You Asked—Fundraising Questions Answered, Part Three
This is the final article in a series of three (part one; part two) that follow up on questions submitted during the NonProfit PRO webinar that David Gunn from Salsa Labs and I presented. I use the term "answered" loosely, since fundraising is both an art and a science—meaning that there are facts, there are opinions, and yes, there are even just best guesses. So here are my responses to some of the questions that were raised.
Can (should) we start a membership campaign or something like that? Many organizations lend themselves beautifully to membership—museums, gardens or zoos, to name a few. But not having a logical reason for membership, such as admission or participation in local activities, has not stopped many nonprofits from launching a membership program nevertheless—and with great success, in many cases. Every year, I get several membership cards from organizations I support and those hoping I will join their group of supporters. In most cases, the benefits of membership are limited to the card, a publication that I would probably get even if I just donated instead of joining, and the great feeling of knowing that I am helping organization X make a real impact in solving problem Y. In these cases, the membership program is a tactic to get people to give—and there's nothing wrong with that. These memberships often reflect a person's pride in supporting the nonprofit; I remember being at a donor event and seeing donors showing their membership cards to one another, even though this was not the kind of organization that had tangible benefits (like free admission) for membership. One caution: If you decide to launch a membership program, remember not to present making the membership donation as "once-and-done" for the year; you want your members to continue to support you year-round. Chances are, many of them will be your best supporters, both short- and long-term.
How do you get your foot in the door with big corporations that have philanthropic tendencies? You absolutely have to do your homework. What kinds of things do they support (and do you qualify)? Are their facilities in communities where you work? Do any of your volunteers work there? Do they look for nonprofits that can provide unique, hands-on opportunities for their employees, and if so, can you accommodate that? Corporations donate for many reasons, but two strong ones are to show the community that they are good community members and to be attractive to employees and prospective employees because they are good corporate citizens. Once you know what they are willing to support and you have determined you qualify, ask if you can present your nonprofit's story to them. If applicable, someone who volunteers with you and works there may be able to open a door. Start out by asking for something small and show them that you will deliver on what you say you will do. Get the support from smaller corporations first and work your way up, using endorsements from those companies to open doors at progressively larger ones. You may be lucky and get a gift or an event sponsorship, but that's just a part of your job. Delivering on your promise will get you the next—and maybe larger—gift. That means acting professional by thanking them for appointments, consideration and referrals, not just a donation. It also requires submitting reports on the use of the gift on schedule. If they don't request a report, it's still a good idea to give some kind of small proof that their investment was well-used—send a few photos with captions, a testimonial, etc. Finally, offer to publicize the donors if they want and then follow through. Successful relationships with corporations mean both the corporation and the nonprofit are providing value to the other. What's your value proposition?
How can we get our board more active in introducing our nonprofit to their circle of influence? Most importantly, don't invite someone to be on your board without laying out your expectations. Potential board members need to know what the job description is and should feel free to turn the appointment down if they don't want to fulfill the expectations. The Bridgespan Group offers a great resource to help you get started writing the job descriptions if needed. If it's too late and you already have a board that has no expectations that they need to assist in fundraising, try to find one advocate on the board who can serve as an example and encourage others on the board. Look for less threatening ways for a board member to be involved, such as hosting a small dinner party where you make a presentation, or inviting contacts to fill out a foursome for a golf event. Start small and let them discover for themselves that introducing their contacts to your organization is a good thing—for your organization and for them. If all else fails, hope your bylaws have term limits so you can bring on new board members who know the fundraising expectations upfront.
How can we deepen the engagement of current donors? Make sure you are regularly communicating with a mix of progress reports (like newsletters) and fundraising appeals. Don't always be asking; you're building a relationship and that requires more effort. Look for ways to make your asks tangible. A donation of $50 to the general fund will likely be less attractive than that same donation to provide something more tangible. Yes, you are going to have to make a good case for designated (even loosely) contributions to your accounting team, but it's a battle worth fighting—engagement grows when a person knows exactly what he or she is making possible. Look at your data: Are there points where donors are more likely to walk away —and if so, what can you do to prevent that? For example, if people tend to give for two years and then lapse, start acknowledging their giving anniversary and reaffirm how much of a difference they have made with their support. Call just to say thank you. Send a hand-signed holiday card. Don't just say, "Go to our website to see/learn about _____." Instead, be proactive about bringing the information to them. Yes, everything is probably online, but you're leaving a lot to chance if your entire strategy is that the donor will seek it out.
What are the best strategies and practices for those of us with a very small communications and development staff? I hear you. I have been a team more than once in my career. Way back then, I read an article by Jerry Huntsinger that I tore out and referred to again and again. A version of it is available here. His first point is that small organizations "follow the basic fundraising principles that apply to any marketing situation, large or small." One point that was edited out of this version, but I think is key, is this: "The successful small organization utilizes every technique available to the large organization and the head man (or woman), instead of saying, 'That stuff won't work for us,' says 'Let's make it work for us because we don't have any other choice!'" And if you're in a position of doing it all (or most of it) in fundraising, take every opportunity to try something new and learn another skill; your value as a fundraiser will increase as you expand your abilities and do more than you ever imagined you would. Some of my best career experiences came from saying, "Sure, I can do that!" and then desperately researching how on earth it was done.
There really aren't easy answers to these questions, and it bears repeating: I'm sure if you asked these same questions to 10 other fundraisers, you'd get 10 different sets of answers. But this old dog has learned to celebrate every victory, large or small, even if it seems to go unnoticed by everyone else in the organization. Fundraising is hard work, sometimes disappointing work—but always work that can make a difference. Keep at it!
Do you have other questions you'd like answered in a future column? Send them to me at email@example.com. I can't promise you a perfect answer, but I will give you the best answer I can based on my real life experience.