“I have some good news … and some bad news.” We’ve all heard that saying — and probably said it from time to time.
And it’s true — in life and in fundraising.
Since I am not qualified to philosophize on life itself, I’m going to stick to fundraising. And sadly, the bad news there is: Fundraising is tough. It doesn’t always work. The money we spend doesn’t always come back to us tenfold or even twofold.
But the good news is: Fundraising works! In fact, Giving USAestimates that last year, nonprofits in the United States raised $335.17 billion. Regardless of what your share of this really big pie was, the fact remains: Fundraising raises funds.
Well, sometimes. There’s no magic bullet. If there was, I would share it with you. (At least I like to think I would.) Fundraising is hard, hard work. Sometimes it’s characterized by guessing and hoping, by disasters and near misses. Other times there are glorious successes. Massive pats on the back. Even awards and accolades.
But the pathway to fundraising success is strewn with bombs. Letters that didn’t move donors to give. Emails that led to massive unsubscribes. Events that left you in tears. Proposals that were rejected. And the list goes on.
No, there is no magic bullet. But I believe there are some basics that can help get you closer to success. Sure, you’ll still have some bombs, but overall, you will be more successful.
First, have a plan. While a full-scale development plan is an excellent idea, the reality is that many nonprofits — especially smaller ones — can’t afford the luxury of time and money to take on a planning project of that scope. But that’s no excuse for not having a plan that is aligned with the scale of your fundraising goal.
At a minimum, what are you going to do? When are you going to do it? What will it cost? What will it raise? What is the big message you will be communicating all year, and what are the more focused messages you want (or need) to share throughout the year? (Waiting until the last few months to try to squeeze things in makes a tough job even tougher.)
Secondly, follow your plan. Plans are not written to be filed away in a dark drawer or an electronic version of the dark drawer. They are living, vibrant things that need to be exposed to light on a near-daily basis. The schedule that accompanies your plan should be realistic; if you know it takes longer to get things approved, build more time in. If you want to choose a topic for an e-appeal closer to the drop date so you can capitalize on what’s trending, fine — just keep an eye on that so you aren’t caught idealess and out of time to get the job done well.
Following your plan does not mean it’s inflexible. When a need comes up, when an opportunity arises, when a great creative idea surfaces — run with it! But just like expenses are a daily occurrence, so should be your fundraising efforts. Every mailing or electronic communication won’t be the stuff of (good) legends, but consistent communication matters.
Finally, don’t give up too soon. Among the saddest words I hear from time to time are, “Well, we tried that once …” Yes, sometimes it’s obvious that an idea was a flop and the best thing to do is to cut your losses. (Be sure to have a postmortem afterward so you actually learn from the failure; don’t just sweep it under the rug and hope your colleagues have a short memory.)
But more often, it takes time to build a culture of giving among your constituents. Perhaps they have been supporting your Fourth of July parade float for years or sending in annual gifts to help you provide a Thanksgiving meal to families in need. Now you ask for $25 for your ongoing work. You’re going to have to build a case, and that takes time for some.
Hopefully many of your non-responders are like browsers; they were willing to take a look and their interest has been raised. They may not donate today, but with additional prompting, some will. Proven fundraising tactics work — but don’t expect them to work instantaneously.
There are 1.4 million nonprofits in the United States alone, and many of them are proof that fundraising works. But it takes effort and a willingness to stick with it. This old dog has seen a lot of “miracle workers” come and go, always promising magic — but the only magic is how quickly they completely disappear.
Do you have what it takes for the long haul? That’s a mark of a true fundraising professional.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.