups I’ve worked with probably have more passion and more commitment to their cause than other groups. Share why you do the work you do and it will carry you far.

  1. Great article on frequently asked questions when trying to put together a fundraiser. An easy way to supplement any effort is ordering custom wristbands made with your company/organization’s logo or motto on them. They are inexpensive and the ROI is great!

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