Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Nov/Dec 2004, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Fact: We now have 1.35 million nonprofits, including 870,000 charitable 501(c)(3) organizations, in the U.S. This does not include the hundreds of thousands of informal groups that come together to play soccer, improve neighborhood schools, deal with local pollution problems, put on performances, and so on.
What do these organizations have in common? From the ever-present bake sales and candy drives to benefit events and major gift campaigns, they all raise money.
Nobody knows how many nonprofits are large enough to employ staff — and nobody knows how many of these staff members devote substantial time to fundraising. However, it’s a safe bet that a healthy majority of these groups are comprised entirely of volunteers.
Fact: The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) now boasts 25,000 members, including many in Canada, Mexico, and overseas. Their annual international conference, touted as the world’s largest gathering of fundraisers, draws between 4,000 and 5,000 participants. Despite these impressive numbers, AFP members represent a tiny slice of the fundraising community, since very few grassroots groups participate.
Fact: According to a recent study by Seton Hall University, nearly 100 colleges and universities offer graduate degrees with concentrations in nonprofit management. Many of these programs allow their students to specialize in fund development. For part-time students and working practitioners, hundreds of other universities and nonprofit support organizations have created fundraising certification programs, with a sequence of classes leading to a professional certificate.
Fact: As long as human beings have used money to conduct commerce — we’re talking thousands of years —people have been raising it for charitable purposes. (Obvious example: the church.) Indeed, our ancestors were philanthropic long before money existed. They gave food to their hungry neighbors and took care of the sick. The idea of fundraising as a profession has only taken hold in the last fifty or sixty years.
As you can tell from the title of this article, I’m a bit dubious about this trend. On one hand, “professionalization” leads to common standards and, we hope, accountability. As a former chapter board member, I thank the AFP for its wonderful work on codifying and enforcing fundraising ethics. Networks such as AFP also create opportunities to share knowledge, mentor new practitioners, debate pressing issues, and improve everyone’s performance. As one who makes his living as a trainer, I’m grateful for the notion that good fundraising encompasses a range of professional skills, and that those skills can be learned and practiced and perfected. This is all useful.
However, I keep returning to something I heard Joan Flanagan say years ago. Joan is the author of several books, including Successful Fundraising, and she is a pioneer in applying fundraising principles to the needs of grassroots organizations, especially those working for social change. “All the knowledge about fundraising can be summed up in ten words,” Joan said. “‘Ask ’em, thank ’em, ask ’em again, thank ’em again.’”
I consult with many grassroots groups and they find these words to be a great relief. They tend to view fundraising as complicated, mysterious, and scary. Because development is now viewed as a profession, they assume that they need to hire someone with appropriate credentials to do the job, as one would hire an accountant, plumber, or lawyer. Another myth is that professional fundraisers show up with a list of rich people who always say yes, which means the volunteers will not be forced into the awkward position of soliciting friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers for support.
Neither assumption is true. While fundraising training is often helpful, you don’t need a professional degree to do the job. Yes, many professional fundraisers know how to ask for money, but donors won’t give without believing in the cause and feeling confident about the group.
At its heart, fundraising is one person asking another to get involved, provide help, take a stand, join a movement, and feel good. Yes, there are strategies and techniques— just read the rest of this publication — but all the strategies and techniques in the world are useless without passion for the mission. Because fundraising is about developing and honoring relationships, anyone can do it. I believe that volunteers — including board members, committee members, and just plain members — can do it most effectively.
“The best fundraisers come out of causes,” says fundraising consultant and author Harvey McKinnon. “You can teach anyone basic skills, but you can’t teach commitment and sincerity and, ultimately, that’s what donors respond to.”
Sure, many fundraising professionals are also passionate about their organizations, but it’s useful to note that development directors average fewer than two years with each employer. The pros tend to move around a lot. When asked why, one of their chief complaints is that volunteers — specifically board members — won’t fully participate in fundraising. In other words, the efforts of volunteers can make or break those of the professionals.
What self-interest? There’s no shame raising money for your own salary — I did it for years at several nonprofits — but volunteers have a bit of an advantage: not even a whiff of personal economic benefit. After all, in your capacity as a board member or other volunteer, you receive many rewards, but money is not one of them. Your honored status as a volunteer gives you a lot of credibility.
The gold standard for individual solicitation is the peer-to-peer ask: one contributor asking another.
“Martha, we gave $500, which was a big gift for us. If you could match our contribution, I’d be grateful — and I know everyone in the group would appreciate your support. Please be as generous as you can. This work is so important to our community.”
By revealing their own gifts — even if they don’t mention an amount — and the reasons they give, volunteers establish a ton of credibility. That credibility rubs off on the groups they represent.
For amateurs (I use the word in its best sense), vulnerability can be a distinct plus. When setting up donor visits by phone, I encourage novices to consider the following appeal:
“Simon, I’m on the board of ____ and one of my responsibilities is to raise money from my friends. It’s a bit intimidating, so I’m looking for help. Can I come to your home and practice? It’s a real request — I hope you’ll consider a gift — but even more than your money, I need your feedback. Maybe you could critique my pitch and help me to make it stronger.”
This approach reduces the pressure, because nobody expects a polished presentation. Furthermore, it expands the development team, turning each prospect into an informal fundraising strategist. Finally, it’s likely to result in a gift. Who can resist an appeal like that?
It would be hard for a professional to use this strategy effectively, but for volunteers, it’s almost foolproof…as long as you’re genuine in your desire for feedback and support. (On the other hand, if you use this approach to manipulate people, you will only annoy them — so be honest and lead with your heart.)
Everyone knows that asking for contributions is difficult work, so we tend to think highly of those who take the risk — especially volunteers.
Given the nature of the world, professional fundraisers will be with us for the long haul, which is undoubtedly a good thing. In addition to managing the fundraising program and dealing with its logistical complexities, a development director’s highest calling is to train, support and facilitate the work of volunteers. For all the reasons outlined above, professionals should never (and probably will never) take the place of volunteers — and that’s a good thing, too.