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 matters, 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 that 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 to you).
In my next article, I’ll discuss three more distinctions between grassroots organizations and national nonprofits. The key takeaway is that neither one is better; they are just different. If you are planning to move from one type of nonprofit to another, knowing in advance what the differences are can help you forge a path of success — for your career and the nonprofit.
Do you have any stories or lessons to share about your experience in navigating these two distinct worlds? Use the comment space below to share your tips with fellow journeyers on this trip we call fundraising.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.