As I think about what I have learned from my years working for a nonprofit and as an advocate for people who live in poverty, it boils down to three things I learned from my mother: Be good, be nice, and always tell the truth.
The organization for which you are raising funds must be a good organization. It must operate with integrity. It must meet a real community need. It must be well-managed. It must do something that addresses the heart-needs of people who can provide the resources you need. By heart-needs I mean, for example, that people who deeply believe in the value of education are more likely to support programs that offer education to people, to women, to dropouts, or to disenfranchised folks. Your education program, then, can speak to the heart-needs of those potential donors.
You personally need to believe in this organization with your whole being. Any fundraiser can write grants and find money for somebody. But people among us who are successful and continue to partner long-term with people in the community to provide terrific services, whatever they may be, are those who believe passionately in what the organization does. Successful fundraisers commit their time, energy, and talents to fulfilling the mission. They speak eloquently about what their organization does because they hold it in their hearts, turn it around constantly in their heads, and demonstrate its good deeds with their personal time and energy.
If the organization is not GOOD, with capital letters, and if you do not believe intensely in the goodness and value and meaning of the organization, then getting and keeping donors is almost impossible.
Can everyone in your organization quote your mission statement? Do your board members know it? Does each staff member know it? Do your volunteers know it? Does each of those people believe in the mission? Do they each know their role in the organization’s fulfilling its mission? Do they know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the organization with which they are involved is efficient, capable, trustworthy, and responsible?
If so, your organization is probably GOOD. Your job is half done, then.
This has to do with manners and also with building relationships. We never know when we are meeting a potential donor. One time I was waiting in line at K Mart and was getting more and more agitated about whatever was going on and taking so long. I almost said something sarcastic. When I got up to the cash register … finally…the clerk said, “I really enjoyed hearing you speak at my church last week.” Thank goodness I had kept my mouth shut. We never know with whom we are interacting. We can never take the risk of letting a bad day affect how we interact with people on the phone, with those who walk in our doors, or with the tone of any notes we may write.
We can always have time for people who want to talk about our organization. If we truly do not have the time that day because of deadlines that are beyond our control, then we find another time immediately to follow up with the conversation. In being nice, we always honor our commitments to return phone calls, reply to emails or texts, and respond to people who have something to say to us or to ask us. Especially with those people who irritate the fool out of us, we need to follow up and be nice, even though being nice may require being firm as well. Putting off people who are just plain mean simply adds to their frustration which also adds to their meanness. Killing them with kindness is often the best approach.
Being nice also means being genuinely interested in people. It means being curious about who they are. I’m not talking about hiring those companies that can do background searches on them regarding their net worth or professional allegiances. I mean things such as asking about what they’ve been up to lately. It means doing for donors what you do for your friends … especially when some of your donors truly become your friends. It means picking up the phone and having a two-minute “just thinking of you” phone call.
One of the loveliest things I’ve ever had happen with a donor who became a dear friend was when the family asked me to take a significant part in his funeral because they knew how much he loved the organization where I worked and how special his and my relationship was for him and for them. What an honor to have had such a significant relationship with someone who also, as it turns out, was a significant donor.
Being nice means thanking donors warmly and quickly. Can you strive to get your formal thank you notes out within twenty-four hours after receiving the gift? You may not always meet that goal but that you can aim for it. Even with form letters, you can personalize within the body of the letter when appropriate. Whoever signs the letter can also hand write a personal note on the letter. It may be as simple as “We truly appreciate your support.” You may also call the donor immediately upon receipt of a gift… usually a significant gift … but sometimes just to personally thank someone who has been a regular donor. You can send donors who give at certain levels personal and handwritten notes. You can ask board members to thank first time donors again with personal notes. You can aid in this by giving board members addressed envelopes with stationery at each meeting along with individuals’ names and addresses. Then the board member can write just a couple of lines of thanks to the donor.
