Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during July/Aug 2012, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

MANY ORGANIZATIONS THAT RELY mostly on funding from foundation or government grants struggle with the question of whether to hire a staff member to focus on raising money from individual donors. While grassroots fundraising should ideally be integrated into all aspects of an organization and all staff members’ job descriptions (even if to a limited extent), there will likely come a point when your individual donor program will require dedicated staff in order to grow your number of supporters and, ultimately, your income.

First, a deification: I use the term “grassroots fundraising” to refer to any and all fundraising activities that involve building a broad base of individual donors to support your organization’s work. This includes membership dues, special events, as well as major gift programs. Grassroots fundraising is not just about getting small gifts, or raising money from your membership. It is about raising money from the people who make up your broader community and care about your group—including constituents, members, clients, customers, allies, and friends. It’s also about building relationships to secure donors for the long-term. Consider the following scenario:

An advocacy organization working on issues of violence against women, primarily rape and domestic violence, was founded ten years ago. Th founding director had years of experience as a feminist leader and community organizer and was well known by foundation funders in that city. She was successful at obtaining some foundation grants to get the organization of the ground, and over the next several years, the budget grew to almost $500,000, 95 percent of which was from foundations.

By the organization’s 10-year anniversary, it was raising about $20,000 a year (about 4 percent of the budget) from individual donors, mostly from a special event and an end-of-year mail appeal. It had increased its paid staff to six, including a full-time development director. The job description of the development director included everything from seeking foundation grants to special events and other individual donor activities. However, because of the demands of grant-seeking, reporting and research, when it came to grassroots fundraising, she had little time for more than the occasional mail appeal or fundraising dinner.

In the wake of the 2008 recession, some of the organization’s long-time foundation supporters changed their funding priorities, which resulted in a 20 percent decline in revenue. As staff scrambled to figure out ways to replace the loss of foundation funding, they wondered if they could find a few individual major donors to fill in the gap. It didn’t take long to realize this was wishful thinking, since it takes significant time, attention and resources to build a grassroots fundraising program that includes substantial income from major gifts. Stories like this have become all too familiar in the past few years. Unfortunately, they sometimes end with organizations having to close their doors, or, at the very least, make significant budget cuts—at a time when their work may be needed more than ever.

One of the reasons many organizations struggle to raise even a small percentage of their budget from individual donors is because they put the vast majority of their staff fundraising time into grant-seeking. If your organization is one that could be supported by a broad base of individual donors (which would be true of most readers of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal), then you have to make it a priority in how you allocate staff time and resources as well as how you engage with members, volunteers and board members.

Assessing the Need

As you consider whether it is time to hire a dedicated grassroots fundraiser for your organization, here are some questions to explore:

  1. Do you believe that it is important and possible for your work to be supported primarily by a broad base of individual donors?

Many nonprofit staff confess that even though they wish their funding came from a broad base of individual donors, they don’t believe it is possible. They don’t think that the relatively large grants they receive from foundations could ever be replaced by individuals.

The reality is that many organizations have always raised most of their funds from individual donors, including membership organizations like the ACLU, human rights groups like Amnesty International and Jewish Voice for Peace, faith-based organizations, and organizations that are structured as 501(C)4s (to be able to do lobbying and other electoral campaign work). You should only consider hiring a dedicated grassroots fundraiser if you are in it for the long haul and are willing to invest in staff and other resources needed to create a successful individual donor program.

2. What are you not able to accomplish at this time (without this staff position)?
a. Are you missing opportunities to raise money from individuals, such as including a fundraising component in your organizing campaigns or just making a point of regularly asking people close to the organization to give?

b. Are there people in your community and wider networks who would be likely to give if you asked them?

c. Are you already doing all you can to raise money from individual donors, but your program just isn’t growing from one year to the next?

If your answer to these questions is yes, you might want to consider hiring a grassroots fundraiser on staff Getting Started

If you have decided to take the plunge, you need to think about what it will take to create the right position as well as the right environment for a grassroots fundraiser to succeed in their job.

What is the job of a grassroots fundraiser?

When you consider the range of activities required to build a base of individual donors who will support you year in and year out (rather than just making a one-time gift, it becomes clear that it requires focused and ongoing attention as well as organizational resources. Here are some of the key responsibilities and tasks of a grassroots fundraiser:

  • Coordinate the annual fundraising planning process. In partnership with other development staff set goals that are tied to programmatic goals and budget needs and evaluate past performance, including donor retention rates, growth (or decline) in numbers of donors, and efforts to build stronger relationships with donors.
  • Manage individual donor campaigns. For example, plan and implement an end-of-year appeal, which includes writing the appeal, designing the package, editing the appeal for online/email solicitation, securing and/or segmenting your mailing list to deliver appropriate messages to different people (i.e. long time donors versus those who have not yet given), and coordinating follow up calls and visits with major donors.
  • Oversee the development of stronger relationships with donors. Send timely thank you letters, communicate with donors throughout the year, and engage donors in other aspects of the organization’s work.
  • Organize special events. Plan anything from an annual large-scale gala to house parties, small events to engage major donors, or donor and volunteer appreciation events.
  • Manage fundraising data. Capture donor information, and produce reports that allow you to analyze trends in response rates to appeals, donor retention rates, growth of monthly giving numbers, as well as the histories and relationships you have with specified donors that will inform how to engage with them in the future.
  • Maintain online visibility and communications, including through relevant social media networks.
  • Help build a fundraising team(s) to implement campaigns, events and other activities. These teams may include board members, volunteers as well as other staff

What needs to be in place for a grassroots fundraiser to succeed?

