What's the Absolute Best Way to Fundraise?

March 22, 2019
7 minutes
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Every day, fundraisers like you go to work, building donor relationships and raising money (go you!). But what’s the best way to do that?

The answer is "It depends." (We know that's not a satisfying answer, but stay with us!) It depends on the unique skills your fundraising dream team brings. It depends on your organization’s amazing work. And it depends on who you hope will support your cause.

What are your skills?

How experienced is each member of your team? (Or you, if you're the team!) Do you have people who know how to handle donors individually and seek major gifts? People who have experience focusing on direct response fundraising? People with event experience, or grant writers?

We all should continuously be learning and expanding our knowledge, but it makes sense to start with your strengths and grow from there.

What’s your cause?

If you provide services supported by government funds, you'll probably have different fundraising needs than an arts organization.

Social service organizations get much of their operating budget covered with government grants. They’ll need expertise in lobbying to be sure their funding isn’t cut with every new budget.

On the other hand, an arts organization is largely dependant on building relationships with the people in their audience. They’ll need direct response fundraising experience and major person-to-person fundraising skills. If they can add corporate sponsorships to the mix, even better.

Who's your audience?

Who's passionate about your mission? Who might be once they know you exist? A local food bank or soup kitchen should be looking for donors close to home. Giving is likely to be local, but it'll come with the potential for developing truly personal donor relationships.

Are you a health-related nonprofit solving a problem that people across the country would want to support? Then you may have a broader potential donor base. You might be more successful in building strategic partnerships with national corporations. This way, you’ll get broad exposure and your sponsor'll get major points for supporting a good cause while gaining more customers.

Okay, but what’s most effective?

With the caveat that every organization is unique and different (hey, nonprofit snowflakes!), here are some of the most effective ways to fundraise.

Major gifts from individuals

All else being equal, nothing can match cultivating relationships with individuals willing to make big investments in your organization’s work. Face-to-face cultivation and asks will usually generate the most $$$—and the most ongoing support.

According to Giving USA, individuals represented 70% of total giving to nonprofit organizations. People with both passion and the means can be the backbone of your fundraising program.

That is, of course, If you can identify prospective donors. If you’re committed to really working with your donors and you have people on your team comfortable with building these critical relationships, this is a dynamite place to focus.

Illustration of a dollar bill with George Washington on the front.

Other individual gifts

What if you don’t already have a major giving program in place? Start developing a robust individual giving program right now because large-dollar donors often begin as smaller-dollar donors.

And even donors without the capacity to make large gifts can become your best donors. How? Let's call it "The Big L": Loyalty. It's critical to recognize loyal donors and to build a monthly giving program.

Bonus Tip: Treasure your loyal donors and be sure you're also asking them to consider gifts in their will.

Email or mail? Though email may seem free, direct mail still goes head-to-head with email when it comes to response rates.

Don’t make it either/or, though. Plan to use both channels, and don’t forget the rest of your online presence. Optimize your website. Use social media to introduce yourself and encourage new donors or to stay connected to current ones. Multi-channel is your best bet for direct response.

To succeed with direct response fundraising, understand that good donor communication goes a long way. The most important lesson: your organization isn’t the star—your donor or potential donor is. Speak to their values, their desire to help, and most importantly, connect donors directly to the outcome of their gift.

Communicate in a way that makes it easy for donors to love you—simple, emotional writing is the key. Go get 'em, Tiger!

Fundraising events

A lot of young nonprofits rely on their board to help raise money. With few or no staff members available, the board decides how to raise money. While your board should play a large part in fundraising, a successful event takes experience and volunteers willing to work hard. Without them, it may be difficult to reach your fundraising goals.

Count staff and volunteer hours for planning and implementing your events as you evaluate your return on investment. Remember, time isn’t free—it’s time that could be spent raising money in a more effective way. And who says you always have to have a large fundraiser? There are plenty of low-stakes events that may be a great alternative to the annual black-tie gala.

Bonus Tip: Communicate immediately post-event and for weeks after. Thank attendees and donors and tell them what their gifts will accomplish with stories, pictures, and video. This is also prime time to ask attendees to become recurring donors.

Seeking support from foundations

Grantwriting is a skilled profession (shout out to all you hard-working grant writers!). But it isn't unusual for smaller nonprofits to tackle this task on their own. If you have the resources, you definitely will want an in-house grant writer or a consultant to help you get highly-sought-after foundation dollars.

And remember: winning grants is as much about building relationships as it is writing and research. Foundations are staffed by people (wild, right?) and those people are more likely to consider a grant to organizations where they have relationships. So, it's really all about building trust. If you or a team member is good at researching and writing grants, by all means write them. But remember you also need to be comfortable reaching out to foundation staff.

It's also important to stay informed about shifting priorities within foundations. When you count on large grants, you risk disaster if one or more disappear. That's why diversifying your funding base is always a good idea. If you complement grant writing with individual giving, you'll be ahead of the game!

Corporate sponsorships or partnerships

When you see an organization connected to a large national brand, it’s easy to think, “Oh, just one of those relationships and we’d be set!”

But it’s not that easy.

Developing good relationships with corporate partners takes time and effort. Do your research. What companies or corporations might be interested in working with you? What are their goals? Do yours align?

After you've done all your research, let the relationship-building begin! Don’t just send a proposal, call and ask if they’d be interested in developing a partnership. Find out what matters to them. That discovery will only come after meaningful conversations. Begin where you are, but plan for a strong future.

Investing in good people and good systems is the key to a thriving fundraising program, and with so many ways to fundraise, we know you're well on your way to a bright funding future.

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