Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during December-1999 has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

I recently discovered that, when confronted with a formidable fundraising challenge, it’s wise to consult the experts, craft a feasible plan, and perhaps most important, trust your instincts. With virtually no experience in securing gifts from major donors, and with the help of many talented and resourceful people, I was able to lead our group in raising $1.5 million from middle-income donors, most of it in just five months. This article focuses on how we accomplished that feat—what worked, what didn’t—and the important lessons that we learned.

The Campaign and Its Goals

For eight years, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance (NWEA) worked tirelessly to save 25,000 acres of priceless boreal forestlands in north-central Washington’s Loomis State Forest—critical habitat for one of the last remaining healthy populations of lynx in the lower 48 states. During that time, we succeeded in getting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the lynx to the list of federally protected endangered species. But other campaigns were less successful. Though our science experts spent countless hours in the field studying and documenting the Loomis’ ecological values, we were left fighting several bills in the state legislature to mandate logging in the area. And we engaged in four separate and expensive lawsuits to protect the forest, without success.

Then, in April of 1998, when we’d run out of options to save the Loomis wildlands and Washington’s lynx, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) unexpectedly offered a deal: They would stop logging the Loomis wildlands we sought to protect—all 25,000 acres—if NWEA and our partners raised the $13.1 million needed to compensate the state’s Common School Construction Trust Fund for the market value of the standing commercial timber and the land. The beneficiaries of the Trust Fund are Washington’s schoolchildren, who increasingly need new schools to accommodate their ever-growing numbers.

The deadline for raising the funds was set at July 1, 1999. But before we could know how much money we had to raise, a professional appraisal of the land and timber had to be conducted. That was completed in mid-November, giving us only eight months within which to raise virtually all of the funds—a daunting task for a regional conservation group with a membership of roughly 3000 people, a budget of $650,000 and an untested donor base.

In December, as our coalition developed a plan, I was given responsibility for developing and implementing the grassroots component of the campaign, with a goal of $650,000, or 5% of the total funds needed. While a relatively insignificant proportion of the $13.1 million price tag, I nevertheless thought this a staggering figure. I realized immediately that we were going to have to contact hundreds of people to meet this target, since the range of gifts I would be securing was between $100 and $10,000 with, I hoped, a handful of gifts exceeding that amount to make up for any shortfall. I also knew that I needed some help in putting together a fundraising plan that would work. I spent two days consulting with experts in the field and, after much number-crunching, we came up with an aggressive but achievable plan comprised of four components:

  1. House parties
  2. Major donor visits
  3. Phone solicitations
  4. Membership recruitment letters and other mail appeals highlighting the campaign.

How We Raised the Money

I had one advantage going into this campaign: we had gotten an early start on grassroots fundraising, as we had to pay the DNR $95,000 by July 7, 1998 in order to defer three timber sales that would have sliced the very heart out of the Loomis wildlands we sought to protect. To raise that money, we conducted our first-ever major gifts campaign in May and June of 1998. Exceeding our goal, we raised $113,000, which swelled to $170,000 later in the year with the response to a December appeal letter to our membership. With this head start, I still had $480,000 to raise between January 1 and July 1, 1999. Here’s a closer look at each component of the plan.

  1. House Parties: After identifying 15 initial house party hosts, including members of NWEA’s board, we planned to host 4 parties a week for 20 weeks and raise approximately $1,000 per house party, for a total of $80,000. We also hoped to recruit two additional house party hosts at each event. I hired a full-time House Party Coordinator whose sole responsibility was to identify hosts, convince them to host a party, work with them throughout the pre-party phase, give a slide show presentation at each party and ask for campaign gifts. Much of my time at the outset was spent preparing the supporting materials needed to ensure the success of these house parties, including standard invitations, an outline of tasks to accomplish for each of the four many hours role-playing the actual presentation and “the ask” with our house party hosts.
  2. Major Donor Visits: We counted 610 prospective major donors. Assuming that we would reach 65% on the phone and that 50% of those would agree to a visit, we calculated that we had 200 donors to visit. Knowing I could not alone undertake the task of visiting all these people, I hired a fulltime Major Gifts Coordinator along with a part-time Gifts Solicitor. Among the three of us, we determined that it would be possible to visit all 200 donors. Our goal was to secure an average gift of $500 from 200 individuals, for a total of $100,000.

I drafted a schedule that set forth what week’s letters would be sent to donors, what weeks follow-up phone calls for visits would be made, and what weeks visits would be scheduled so that we could get through all 200 individuals as efficiently and systematically as possible. This schedule worked well until the final four weeks of the campaign, when we realized the number had increased from 200 to at least 250 because of referrals and we would not be able to visit all who agreed to do so. We opted to simply solicit the remaining gifts by phone.

