fundraising 101

Here’s the first lesson of Fundraising 101: fundraising is not about begging. 

I think that’s why so many people who start nonprofits decide they hate fundraising before they even try it.

Actually, I think they’ve had a bad experience raising money somewhere along the way and they think that’s what it’s about.

That was me. I remember trying to sell calendars as a public school fundraiser when I was about 8. It was HARD! And I decided I didn’t like fundraising.

Obviously, I learned to love it somewhere along the way! How?

The short version is I learned to focus on those the money would help – not the money itself. Or the asking.

You see, many people (maybe even YOU!) get so wrapped up in worrying about rejection or what others will think that they decide they are no good at fundraising without understanding what fundraising is all about.

They just hate the idea of begging for money.

But look, here’s the truth: Fundraising is about inviting people to be part of something worthwhile, something bigger than they are, something meaningful that changes lives.

We love the good feeling we get when we do something for others, right?

Well, fundraising is about giving people the opportunity to capture that good feeling by donating money to a cause they believe in.

Many people would love to do the front-line work of making a difference, just like your nonprofit does. But they don’t have the time. Or the knowledge. So, the best way for them to help is to give you money.

Make sense?

And you know what? Many people are HAPPY to give if they understand how their donation will make a difference and if you properly inspire them to give.

So how do you invite people to give so that they say yes?

It’s all about inviting the right people, with the right message, at the right time. It’s Fundraising 101.

Fundraising 101: Getting Started

The key to Fundraising 101 is finding and keeping wonderful donors who love the work your organization does.

When you build a big donor base of people who love your cause, you will ALWAYS have financial support because these folks WANT to see you win!

They’ll give when there’s a need.

And they’ll keep giving if you give them a great experience and make them feel needed.

We’re talking about donor-based fundraising here.

It’s different from how struggling nonprofits approach fundraising, chasing money.

You see, you don’t find and keep wonderful donors by running one fundraiser after another.

You find and keep wonderful donors by inspiring them with the important work your organization is doing, thanking them well every time they give and even when they don’t give, and keeping them engaged.

Here’s our Fundraising 101 formula for success:

  • Build a base of donors.
  • Create inspirational messaging to get these donors involved and keep them coming back.
  • Create and execute a plan to make sure you are always bringing in new donors, thanking and engaging the donors you have, and making everyone feel amazing.

In donor-based fundraising, you value the donor more than the donation. 

It might take a minute to get your brain around that idea, that the donor is more important to you and your organization than their donation. But let that sink in.

Donors are people and people do not like to be treated like ATMs.

When you treat your donors like the caring people they are, with philanthropic goals of their own, they will respond positively, often by giving more often or giving bigger than you’d hoped.

When you embrace this donor-based model of thinking about the needs and desires of your donors, fundraising gets easier.

You never beg.

People want to give to your organization because they love your work and they love the great feeling they get when they give your organization money.

Building a Big, Loyal Donor Base

When you start a new nonprofit, you can’t wait to spread the word. You’re sure that when people hear what you’re doing, they’ll just give.

Well, some people will.

But most people won’t.

When you cast a wide net, most people you reach won’t be interested enough to give.

You see, not everyone gives to charity – shocker, I know!

And of those who DO give, they have their favorite causes. Maybe they love the food bank but don’t care about the arts. Maybe they’re all about their alma mater but aren’t interested in animal causes.

It’s just how it is.

And no matter how awesome you think your nonprofit’s mission is, if your cause isn’t one they like, you’re not going to change their mind.

You have to think more strategically.

Instead of trying to get EVERYONE in a community to give, target people who are most likely to care about your nonprofit’s mission.

If you’re just getting started, invite friends and family to give. Then Board members and volunteers.

From there, reach out into the community, but be smart about it. Don’t target people based on how much money you think they have. Target them based on how much you think they care about your cause.

Start by creating an Ideal Donor Profile.

An Idea Donor Profile is a description of your typical donor, based on demographics and psychographics.

Who are these donors you are looking for? Are they on the older or the younger side? Are they men or women? What are their interests? What drives them to support food insecurity, animal rescue, youth development, or whatever cause your organization focuses on?

This exercise doesn’t have to be scientific or precise.

Try this: Think about the first few people who enthusiastically donated to your nonprofit. Write down their names and everything you can think of about them. What are their jobs? Where did they go to school? Do they go to church? Do they run 5Ks? Do they have children?

Sit down with a blank piece of paper and think about your best donors right now. These can be donors who give large amounts, donors who have given multiple times or donors who seem really committed to the cause. If you can only think of a couple of people, it’s ok – this will still work.

Now, what do they have in common? Are they roughly the same age? Same sex? Have the same values? Live on the same side of town? Anything you can think of will help.

Obviously, the more people you can think of, the better.

