How to Run a Successful Nonprofit Fundraising Program

April 2, 2018
10 minutes
Two profile photos, one in yellow, of a woman with shoulder-length hair, wearing big earrings and a black shirt. The other profile of a man with dark hair and a half-smile wearing a black t-shirt. The woman's photo is treated in yellow and has two concentric yellow circles surrounding her face. The man's photo is treated in blue and has a blue half-circle hitting his left shoulder.

THANK YOU to everyone who attended our webinar on March 13, 2018, a conversation between Blythe Hill of Dressember and Justin Wheeler of Funraise. There were so many amazing questions that we didn't have time to answer them all during our live event; we've taken the outstanding questions and shared them below.

Jump Into Fundraising From Right Where You Are, Because Getting Started Is the Hardest Part

Kyle Gardner, Sr. Development Manager with Charity Navigator asks: What are the best ways to make sure you don't lose donations by moving donors towards giving monthly, e.g. a $1,000 annual donor decides to give $50 a month?

Justin: There are many approaches to this, but knowing your audience and studying their habits may uncover your action plan. Your action plan should be very segmented and tailored for each donor—whether that's phone calls from your relationship management team or emails. For example, if you find that your annual donor gives $1,000 and is very steady about it (say, it always comes in December) then perhaps the relationship manager will decide to exempt this particular donor from the request to shift to monthly donations. Alternately, if you find that certain donors have more sporadic giving, you could entice them into giving monthly as an easier alternative. This would also be an excellent time to propose an "upsell" to certain donors (who have a high propensity to give and a strong wealth screening score). To donate $1,000 per year on a monthly basis would be roughly $83 per month. So you could suggest that the donor increase that number to $85 or $90 or $100 - it seems like a lot less when it's a $5 or $17 increase, but over the year your donation amount will be larger than it was last year.

N. Murphy asks: Do you have fundraising ideas for a budget of zero?

Blythe: Social media is free in terms of the software/technology (not in terms of manpower). If you don’t have someone on your team who knows about social media, bring on an intern and let them run with it. Definitely give them guidelines and monitor their activity, but also trust them to adapt your brand story to social media and engage new people there. Interns in general are probably the best way to get things for zero dollars—bearing in mind that the time to train and invest back in them (which you should plan to do) isn’t free. Another “free” idea would be asking your existing supporters if they have ideas. Perhaps one of them would be willing to host a small house gathering for existing and potential supporters who are interested in learning more about your work. Perhaps one of them would like to organize a bike ride, a 5K, a bake sale, a rummage sale, a wine + painting night, etc with tickets benefiting your organization.

Justin: Asking your existing donor base to help spread the word (or even running a peer-to-peer campaign!) is a no-cost and win-win scenario. They know, trust, and support your work and in doing so they're excellent advocates for your organization. By simply letting their network of friends, peers, and family know about your cause, they give strength to the referral and often will often move others to donate.
As Blythe mentioned, social media is an excellent tool for this. Your supporters likely are active on multiple platforms and you can simply ask them to "share this message with your network and tell them why you support us" and they will. It's no cost to your donors and there's a low threshold fulfillment of doing something 'good' (sharing a message is easy and only takes a click). Plus, by asking them to include a sentence about why they support you, it'll help their network to quickly understand the great work your organization is doing and why they'll want to participate too.

S. Dryden asks: How do you go about even finding, vetting, and developing the initial board for a startup nonprofit?

Blythe: This was the most confusing part of creating and building an organization to me, too! When I filed, I listed 4 women in my life who offer vital and dynamic experience and council. Many people list friends on the initial paperwork, but I selected women who I wanted to stick around. These women remained on the board for the first few years, and then as the board matured, we brought on people with more and a wider variety of experience. Someone from a legal background, a finance background, an HR background, and then a handful of directors who can be strong fundraisers and ambassadors of your brand in their different circles.

