The other day, I met with the board of a terrific organization where resources were slight and needs great. I often meet with groups like this—after all, in the US, 75% of all public charities report less than $100,000 in gross receipts—so the bulk of my clients are small (but mighty!) nonprofits.
“How,” the president of the board asked, “can we start fundraising for the organization?”
Staff, he went on to say, are really busy doing the work of the nonprofits. The development director—like so many development directors of nonprofits—spends 90% of her time writing grants. The other 10% is spent in managing those grants. And while they do well with grants, there are still so many other needs—and funders are more and more asking, “Who else is helping to fund you?”
Because they had never focused on fundraising, they did not have a database of donors and the board, while committed and willing, is not made up of wealthy, well-connected individuals. So what to do?
Their first thought, of course, was to have a big event. But as we talked they realized how unrealistic this was. They had few people to invite, no staff to actually manage the event, and no reason to believe that would make more than they would spend on the effort.
First I wanted them to understand that starting a fundraising program can be frustrating. You put in a lot of work and typically see little return. But if you stay the course, remain constant, you will—over time—see good results.
But how to start?
Most of the board wanted to raise money—but feared going out and talking with their friends and colleagues. Understandable, and yet, this is the best way to get results. However, there are ways to make it more appealing.
How about creating your own annual appeal? Get the board together one evening to sign letters and address envelopes to their list. Start by asking every board member to put together a list of 10-25 people they feel could have an interest in your organization. Make sure the list has addresses and phone numbers. You’ll need the latter for later.
You can put together a standard letter, signed by one person, and have each person write a short note, or you can ask each person to write their own letters. Even more important than the letter will be the reply device, that will encourage your prospects to say, “YES, I want to join you in supporting this wonderful organization.” Make sure that offered gift levels are within the vision of your prospects—but that most of them make your donors reach a bit. And if numbers feel too high, think about defining them—ask asking for payment—as a monthly gift. Instead of asking for $100, you could ask for $8.35 a month—or $10 and get an additional $20.
As your board puts their list of prospects together, gather all the information so you can start your donor database. Make sure you track which board member brought what names to the table.
A few weeks after your letters go out, gather again, making sure that each member brings his or her cellphone. The goal for this meeting is to call each and every person who did not respond to the mailing.
Some board members will want to call their friends and colleagues, and truly, this is the best case scenario. But those who don’t can trade names with others who also feel uncomfortable directly asking friends for gifts.
The calls should be direct and to the point, “Hi, I’m following up on my letter (the letter you received) two weeks ago for our organization’s annual appeal, and I am hoping that we can count on you for a gift of…”And here, do suggest a number. Don’t make the number too low—it’s easy to think, “What could $25.00 really do?” and so say no. Better to make it a gulp gift, and have the person say, “Whoa, that is a bit too rich for my bank account.”
You now have an opportunity to find out how interested in your organization this person is—and how you can help them structure a gift that will work for both of you.
Next year, when you reprise this annual appeal, the names from this year remain, and you ask board members to each add another 10-25 possibilities.
This, of course, is not the only way board members can help raise money. They can have house parties, one on one conversations with their friends, but this is a good way to start, get the board comfortable, and, at the same time, start building that all important donor pool