Early in my career, I worked at the local food bank. I heard this exercise at a conference and thought “I want to try this.” I just thought about some of our best donors and here’s what I uncovered:

  • They were women.
  • They were middle-aged or older.
  • They were college-educated and had professional jobs.
  • They were active in their church.
  • They volunteered in their community.

After studying that list for a minute, a lightbulb came on! I could easily find more donors at women’s groups at churches!

I started asking around to see who belonged to a women’s group at a church where I could speak and I quickly got several leads. I put together a hot presentation (this is KEY!) with a clear call to action, and off I went.

At one church, almost everyone in the room signed up to hear more about our work and how they could get involved (ahem, they signed up for my newsletter list!).

Several women gave me a check or cash before I left. A few days later, I got a check from the group’s treasurer.

I had spent a couple of hours preparing for that talk and a little time there that night and hit the jackpot of donations, new donor and prospect names, and more opportunities to speak!  It was a terrific return on my investment!

And you can do this, too.

Find people with a high likelihood of supporting your work and you increase your chances of identifying donors who will give bigger and give longer.

Here are more Fundraising 101 strategies for finding new donors:

1. Ask your most passionate supporters to host gatherings in their homes. When you have someone who loves the work your organization is doing, ask them to invite their friends and family members over to tell them about the organization. Keep the event social and the tone light. Include a brief presentation and invite guests to sign up for your newsletter and make a donation.

2. Host a table at community events: Identify festivals, farmer’s markets, fairs, and other events in your community where your Ideal Donor Prospects are likely to be and ask about setting up a table. Some may charge nonprofits a small fee, and others may let you set up for free. If your ideal donors care about the environment, focus on nature-oriented festivals. If your ideal donors are in their twenties and thirties, think beer festivals. If they are families with children, seek out events with activities for kids.

You could create stickers so you’ll have something to give people who drop by. Have a sign-up sheet for getting on your mailing list, a jar for cash and check donations, and a QR code linking to the donation page on your website.

3. Partner with a local business. Identify a business that shares your audience, and think about ways to support each other. If your organization promotes literacy, partner with a bookstore. If you are a food pantry, partner with local restaurants or markets. If you are an animal rescue, find a pet store.

Ask your business partner if you can put information about your organization near the register. Include a QR code so people can access your website. Is there a product the business can sell with the profit going toward your organization? Co-host an event or work together on an online campaign. Make and market a t-shirt together, with your organization getting the profits and both you and the business benefiting from the marketing.

Always be on the lookout for opportunities to meet your Ideal Donor Prospects where they are and grow your donor base.

Create Inspirational Messaging

Finding prospective donors is just one step. The next step in Fundraising 101 is to bring them in with simple, easy-to-understand, inspiring messaging.

Get out a blank sheet of paper. How do you describe your nonprofit’s work? Start writing words and phrases that come to mind. This is how you develop messaging. It really is this simple!

Boil down what you do to its essence. Don’t try to stuff everything you do into your messaging. Just evoke good feelings. Express in a few words what your organization does in a way that touches people’s hearts. Here are some examples:

For a soup kitchen: We’re so much more than a meal

For a shelter: A  compassionate place to rest and restore

For a self-esteem program for teen girls: Showing every teen girl how awesome she is

For a cat rescue program: Loving care for magnificent cats

For a food pantry: Making sure no one goes to bed hungry.

Once you’ve got your key message in just a few words, there’s one more piece you can put with it that will make it pop. You need a Core Number.

Your Core Number is an expression of what it costs you to deliver a unit of service. It’s a very effective part of an Ask since it tells your donor prospect how their donation will make a difference. Here are some examples:

For a soup kitchen: Give the gift of a hot meal, compassion, and support, all for just $6.85.

For a shelter: Your gift of $19.03 gives a person a warm, safe place to rest for one night.

For a self-esteem program for teen girls: Your gift of $18.25 gives a teen girl the gift of feeling amazing about herself.

For a cat rescue program: Your gift of $16.75 provides food, lodging, and vet care for a cat for one night.

For a food pantry: Your gift of $12.50 provides a day’s worth of food for a family of four.

(Need help crunching the numbers? Use our Core Number Calculator.)

While that’s pretty powerful on its own, the right image will grab the heartstrings and hold them tight. So, think about images that will tell the story all by themselves:

  • A volunteer dishing up a plate of hot food
  • a bed at your shelter, with someone’s personal items nearby
  • a teen girl with a huge, confident smile
  • the cutest cat anyone ever saw
  • Kids sitting at a table with a full plate of food and a big smile on their faces!

Using Canva, put your words and images together, along with your logo, to create graphics for your newsletters, appeals, social media, and just about anywhere else you can think of.

If you think of your “message” as everything you share, every day, it’s important to keep it interesting to your audience. And the best way to do that is with stories. Lots of stories.

