Top Ten Fundraising Lessons I’ve Learned in Ten Years

Top 10 Letterpress

Today I’m celebrating ten years of working in the nonprofit sector doing fundraising for nonprofit organizations! When I think back on all of the experience I’ve gotten over the years, I am overwhelmed and humbled by all I’ve learned, as well as the people who have helped me learn it.

I thought I’d celebrate today by sharing the top ten lessons I’ve learned over these past ten years. Hopefully some of these tidbits can reinforce what you’ve been thinking or allow you to consider a new idea. Because that’s the thing about fundraising – we are never done learning about it.

1. While fundraising might be our world, to most people, it’s a small piece of their lives. We might toil over a fundraising letter, spend hours hundreds of hours working on a three hour fundraising gala, or write a lengthy grant proposal. While the work we are doing is important, usually, the details matter less and the intention matters more.

2. We are not fundraising for the nonprofit organization, we are fundraising for the cause. It’s easy to get caught up in all of the nuances that your organization offers, and the activities it is doing. But in the donors’ eyes, they don’t care about what you are doing, they care about why you are doing it. They care that because you exist, the world is a little different. And that’s what we’re working for.

3. Donor centric communications and activities are key. Being wrapped up in the organization you work for can easily lead to communications and activities that are full of organization-specific jargon. As often as you can, take a step back from your communications and read it with fresh eyes. Remember, donors just want to change the world. Your organization is just the way to do so.

4. It’s all about the relationships. Maintaining relationships with donors is just like maintaining relationships with your friends or loved ones – it’s important to keep them updated through the good times and the bad. No friend is going to stick by your side if you ask for a favor every time you call them. Cultivation and stewardship should make up 90% of your communication with a donor – solicitation should be 10% at most.

5. Fundraising is not a dirty word. Society has made us scared to talk about money. Many people think there are power dynamics at play when it comes to money, so they think of fundraising as begging. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Every organization, nonprofit or otherwise, needs money to function. Donors know that, and they want to be part of the change.

6. Fundraising is a two way street. We need donors just as much as donors need us. Fundraising is an equal exchange, where donors get just as much out of the relationship as nonprofit organizations do. There are a plethora of benefits that donors enjoy in making a donation, everything from changing the world to public recognition to tax benefits.

7. There is always more work to be done. There are always more donors to thank, prospects to find, research to do, solicitations to be made… the work is never done.

8. Fundraisers need to take care of themselves. Since the work is never done, it can be easy to burn out. Expectations just keep growing higher and needs of program staff just keep increasing – which is great – but, we need to remember that we are not all miracle workers. We must do our best and accept that it is enough.

9. Fundraisers need to take care of each other. We are a community. It is time to band together and support each other in the work we are doing – whether through professional associations or informal meet ups. We are our best allies!

10. The learning is never done. As I mentioned in the beginning, there is always something new to learn. The field is always changing and it’s imperative to keep up. That’s part of what I love most about fundraising – it’s always changing.

I am tremendously grateful for all of the experiences I have had and the people who have been part of my journey. You know who you are! Here’s to the next ten years – I have a feeling I’ll be impacting even more nonprofit organizations through my work!


My Top Three Fundraising Tips

Most people fill their days off with hours of reality television, shopping, and sleeping in. Not me (OK, I did sleep in a few days last week!). Last Thursday morning I ventured to San Francisco to Foundation Center to participate in the very informative Top Ten Fundraising Tips by Darian Rodriguez Heyman, the editor of Nonprofit Management 101 (which I was lucky enough to purchase an autographed copy of!). Darian gave a great talk reviewing some tips outlined in the book, a compilation of input from various experts in the field. He started with a very poignant anecdote about Bill Cosby’s grandmother’s view of whether a glass is half empty or half full – her response was, “it depends on if you’re pouring or drinking!”

Darian gave ten tips for fundraising, and I’d like to highlight my three favorite tips that he reviewed.

1. Stage a Thank-a-Thon. Fundraising isn’t all about asking for money. It includes everything from prospecting, to stewarding, to asking, to thanking. Darian posed this as a way to get your board engaged in the fundraising process – print out a simple script for board members (and I would add other volunteers who can speak eloquently about your organization), have some pizza, and schedule an hour after work one day where everyone can gather and make calls to say thanks – without asking for money. It’s a win-win situation for your board, your donors, and you.

2. Never Submit a Cold Grant. This point really can relate to anyone from whom you’re asking for money, not just grantors. Funding is all about relationships, and that includes grants. Just because the grantor doles out thousands of dollars each year doesn’t mean you have to be afraid to talk to them. Most of them prefer you talk to them. Get in touch with the Program Officer and ask for advice on your application. Darian went so far as to suggest asking them to review your application – I’ve never done that, but he’s had proven success doing it! Doing this causes them to mentally adopt your project, even if they never actually review it.

3. Utilize the Upcoming Volunteerism Revolution. OK, so I took liberty on changing one of his tip titles with this one, but this was a point he made. Volunteerism is moving toward people truly wanting to be part of the solution, and they don’t just want to stuff envelopes – they want to leverage their skills and expertise in helping you. Keep this in mind when engaging your volunteer force.

I’d like to end with one more point Darian made that really resonated with me – people don’t give to you, they give through you. People are giving to the impact you make. Fundraising isn’t personal to the fundraiser, it’s personal to the donor. They are connected to the change your nonprofit is making. You’re just the middle man.


P.S. I’m so excited that I can just pop over to events in San Francisco now! The city is full of nonprofit activity. Here’s a photo I took while stuck in traffic after the event!