Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Jan/Feb 2014, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
HAS THIS EVER HAPPENED TO YOU? You tell someone you’re a fundraiser for a nonprofit, and they say, “Oh, that is so hard/scary/impossible. I could never do that.” My response is always, “Yes, you can. The trick is to have a great fundraising team supporting you.”
I have been a development professional for years for organizations with a small development staff of one or two people at most. I am now the development director of Streetsblog and Streetfilms, online media tools that promote better biking, walking and public transportation in New York City and other cities across the country. I am the only staff person dedicated to fundraising, but I have a vibrant, dynamic fundraising team made up of other staff board, and volunteers that makes my job much easier, and fun.
Feeling alone in your fundraising role? Does everyone in your organization turn to you to raise the budget? Want to grow the team you already have? Wish that your team had a few more skills?
If you said “yes” to any or all of these questions, use the following tips to bring a creative group of invested volunteers and staff together on a fundraising team—you will increase your group’s financial sustainability while alleviating some of the stress you feel about the difficulty of raising necessary funds.
Step One: Recruit, Recruit, Recruit!
First things first—figure out who should be on your fundraising team. Start by making a list of all the people who are already close to your organization; include a diverse group of people who have different roles in your agency. If someone has a connection to your mission and has given their time, talent, or funds, then they are a great candidate for your fundraising team. Here are some groups of supporters from which you can recruit:
HELP YOUR FUNDRAISING TEAM UNDERSTAND HOW CRITICAL YOUR FUNDRAISING GOALS ARE TO THE MISSION OF YOUR ORGANIZATION IN ORDER TO MOTIVATE THEM TO CONTRIBUTE TO THAT EFFORT.
The following exercise can help get you started in building your fundraising team:
- Write down a list of at least five people you would like to invite to your team.
- List the skills, strengths, and connections of each candidate on your list (e.g., good writer, effective public speaker, lives in a neighborhood in your organization’s service area, networked in the bicycle/ restaurant/insurance business, etc.). Remember, people don’t have to be wealthy to be good fundraising team members—don’t discount more creative skills.
- Get in touch with each person on the list, and ask them for advice on your fundraising program. You can ask them questions about your recent fundraising campaign, an upcoming event, or even what kind of incentives they would appreciate for donations (tote bags, water bottles, bike bells, none at all).
- After you have cultivated them, let them know you appreciate their great advice, and ask them to join your team (if you think they are a strong candidate). They can join in any number of roles (fundraising committee, advisory committee, event committee, board of directors, advisory board). Just be sure to be up front with them that they will be on the team to raise money to support the mission of the organization. Remember to set the right tone in your conversation by casting fundraising in a positive light.
- Board members
- Advisory committee members
- Program and non-program staff
- Event committee
- Local business partners or corporate supporters
Prepare and Motivate Your Team to Fundraise for Your Organization
Periodic trainings will provide your team with the information, skills, and motivation they need to be effective fundraisers for the cause they love. Training for your team will help put their roles into the context of your organization’s financial goals and dispel fears about asking for money. Here are some elements for an effective training:
- Be transparent about your organization’s fiancés and your fundraising goals. Show your team the organizational, program, and/or event budgets. Help them understand how critical your fundraising goals are to the mission of your organization in order to motivate them to contribute to that effort. Members will be able to set realistic fundraising goals for themselves once they understand their individual contribution relative to the overall project/campaign/event goal.
- Share a list of your current and past funders. This may get members thinking about who else they can ask for support. The team will see who has contributed in the past and if there are gaps to fill. For example, if local banks, bike shops, and law films have contributed in the past, you might consider reaching out to companies like those while also expanding your prospect pool to include real estate companies and health organizations.
- Share your fundraising plan, the roadmap for what prospects you are pursuing to reach your overall goal. You can provide suggestions, but let team members choose how they would like to become involved. Chances are, they have other creative ideas for more prospects and other methods for fundraising, which, in turn, they can champion as their fundraising project. Even if their idea seems outrageous and out of reach, be sure to consider each and every idea. Even if your organization does not currently have the capacity to implement their idea, you may be able put it on the back burner for the future.