  1. Direct Mail Membership Recruitment and Appeal Letters: I calculated that it was possible to raise $100,000 through direct-mail appeals if we stuck to a rigid schedule of four mailings, one per month for the months of February through May. The plan was to mail 250,000 pieces to members and subscribers of like-minded organizations and publications, with an anticipated return rate of 1% (2500 responses) and an average gift of $40. I worked with a direct-mail consultant to implement this component of the campaign.
  2. Phone Solicitation of Members: After reviewing the number of donors in our database and factoring in the number that we would continue to recruit through direct mail, I calculated that we could reach 2,604 people by phone and generate an average gift of $38 per contact, for total funds of $98,952. I hired two part-time Phone Solicitors and drafted a three-month schedule that would enable them to get all of their calls made.

In summary then, the plan would raise the needed $480,000 in a five-month period and require four full-time staff, one part-time staff person and the assistance of two consultants—one for direct mail appeals, the other for ongoing campaign oversight. I estimated the cost of the plan at $151,250. Staff salaries for a five-month period along with consulting fees would come to $51,250, while the recruitment mailings alone would cost $100,000. Thus, to net $650,000, we would have to raise about $800,000.

I cannot overemphasize how much the success of the plan depended on the initial preparation of all of the supporting materials: the gift range chart; packets for major donor visits; an outline of what needed to be covered during major donor visits; scripts for telephone conversations with donors, including responses to objections; pledge forms; answers to commonly asked questions, etc. Extensive role-playing was also extraordinarily beneficial. As the campaign progressed, I found that doing our homework up front, sticking to our goals and schedules, and checking in with one another on how we were all doing, were crucial to our fundraising success.

In the end, we raised not $800,000 but $1.5 million through dedication, sheer hard work, and ingenuity. It also certainly helped that during the latter part of the campaign we received excellent media coverage in several news stories and editorials, with contact information included. This attention was due in large measure to the fact that the firm helping us secure gifts of $10,000 to $1,000,000 suggested we hire professional media consultants to help with promoting the campaign. We paid $38,712 in fees and incidental expenses to the media consultants, but the income generated from publicity and news coverage was at least five times that amount and likely more. Clearly this was a wise investment of funds.

The Results

The outcomes for my segment of the campaign taught us a lot. Here is what we achieved and what we learned.

  1. We hosted fewer house parties than expected but secured many more gifts because the hosts were willing to invest considerable time and effort in making sure the events were successful. In fact, the final house party featured a band, fine food and beverages, dancing, singing and an amazingly heartfelt pitch for gifts from the host. Expected income: $80,000; actual funds from house parties: $122,951.
  2. The donor visits also exceeded our most optimistic expectations. The average gift, at $1,100, was more than twice the $500 we had projected and represented in many cases a tenfold increase in the donor’s previous largest gift. Moreover, some donors we visited made second gifts after just three or four months. Expected income: $100,000; actual funds raised from major donor visits: $521,739.
  3. Phone solicitations did not work well for us for two reasons: first, our members made it clear they did not want to be approached for gifts over the phone, and second, the training we did for the phone solicitors was insufficient. solicitations: $5,500.
  4. While the return rate for recruitment mailings hovered somewhere between .8% and 1%, the average gifts were well above our expectations, ranging from $65 to $140, with a single gift of $50,000. Expected income from mail appeals: $100,000; total funds raised from recruitment
    mailings, special appeal letters to members, and campaign updates with gift forms: $686,392.

Aside from these results of our four-part program, we learned a number of other things:

  • Word-of-mouth pays off. Total funds raised from miscellaneous sources (Web site, member referrals, publicity and media): $194,335.
  • People were willing to make “stretch gifts”—giving more than we had anticipated—because they could choose from the alternatives of pledges over time, gifts of stock, gifts on credit card and matching corporate gifts.
  • It is very helpful to have a key person overseeing the whole plan. Much of my time was spent providing prospects for donor visits, making sure that data were entered accurately, revising support materials, writing thank-you notes, keeping track of how each component of the campaign was performing and adjusting our goals accordingly, training and role-playing with staff, etc. Staying on top of this administrative function clearly paid off.
  • It takes money to make money. In the nonprofit world, we tend to want to cut down on expenses wherever possible; this can sometimes be to our own detriment. We learned that spending the money to hire media consultants and extra staff or to mail 250,000 appeals meant that we were able to raise far more money than we anticipated.
  • Perhaps most important, we discovered that most of the money we raised — about 70% —came from households with incomes of $60,000 or less.

In conclusion, I found that the key ingredients to a successful fundraising campaign are several: preparation and planning; self-confidence and a fundamental belief that the organization’s work is important and necessary; excellent communication and social skills. I would also add three more personal observations: 1) trust your instincts when logic fails you and be flexible—plans often need to be altered as the campaign’s objectives and interim deadlines are met; 2) accept that you will make mistakes—some large, some small—and that your message will not resonate with all of the people all of the time; 3) accept that you are also capable of great things and that many people will find your passion infectious and your message compelling.