“In the end, canceling or changing the event simply was a bigger risk. Our work depends on the money we raise.”
What do kaleidoscopes and successful fundraisers have in common?
I hadn’t thought about kaleidoscopes in years until I received one as a gift for presenting a workshop at a fundraising conference. Instead of creating designs from shapes embedded in the kaleidoscope itself, this one made fascinating patterns out of whatever you were looking at.
So what do kaleidoscopes and great fundraisers have in common?
Both are really good at creating many beautiful new designs from one starting point.
In this challenging economic climate, nonprofit fundraisers have to be as resourcesful as they possibly can be to make better and stronger connections with donors. As fundraisers, we are always on the lookout for donors whose dreams and desires are a perfect match with our organization.
Sometimes that match is pretty straightforward, as when a loved one is stricken by a disease and family members give to the organization that is working to find a cure. Or the guidelines of a foundation are a perfect fit with our programs.
Often, however, the match isn’t immediately obvious and requires us to do some mental stretching. A very philanthropic individual I knew gave money to a figure skating association, a community service organization, a library, and other seemingly unrelated institutions. Was there a common thread? Yes, he loved young people and gave to programs that helped them flourish.
Resourceful development professionals have the uncanny talent of making lots of successful matches – from the easy fits to the mental stretches. The ability to see the many facets of our organization and our donor’s interests – like looking through a kaleidoscope – can open many more donor checkbooks.
Here are a few tips for developing your own kaleidoscope vision.
1. Listen to see what your donors care about.
I can’t say enough about listening. When we get too wrapped up in pitching our organization, we can’t hear what a donor wants.
The executive director of a youth service organization wanted to upgrade a corporate donor from a modest in-kind gift to a major sponsorship. At an exploratory meeting with the CEO, the executive director spent the better part of five minutes pitching the organization and one particular sponsorship opportunity.
He wasn’t igniting any interest.
The development director then asked this corporate CEO a simple question: “What community projects are you working on?”
The CEO opened up. He explained how his company was exploring the idea of building playgrounds in inner city neighborhoods – something the youth service organization had a history of doing, but hadn’t mentioned. Suddenly, a match seemed inevitable. The company was excited to provide a corporate sponsorship that included building a city playground – and eventually went on to become one of the organization’s biggest supporters.
2. Look deep into your existing programs.
Just like a prospective donor, you’ll be more passionate about your organization if you see the work first hand. You’ll be better informed too. It’s hard to comprehend the complexity of your organization if you don’t get up close and personal with your program staff, your projects, and especially the people you serve.
A successful fundraiser I know recently took a position as the major gifts director for a hospital. In her first few weeks on the job, she arranged an intensive training program for herself:
“I wanted to meet everyone and see EVERYTHING: operations, autopsies, the emergency room, even the kitchen. I asked hundreds of questions so I could know how we made a difference and what our needs were. Not only did I feel more confident I could explain our work to a prospective donor, but I also knew I’d be better at finding giving matches. An added benefit — because I showed that I cared, I made lots of friends on our staff who are now willing to help in fundraising when I need them.”
3. Look beyond the usual funding suspects.
Arts groups look for arts funders. Senior groups for donors to the elderly. But sometimes it makes sense to look beyond the category in which your organization falls.
A small neighborhood organization heard that the Environmental Protection Agency had funding available for urban environmental projects. As they weren’t an environmental group, they easily might have dismissed this particular funder.
But with some research, the group discovered the EPA had funded vacant lot clean-ups similar to the programs they were already running. With a bit more detective work they discovered that garbage dumped in vacant lots frequently contained materials that the EPA would consider pollutants or even hazardous waste.
By understanding that vacant lot dumping was as much an environmental problem as it was a community development one, they were able to get funding from EPA to develop a more comprehensive program to prevent illegal dumping and clean up vacant lots.
4. Be creative about seeing the connections.
If your vision is too narrow, it’s easy to overlook opportunities.
A statewide organization located in the capital city ran a number of fee-based education programs for school kids. A prospective business donor only funded projects in the northern town in which it was located.
At first glance, there didn’t seem to be the opportunity for a match. But with a little more exploration, the business was pleased to donate the program fee and busing costs of a local school so that three fifth-grade classrooms were able to participate in this education program.
5. See where you fit in the big picture.
Locally-based organizations and nonprofits in small population states often have a hard time attracting regional or national funders. But if you can put your work into a much bigger framework, you may open doors that looked closed at first.
For example, an AIDS service organization from a small east coast city was alerted to a request for proposals from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Five grants would be awarded nationwide for prevention work with young people in minority communities.
At first this organization didn’t think they had a chance competing with major population centers like San Francisco or New York. But they knew they had one of the highest HIV infection rates in the U.S. and that many immigrants from countries with high incidences of AIDS settled there first before heading to big cities like NYC. By articulating their connection to the bigger picture, they were able to win one of the five grants.
6. Look at yourself through someone else’s eyes.
Have you seen the optical illusion of two faces and the vase? If you look at the image in black, it forms two profiles looking at one another. But if you look at the white space between the faces, you can see a vase. Some people see the faces right away but have a hard time seeing the vase. For others, it’s just the opposite.
A senior center had a small, drab thrift shop that didn’t raise much money. While it was located in a college town, the center never really considered it would be of interest to college students so it never bothered to connect.
When a new director was hired, she was able to see the possibilities in the thrift shop. She approached the fashion merchandising program at a local college and offered the thrift shop as a class project. The students were excited at the chance to gain some real merchandising experience and volunteered their time to design attractive new window and floor displays for the shop. (And of course, college students love second hand bargains.)
Not only did the thrift shop start raising a lot more money, but the students recruited their friends for other volunteer work at the senior center.
7. But don’t make it up.
While I urge you to be creative about finding new connections between potential donors and your organization, don’t try to turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear. It never benefits your organization, your donor or philanthropy to misrepresent the work you do. Don’t try to pass a program off as something it is not.
Your success in fundraising ultimately depends on your reputation as being worthy and trustworthy of support.
So get out those kaleidoscopes to start finding the possibility in your organization.
We invite you to share you stories of how you successfully reimagined your giving opportunities.
A version of this article first appeared in Contributions Magazine.