Are You Ready for Grassroots Fundraising?
In a nation of nearly 1.6 million registered 501(c) nonprofits, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are multiple differences. Some of these differences are moot when it comes to fundraising; after all, people are still people, even if they support the biggest nonprofit or a small startup. They expect to be asked for a gift, thanked for that gift and receive assurance that their investment is making a difference.
However, some distinctions make a big difference for fundraising and fundraisers. One of the significant ones is whether the nonprofit is grassroots or working with a broader constituency. There are differences, and failure to consider them can result in your failure as a fundraiser and even lead to the nonprofit's eventual demise.
Who you know is at least as important as what you know
Grassroots organizations are generally the creation of a community and somewhat spontaneous in their origins. The founders are more worried about addressing a need than writing bylaws. Knowing the players in the community and being greeted by name as you walk down the streets of town are critical "skills" for successful grassroots fundraising. A trained fundraiser may be less valuable to a grassroots nonprofit than a person who has a history with nearly everyone in town. While being able to write motivational copy, create a gift table and identify appropriate vehicles for a planned gift matter, if you don't have the respect of the community, you'll be talking to yourself much of the time.
Who they know may be more important than what your organization does
Even more than in national nonprofits, donors feel a connection to the "face" of the grassroots organization. That "face" varies by person, but it could be the executive director or a fundraising staff person, the leader of a branch of the work, a board member, or a volunteer. The challenge is if that person leaves — voluntarily or not — his or her supporters may leave, as well, if their loyalty is to that person more than to the cause. As a leader of a grassroots organization, you need to make sure every donor is connected to more than one person. You, of course, can't replicate the relationship a donor has with her nephew, for example, but your goal should always be to make sure the donor is connecting with the mission, not just with a person.
Mistakes are more public and require more attention
Several years ago, I mailed a direct-mail letter for a national organization to raise money for women in Mozambique who had lost their husbands in the civil war. Unfortunately, our proofreading failed, and these women were referred to as "war windows" (as opposed to widows) in one paragraph. We shrugged it off, a few donors called to chide us, and we raised money for the project.
In a grassroots organization, everyone knows you — and everyone else — so mistakes get a much broader audience. You don't need social media to broadcast your errors; you have the local hair salon, diner, house of worship and grocery store. This makes responding to mistakes, no matter how minor, something you have to do quickly and thoroughly. If someone feels slighted in the least, it will come back to haunt you. So swallow your pride, be genuinely apologetic, and make every effort to make amends considered appropriate by that person (not just you).
Don't ask for an opinion unless you plan to do something with it
We often send surveys or ask potential major donors for their opinions to help increase donor involvement. Much of the time, this information is interesting — but it might not alter anything we do. In a grassroots organization, donors are more likely to expect you to take their advice and make changes as a result. There is a much greater sense of connection as they see you regularly, may visit your programs and possibly feel integral to your success. If you ask for an opinion, be ready to incorporate it — or at least explain why you didn't after giving it fair consideration. Otherwise, you run the risk of seeming arrogant or patronizing — or even "ignorant" because (they believe) you don't recognize good advice when you hear it.
Social media is critical because the feeling of 'friendship' is stronger
While social media is great on the national level, it becomes even more important on the local level. Providing up-to-date information, kudos to businesses and community leaders who lend a hand, photos of your program, and reports on events is more like sharing news with your family — it's expected to show up on your social-media pages. This is also a great way to "meet" new friends. Include your social-media contact information on everything you do in terms of publicity, and then make sure the content you provide is fresh and local-based. You can become the "go-to site" if you give your neighbors information about the community that is interesting to them.
Volunteers can make or break your nonprofit
On a national level, many nonprofits don't rely on volunteers other than to stuff letters or help with other office functions. On a local level, they are the lifeblood of your organization. They make the events happen. They provide "staff" when you can't afford to hire any. They recruit new donors. And they are brand ambassadors for your organization. Making sure your volunteers have an experience that is meaningful and enjoyable is critical. If a volunteer feels unappreciated or mistreated, he or she will tell others — and those "others" are also your neighbors. Your reputation in the community can be rapidly smeared by one unhappy volunteer. On the other hand, an engaged and energized volunteer could be the PR machine your organization can't afford to hire.
Consider developing a Volunteer Bill of Rights. When everyone in the organization buys in to this, you have productive, fulfilled volunteers who love your work and want their families and friends to have the privilege of also being part of your nonprofit.
The key takeaway about grassroots fundraising vs. fundraising for an organization with a larger scope: Neither one is better. They are just different. Being forewarned and considering if you have the skill set and temperament to move from one to another can contribute to success — for you and the nonprofit where you invest your time and talents. FS
Pamela consults with nonprofits, helping them develop their fundraising strategy and writing copy to achieve their goals. Additionally, she teaches fundraising at two universities, hoping to inspire the next generation of fundraisers to be passionate about the profession. Previously, Pamela led the fundraising programs for nonprofit organizations. Pamela is a member of the Advisory Panel for Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University’s Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy, a CFRE, a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) and Dominican University, and holds a Doctorate in Business Administration from California Southern University. Contact Pamela at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @pjbarden.