You can certainly keep your donors informed about what is happening through various social media tools as well as occasional “snail mail” information. You can insert a flyer within thank you notes about an opportunity you want them to know about. You will treat your donors as “insiders” which, in fact they are, because they believe in the organization enough to give their money.
One fundraising effort that began by happenstance and then which took on a life of its own at the organization where I worked was the honor and memorial program. People chose to give memorials to the organization because they knew the organization handled their gifts of love and support well. I’ll tell you the truth. I have given memorials to other organizations and weeks later received a pre-printed card with the deceased person’s name handwritten on the fill-in-the-blank line. Our intent was to send the bereaved family a warm note of sympathy within twenty-four hours of our receipt of the gift. We enclosed the donor’s contact information so the family members could easily send their own thank you notes. The donor received the acknowledgment letter and our thank you just as quickly. Then we published the honors and memorials in our newsletter which often brought in more gifts when others were reminded that they meant to make a gift, too. We are simply being nice…
Always tell the truth
This is probably one of the best tips I can ever give anyone about fundraising. I was very open in sharing with groups the things our organization tried and how we failed. Then I told what we learned from our failure and how we changed things. The point was not that we failed. It was that we continued to learn and improve our organization. This helped donors know that we were trustworthy and that we continuously worked to be the best at what we did.
“Always tell the truth” means using the money gathered for whatever purpose you said you were using the money for. I had a board member who believed you could tell whatever heart wrenching story that would “sell” and then use the money that came in for whatever need you had. She never did understand that you could not tell a powerful story about a homeless person and then use the money for an adult education program rather for programs designed especially for people who were homeless.
“Always tell the truth” means keeping your organization’s books, records, and financial reports above reproach and available to anyone who wants to see them. When you discover mistakes or glitches in them, correct them and develop processes and procedures so that those particular mistakes don’t happen again.
“Always tell the truth” means working with others in the organization in ways that are trustworthy, respectful, and fair. When you say you’re going to do something, do it. Or if there is a reason you can’t, own it up front. If other staff do not believe what you say or notice you do not follow through on promises made to them, your job becomes even more difficult. People who do not trust you and your expertise and capabilities will not give you the information you need to raise money for them. They will undercut you in subtle and non-healthy ways.
“Always tell the truth” also means keeping your board or your executive director apprised of everything that is happening, good or bad. Ultimately whatever happens within the organization falls under the board and/or executive director. Be straightforward. Work with honor and credibility with the people to whom you report. Without those two traits, honor and credibility, you cannot succeed in raising the funds the organization needs nor can you demonstrate that you are a professional in the best sense of the word.
“Always tell the truth” means being truthful with yourself about your own limits. No one who raises resources for an organization is good at everything required. Someone who can write beautiful grants and thank you letters may be terrible at public speaking to tell the organization’s story. Someone who can maintain a fantastic website may be so shy that networking opportunities at the Chamber of Commerce are just not their thing. Someone who feels very comfortable talking about a major gift while playing golf may not be the best person to handle a mission fair at a local congregation. Know your limits and find others who complement your weaknesses with their strengths. These may be volunteers, other staff, or community people.
Taking care of yourself and not overextending yourself is also part of always telling the truth. Not a single person reading this is Superman or Superwoman. But some of us live as though we are. We give 90% to the organization. We give 50% to our families. We give 25% to our church and or civic organization. We give 10% to our friends. That totals up to 175%! We can’t function long or well for our organization, our families, our church, or civic organization at that pace. We need balance, honesty with ourselves about what we truly can do at any given time, and self-care.
When we have a cause or organization that is honorable, does good work, and that we passionately believe in, when we are nice and thoughtful and sincere, and when we always tell the truth about our organization and ourselves, then donors will be drawn to us and to our organizations.
All the rules and guidelines about fundraising are important. You have to know the mechanics of the task, but, as I see it, being good, being nice, and always telling the truth are what undergirds all our efforts. They are what brings success to getting and keeping donors.