Fundraising for small nonprofits: Stop competing and start thriving

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Fundraising in small organizations can be crazy-making. There, I said it!

It can be demoralizing to hear “XYZ large organization just hosted a million dollar gala. I think we should try host a gala too”. Or maybe it’s the dreaded “I’ve never heard of your organization”. It’s tough to be a small nonprofit where it feels like the large ones have all the advantages. How can you compete?

Add to that the many hats you wear and the immense time pressures. Who can fit fundraising in? There is never enough time in the day to do what we want to accomplish, and half the time it feels like our time is sucked up by the things that really don't matter or that don't get us results.

Add to all of that the fact that so many of us don’t actually want to fundraise. I hear it all the time - Executive Directors or programming staff who are “accidental fundraisers” or who do so out of necessity, all the while clenching their teeth in disgust, fear, or anxiety.

But fundraising is a powerful tool for small organizations. It can enable you to fuel the incredible work your organization is doing to change the world. Of course, growth isn’t always best, but generally we can all agree that we want to do more of what we’re doing. Have a greater impact. Ease our reliance on project funding. Build more undesignated resources. Etc.

So, how do we stop competing and start thriving?

There are a few fundraising fundamentals that can help!

There are plenty of fish

I love to think of fundraising as matchmaking. Your job is to find the people who are most likely to fall in love with your organization. If you can focus 95% of your fundraising time on building meaningful relationships, both before and after a gift, you’re golden!

Your donors want you to be authentic - they give to organizations that are authentic. When you think of fundraising as matchmaking, you put your most authentic “self” out there and you realize that not everyone can or should be a donor - and that’s okay!

I always explain that your job as a fundraiser is not to convince someone that your cause is important. Your job as a fundraiser is to find the people who care about your cause and help them make an impact by supporting your work. Of course, your organization’s mission might be to educate, advocate, and change minds, but that’s different to your role as fundraiser.

For example, if you’re fundraising for an organization that works to prevent or end climate change, your job is not to convince people that climate change is a problem. Your job is to find the people who are concerned about climate change and help them take action and have an impact by supporting your organization.

Do you see the difference?

Start with your donors

Stop comparing yourself to other organizations. The most successful fundraising comes from understanding what’s special and unique about your organization and leveraging that.

My favorite way to do this is to get donor feedback. Understand how your existing donors think about your work and the impact they have in supporting it. Listen to your donors and give them the opportunity to share why they love being a donor (and what they think you can do to improve). This is the foundation to your fundraising strategy. This is where you will “win” and stand out from the crowd.

I’ve included a free donor meeting guide you can access here to help you get the most out of these meetings.

Pick what's right for you

Imagine you are Goldilocks. Your fundraising strategy should be right-sized for your organization, tapping into the reasons your donors love you and leveraging your mission.

Start where you are and build. Don’t focus on corporate giving if you have no corporate relationships. Forget direct mail if your donors are all millennials. Maybe think about Facebook fundraisers if you have a strong Facebook following. Not all solutions work for all organizations - your best bet is to start with your strenghts and existing donors.

Every organization wants to diversify it’s fundraising, but how to do that is as unique as is your organization.

To help you focus on what strategies might be suited to your organization, I’ve included a quick cheat sheet that outlines all (or most) of the common and emerging fundraising strategies you can consider and what factors make them a good fit for your organization.

Stewardship (or #donorlove) is the only thing I believe every single organization needs to invest in. We see so many donors give once, never to give again. We know it's much more cost effective to build long-term supporters and small nonprofits can really stand out by building a meaningful, simple, and authentic stewardship program.

Let's deep dive

Join me on Thursday, December 6 at 1pm ET to deep dive into this topic and help you feel good about fundraising and raise more money for the causes you care most deeply about.

Cindy Wagman spent 15 years as an in-house fundraiser at organizations large and small before founding The Good Partnership – a boutique fundraising firm focused on small nonprofits. She has worked in social justice, health, arts, and education organizations. She has overseen and executed everything from annual campaigns to multi-million dollar gifts. She became a Certified Fundraising Executive in 2009 and received her MBA from Rotman at the University of Toronto in 2013.

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