While the tasks listed above are time-consuming enough to keep many staff members busy, it is extremely important to keep in mind that no organization—even one with a large development department—depends on the fundraising staff alone to raise money. Here are some key elements of successful fundraising that you will want to have in place, or at least in process, before bringing in your fist grassroots fundraiser:

  • A board of directors that understands its role in fundraising and is willing to be involved
  • An executive director or equivalent staff leader(s) who also plays a leadership role in fundraising
  • Technology, even if most of it is “on the cheap,” including relatively up-to-date computers and software, a fundraising database, and a functional website
  • A commitment to include fundraising in all staff members’ job descriptions

Case Studies: Forward Together and Community voices Heard

Hear from two organizations that hired dedicated grassroots fundraisers. We interviewed Maria Nakae, development director at Forward Together (FT), and Michelle Perez, director of administration & institutional giving, and Talia Schank, individual giving coordinator, at Community Voices Heard (CVH):

Why did your organization decide to hire a grassroots fundraiser?

FT: The decision to take the plunge was motivated by a variety of factors that all came together. First, the economic downturn and funders cutting grant budgets convinced us to increase the percentage of our budget coming from individual donors. Second, our programmatic work was expanding, and the launch of a new initiative broadened our audience, providing an important grassroots fundraising opportunity. Finally, we were experiencing staff transitions, opening the possibility of hiring new development staff. We didn’t experience pushback for wanting to invest in fundraising rather than program staff. Three development staff out of 15 staff feels like a good ratio. Our eventual goal is that our grassroots fundraiser raises enough money to cover her salary, but we know that takes time.

CVH: 90 percent of our funding was foundation grants and we knew we had to diversify our funding base to stay stable. We also knew we weren’t really tapping into our base. Our capacity at the time was not enough to reach both funders and donors. At the time, it was only Michelle —splitting time between grants and administration—and the executive director.

Actually, when we first hired the person, they were responsible for both communications and fundraising. Just this year we moved communications to another position where it would get more attention. So, this is the first time we have a full-time dedicated staff person just focused on individual donors. This frees up Talia to focus on moving up donors that we’ve already brought on and connecting with allied donors who are not part of our base.

Describe your development team now.

FT: We have a development director that oversees all fundraising and works on major donors with the executive director; a development manager that handles all of the grant writing and reporting for our 25 funders; and a grassroots fundraising coordinator who manages efforts
to reach our 400+ donors and expand the donor base.

I feel like we finally have enough capacity to raise our $1.5 million budget. Before, we didn’t have much of a focus on grassroots fundraising because we didn’t have capacity. Now we have someone who can run with ideas and take care of the coordination, cheerleading, and one-on-one support that it takes.

CVH: It’s just the two of us. Our budget is $1.1 million and we have 14 staff. We’re responsible for about 25-30 funders and 545 individual donors. Our goal is to raise $60,000 from donors and $25,000 in events. We also just started our own 501(c)(4), which is extremely dependent on donors. We have 180 dues-paying members, but that work is the responsibility of the organizing team.

Talia works on building a culture where fundraising is an organization-wide effort and she has really helped the whole organization focus more on fundraising. She helps the board feel comfortable with gift solicitation, works with the staff, and with our solidarity board.

It can be hard to find the right person for this kind of job. How did you approach it?

FT: “Grassroots fundraiser” is not a job announcement you see all the time. We got a ton of applications from people that didn’t fit the position. We strongly believe in building and investing in the leadership of our staff, so we advertised for a junior-level position that someone could grow into. We chose the person we hired for her leadership experience, communications skills, and political analysis —because she was an overall fit for the organization—not necessarily because of her fundraising experience.

CVH: This person doesn’t need to have a lot of donor contacts. It’s more important that they know how to manage up, are a good communicator and writer, and know how to connect people. Talia started as a community educator and organizer. These skills are incredibly transferable to donor fundraising. 90 percent of fundraising in a community-based organization is organizing.

What advice would you give groups interested in doing this?

FT: Make sure to have buy-in from the whole organization that grassroots fundraising is something they’re going to take on before bringing in a new hire. We had originally thought this person would lead from behind, providing coordination and logistics for the staff and board’s fundraising efforts, but we soon learned that she needed to take the lead for staff and board to follow.

CVH: Having this position may not pay off in the short term and may not cover the salary, but it is extremely important for the long haul. It may take several years for the return to exceed the investment. Help all your key stakeholders understand that.