- Give each team member their own “fundraising toolkit” —a fun and simple packet of information to support their efforts. For example, I give my team my organization’s case statement, literature about our latest fundraising campaign/ event, my business card so they can contact me easily, and an inspiring article by Pilar Gonzales from the Grassroots Fundraising Journal, “The Transformative Power of Fundraising.”
- Let your team know they can come to you with any challenges, questions, ideas, or advice. You’re here for them and you’re their biggest cheerleader.
- Help your team remove the stigma of talking about money. Talking about money is systematically stigmatized in our culture, which weakens our ability to rise up against capitalistic oppression. We’ve been raised to avoid the topic of money altogether, which is one of the reasons it can feel so scary to ask for donations.
Here’s a step-by-step activity I do with my team to address anxiety about talking about money, adapted from Kim Klein’s Journal article, “Getting over the Fear of Asking”:
- Read this quote from Kim Klein: “The first step in getting over your anxiety about asking for money is to remember that you weren’t born with this anxiety and that what you have been taught about money perpetuates a system that, in the rest of your work, you are trying to change.”
- Explain this is an exercise that puts you in the donors’ shoes. Give each team member a sheet of paper and a pen/pencil, and ask them to make a “yes” column and a “no” column. Make your own “yes” and “no” columns on a flip chart for everyone to see.
- Ask people to close their eyes and imagine that an acquaintance—someone they like and respect but don’t know well—has come to them and explained a cause they are involved in, and asked for a gift The gif amount is affordable, but not an amount they could give without thinking about it first.
- Ask everyone to open their eyes, and take 30 seconds to write down privately all the reasons they would say “yes” to this request.
- Now, ask them to take 30 seconds to list all the reasons they would say “no.”
- Ask for volunteers to share why they said “yes,” and write their answers for everyone to see. Repeat with the reasons for “no.”
- Ask the group to examine the two lists, and notice that there are more reasons to say “yes” than “no.” The reasons for saying “yes” make everyone feel good about fundraising (wanting to support social change, knowing someone who has been affected by the issue, etc.). Some of the reasons for saying “no” are, in fact, not the asker’s fault. Many of the reasons someone might say “no” to being asked could not be known ahead of time. For example, the prospective donor may have given too many gifts this year or doesn’t have an affinity to the mission of the organization. Some of the responses that appear to be “no,” are actually “maybes.” The person may become a donor in the future, and you asking them has just opened up that possibility
- After the training, send your team frequent updates about the progress toward your fundraising goals. Send emails sharing challenges and successes. Solicit their feedback to keep them in the advice loop. Ask them if they need support, and lend your resources. Cultivate them by showing them how their efforts are resulting in real dollars and cents raised for the organization. Give them something to be proud of. For example, whenever a new sponsor comes in for our annual event, I send the committee a notice with a big thank you.
- Shower your team with appreciation every chance you get! Invite them to your parties and special meetings. Mail them a handwritten thank you card signed by staff and/or clients. Also, your team should be the first to receive whatever new organizational swag you get. Give them that tote bag, water bottle, or bike bell they asked for.
Success Stories from the Field
What follows are some best practices from two fabulous organizations whose fundraising teams are having great success supporting each other and their causes—the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund (EMA Fund) and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP).
Volunteers Building Fundraising Power
The Eastern Massachusetts Abortion (EMA) Fund in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a volunteer-run hotline that helps women pay for abortions. They rely on small donations without foundation or major gift in their funding model. With low administrative costs, nearly every single dollar goes to women who need their services.
Everyone involved with the EMA Fund participates in fundraising for the organization. Volunteers—many of whom are former clients of the organization—literally raise their entire budget for the year, so they know firsthand how far a $100 gif can go.
The EMA Fund’s core fundraising team consists of their External Relations committee, volunteers with marketing and communications skills, and hotline volunteers. With a non-hierarchical structure, everyone is responsible for raising the budget together.
EMA Board Member Danielle Boudrow attributes the Fund’s success to their investment in volunteers, giving them specialized skills they can build on in their professional lives. For instance, she came to volunteer at the EMA Fund as an undergraduate student, and soon the organization sent her to national meetings to build practical fundraising skills she could share with the rest of the organization.
