The Best Advice From Nonprofit Leaders

As part of a group project for a master’s class in fundraising that I teach, students in small groups interviewed fundraising directors at area nonprofits of their choice. One of the questions they were required to ask was, “What advice would you give to someone starting a career in fundraising or launching a nonprofit?

The five student groups interviewed nonprofits ranging from a century-old university to a local human services organization and a nationally recognized nonprofit. There were trends in the advice, regardless of the size of the nonprofit. Here’s a sampling of the wisdom these leaders shared.

Keep coming up with new ideas
Successful fundraisers today aren’t relying only on the old methods, but they also aren’t abandoning tried-and-true fundraising programs for the shiny, new ones. Rather, they are using a mix of old and new and constantly thinking of ways to make something that works work even better.

One nonprofit had a successful golf tournament, so its fundraisers decided to hold three on the same day. That built greater momentum and allowed for more “bang” for the promotional dollar. I’m sure it also wore staff out, but at the end of the day, the results made it worthwhile.

Developing and maintaining people-to-people relationships is the most important thing you can do
“Ask often but not always” was a theme of the advice. They also cautioned the students to listen to what interests the donors; remember, it’s not what you’re selling, it’s what they want to buy. Also, ask the donor for a specific amount; then be quiet and wait for him or her to respond. (“Listen more, talk less” — always good advice!)

One development director said he welcomes when, during a personal visit, a donor asks for information he doesn’t have. Instead of bluffing his way through, he sees it as a great reason to come back to the donor. The donor has, in effect, left the door open for your next visit.

And, of course, a critical part of building relationships is to say “thank you” continuously. You’re not only doing the right thing by being genuinely grateful, but you are deepening a relationship that may result in a future gift.

If you are starting a nonprofit, begin with a board of fundraisers
One fundraising director cautioned that it’s difficult to turn a board into fundraisers. If you are beginning with a clean slate, look for fundraisers — not necessarily by profession, but by inclination. Once you have the fundraising piece on solid footing, you can add program and operational experts.

The harder you try, the better you get at it
While this is true with almost everything, for fundraisers it is a reminder to not let the “no” from a donor derail your efforts. Instead, learn from that “no” and ask again … and again.

I am a direct-mail fanatic, and I love to work a program to raise the response rate from 4 percent to 5 percent, or from 7 percent to 8 percent. But the reality remains — even if I double the response rate of a direct-mail program, possibly nine out of 10 people who got the letter said “no.” But I have to charge on, learning all I can and not letting that “failure rate” stop me from trying to do better with the next mailing. And it’s the same for all our fundraising. We really do get better the harder we try.

Remain flexible
Change is guaranteed. 
Any of you who have been in this business for more than five years can certainly attest to that. The story of my career is “Economic Downturns I Have Known and Survived” — not to mention key staff turnover, program cancellation, bad (or no) press, the rise of new channels for marketing our nonprofits, and on and on.

Embrace change. It’s going to happen, so we may as well enjoy it, learn from it and keep growing. There’s never a dull day in fundraising — and wasn’t that part of the appeal in the first place?

Stay mindful of your mission
Know your mission and know the progress your organization is making toward fulfilling it. Share the impact, not just the numbers. And remember, keeping a focus on that all-important mission can help you manage change, explore new ideas, have a basis for building new or deeper relationships, excite your board to fundraise, improve your own skills — oh, yeah, all the advice the fundraising leaders shared as essential.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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