How many small nonprofits best fundraise during good times and bad? Learn more from Bobbie Donahue, veteran fundraiser and faculty member at The Fund Raising School.
Bill Stanczykiewicz (BS): if you’re a nonprofit that has a budget of less than $1,000,000, you’re not small. You’re actually typical, and there are specific fundraising techniques that you can use to have an impact. I’m Bill Stanczykiewicz, and this is the First Day from The Fund Raising School. I’m joined by veteran fundraiser Bobbie Donahue. While she has raised money for some larger national organizations and universities, she also has a lot of experience at the grassroots level with smaller nonprofits.
Bobbie Donahue (BD): I have a real heart for the small nonprofit.
BS: When you look at the data, there are about 1.5 million nonprofits, and about 75 percent of those have budgets less than $1,000,000. There are some very specific fundraising techniques for “smaller nonprofits.” What stands out to you as major themes that small nonprofits need to be aware of?
BD: Well, I think one of the major themes is that leaders think that they have to do it by themselves, and there’s so much that they’re doing. They’re taking on programming, they’re doing the newsletter, they’re managing the board. They’re trying to fundraise with all of these other things happening.
Fundraising somehow pulls off, then falls over. So when they get to their office, they see this hat tree with all these hats they have to wear. Sometimes you can get someone else to help you with that. And that’s where your board and your volunteers are critical.
One of the things I hear is why take the time to train the board? I could get it done myself. That’s probably true the first time. What about the second and the third and the fourth time?
If you train volunteers, you can turn some of these hats to them, and you can move on to the critical issues that only you can handle.
BS: What is this hat tree at a small nonprofit? How does that tie into fundraising?
BD: With small nonprofits, there are a lot of things to be done and each one is a hat. So you have the tree back there and you’re putting on your editor hat and you’re doing the newsletter. Put the editor hat back and you’re putting your cleaning hat because you have to sweep the floor. And then you put that one back, and then you put on your suit coat and you go meet with a donor. Whatever it is you have to do, there’s all these hats of things that have to be done. Trying to balance all of those things is a challenge.
For me, the best thing to do is figure out a plan because that can protect you in a lot of ways. You have people come with these ideas for you to try instantly. Well, if you’ve got a plan, you can say, ‘Here is what I’m doing. What would you like me not to do because there are still only 40 hours in a week.’
BS: So having that idea of what we want to do and involving others. At all nonprofits, we need 100 percent board giving. We need our board members providing prospect lists and introducing us to others. This is especially true for smaller nonprofits. Bobbie, what advice do you have?
BD: Oh, absolutely. The biggest thing is to ask for help. Come to your board meetings and say, ‘Here’s our plan for the month. Here’s where I could use your help.’ There are some board members who are not going to be comfortable asking for a gift. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be involved in board fundraising.
Every board member should be involved in fundraising in some way. That can be opening the door, calling and making the appointment, going with you, and just telling their story. When they get more comfortable and they will, then they’ll be ready to make the ask by themselves. But that’s all part of the training process when you take a board member with you and say, ‘OK, these are my three top board members: they know the mission, they’re passionate, they’ve have already made their gift.’ Then they can tell their story and ask people to join them when they go out with you to make the ask.
So many folks will say, ‘Oh, we’re just glad for what we’ve got.’ If you don’t ask for more, you don’t give a better opportunity to make a big difference.
BS: Bobbie, what about other volunteers? What about some of the longtime donors? Can we recruit them to help us in an agency-wide fundraising effort?
BD: Anyone who loves your mission and can tell that story can be involved in fundraising. So it doesn’t just have to be the board. It can be anyone who comes in and tells you, ‘let me tell you why I got involved’ or people who grow their gifts over time. Those are people whom you want to talk to.
BS: Now you talk about growing gifts. We’re grateful for the gifts we receive. When people start giving to us many years in a row though, we have room to invite them to upgrade their gift. What do you see among smaller nonprofits? Are they staying at the base of the pyramid and do they need some encouragement to maybe move toward some of those upgraded gifts so that they can grow?
BD: Absolutely. They get comfortable with where they are, and it goes to the fear of asking because they think about it from a money point.
However, you are making a change. Every nonprofit is making a change for the better in the community. People who continually give you money want you to make that change. They’re making that investment so that you can make the changes in the community that they want to see. So when you talk about that, it’s not about the money.
Frequently, I’ve had donors say, ‘What do you need?’ You have to be ready to say, ‘Well, in order to increase the number of people we serve, we’ll need this much per participant or we need this much money to provide the programming, the equipment, etc.’
You have to give them an opportunity to invest in the change they want to see.
BS: We’re not saying that this is easy. Many of our small nonprofits are in a situation where they’re doing well, and now they need that next infusion of financial support to be able to grow even further.
So that can be hard while you’re busy with successful programs to meet with those donors and ask them for upgraded gifts. These smaller nonprofits grow over time by building that donor base and asking people for upgraded gifts as they continue to welcome new donors in with help from many people.
Bobbie, what is possible for a small nonprofit?
BD: It goes back to planning. Dreaming is so important. As the need grows for your services, you have to approach your fundraising in the same way. Talk to your donors and find out what they want to invest in. It will make a big difference.
I worked for a small organization that wanted to do a special program, and they talked about it for a long time. One year, we put it in the strategic plan for three years out. Because we shared that dream with our board, that dream was fulfilled within 24 months. If you don’t share what you’re dreaming about, people can’t buy into the dream and see the possibilities. So plan annually, but also do a strategic plan that invites people to come together.
BS: Our good friend Jim Morris, who’s on the IU board of trustees, likes to say, ‘leadership is about seeing your opportunities in their greatest context.’
So when you think about a gift range: for a $250,000 budget, you ask, ‘do I have a $25,000 gift, or do I have a pair of $12,500 gifts and then can cascade down from there?’ When you think in those terms, Bobbie, it seems like there is possibility for these gifts.
BD: There are absolutely possibilities for those kinds of gifts. It’s about sharing the vision and what changes people want to make. You can build from that bottom.
If you don’t ask, people won’t know what the need is, and they won’t understand the difference that you’re making in the community.