Justin: I agree with Blythe's suggestions above and would second the idea of diversity. Bringing together people from varied backgrounds will give you multiple perspectives and ensure that you're not in danger of being in a vacuum of your own ideas. You may also consider building an Advisory Board that would contain an even larger group. Constituents being served are great for this and bring a fresh perspective. We've found that asking students to join advisory committees bring lots of great ideas that are relevant to their generational cohort and provide great insight into different "walks of life" whether it's based on income, gender, parental status, etc.

M. Sackett asks: My professional experience has primarily been customer service with my longest experience being a service advisor in the car business. I have been a development coordinator for almost 3 years and still can't seem to shake my fear that I'm "unqualified."

Blythe: Me too. I am the definition of unqualified - I have no background in nonprofit work, my formal education was as a writer, and this organization was essentially born out of a successful series of posts on my personal (modestly followed) fashion blog. Here I am, leading an organization that’s raised $5M in 5 years by encouraging people to wear dresses and talk about trafficking. I think there is something really special about appreciating where your lack of qualifications have landed you. You have a unique perspective to offer—never forget that. I kind of wonder whether someone with all the qualifications to lead a nonprofit org would have come up with Dressember and built it into what it is today. It is not the traditional approach to nonprofit work or fundraising, which is why I think it’s worked so well.

Justin: Know that you're not alone! I would venture to say that most fundraisers and nonprofit employees come to their roles without any professional background or formal education related to their job. It's one of the things that I love about the nonprofit world; the people who are attracted to it come with open hearts and a willingness to help and then they apply the skills they have and learn new skills along the way. The fact that you've been with your organization for multiple years suggests that you're doing great work. Your skills in managing customer experience and handling high-stress situations—as well as many others—are surely called upon every day, and those are extremely valuable skills that don't usually come with a degree or certificate.

Cathy Teal, Executive Director, FAIR Foundation asks: What kind of fundraiser is appropriate for organizations who serve sick and dying adults?

Justin: Telling the story of your overall cause and backing it up with specific instances will really drive home the important work your org is doing, whether it's an ongoing campaign or a short-term fundraiser. I hear that you're a small org and you want a lot of bang for your buck with the fundraising direction you go in, so I think instead of individual fundraisers, I would focus more on raising awareness about the need for palliative care, telling the stories of what your org is accomplishing, and be very loud and clear and specific about the needs of the org—and the donations will follow. An amazing, powerful "Who We Are" video and easy donation tools would be where I put my budget.

Blythe: One of my favorite organizations that I personally contribute to is an org that offers end of life/hospice care to those who can’t afford it on their own. Their ED tells heart wrenching, sobering stories of people in their final months/weeks/days of life. She shares their mission—to offer death with dignity to the world’s poor - with humility and understated grace. I am almost in tears just thinking about the work they do! While you are right to suspect that a typical “fun” fundraiser may not be appropriate for your cause, really, any space where you or your team members can share in person about the powerful work you’re doing should be seized. I would invite your biggest donors (and potential big donors) to visit your facilities in person. Trust that they value your work enough to approach it respectfully and follow any guidelines given. They will feel honored to be invited into the fold, especially given its sensitivity. I think you could probably also have powerful marketing around the idea that everyone deserves to die with dignity—I am picturing a Humans of New York type campaign.

Diana Kern, VP of Philanthropy at Eversight (Michigan) asks: If your organization is just beginning to explore grants, should you hire a grant writer as a staff position or contractor?

Blythe: I would tend to say contract grant writers, and then if you find success with one contracted grant writer over time, offer them a position on staff. I am a big fan of contracting work both for budget reasons and for company culture reasons—if you contract a writer, you have the chance to work with them before you’ve offered them a job.

Madison Harper, a Director of Development for Boys and Girls Clubs of Dubois (Wyoming) asks: How do you show off an "everyday campaign" on Facebook without overwhelming your audience?

Blythe: People are following you because they want to stay up to date on your programs, but they are also interested in ways they can be involved—events they can attend, campaigns they can be a part of, etc. I would look at these "everyday" posts as an invitation and opportunity for supporters to come closer to your work. If your campaign runs for a month, just make sure you’re switching up the content so people aren’t seeing the same type of posts every day. At Dressember, we’ll post a survivor story one day, an advocate spotlight the next, and a book review (related to the topic) the next, just as an example. We focus heavily on the fun, fashion, and creative side of it, and sprinkle in the hard truths of trafficking, statistics, and survivor stories.

