I serve as the Director of Development for Fairfax Library Foundation—this means I raise money for the library system. I’m a fundraiser.
I didn’t start out my career hoping to be a fundraiser. I didn’t even think of it. But as I transitioned from theatre director to theatre administrator, I realized how important the fundraising piece is to the health of the organization. It’s the only thing that matters (well, besides the actual art or work or mission… but those things don’t happen without fundraising support. Money makes the world go ‘round, as they say).
So, I’ve had to teach myself the field of development as I go, as many of us do in our career paths. Below are four lessons I’ve learned along the way. These aren’t four building blocks of fundraising, or anything quite so profound. These are four things that I’ve found surprising and continuously key in my work:
1. Writing is the most important
With so much content being generated out there every day, the standards for content are very high. To me, this means that every piece of writing you do in fundraising, whether it’s an appeal letter, grant proposal, or copy for a membership brochure, must be 100% error-free and compelling.
You must be a writer.
If you find yourself working in fundraising and you don’t think of yourself as a writer, I recommend you find someone who is (or, if you do excel at writing, still can’t hurt to find another writer to raise your game). Hire a writer to help with grant proposals, get someone else on the staff to review major pieces, or perhaps a board member is a strong writer/reviser and would love assisting in this way.
In the meantime, work on your craft. Read everything you can—other organizations’ appeal letters, brochures, proposals, blogs. Make note of what you think works and what doesn’t. PRACTICE WRITING! Set goals like, I’m not going to even consider this appeal letter finished until I have ten completely different drafts.
This will force you to improve your writing skills. And that will help you raise more money.
Evidence: I brought my writerly voice (different style from this blog!) to appeal letter campaigns at three new organizations in a row. With no other changes—just style of writing—all three nonprofits beat previous benchmarks for the given fundraising appeal.
2. Successful fundraising requires great marketing
I studied marketing (in my MBA program) more than I ever studied fundraising (zero), so at first I wondered if my obsession with marketing while serving in development roles was biased. Nope. My obsession is justified.
A scenario: You’ve met a potential donor at a networking event and give them your business card. Naturally, they visit your organization’s website to continue learning about your organization—because we all visit websites! What if what they see is outdated, has no pictures, or is difficult to navigate? They will lose interest and flip to the next business card.
Second scenario: A volunteer had a great experience and wants to follow you on Facebook to keep in touch. But when they visit your Facebook page they see old posts or posts without images. This won’t motivate the volunteer to stay engaged.
Third scenario: You’re at a public event to let people know that the excellent work of your nonprofit is only possible with the support of individual donors. The passersby say, great, do you have a brochure? But what if your brochure is printed on regular paper and was designed by a non-designer in a program like Word? Your audience will toss your brochure away and likely forget all about your organization.
You get the idea. Your image matters, and it’s conveyed through marketing materials. If you want big companies to give you big money, your marketing has to live up to a bare minimum expectation. And if you want to be more successful than average, your marketing must rise above, too.
Also, people can’t give you money if they don’t know about you. Your marketing and branding must get your work and name out there.
So in fundraising you have to work closely with your marketing team. Or maybe you’re like me, and there is no marketing at your organization. Suddenly your real title should be Director of Development and Marketing. Yes, it’s two jobs in one, but yes, it must be done for real success.
Teach yourself how to make a WordPress site. It’s not that hard (if I can do it, you can do it).
Invest in some stock images—even a few high quality images will make you stand out online.
Find a social media intern! I found some high-achieving High School students who want to build their resume and earn those service hours. They know some great online tricks you may not have heard of (like Piktochart) and they want to learn.
3. Seek partnerships and affiliations
Another way for more people to know about your organization and the work you do: get friends. I’ve found that partnerships and affiliations are a quick, authentic way to expand the network for your nonprofit.
Is your organization already partnered up? My group fundraises for a library system, so I take every opportunity I can to flaunt our partnership, and I actively ask them to promote back. Do you team up with other groups to do any work or events? Cross-promote like crazy. If you don’t have this arrangement already, maybe there’s something to explore.
As for affiliations, join every member association, chamber of commerce and relevant society. There are even affiliations designed for the singular purpose of promoting you, like becoming a member of Catalogue for Philanthropy.
Partnerships and affiliations help more people know about you, and they raise your profile. Literally, you can look good by association. And when you look good, you raise more money.
4. Fundraising is selling mission
Just because your organization is a nonprofit does not mean the rules, strategies and actions are completely different from any other company. I’ve found the most success when I think strategically about “selling” my organization’s mission the same way I think about selling anything. Lucky for us, selling a mission is much more fulfilling than selling cars, homes, insurance, etc.
But people need those things, you say, and they don’t need to support my mission with their donation. Okay, true. So compare your fundraising to selling “wants” not “needs.” Trendy clothing, trip to the movies, dinner at a restaurant, and so on. These things/experiences provide a good feeling for people. That’s exactly what your mission sells: that amazing feeling people get when they know they are making a positive difference in the world.
So that’s all you have to do as a fundraiser: sell that great feeling. Make sure people understand the kind of positive difference they are making, specifically, when they buy a spot as your donor.
You’re not “asking for money.” You’re selling opportunities to make a difference in the world.