Lessons About Fundraising From the Seat of a Bike

For the last four years, my husband and I have been regulars on the local recreation trail, peddling our bikes 15, 25, even 40 miles. The distance may change, but little else did … until recently.

Now, when we are out riding, the “serious riders” (you know the ones — they’re wearing skin-tight shorts and sitting on super-uncomfortable-looking bikes) raise a hand in greeting. Occasionally one says, “Hi.” And once, when we pulled over to take a break, a few even stopped to see if we were OK.

Very little has changed. We’re still a middle-aged couple wearing tourist T-shirts and our Teva sandals. Oh, but did I mention? For Christmas, we replaced our 17-year-old bikes and got modern-day road bikes. All of a sudden, we’re part of the “in crowd.” We look serious — so we’re taken seriously.

This observation got me thinking about fundraising and how it is similar. Here are some of my thoughts while this old dog sat on a hard, tiny (and yes, I confess, not overly comfortable) bike seat, peddling away the miles and pondering new tricks.

Look the part
Smaller nonprofits often wonder how they can compete with the glitzy mega-charities that seem to be gathering positive press every other day. My recommendation? Start looking like a serious nonprofit. Sometimes we have to start acting like who we want to be when we grow up, instead of waiting to actually get there before we act the part.

Just like having the “right” bike gave my husband and me a measure of acceptance from the “serious bike-riding club,” thinking about your fundraising with a bigger mind-set can help your nonprofit increase its funding base. Instead of thinking car washes and bake sales, think about sitting down with a potential major donor and presenting a well-crafted case for support. Prepare a brochure that looks like you’re serious about your mission. Ask for endorsements from people whose opinions carry weight in your donor community.

Have a plan
If we get on the trail close to our house and take all the right turns, we end up at the ocean. It’s an exhilarating ride, and the payoff is pretty great, too. But if we don’t follow a plan, we’re likely to end up in a far less desirable place.

And so it is with our nonprofit organization. “We want to grow” is OK, but how are you going to accomplish that? When you talk about “getting to the next level,” have you defined that so you’ll know where you’re heading? “We may be lost, but we’re making good time” is humorous, but it’s no way to run a fundraising program.

Watch your pace
When we start off on a bike ride, we know where we’re going, and we know that means we have to have enough left in us to get back home. For us, that can mean an occasional break for water or even a granola bar. For the fundraiser, it means avoiding “slash and burn” techniques that destroy donor retention.

This means timely receipts that truly are gratitude-filled. Newsletters that share the good things that are happening because donors gave. Websites filled with photos and stories that add “heart” to your work. This doesn’t mean that all of these fundraising tools avoid also asking (and ask clearly). But they give plenty of opportunities to rest and celebrate the miles we’ve covered so far.

That’s what this old dog has been thinking about lately. What do you think?

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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