M. Daugherty asks: We are an established (21 years) non-profit healthcare organization that has always been funded by fees for service. Until now, we've never fundraised, so we're starting from scratch. What advice do you have for a mature org to begin meeting donors?

Blythe: I hope there is a transition plan in place to allow you time to move from fees to fundraising—that's a big shift. I would go after deep pockets in the healthcare space—doctors, pharm brands, foundations that fund medical causes, etc. I would be transparent with new, potential supporters that you are intentionally moving from fees to fundraising so that you can have a greater impact on the population you serve. That is a powerful story, and worth pressing into.

A. Fussell asks: What tips can you provide to get board members more involved in fundraising, especially when there’s interest!

Blythe: I think you have to carve out time at every other board meeting to remind board members that fundraising is part of their role and an expectation, and then handle whether or not they meet that expectation on an individual basis. At Dressember, we have a specific give or get that board members commit to and a worksheet where they brainstorm how they will meet their give or get. If they have an interest to go above and beyond, I would have them take the lead on some untapped donor development—whether picking up the phone to call and thank donors or taking donors out for coffee to bring them into deeper relationship with the org (or going with you on such coffee/dinner dates). Let your board members carry some of the weight of building and maintaining donor relationships.

D. McHugh asks: How do we convert more annual members into sustaining members?

Blythe: This is something we are currently looking at as well. What I suspect is that annual giving and monthly giving is a bit of a venn diagram—some but not all annual donors will give monthly, and some but not all monthly donors will make separate, significant annual gifts. I think the goal should be to grow a bigger venn diagram—ie, grow both circles—instead of focusing on how to grow the population that are both annual and monthly donors. I think you do this by making it clear that there are many routes to supporting your org, and unpacking the impact of all of those routes on the org.

We all know and understand how difficult it is to find success in fundraising, but every successful nonprofit organization has stemmed from a great web of brilliant ideas; the tricky part is putting those ideas into action.

D. Robinson asks: What are the one, two, and three steps that you take to make a successful fundraiser?

Blythe: 1) Keep it simple. You should be able to explain it quickly so that your supporters can do the same. 2) Make it easy to be part of. The process to sign up should take less than 5 minutes and be super easy for anyone. 3) Lead with story. At Dressember, this means sharing survivor stories 3x/week in December, but it also involves me sharing my personal story of creating Dressember (how + why) often. People want to know the story behind your brand/org, how it started, and why you care.

R. Finnemore asks: Who are the best veteran-friendly donors?

Blythe: This is outside the realm of my expertise, but I would guess other veterans, as well as families of living and deceased veterans. As a generalization, I think conservative, red state populations also tend to be very patriotic and in favor of supporting veterans. In general though, everyone admires a veteran. Tell powerful stories of veterans you’re working with/helping/empowering, and you’ll have everyone’s attention.

Justin: I agree with Blythe's assessment; veterans groups are relatively easy to find online and you can engage them and even ask them for advice and ask what sorts of organizations they donate to. Depending on your organization's exact mission, you may find groups outside of just veterans who are interested in helping. For instance, if your organization supports veterans re-joining the workforce, you may find alliances in the education sector that can help you further your cause. You may also want to bring in some consultation help build a target audience and database that have a higher propensity to give to your specific type of organization.

J. Howe asks: Any specific suggestions for non-profit religious radio stations?

Blythe: The main unifier you have with your supporters is a strong, common ground of religion. I would appeal to that often. If you do fundraising drives (even if you don’t), remind people that the reason for the station is to advance the religion (but be more specific). Remind people that you all want the same thing: to advance the religion. Outline for them how your radio accomplishes that, and then invite them to be a part of how you’re doing it. Make specific numerical asks and explain the impact of each of those gifts when possible.

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