Successful Fundraising Requires a Great Story

In this post, I continue my series on fundraising and share a story from a very experienced nonprofit fundraiser. He says that while having a volunteer board member along on an ask is helpful, a strong staff person can be effective without a board member. Key to success for staff or board members is having clear priorities, telling a story that resonates with the community and with donors, and knowing how to build relationships.

Other posts in the series include:

Set Priorities, Tell a Story, Build Relationships

Told by a nonprofit staff person somewhere in the US

I have worked in both the for profit and nonprofit sectors. I have been at both large and small nonprofits. I have been both a CEO and a director of development. I have also served on nonprofit boards as a board member. So, I have had a lot of experience with fundraising.

Most board members that I have dealt with don’t like to get involved in fundraising. They don’t raise their hands and say, “Hey, I will help you fundraise.” From my view, they are more interested in developing program and telling you how to run the business. Everything except fundraising.

The mentality changed notably after the big recession. Donors were nervous and stopped giving money. So, nonprofits hired “gunslinger” fundraisers on staff, hoping they would save the day. Of course, that did not work in a lot of places. And even though the recovery is good, board members still have this attitude, “We pay these fundraisers enough, they should do all the work.”

Board Members Need to Know that Raising Money Is Hard

I don’t think board members have to fundraise. Some are comfortable asking for money. Some are not. But it is very important that every board member understands that the organization needs money to survive, that money has to come from somewhere, and that it is hard to raise money. It does not just flow in automatically because the organization is good. Some first-time board members think, “This organization does great things. How could someone NOT want to give money to it?” It does not work that way.

Board Decisions Impact Fundraising

Board members also need to understand that the decisions they make on the board ultimately affect the organization’s ability to raise funding. There is a connection. The types of priorities that the board sets can make it easier or harder to raise money. Too many initiatives make it difficult to tell a cohesive story.

Organizations Need to Tell a Good Story and Build Relationships

For fundraising to be successful, the organization needs clear priorities that meet a need in the community. The organization also needs a good story. Then whoever is doing the fundraising – a staff person or a board member – has to be knowledgeable and passionate about what the organization is doing. They have to be able to talk about its vision and mission, how the money is going to be used, what impact it has, and how it will be evaluated. They also have to know how to tell the story.

And I think knowing how to build relationships is also key. You need to put donors in a position where they feel excited about giving. As a fundraiser, you ask lots of questions to make sure your priorities align with the donor’s passion. Sometimes they don’t. That’s okay. At least you got your story out there. But you definitely won’t be successful just asking over and over, sending lots of emails, and becoming a nuisance.

Increase Gifts by Setting Priorities

Here is an example. I was an Executive Director in a small, conservative community. The organization had grown by getting some corporate support and then by merging with another smaller organization. But they were not tapping into any major donors. I realized that we did not have clear priorities or a story to tell.

To raise money, you have to have something that you believe in and that the community needs. You can’t just make something up. I found a volunteer in the community who was a professional facilitator. She managed a strategic planning process with us pro bono. She was instrumental in getting key players from the community on the strategic planning committee. We went through the process over the course of about a year. And we did our homework. For example, there was a similar organization in a nearby county. We drove up to talk to them. And they came down and did a workshop for us.  

Through this process, we came up with three priorities. They resonated with the community and we were able to partner with different groups. The strategic planning committee signed off. Then the board signed off. We lined up the partners and launched the initiative we started to ask for money. We were ready because we had a story to tell.

We increased giving from our current donors including corporations in a short time because we could describe what we were doing. By packaging this initiative, we also attracted donors who had never given to the organization before but who were interested in the priorities. For example, a friend introduced us to a local couple. We sat down with them and talked about our focus. We did not even ask them for money. At the end of the lunch, he said “We are going to do something. We will make a substantial gift to you because we are looking to invest in this area.” Then they came back a couple weeks later. He just called up and said this is what we are going to do. It was the biggest gift the organization had ever gotten – a three-year gift to hire a someone to manage the effort.

Lessons learned:

  • Have a story to tell and know how to tell it
  • Make sure whoever is asking knows how to build relationships
  • Make sure board members understand how the decisions they make impact fundraising

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