Six Lessons in Fundraising

Engaging conversations, intimate confessions, and really helpful advice...

... from six of the most successful fundraisers in the larger Bay Area and United States

I recently attended the Nonprofit Fundraising Masters event in San Francisco. For a reasonable fee of $95, I enjoyed a full day of engaging conversations, intimate confessions, and really great advice from six of the most successful fundraisers in the larger Bay Area and United States. The venue of this event was the beautiful Fillmore Heritage Center, on lower Fillmore Street, a former cultural and educational complex dedicated to the long history of Jazz in San Francisco and the Fillmore District. The enclosed theatre space with a stage, a balcony and a cafe-like proscenium with small tables and chairs, provided a perfect environment for the interview-based conversations and for connecting with the rest of the audience.

The speakers:

Paul Rice, Fair Trade USA
Michael Brune, Sierra Club
Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money
Annie Leonard, Greenpeace & The Story of Stuff
Stephanie Bray, United Way
Chuck Collins, YMCA of San Francisco
Beth Kanter, host and facilitator, put together a number of questions that were repeated to all interviewees. The questions, coming from an expert in fundraising, were smart and very relevant to learning about tips and pitfalls of raising money for good work and for a good cause.

The questions:

  • How did you find fundraising, or fundraising found you?
  • What do you think is the main factor that determines the success of a fundraiser?
  • What was your biggest fundraising mistake and what did you learn from it?
  • What is the story of the largest gift you secured and what is the lesson associated with it?
  • Tell us a story about someone who said a NO that later became a YES
  • In our fast-paced world, how do you present your cause and how you drive people’s attention to it?
  • Do you have a secret weapon, a tactic that you use with your donors?
  • About mentoring: did you have a mentor that had a particular influence on you and your career?
  • When the work gets tough, what keeps you going?

I may have missed the precise wording of the questions, but these were definitely their core arguments. The answers and consequent conversations were so dense and meaningful, that it was impossible to capture it all in my notes. So, very far from being an exhaustive recap of the day, this post is meant to provide just few highlights and share the Six Big Fundraising Lessons I gained from each speaker. It goes without saying that what you will read below is my re-elaboration and interpretation and not the original words of the speakers.

Lesson no. 1 - Make it Specific and Relevant

from Paul Rice, Fair Trade USA
If your mission is broad and not linked to a specific place or community, at first it is much harder to raise donors’ interest and establish a connection with potential donors and advocates. Find a point of contact, highlight something in what you do that belongs in people’s everyday life, something that makes it easier for people to relate to. For instance for Fair Trade, Paul thought of food, specifically coffee. Most of us enjoy our mug of warm coffee in the morning; raising interest on where that coffee comes from, who produces it, and in which conditions, was a much easier task than talking in general about the unfairness of the entire chain of imported food.

Find a point of contact, highlight something in what you do that belongs in peoples’ everyday life, something that makes it easier for people to relate to.
— Paul Rice, Fair Trade USA

Lesson no. 2 - Preparation and Honesty are Your Best Allies

from Michael Brune, Sierra Club

This is a great one “Honesty, transparency, and the “guts” to have a difficult conversation will take you a long way”. And preparation, preparation, preparation. At some point in your career, you start feeling confident, which is good but keep your confidence in check, there is a downside to it. The risk is to make assumptions and be overconfident in what you have assumed. It is quite amazing to realize how much time and energy go into great speakers’ preparation and rehearsal. So, never.stop.practicing. Two more pieces of advice: 1) be specific and candid when asking a donor for his contribution about why his gift is necessary and show them the impact that the last gift had in real-life situations; and 2) understand your donors’ interests and be complementary while emphasizing your uniqueness.  

Lesson no. 3 - Relatedness and Compassion. Donors need them as much as we do

from Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money

Lynne Twist’s conversation was quite a surprise for many in the audience. Most of us see fundraising, more specifically “asking” for money to private donors, as a challenging and intimidating task. We tend to feel like we are asking for a big favor, we never think of what we can bring to the table. Donors need to give money to good causes and for good work, we can provide this for them. Asking for money requires profound relatedness, it takes you in deep places inside yourself and in the life of your donor. Lynne sees fundraising in this way: moving money from where it is not supposed to be, to put it somewhere better, to do something you love, and to give it to someone you deeply care for. To the question “how do you get people to pay attention in this cluttered world?” Lynne said that she makes it about giving attention instead… It is not about you, but about them, about us all together. Never forget the human beings behind, respect and listen to what they really care for. Wow that is a big lesson right there.

And one great tip: instead of a thank you note after a gift, send a congratulations note!! This simple gesture helps to establish a more equal relationship and creating a context for a long term partnership.

Asking for money requires profound relatedness, it takes you in deep places inside yourself and in the life of your donor.
— Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money

Lesson no. 4 - Learn About Money You Should Say 'No' To

Annie Leonard, Greenpeace & The Story of Stuff

Yep, we should learn to say no to money and never lose sight of our strategy. Many of us leading nonprofits, tend to say yes to every donation or fee because in our world “money is never enough.” But it is true that sometimes, the money we accept creates a lot of work and is not functional to our strategy, to our company’s roadmap. Annie Leonard’s conversation was really a fast sequence of tips and tricks that I tried to capture. Here:

  • Do not think of your donors as uninterested givers, most of them want to be involved, so, engage them in a meaningful relationship;
  • Find touch points and meaningful communication. Are you giving a talk? Invite them;
  • Do not take a NO as a personal offense ever. A NO may mean “no check right now” but keep the door open! In the end, a check helps you for a while, but a good advice helps forever;
  • When you pitch, speak clearly and accessibly, find things that help you connect with your audience. Do not care for demonstrating that you are an expert, just focus on making a connection;
  • Last and not least, remember: people will not remember what you said or what you did, they will remember how you made them feel.

Lesson no. 5 - Go Big or Go Home

Stephanie Bray, United Way

Stephanie has been a fundraiser and development director for most of her life and she said that authentic interest and curiosity for her donors’ life has been key to her work. Establishing real relationships, taking the time to talk about all things personal and professional generally tells her a lot about her donors and helps her in gaining that confidence that makes the “ask” easier, almost like a natural consequence of a nice conversation. Stephanie told a nice story about the unexpected and miraculous involvement of Oprah Winfrey in a health cause she was working on and her “embarrassment’ when Oprah asked, “if you had a million dollars, what would you do?” It is not exactly a question that you answer off the cuff… Stephanie thought then that she should never be unprepared for such question. Not only you should think BIG and believe that your cause deserves great support, but also be prepared with your pitch, find that one story that will make the difference and capture the heart of your potential donor.

Good tip: Write a handwritten note to your donors. Everybody appreciates a personal touch.

Lesson no. 6 - Don't Ask Too Soon

Chuck Collins, YMCA of San Francisco

While it is true that passion and the telling of a good story are things that help you establish a good emotional connection with your donors, it is also true that you need to have a solid plan. Chuck shares a checklist of homework for all fundraisers:

  • Do diligence, develop the case, what is the need and how you make a difference
  • Understand the donor’s interests and frame the problem in a way that is relevant to them
  • Believe in what you do deeply, and create an authentic presentation
  • Use numbers and analytics to break down the problems.

Until you have nailed down at least these four points, you are not ready to make an ask!

Leading the fundraising efforts of YMCA, Chuck has put particular attention to understanding the interests of young generations and to responding to their “impetus for data”. We do leave in a culturally rich society, understanding and embracing this diversity is key to unlock the potential of long lasting relationships. Chuck suggests to “refine” your vocabulary based on the target audience of your work.

Great tip: Take your donors with you on a trip where they can see where change happens.