  • A willingness to invite volunteers, members and donors to participate in fundraising
  • An understanding that one person is not responsible for raising all of the money, but is responsible for the overall planning and coordination of fundraising efforts and managing implementation of the plan

What should you look for in a strong candidate for the job?

These are some of the most critical skills and qualities required in a fundraiser whose primary focus is raising money from individuals:

  • Good communication and relationship-building skills, including listening and taking an interest in people
  • Strong writing skills, including the ability to write clearly, directly, and accessibly
  • Being well-organized and able to juggle multiple tasks and deadlines
  • The ability to provide strong and positive leadership to, and management of, the fundraising team
  • A commitment to and understanding of your organization’s mission

How long should it take for a dedicated staff person to make a difference?

If you are getting ready to hire a full-time individual donor fundraiser and don’t currently have a strong donor program, plan on at least a year before the income generated from their efforts even begin to cover their salary. This means that you should see the initial hire as an investment in future income. If you don’t have at least 100 individual donors before a new staff person comes on board, just getting a program off the ground, much less bringing in significant amounts of money, can take three or more years.

Remember that fundraising costs money, and you need to plan to spend money to raise money. If you are not familiar with tracking response rates to direct mail and e-appeals, or how much it costs to produce a large special event, do your homework. (A very useful planning tool is the Journal article, “Budgeting for Fundraising” by Octavia Morgan.)

Keeping these statistics in mind when you are creating your fundraising plan and budgeting for a grassroots fundraising staff member will help you plan more accurately and budget appropriately.

How can you afford to pay for a fundraiser when you need the funds for program staff

By hiring a dedicated grassroots fundraiser, what you are investing in is the ability to build a more consistent and reliable source of funding—one that will continue to grow over time so that you will be able to also increase your program staff positions. By seeing your donors as a part of your broader constituency that helps promote and may participate in program activities, you will in turn see the impact of your fundraising work expand to include other mission-fulfilling goals as well.

If you feel that you don’t currently have the budget to pay for the initial year of a grassroots fundraiser’s salary, here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Talk to some of your current foundation funders to see if they would consider making an extra grant for capacity building. Make the case that in three years, the salary of your new staff person will be covered by individual donor income, and additional funds from their efforts will go to expand program work.
  • Identify a few major donors who could give $1,000 or more, and at least one who could give $10,000, to fund at least a part-time grassroots fundraiser. Talk to them about your plans to engage donors more actively in the work, and how their contribution is an investment in strengthening the organization and moving away from being so dependent on foundation funding. Get the input of these donors and involve them in the process of building your grassroots fundraising program.
  • If the previous two options are not feasible or successful, work on developing a stronger volunteer team, including some of your more willing board members, to start raising money from individuals that will be set aside until you have raised enough to pay for a new staff position.
  • Include some fundraising tasks in everyone’s job, including the board, so your new staff person comes into an organizational culture that supports their success.
  • Hire someone on a contract basis for three to six months to coordinate an individual donor drive, the proceeds of which will be used to hire a permanent grassroots fundraiser.

A Grassroots Fundraising Success Story

Revisiting the organization described in the beginning of this article, imagine this alternative to its 10-year dependence on foundation funding:

After spending its first three years seeking foundation grants, they realized that they were not going to be able to sustain that funding over the long term, nor were they going to have the flexibility to do the work they most needed to do if funders were not interested in it.

So, they started focusing more attention on building a base of individual donors. Thy created a dues structure for membership, a fundraising component to their leadership development program (which led to greater member involvement in fundraising as well as giving), and clearer expectations for the board’s involvement in fundraising. They developed a fundraising plan, with a modest goal in their first year of raising $10,000 from individual donors. While they only raised about $8,500 that year (from a combination of mail and email appeals, a house party hosted by a board member, and a member-led community potluck dinner), it was a start. They made sure to keep track of their donors’ giving history, relationship to the organization, and interests, even though their database was not the most up-to-date or easy to use.

In its fit year, the organization hired its first grassroots fundraiser, who was able to develop better systems and a more ambitious fundraising plan and worked closely with the rest of the staff board and members. Over the next several years, the organization built its donor program, bringing in more individual donors, deepening relationships with current donors, and identifying potential major donors.

By the fit annual fundraising dinner, they raised $45,000 from the event (after expenses), including $30,000 from an ad book and several local business sponsors. By year ten, they were raising $250,000 from individual donors, enough to know that whatever happened to their foundation funders, they were going to be able to cover most of their core operating costs solely from individual donations. Indeed, their long-time loyal donors and members were going to make sure they had what they needed to keep going and growing. Stephanie Roth is a partner with Klein & Roth Consulting, and the former editor of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal.

Read More About Fundraising Staffing

Growing Your Own: Finding People of Color Fundraisers in our Midst by Byron Johnson

Love ‘em or Lose ‘em: Keeping Good Fundraisers by Mary Humphries
Steps to Hiring a First Development Staff Member by Ruth Herring

Why Good Fundraisers are Never Paid on Commission by Kim Klein