There are literally millions of not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations throughout the world that rely on public and private contributions to fund their critical work. Their aims vary from advancing horticulture to activating humanitarian systems and their presence spans from Mongolia to Maine. The sector is vast, diverse and far-reaching. Yet, an overarching challenge for the majority of groups working to make a difference is the same: raising money. In an era of unprecedented philanthropic engagement and rising local and global needs, why is it as difficult to raise money today as it was when the sector began to boom more than three decades ago? What does it take to build a vital, robust fundraising program? What is the formula for raising the capital you need today and tomorrow?
Based on my 25 years of fundraising for local and global social change, I have some strong views about what it takes to fund transformational missions. I can't claim that this formula is transferrable to museums, universities, symphonies or operas; these institutions are a different breed of tax-exempt organization. I can claim that this model works for those organizations tackling seemingly intractable social problems—lifting communities out of poverty, advancing women's human rights, protecting at-risk children. This method roots itself in the values of the organization's mission. Its directive is simple: build a giving program as aspirational, authentic and ambitious as your agency's vision. This article does not include each and every component needed for a strong and healthy fundraising program. What it offers are steps to shift your thinking, habits and practices around fundraising. My hope is that it helps transform your organization from month-to-month struggling on to the road of mission fulfillment.
Step 1. Believe in the mission in every cell of your body. Are you truly at the right organization? Whether as a fundraiser, executive director, donor or board member, is this the place you're supposed to be? Ask yourself these questions:
- What breaks my heart?
- What gives me hope?
- What do I believe must happen to create a better world?
- Is this the organization that lights me up and activates my own change agency?
Here's a test to help you know: You meet someone at an event. They ask you about your work/ life. At one point in the conversation, you share that you are a fundraiser for or a donor to organization X. They reply, "What a great cause." Do you reply, "Yeah, it's excellent. I really love it," and then change the subject? Or do you find yourself gushing a bit, as though you just met someone and you can't stop talking about this new love?
If you're raising money for an organization you're not in love with, quit and find the right place. If you're on a board for an organization you're not in love with, resign and find the right place. Raising money—big money—requires that you are in love with the work. You can fight with it some days, want to leave it other days, but in your DNA, it is one of the reasons you are on Earth. Find the work, project or organization that makes you feel your relevance and your place in the world, and that sets your heart afire. You will be more successful. You will have greater impact. Passion-filled purpose raises more and bigger money.
Step 2. Understand that fundraising doesn't just equip programs, fundraising IS a program. Fundraising and philanthropy are programs. They require talents, experience, resources, purpose, objectives, analysis and evaluation. In the past 10 years, fundraising has changed; it will change again in the next 10 years. As the philanthropic landscape shifts, fundraising programs must shift with them. Fundraising programs must know and understand the philanthropic cultures in which they operate and how to create engagement opportunities that help donors from all walks of life feel the connection to the mission.
The best fundraising programs anticipate shifts in social change and philanthropy, and even inform the philanthropic future. Great fundraisers can help donors see around the philanthropic bend and work together to create mutually beneficial opportunities to see values in action.
When I began my work in social change in my twenties and shared with people that I was a social change fundraiser and philanthropic advisor, I received this reaction: "Is there health insurance with that?" In my thirties, the response was often, "I'm not sure what that is, exactly, but have you ever thought of the private sector?" Now in my forties, in a world connected as never before in history, I mostly hear, "How do I get into this field?"
Times have changed. Raising money must change with the times. For an organization to raise the resources it needs, the whole of the organization must see fundraising not as an afterthought but as a core program. Organizations must move from funding a budget to building relationships that unleash life-saving missions.
Step 3. Begin to talk publicly about money. Years ago, I was on a board of directors serving as board chairwoman. When we got to the section of the agenda that read "fundraising," I noticed that most everyone looked down or away. Up until that point, the whole group was engaged and activated. When the talk turned to funding the work we loved, the energy in the room shifted. When we began the conversation of raising resources, these were the things that were shared: "I don't like asking for money." "I don't know anyone with money." "Can we get some money people on the board to raise it?"
Here's one of the things that is striking in social change: Brave, caring people can talk about some of the most horrid social ills of our times—like war and genocide, child sex trafficking, domestic violence, and racial injustice. None of these topics is for the faint of heart, and yet millions of people tackle them each day. Bring up money, and suddenly, you feel an energetic retreat, a shrinking. It's as though a teacher has asked a question about the book you didn't read the night before, and all you're thinking is, "Dear God, don't call on me."
