Advice for a new small-shop fundraiser

Congratulations on your new job as the sole fundraiser at a small, community-based nonprofit. You’re smart and energetic and have lots of transferable skills. Still, you don’t have much day-to-day fundraising experience. No wonder you feel a bit anxious about what to do first.

Like many small nonprofits, your new boss and colleagues have great program expertise, but relatively limited fundraising skills. Your executive director and the board members know what they want you to do, but they probably don’t know how it can be done. (That may not prevent them from telling you anyway!)

To make a success of this new opportunity, you’ve got to get a grip on the essentials and take charge quickly. What do you need to do in the first few months of your new job?

1. Define success

If your boss hasn’t set a dollar goal for you to hit by year-end, sit her down today and set one. Any goal is better than no goal. At a minimum, you need to raise your own salary in the first year and set the stage for more dramatic growth in later years.

2. Meet your donors

You need to know your current donors by their numbers and by their names and faces. Dig into your donor database for key metrics, like total donors, total gifts, average gifts and total gifts and givers by gift amount ranges.

Then start getting out and meeting these people face-to-face. Start with your top givers, but don’t judge your donors by their last gift alone. Ask for information, not money, and listen carefully for common themes. Meet as many people in person as you can and reach out to more by phone. Do this every week without fail.

3. Break it down

You have a dollar goal. Now break that down into the series of solicitation activities that will get you there. A solicitation plan may include mail and email campaigns, events, face-to-face requests and many other methods. Calculate reasonable projections of income from each solicitation and make sure that gross income exceeds any expenses. If your projections don’t add up to your annual target, you’ll need to adjust your strategies or your goal.

4. Control your calendar

Now you know what you have to do. When will you do it? Schedule your solicitation and stewardship activities evenly across the year, making sure that every donor hears from you several times each year and that you will have time to do every activity on time. Build in more time than you think you will need for major projects (especially events).

5. Gather your resources

You can’t spin gold out of straw. And, you can’t raise funds without the right materials on hand, either. Make sure you’ve got a fundraising budget big enough to meet vital fundraising costs like printing, postage, event costs (and professional development for yourself). If you don’t already have a dedicated donor management software and other essential systems, such as an email service provider and online giving platform, start figuring out how to buy and put them in place.

6. Find the essential story

You will tell lots of stories about the work your organization does, in presentations, publications and face-to-face. Nearly all should be versions of the one “essential story” that conveys the logic and the emotion of your impact on the world. Ask donors for the stories that moved them to make their first gift. Talk to your colleagues on the program staff and to beneficiaries to find the great stories they tell over and over. A  typical core story is quite simple: a sympathetic protagonist, a daunting barrier or hardship, a struggle to overcome and redeeming success, thanks to the hero’s worthy efforts and the generosity of donors. Test and refine the ways you tell that story as you talk with and write for donors.

7. Stuff the fluff

Don’t get bogged down in sideshows. Extended debates about whether $1,000 dollar donors should be “Patrons” or “Benefactors” or the centerpieces at your event will not have a serious effect on your fundraising success. Making donors feel known and loved will. Telling friends what you need and asking for it will. Focus on the things that matter. Use your calendar to defend your time against distractions and demands that won’t show up on your bottom line.

Above all: take charge of fundraising

You may have limited knowledge of fundraising today, but the chances are that no one else in your organization knows more than you do. In any case, you are about to take an on-the-job crash course on the subject. Become your own fundraising expert. Subscribe to leading nonprofit publications like The Chronicle of Philanthropy. You will find a vast range of learning opportunities for fundraisers,  from free online seminars, e-newsletters like this one and blogs, to degree-granting academic programs. Start your networking by joining the Association of Fundraising Professionals or other professional groups where you can often find people eager to mentor a new fundraiser.

You can’t be an expert overnight, but you can be decisive from day one. Fundraising is your job, not the Board’s and not the Executive Director’s.

You’ve got to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling. Show others exactly how they can help you succeed. Then make it easy for them by planning and organizing the work you want them to do. They’ll welcome your leadership. Good luck!

2 responses to Advice for a new small-shop fundraiser

  1. Tammy Fleur Alexy

    We have been meeting many smart, entrepreneurial non profits and it can be very time consuming and challenging to navigate through the fundraising aspects of growing their mission. I will pass your article along to our community of members. Thanks for sharing a very helpful and strategic approach.

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