Small Shop Fundraising in Challenging Times

ImageThere’s been a lot of discussion about the difficulties of fundraising in the current economic climate.  Is it possible? What specifically do we need to do in times like this?  The answer to the first question is…Yes, you can!

As for the second, read on, friends.  But first things first, which is…

Do not panic!  As a nonprofit leader, it’s important that all members of your organizational team – staff, board members and volunteers – project a positive “can do” attitude about fundraising.  If you believe that you can’t raise money in times like these – you’re right.  If you believe you can raise money, you’re also right (and, you’re on the winning side).  You absolutely must have a winning, positive attitude – it makes a difference!

The good news is the economy is cyclical – it’ll improve.  Immediately following every recession, there’s a dramatic uptick in giving.  So get ready for that spike and don’t wait for it.  Since the 1970’s, there have been seventeen official recessions, twelve major revisions to the tax law, and the stock market has been a rollercoaster.  Yet despite economic fluctuation, philanthropy steadily increased during this same time period with the exception of two years.  The take-home message is this – in tough economic times, people actually give morebut they give it to organizations they care most about.  If your organization ranks fourth or fifth on a donor’s list, you may drop completely off their philanthropic radar screen.  If you’re first or second on the list, chances are good that their gifts to your organization will increase.  This is so important that it warrants restating . . .

In tough times, people give more… but they only give more to organizations they care most about. 

Armed with that information, your job is to get as close to your donors as possible, and make sure that your organization is their nonprofit of choice.  That’s great news, because it naturally leads to a simple action item, which is “get out of the office and start getting closer to your donors!”  Set up lunch dates, coffee chats, site visits, and opportunities for donors to witness first-hand why your organization is unique and changes the lives of those you serve.

Who should you be contacting?  Good question; you certainly want to be strategic about this.  I have a few tried-and-true recommendations:

Donors Are From Venus

Thinking broadly about your target donor demographic, consider whether or not women are well-represented; not only in your donor database, but also among your volunteers and board.  Today, women have 57% of the net worth in this country and that figure increasing.  If your organization doesn’t currently include women as a specific target audience of its messaging, you’re going to be increasingly on the losing end.

Board Members, Open Your Address Books

To you EDs, I know you’re doing 67 things at once.  However, if philanthropy and fundraising is important, you simply must move ‘getting out of the office and meeting with potential donors’ from the bottom of your “To Do” list to the top.  Consistently make it the highest priority in ensuring a bright future of your organization.

Board teamwork is absolutely critical in this task (that may not be great news for you).  It’s essential that your board be involved in the program.  Board members help open doors of influence; they should help set up the visit, and should also commit to attending those visits with the ED.  The payoff is promising – we know that if you set up the visit, you’re 85% on your way to getting the gift.  That’s a pretty good bet.

The staff and the ED, with help from the board – must be absolutely unrelenting in making calls and setting up appointments.  While many nonprofits are sitting back and waiting for the recession to end, you should be out in the field – out of the office – making contact with potential donors.

I know some are thinking, My board is scared of fundraising!  Well, if they’re setting up meetings to introduce the ED to prospective donors, they are engaged in fundraising.  The board member doesn’t have to ask for a gift – the ED should do that.  Rather, his/her role is just to make the introduction, be present, and give testimony to how strongly s/he feels about the organization.  Then, sit back and let the ED take the wheel.

Stay Close…No, Closer

In any small organization, there are probably no more than 70-100 sources that will end up being 70-80% of the money they raise.  Poke around in your donor management system to identify the sources most likely to make a major impact on your organization, financially.  Now, you’ve got your call list.  If you do anything this year, make absolutely certain that you remain in the top two charities-of-choice for the people on this list. Connect with them – engage them – have coffee – let them know how your organization is changing lives.  You’ll be very glad you did.

Community Leaders

It’s a great time to meet with the “movers and shakers” in your community – those who are not yet donors to the organization.  Call on them to ask for their advice and counsel on an issue important to the community.  As “go-to” people, they’re usually happy to gather resources and help you make connections to serve the people in their community – don’t be shy about calling on them.  This particular call should not be seen as an opportunity to solicit a donation – in fact, be very upfront about that, so that it’s not “hanging in the air”.

Consider a few (no more than five) questions you’d like to ask these “keystone community contacts”, and explain that, through their wise counsel, you’ll be able to more effectively serve and impact the lives of those in your community.  Again, make it clear that you’re not asking for a gift… I guarantee that at the end of that meeting, your prospect will ask, What can I do to help?  Who’s also doing this…. you already know the answer to that one… your board.

Your organization is leading; you’re providing a service in your community that is uniquely your own, and touching lives in a way that nobody else is.  You want others to join you in your crusade, and that’s why you should be adamantly making calls and contacts.  You want others to share in the joy that your community experiences as a result of your hard and dedicated work.

EDs and development directors… your job is to secure the largest donation possible, in the shortest amount of time, to the greatest joy of the donor.  Tell your story effectively, and the donor will feel great joy in having the ability to touch lives directly and uniquely.

Particularly in small nonprofit organizations, the biggest obstacle to successful fundraising and sustainability in general – let alone in difficult financial times –  is a culture of simply not asking for gifts in person!  Despite the fact that 75 to 80% of nonprofit revenue comes from individual gifts, most nonprofits shy away from it, opting instead for online appeals, social media, grants, and corporate sponsorship.  While there is certainly a place for all of these in a diversified fund development plan, they’ll never get you where you want to be, financially speaking, without individual gifts.

Ready . . . Aim . . .  Aim . . . Aim.   It’s time to fire!

Cheryl M. McCormick, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Ascend Nonprofit Consulting and Executive Coaching,


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