Why is this the case?
In our culture, we have set up communities, systems and vehicles to discuss painful social problems. We've piloted programs that address them. We've uncovered solutions. We know it's tough, and we know we can make a difference. We watch documentaries to help us understand, we read, we listen, we share. We navigate the strain of the work, even though it can feel a bit much some days. We lean on each other, we get support, we celebrate when we have progress. We take risks. In short, we put challenges front and center and wade in the difficult waters—not alone, but together.
Now, think about money. When was the last time you told someone your net worth, your debt, your savings, your money triumphs, your money struggles, your fears and hopes? When it comes to money and raising money, we keep conversations about it on the back burner. We wade in the narrow end by ourselves. We have a whole host of feelings about money—raising it and donating it, but it is not often a public conversation.
Once upon a time, we didn't talk about genocide, child sex trafficking, domestic violence or racial injustice. And though our conversations about these challenges may be imperfect, we are in these conversations. This takes courage.
Once we start talking about money, we'll realize it's not as overwhelming as it seems. Anything that has been privatized will uncover insecurities when it first becomes public. Once it's out in the open and you realize that the Earth didn't swallow you whole when you told someone your credit card balance, you will realize it's not as scary as it's been set up to be. It simply takes what talking about social ills takes: community. To be a great fundraiser, you don't have to reveal your bank account balance (if you want to, though, more power to you!), but the more at ease you are talking about funding critical work, the more successful you will be. Our cultures haven't yet created the conditions to talk about money. But the third sector has certainly broken ground before. In the next few years, I predict all great fundraising programs will include healthy ways to talk about money.
Step 4. Renounce entitlement. Fundraisers, often out of stress, exhaustion, or fear of not meeting goals, can feel entitled to donors' charitable contributions. This entitlement plays out in a handful of ways:
- "We got a check today from donor x. They could give much more than this."
- "How can they not be returning my emails? Don't they know we have a budget to make?"
- "I put so much work and time into this relationship. I thought they would have given much more."
I've spent a lot of time with the people who are on the receiving end of these comments. Here's some things I've learned:
A donor once shared with me that her niece had a neurological illness for which there is no cure. Her parents didn't have the financial resources to get her the medical care and equipment she needed for quality of life. Insurance wouldn't cover the costs. The donor spent upwards of $1 million a year keeping her niece in comfort. She hadn't yet told any nonprofits. She shared that her gifts would be smaller because of other expenses. A nonprofit fundraiser who didn't know this background said, "How can she just drop her gift amount? She has much more money than this."
None of us know other people's full stories. Expecting that a donor should continue to give at their current level or increase their gift merely because you've calculated for it is a recipe for premeditated disappointment. It's also a form of entitlement. If someone shares with you that they want to be giving more but can't at the moment, share your gratitude for what they are giving. Let them know they are a critical part of the giving family at your organization. People's checkbooks change, but their commitment to mission rarely does. Ride the changing times with them. You'd want it done for you.
I also recall a time when a nonprofit I was in partnership with didn't receive its annual $50,000 gift from a donor. This gift normally came in the summer months, which is a slow time for giving. This was a group in its start-up years. They had no reserve or endowment. I understood their stress. Fifty thousand dollars is a significant amount of money. I stepped in and encouraged them to write an email to the donor, not asking when the pledge would be made, rather asking if that time frame still worked for them and offering to have a phone call at a time that suited the donor to talk through the best allocation.
The fundraiser wasn't happy with this approach, but took my advice. Two days later, the donors' relative called. The donors' daughter had died tragically and suddenly. The relative said she was taking responsibility for getting gifts out as the donor told her she didn't want to let anyone down. In my deepest times of grief, I'm not sure I can say that I have prioritized pledges to nonprofit organizations. Her level of commitment stopped me in my tracks.
The whole staff got together and wrote her a caring and loving condolence card, sharing that they are here for her and her family during this time.
The third sector is about community—not just the communities that missions serve, but the communities that help fund and equip that work. Donors, board members, and champions are human beings. Leave entitlement behind and instead show up with grace and gratitude. Connect with donors the way you'd connect with all of your wonderful constituencies.
The heart of our work is our shared humanity and connection. Make these values the cornerstone of your fundraising program, for your own integrity and for the long-term wellness of your vital work.
Kathy LeMay is the founder and president of Raising Change, Inc.