The EMA Fund is a part of the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF), which hosts fun bowl-a-thons each year. The community the EMA Fund serves lacks a bowling alley, so they created their own version, a “triathlon” consisting of Wii bowling, karaoke and board games. Teams raise pledges to participate, and it is highly rewarding—the triathlon raises half of their budget each year.
NNAF provides a wealth of resources that the EMA Fund uses to build their fundraising teams, including step-by-step training about how to recruit volunteer team leaders, literature about the issues, and goal-setting strategies.
Alicia Johnson, a leader of the External Relations team, does simple things to engage and motivate triathlon fundraisers. She sends out weekly check-in emails to her team with the latest news, tips and fundraising progress. She sends out sample emails for communication with prospects, literature on ways to ask, and stories from the EMA Fund that people can highlight to motivate others to get involved.
Danielle and Alicia credit the grassroots model they use for the tremendous growth of the EMA Fund. Five years ago, they were able to offer $500 a month to people in need of abortion assistance. Now, they are able to offer $1,500 a month to those who need it. Alicia said, “This grassroots model gives us latitude to spend the funds where they’re most needed in the community.”
Fundraising in Line with Our Values
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) works in New York City to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence. They raise their budget through grants, major gift, and grassroots efforts. Their small staff includes two full-time people dedicated to fundraising. They have a collective structure that involves staff board members, interns, and collective members in all governance and fundraising.
SRLP raises money through house parties, mailings, merchandise sales, speaking engagements, and galas. All of their fundraising strategies align with their racial and economic justice values, so all activities are inclusive of people of color, transgender people of color, and people with low incomes. It is very important to SRLP that community members are both participants in their programs and donors, which has built a reliable grassroots base. Donors really feel how much their individual contributions count.
Avi Cummings, SRLP’s director of grassroots fundraising, says the first thing he does to motivate his fundraising team is fairly simple. “I ask them why they give their time or money to SRLP. It really connects them and helps them share with others why they’re fundraising.” Putting this into perspective makes it easier for fundraising team members to make the case for others to give.
SRLP offers resources and trainings to their members on how to fundraise well. People come away with a toolkit for raising money. For instance, Avi provides interns with a packet of articles about fundraising with major donors, boards, and how to make an ask.
SRLP’s recent 10th Anniversary Gala was their most successful event yet, not just because it raised a lot of money, but because it was a true community event. By celebrating with diverse speakers and honorees, attendees and organizers alike felt they were a part of SRLP, making it very easy to lend support. The planning and host committees, made up of staff donors and volunteers, set up multiple ways for people to give donations. Thy set up an online crowd-funding platform through Indiegogo, making it simple for people to give online leading up to, or at, the event. Thy secured sponsorships and held successful merchandise and raff ticket sales at the event.
The most successful fundraising activity of the gala was the “Giving Circle,” made up of longtime donors and core collective members. The fundraising team reached out to people by phone and email, and urged them to come together to raise significant funds. To motivate the Giving Circle leaders, SRLP held conference calls and in-person meetings, sharing tools and skills for setting goals and raising money. The Giving Circle was able to recruit new donors to SRLP, and many existing donors increased their giving. Perhaps the most important outcome of this concentrated effort was that people became engaged and reengaged in the organization creating an even stronger base of support for SRLP.
Avi includes an intensive fundraising training for all SRLP collective members. He shares the organization’s budget and financial goals, tips for how to make an ask, and skills for how to fundraise in one’s network. Avi wants everyone to leave the training feeling confident that they can articulate SRLP’s mission with multiple audiences. He tells them, “You don’t have to know one rich person to bring in $1,000. You can build it $10 at a time.”
Your Team is a Sustaining Force
Building a fundraising team is the best thing I have done for my professional life. The time I have invested in recruiting and training my team has been well worth it, yielding tremendous results. Even though I am a one-person development shop, I am a part of an ever-growing group of fundraisers for my organization, so I never feel alone in my fundraising tasks. I enjoy sharing the challenges and successes with other people who care about the mission as much as me. And of course, we raise way more money and build deeper community together.