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An Exercise That Raises Money While You Do It

A version of this article originally appeared in Grassroots Fundraising Journal

Is your board afraid of fundraising? You're not alone. Most boards find the whole subject taboo.

Here's a real-world example. Imagine that your nonprofit faced the following challenges:

  • Most of your board members are both unskilled at fundraising and anxious about doing it. (Sounds familiar, right?)
  • You board gathers only twice per year—it's an international organization—so there aren't many board training opportunities.
  • As a grassroots nonprofit, you don't have the money to fly around North America to coach the trustees or meet with donors.

How would you turn these barriers into assets?

Turning Challenges into Opportunities

Nearly 20 years ago, I faced these challenges with one of my very first clients, The Wildlands Project. Together we solved the problem.

Let's call the solution "Finding major donors by mail."

Here's an exercise that will teach you how to replicate our success. You'll learn how to gently engage your board members, shift their thinking, and raise a lot of money at the same time.

In Fundraising, Personal Contact Trumps Everything

Our strategy was simple.

  1. From the organization's donor list, we segmented all $50+ donors—about 250 people—with the goal of asking them to give at least $100.
  2. We wrote a letter and mail-merged it—"Dear Fran," rather than "Dear Friend"—to make it more personal. The letter was a page and a half, printed front and back, with large margins for hand-written notes. The chair and executive director hand-signed all of the letters.
  3. We brought the letters to the board meeting and passed them around, asking trustees to write personal notes to anyone they personally knew. When the exercise was over—it took about an hour—some letters included four or five hand-written notes.
  4. We hand-addressed the envelopes, added first-class stamps, and included a response card with check-offs beginning at $100 and increasing from there.

Adding personal notes was a collegial, fun activity. Even the fundraising-phobic board members were happy to write notes, especially since they were doing it with a group of peers.

Amazing Results—and a Shift in Attitude

This mailing generated incredible results—a 33 percent response rate and almost $30,000, including gifts of $5,000 and $10,000. After these two big donations were subtracted, the average gift was $164.

For me, the best part of this experience was unexpected. Within a few weeks of the meeting, board members started contacting me—on their own initiative—to inquire about the results. "I wrote a note to Sam Smith. ... Did he respond?"

This happened often enough that I compiled a list of recent contributors and shared it with the entire board, giving them the following instructions. "These people responded to our mailing. They've all received a thank-you letter from the office, but personal thanks from you would be even better."

You know what? Most of them followed through by sending thank-you notes.

From Writing Notes to Identifying Prospects

Once board members learned how easy it was to help, and how much impact they could have, we expanded their engagement to the next level.

We asked for prospect names—and they responded. We gave them published donor lists from peer organizations to review—and they did.

With board members adding new names and reviewing other lists, we identified 400 additional prospects. A personalized "acquisition mailing" produced an impressive 15 percent response rate and more than $10,000.

We re-solicited everyone six months later, using the same process. By the end of the year, we had raised a total of $65,000 through the mail from 177 donors—terrific results for a grassroots organization.

To Engage Your Board, Start Where They Are—Not Where You Think They Should Be

Rather than complain about your board's lack of engagement, look for specific tasks that will build their confidence and create immediate results.

Anyone can write a note on a fundraising letter. Anyone can send a thank you note. Anyone can review a donor list and realize, "Hey, I know five of these people. I know actual donors!"

To build your board's self-confidence, start with this exercise, using your own list and your own letter. Then watch what happens.

Good luck!

An-Exercise-That-Raises-Money-While-You-Do-It_Andy_Robinson.jpgAndy Robinson
© 2015, Andy Robinson

Andy Robinson is a trainer and consultant based in Vermont. Learn more at and A brand-new video series, focused on effective board training, is available at

Topics: Fundraising