When you work in a small office, it’s tough to get everything done. And easy to get overwhelmed.

Every big nonprofit you can think of was once a small shop, with someone doing most everything themselves.

So, how did they grow from a tiny little nonprofit to a much bigger one?

It’s the same way that businesses grow and the back bone of franchises.

Think for a minute about Starbucks.

If you go to any Starbucks in the world and order a tall vanilla latte, you’re going to get the same drink no matter what city you’re in.

Know why?


Systems will save you.

The magic of fundraising systems

Systems help you grow and multiply your efforts.

When you have a system for getting something done, you don’t have to think too hard about what you’re doing.

You follow the formula and get the result you’re looking for. Just like that tall vanilla latte.

A system is simply an organized method for accomplishing a task so that you get the same result every time, no matter who is using the system.

Actually, the system can run without you, because someone else can easily follow it.

Systems can help you be more efficient, ensure quality and speed up the training process for new folks.

The biggest reason why you need systems in your fundraising office is that they help you get more done.

Face it, you’re just one person and you can’t do everything (even if you try).

Fundraising systems will streamline your work and save you time.

I see people all the time who have no systems or their systems are broken. They’re overwhelmed, they spend a lot of time ‘winging it’, they’re disorganized, and they seem to always be fighting fires.

In practical terms, when you don’t have systems, you won’t be able to keep good volunteers – they’ll get frustrated at the disorganization and go somewhere else. Your database will be crap because you’re inconsistent about entering data and there’s no protocol for keeping it clean. Donors will be frustrated at the errors in your materials or the sporadic nature of your communications.

Anything you do more than once needs a system. Theoretically, every time you use the system, you get faster or you refine it. You become more efficient.

Systems are best when:

  • They are in writing.
  • They are clearly understood by those who will be using them.
  • They are reviewed from time to time to make sure they still work.

Steps to creating a system

When you’re ready to create a new system, follow these steps:

1. Identify the end result. What is the result you want from the system every time it’s used, no matter who is using it?

2. Identify system users. Who will be using the system? What do they know now about the end result you’re trying to achieve? What training and support will they need?

3. Flowchart the system. Break the system down into small, separate steps that will be easy to understand and teach. Flowcharts give you a nice easy visual to work with, and you can do this with software (there’s a SmartArt tool in most Microsoft products) or sticky notes.

4. Create system support tools. What can you create that will help the user? Think about checklists, worksheets, forms, etc., that can make learning and using the system easier.

Here’s an example of a system flow chart for entering gifts that are received through the mail. It’s pretty simple yet effective.

I personally would create a procedure for this system with screen shots of the donor tracking software for looking up a donor, entering a new donor, and entering the gift. I’d create a list of gift codes for easy reference. And I’d create a separate system for creating a new donor record, with specifics about what information goes in what field, whether pieces of the address should be abbreviated or not, and what salutations should be set up.

Yes, it may seem like a lot of detail, but that’s what will set you up for success long-term. You have your way of doing things, and if you want others to do it your way, you have to systematize it. Then it becomes the organization’s way of doing things.

10 must-have fundraising systems for the small nonprofit

After working in fundraising for nearly 20 years, I’ve found that these are the systems you absolutely must have if you want to raise more money in the coming year.

  • 1. Gift entry. As in the example, you need a system for getting donations entered into your software. Include how you look up the donor, enter the donation, and prepare the thank-you letter. If you’re handling checks, you might include a piece about preparing a deposit for the bank.

  • 2. Volunteer onboarding. The more you spread the word about your nonprofit’s good work, the more people will want to help. You need a system for recruiting volunteers or responding to inquiries (be prepared for both phone and email inquiries), how you store volunteer information including their areas of interests and times of availability, and how you get them oriented and plugged in.
  • 3. Grant research. You need a system for conducting grant research, including how often you will look for new grant opportunities, where you will look, what key words you’ll use, how you’ll organize the information you find, and how you’ll get the hot new opportunities merged into your ongoing grant activities.

  • 4. Donor Acknowledgement. The more donations you receive, the better you need to be at thanking donors. This system should include how you select the right thank-you letter, when the letters are processed and sent out, how you thank donors at various levels, and when you involve Board members in thanking donors. You should also include something about changing your standard letter every month.

  • 5. Social media. This system should include how you decide what to post, when to post, where to post, and who posts. Getting clear about this system will save you a ton of time and keep you from staring at Facebook wondering what you should be sharing. It will also keep your audience interested and more engaged.

  • 6. Board recruitment. In order to create a red-hot, super-effective Board, you need a system for recruiting the right people. This system should include how you decide what skills you need, where you find new Board member prospects, how you start the conversation, a process for interviewing prospects, who interviews them, and how you make the final decision about who to invite to join your Board. No single Board member should be inviting new people onto the Board. Recruitment should be done by a committee of 2 or 3 Board members. When you’re very purposeful about recruitment, you will get great new folks on your Board.

  • 7. Welcome New Donors. The time between a new donor’s first gift and their second gift is a critical time. What happens during the first couple of weeks will determine whether they’ll give again (or not). Create a system for welcoming new donors that makes them feel really good about their decision to give to your nonprofit. This system should include what welcome activities will happen, when they’ll happen, and who will do them. You can include a new donor welcome kit, thank you phone call, welcome video, etc. Just focus on making them feel like they’re making a difference and part of something worthwhile.

  • 8. Creating a newsletter. Your newsletter can be your best tool for building relationships with donors and prospects, but if it’s done haphazardly, it won’t accomplish much of anything (and unfortunately, most nonprofit newsletters are crap). Create a system for the timing of your newsletter (when it goes out and how often it goes out), its format, its content, and who it goes to. When you have a schedule and an editorial calendar for your newsletter, writing it becomes much, much easier, and your recipients will actually read it!
  • 9. Nurturing donors. How will you take care of your donors so they feel appreciated, engaged and part of your team? You need a system for nurturing them. Actually, I encourage you to create two donor nurture systems: one for your top donors and another for everyone else. Include the warm touches you’ll use 1-to-1 with your best donors like personal notes, visits, personal tours, etc. And for the rest of your donors, consider video, open houses, holiday cards with no ask, etc. Create a calendar for when these will go out, how they’ll get created, who will create them, and who will send them.

  • 10. Following up on pledges. One of the biggest mistakes a nonprofit can make is letting donors make a pledge then not supporting the donor to make the pledge payment. I’ve had the experience of making a pledge and being told I’d receive a quarterly statement to remind me to send in my donation, then never hearing another thing from the organization. Create a system for managing pledge info (where it’s stored), determining who needs to be followed up with, how you’ll do the follow up, what will be sent, and what to do if they don’t pay. This system will keep you from losing money that you worked hard to get.

Warning: don’t try to create all these systems at once. Start with the one that will give you the most leverage, create it and put it in place. Once it seems to be working well, go on to the next one. If you tackle one system a month and you get it solidly in place, you will see tremendous improvement over the next 12 months.

Once you have systems created and begin using them, review them from time to time to make sure they still work. Ask those who use the system for feedback. Check the system output to make sure you’re still getting the results you’re looking for. Update your procedures. And make sure everyone is still on the same page about what the system should be doing.