Attention Nonprofits: 5 Secrets to Attract Donors

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After 35 years of fundraising, I keep returning to a few words of wisdom from Joan Flanagan, a pioneer in applying fundraising principles to the needs of grassroots organizations and author of several books including Successful Fundraising.

“All the knowledge about fundraising can be summed up in ten words” Flanagan says. “Ask ‘em, thank ‘em, ask ‘em again, thank ‘em again.”

I consult with many nonprofits, and they find these words to be a great relief. They have always viewed fundraising as complicated, mysterious and scary, something they don’t want to touch. They assume they need to hire someone with appropriate credentials, as one would hire an accountant, plumber or lawyer, to do their bidding. Yes, if you want to raise money, you have to ask people – and that means people you know. But have no fear. 

Fundraising is really pretty simple. At its heart, it is one person asking another to get involved, provide help, take a stand or join a movement. Yes, there are strategies and techniques, but they are far less important than the one quality you need to be successful: passion for the mission.

Related: Connecting Nonprofits With Pro Bono Help

With that in mind here are five steps for identifying, asking, and engaging your donors. Do this well and people will give generously.

1. Identify prospects. Follow the ABCs of prospecting:

Access: Do you know the potential donor? (Note: that rich strangers are generally not prospects.)
Belief: Does this person care about your cause?
Capacity: Do you they have money to give?

Also keep in mind, 70 percent of Americans give to nonprofits and most philanthropic dollars are given by lower and middle-income households – not inaccessible wealthy people.

We are surrounded by potential donors, we tend not to see them. In the words of author Kim Klein, “You already know all the people you need to know to raise all the money you need to raise.”

2. Educate and cultivate your prospects. The classic strategy is a “cultivation visit” to describe your work, but it’s OK to get creative. Invite them to a performance, give tours of your facility, ask them to help with a river clean up, delivering meals or playing with kids at your preschool. The opportunities are endless. When people experience your work firsthand, they will be inspired to give.

3. Ask for support. The most effective way to ask is face to face. Set an appointment by phone or email and be transparent about the purpose of the meeting. When you meet, spend time learning about the prospect by asking questions before you pitch your project. The great skill in fundraising is listening -- not talking -- so prepare questions in advance.

Related: How a NYC Nonprofit Is Working With Businesses to Make the World a Better Place

For example, “When you visited our nature preserve last month, what was that experience like?” Or “You’ve supported our organization for several years now, why? Why is our work meaningful to you?”

4. Thank and recognize those who give. The standard thank-you letter is a good place to start, but it’s only a start. Personalize the letter by adding a hand-written note. Phone the donor just to say thank you (or even better, encourage a board member or volunteer to make the call.) Or ask one of the people who benefit from your work to write a thank-you note. Organize a donor recognition event. Bring donors flowers or homemade food. As noted earlier, personalization and creativity will set you apart from other nonprofits.

5. Involve them more deeply in your work. Look for ways to increase your supporters’ emotional investment. Ask them to volunteer, which could include leadership roles on committees or the governing board. Recruit them to serve as ambassadors who will talk with their friends. Best of all, ask for guidance. As the old saying goes, “If you want advice, ask for money. If you want money, ask for advice.”

It’s worth noting that only 15 percent of the work in fundraising is “the ask.” The other 85 percent comes before and after you ask. The most successful nonprofits build strong, ongoing relationships with their donors, looking for ways to engage them throughout the cycle. If you do this consistently and intentionally, you will raise a lot of money.

Related: Attention Nonprofits: How to Wrangle in Volunteers and Keep Them Happy


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