Build a story library and add to it every time you hear or experience a story that grabs your heart. Keep a running list of tiny, moving stories you and your staff and volunteers experience on a daily basis. Save the text from the mom thanking you for all your program has done for her daughter’s confidence. Screenshot the Facebook review of your shelter from a person who had nowhere else to go.

Keep the email from a volunteer describing a family that came to the food pantry in despair and left with boxes of food and hope. Make a short video with a person who received services and is excited to share their experience.

Push your stories out to your audiences through all your channels, alternating with graphics emphasizing your key messages.

Then pay attention to which stories people respond to. Which ones do people comment on? Which ones raise the most money? When you know what works, you can do more of it.

You Need a Fundraising Plan 

Everything in nonprofit life requires a plan, and fundraising is no different.

Create a Fundraising 101 calendar for the year. You will constantly revise, expand, and subtract, but your basic plan will get you started.

By the way, you can download our 1-Page Fundraising Plan for free at 🙂

Start with what you know. If you have events planned, go ahead and write them in. If you know you’re going to do #GivingTuesday, write that down.

Then take it month by month, deciding when you’ll ask for money, when you’ll share stories from the front line, and when you’ll invite people to get involved.

The timing of these activities is really important! So don’t try to hold a fundraiser every month – that wears people out. And exhausting for you, too.

Instead, choose the fundraising activities that have the most potential and focus on those. Be sure to include non-ask activities so donor don’t experience donation fatigue.

As you plan, consider these ideas. These are JUST ideas! This is not meant to be a copy/paste activity!

January: It’s a brand new year, and with holiday fatigue setting in, this is not likely to be an active month for finding donors and inspiring them to give. But don’t waste time! Thank all your donors from the previous year and provide them with a Tax Summary Letter, itemizing all the donations they made the previous year. Provide them with an Annual Report showing the big things your nonprofit did during the year. Make a list of churches and community groups where you can potentially give a talk and contact them to get on their calendars.

February: It’s Valentine’s Day. Run a social media campaign focused on love. Send a newsletter with a love theme. Call and thank your best donors or send them a thank-you video.

March: Enlist at least two supporters to host house gatherings. Make a media list and blast out a press release. Follow up and see if you can get some media coverage and make key contacts.

April: Make April a big push: at least two speaking engagements, one house gathering, and a joint event with a local business. Find at least two events for tabling.

May: May is a great month for a social media campaign. Think of it as your spring version of #GivingTuesday. Blast out some compelling stories via social media and email marketing. Enlist core supporters to share the best stories and invite their contacts to follow you on social media, sign up for your newsletter, and make a donation.

June: Designate this as your month of gratitude. How many handwritten thank you notes can board members write and send? Do you have some of your donors’ phone numbers? Enlist board members to give them a call just to say thanks.

July: Summer can be challenging for reaching new donors. Focus on grant prospecting, collecting stories, and creating content. Stay in touch with donors through monthly newsletters so they know what’s happening.

August: It’s still summer, but see if you can set up one speaking engagement, one house gathering, and one event for tabling. This is a great time to plan out your Fall fundraising activities.

September: Touch base with your media contacts and see if you can secure a story. Cooler temperatures bring more opportunities for tabling. Set up at least one speaking engagement and one house gathering. Debut a new t-shirt, and sell the shirt online and when tabling at events.

October: You’re now in the fourth quarter, the most intense stretch for fundraising. Send a snail mail appeal to all the contacts you have addresses for. Send an audience-priming newsletter heavy on stories but with only a light ask. Set up as at least one speaking engagement and house gathering.

November: Push amazing stories and content out all month long. Introduce your #GivingTuesday campaign. How will funds raised be used? What makes your cause particularly urgent?  Host a Thank-a-thon to personally thank as many donors as possible. Share a thank-you video with your entire donor family.

December: This is it! The home stretch. Touch base with your donors via email and social media. Your donors want to give and you have opportunities for giving. Share stories and let them know of your most urgent needs. What can you do with a $1,000 gift? A $3,000 gift? A $5,000 gift? Send a New Year’s card to your supporters just to wish them a happy New Year.

Fundraising is a marathon, not a sprint. That means the work never ends. It’s an ongoing effort to look for new donor prospects, opportunities to spread the word, and ways to thank and engage current donors.

The Bottom Line

If you think about fundraising as a chore that revolves around high-maintenance events, you will feel defeated before you get started. Take the Fundraising 101 approach and instead focus on meeting people who want to get involved with your cause and giving them the opportunity they are seeking.

If you zero in on the money that trickles in while tabling at a festival, it may seem like the event was hardly worth your while. But look at the signup sheet. So many names and email addresses! Load those contacts into your email marketing platform and be excited by how much you are growing your donor base.

Fundraising takes time, but as your donor base grows so will your donations. You will get momentum going and when you have momentum everything feels lighter and easier.

With this approach, you will fully fund your budget and through your organization’s work you will change more lives.