Unexpected Fundraising Can Be Extraordinary

If there is one thing we can expect in fundraising, it’s the unexpected. We’re sure it’s a winner, but the donors don’t respond to an e-appeal or piece of direct mail. The worst drought in history ends on the night of the gala. The website goes down right as we announce a big fundraising campaign.

But as anyone who has been a fundraiser for long knows, sometimes the pendulum swings the other way, too. A check arrives from a bequest we never even expected. Our direct mail hits just the right note with a donor, and we receive a large donation. Someone who never donated before goes online and makes a major gift.

Fundraising is certainly serendipitous. We can plan, prepare, proofread, present and even plead—but then the unexpected happens. Despite the unpredictable nature of our work, a good fundraiser always is prepared to turn the unexpected into the extraordinary by constantly replenishing his or her supply of these three things:

1. Ideas that can help you take advantage of opportunities.From saving direct mail letters and e-appeals that you receive to checking out other nonprofits’ websites, there are so many ideas out there that can help you make your work even better. Looking for ideas to make your online donation page more compelling? Go online and see what other nonprofits are doing. Need to send out a quick email to take advantage of a news story that directly relates to the work you do? Having an electronic file of examples that caught your eye can jump-start your thinking. Not sure how to promote bequest giving in your newsletter? Look at other nonprofits’ newsletters and magazines to see how they handle it.

Every fundraiser should be donating to other nonprofits in order to get their mail and email, and every fundraiser should have websites of other nonprofits bookmarked for quick reference. When opportunities present themselves, you don’t have to start from scratch—a little preparation puts dozens of great ideas right at your fingertips.

2. Stories that show recent accomplishments made possible by a donor’s giving. You never expected to run into that donor at the grocery store, and the potential major donor that you have been trying to cultivate just stopped by out of the blue. Having a few good stories just waiting in the back of your mind can turn the unexpected into a strategic moment. Keep a few photos on your phone, or have some notes you can pull up quickly to trigger the story in your mind—whatever helps you to be prepared for the extemporaneous encounter. It may seem easier for those of us who have been in the business of fundraising for years because we have more experience to draw on, but even those starting out in fundraising should keep filling their mental reservoirs with good news of what’s happening thanks to generous donors.

3. Unique ways to show appreciation to a donor. Last weekend, I joined thousands of others to watch ET-94—the last remaining external fuel tank from the NASA shuttle program—make its way down the streets of Los Angeles to its new home at the California Science Center. For the last quarter mile of the journey, people (I presume they were major donors) led the way, “guiding” the fuel tank to the museum. What a brilliant idea! It cost almost nothing for the science center to invite donors to be part of the ceremony, and these donors had an experience that is probably unforgettable—because it won’t ever happen again.

Maybe you don’t have a 154-foot-long fuel tank to move, but what are you doing that could provide an experience for your donors and give them stories to tell their friends on Facebook or their coworkers at the office? Our job as fundraisers is to find the magic in what could be seen as mundane, and then invite our supporters to become part of the experience. Is there any pixie dust you’re overlooking that could potentially energize your supporters?

Fundraising takes planning and preparation, but it also requires spontaneity. Disciplining ourselves to add to our lists of potential ways to seize an opportunity can put the sizzle back into our work. Jeff Brooks recently wrote in Future Fundraising Now, “Charitable giving—when it really works—is a two-way relationship. It’s never passive.” And this old dog knows that part of breaking free of passivity always, always is being on the lookout for the extraordinary.

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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