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Never Lose Sight of These Bedrock Fundraising Truths


While some fundraising truths are relative to a community or cause, others are absolute, in my opinion. The three discussed below have relevance wherever you are and whatever you do. You’ll find a fuller examination of these and other fundraising truths in my book, Fundraising Mistakes that Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too).

People give to your organization because it meets needs, not because it has needs.

This is the most important truth in fundraising. Get this one right and the others will be easier to realize.

Think of the most successful philanthropic organizations in the U.S.—our universities, hospitals, and major arts organizations. They don’t present themselves as needy. They present themselves as organizations meeting needs. They showcase their successes. They quantify their impact.

During the economic downturn of 2009, I received countless appeals from organizations bemoaning their budget shortfalls, constrained annual funds, and stalled campaigns. These groups erroneously thought I’d give simply because they had needs. But I wanted to know exactly what societal needs they were meeting.

By contrast, during the same time Stanford University raised more than $6 billion from 160,000 donors. How was this possible? Because Stanford presented opportunities for donors to invest in programs addressing the long-term needs of our society, such as the environment and energy.

The truth is plain to see: people invest in impact, not in needy organizations.

Values, not wealth, determine a person’s willingness to give

It always happens. A big fundraising campaign is looming. It’s time to refine the old prospect lists and add new names. We use various criteria to build our lists but the biggest one is usually wealth. “John Taylor just built an enormous house; he obviously has money; let’s add him to our list.”

We continually fail to recognize the obvious. John could have all the money in the world, but if he doesn’t share your values or your vision, either he won’t give or he’ll give modestly from a sense of duty.

We’re much better served if we begin with people who share our values. One performing arts organization I worked with during an economic downturn stayed vibrant when others around it were staggering. The executive director engaged her community, found out what type of performances they wanted, paid attention to donors at all levels, and gave them what they valued. Her contributed revenue never went down.

A few years ago, those on the Forbes 400 were asked to name the principal driver of their giving. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that 70 percent identified “personal values.”

Values drive philanthropy for all of us. But there are three other things we need to consider when identifying someone as a viable prospect for giving:

  • a personal connection to the organization,
  • concern for the cause as a reflection of the prospect’s values, and
  • financial capacity to give.

Although common sense tells us that the first two outweigh the third, we persist in starting with the third.

I often help organizations review prospect lists. Someone will hand me a list of potential donors or people to interview for a feasibility study or individuals to invite to a cultivation event. When I ask how these individuals are allied with the organization, more often than not the answer is, “They aren’t—but they have money.”

When generating new lists, resist the temptation to have people list all the high-net-worth individuals they know. Instead, start by asking them, “Who shares our values and is interested in our work?”

There are no “right words” when asking

How tedious it would be if we all carried the same script when calling on prospective donors! And what if all of us used the same foundation or corporation proposals, and if all fundraising letters, e-mails, and tweets were nearly identical? What a dreary landscape that would produce!

While there are certain phrases that work better than others—for example, inclusive language like “join with us,” “be part of,” or “I know from our conversations that you and I share a belief in”—even these phrases can be set aside if you have a better way of saying the same thing and getting the right result.

The only “right words” are those that reflect you and the organization, and those you know are right for the donor because you’ve been a good listener and discerned what he or she cares about.

The best advice is the simplest: be yourself. To be sure, you’ll want to remember what you learned in your training or coaching sessions. You need to remember to avoid phrases such as “Anything you can give will be great” or “I’m sorry to be bothering you.” Use words with which you are comfortable. Accept that the words won’t flow perfectly.

My favorite illustration of this truth is this: One volunteer, intimidated by a prospect she was calling on who was much older and in a higher position in the same company, finally asked the man for the gift—$25,000. He seemed stunned and said no one had ever asked him for a gift of that size. She blurted out the first thing that came to her mind: “Well, I’ve never ASKED anyone for a gift that size.” They both laughed ... and he made the gift.


The preceding is a guest post by Kay Sprinkel Grace, author of The Ultimate Board Member's Book, Fundraising Mistakes That Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too), and Over Goal!


Topics: Fundraising