In my new book, The Busy Volunteer’s Guide to Fundraising, I discuss a range of truths that must be understood and taken to heart by the dedicated volunteers who help us raise money for our worthy causes. Here I’ll single out just three of the many truths.
1. Donors give to your organization because you meet needs, not because you have 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 United States—our universities, hospitals, and major arts organizations. They don’t portray themselves as needy. They present themselves as organizations meeting needs. They showcase their successes. They quantify their impact.
During last decade’s economic downturn, I received countless solicitations from organizations bemoaning their budget shortfalls, their tail-spinning annual funds, and the programs sure to be cut without my support. These groups erroneously thought I’d give simply because they had needs. What I wanted to know instead was exactly what societal needs they were addressing.
By contrast, during the same period Stanford University raised more than $6 billion from 160,000 donors. How was this possible? Certainly, part of the reason is the stature of Stanford. But just as important, the university presented opportunities for donors to invest in the long-term needs of society, such as the environment and energy.
You can do the same by telling the stories of those whose needs you have met. Whatever your cause—whether it’s the arts, health, aging, domestic violence, or children’s needs —there is no constraint on the hopeful message you can send.
The truth is plain to see: people invest in impact, not in needy organizations.
2. Fundraising is as much about relationships as it is money.
This is the second-greatest truth, and in our hurry to raise money we often forget it.
Successful organizations build and nurture relationships. They rely on volunteers like you to be the bridge to the community, bringing people who share the organization’s values into the fold.
You play a critical role, whether it’s meeting new people and bringing them to an event, sharing your enthusiasm about an organization over lunch, or listening to a friend talk about something of great importance and realizing that the group for which you volunteer has programs matching your friend’s interests and values.
Organizations that hold their ground and even thrive during recessions are those that, with your help, have solid bonds with their donors. Even in bad times, these organizations continue to ask supporters to invest in the successes they’ve already helped to build. And, feeling like partners, donors respond.
For too long we’ve viewed fundraising as transactional—where all the effort is put into securing the gift and very little into developing a productive relationship. But by forging a partnership with our donors, not only do we communicate the gratitude they’re owed, we markedly increase the chances they’ll stay with us through both thick and thin times.
3. To attract donors, you need to tell your organization’s story.
How wonderful it would be if, because ours is a good cause, people rushed to give. Occasionally that happens with a new organization, but the glow quickly fades.
In truth, we have to tell our stories constantly. Fortunately, there have never been more opportunities to tell those stories—and tell them well—than today.
Social media platforms abound, and savvy organizations use them. Tweeting is expected; a Facebook page is a must; your website should be vibrant and current; and emails have to be tailored to the recipients’ interests and issues (forget email blasts except in rare cases like a broad-scale disaster).
Believing that people will discover how wonderful your group is without marketing yourself is akin to the 1940s Hollywood starlet who thought she’d be discovered by sitting at the soda fountain at Schraft’s Drug Store. Maybe it worked for one or two, but as a career strategy it was a failure.
In Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Jim Collins proposes a constructive idea. Acknowledging that much of what our sector does can’t really be measured, he suggests we gather our statistics—for example, “Last year we served 147 at-risk mothers with our parenting program”— and then tell one story of 1 of those mothers to illustrate impact. The person who reads the story will himself or herself multiply that impact by 147.
Tell your truth. Tell your impact. Let your good cause out from under the bushel basket. If you don’t turn on the light, who will?
The preceding is a guest post by Kay Sprinkel Grace. In addition to The Busy Volunteer’s Guide to Fundraising, she is the author of The Ultimate Board Member’s Book, Over Goal!, and Fundraising Mistakes that Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too). Grace has received Stanford Unversity’s highest award for volunteer leadership service, the Gold Spike, and in 2013, she received the Henry A. Rosso Award for Lifetime Achievement in Ethical Fundraising from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.