10 Tips for Raising Money for Your Nonprofit - dummies

10 Tips for Raising Money for Your Nonprofit

By Stan Hutton, Frances Phillips

Raising money is essential to managing a successful nonprofit organization. In fact, nothing is easier than knowing you should be raising money — and nothing is more difficult than asking for it.


One of fundraising’s oldest adages is, “If you don’t ask, you won’t get.”

Many people pause when picking up the telephone or ringing the doorbell — in other words, when it comes to asking for money. Then, when it’s a little too late for the prospective donor to make a decision, write a check, or forward a proposal to a board meeting, these fundraisers make their move and stumble over their own procrastination.

Again, “If you don’t ask (and ask at the right time), you won’t get.”

Hit up people you know

Some fundraisers believe that the entire money-raising game is in knowing people with money and power and working those contacts — charming them to bend their wills and write those checks. To be honest, if yours is a good cause, that approach isn’t bad.

But what if you don’t know wealthy people? That’s okay. Begin with people you know. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends and associates. From a donor’s point of view, saying no to someone you know is more difficult than saying no to a stranger.

Tell your story

The best way to write an effective fundraising letter or make a successful presentation to potential donors is to tell a story. You don’t have to explain how your organization was founded and everything it has done. The best stories are hopeful stories that paint a picture of a better future and describe what “better” looks like in clear, specific terms.

Show how you’re improving lives

In grantwriting terms, this piece of advice would be worded as “clearly describe your outcomes.” Keep in mind that outcomes are different from outputs.

Outputs is the word used for the quantity of work a nonprofit organization produces — the number of meals served, shelter beds offered, workshops led, miles covered, or acres planted. Outcomes is the word used for the changes that occur as a result of those outputs. Well-defined outcomes are the hallmark of a good grant proposal, fundraising letter, web page, or pitch.

Make the numbers sparklingly clear

Effective requests for money include information about how much is needed to achieve change or test an idea. Make sure to present any data you cite in clear terms. In most cases, telling your reader or listener how much a needed change costs — the cost per child to participate in a special classroom for a year — helps to make your point.

Research, research, research

Find out as much as you can about the prospective contributor. Do you have anything in common on a personal level? Maybe the foundation director you’re meeting recently published an article. If you read it, you have a conversation topic to break the ice. More important, you want to find out as much as you can about your potential donor’s giving behavior.

You can do any of the following:

  • Refer to the Foundation Center library and its published and online resources. Don’t overlook its Philanthropy News Digest, which announces research published and grants awarded by foundations and their grantees.

  • Look up the foundation at the Council on Foundations’ website to see whether it has recently issued a report or been featured in an article.

  • For personal information about individuals, conduct an Internet search or check Who’s Who directories, LinkedIn, local newspapers, and college alumni associations.

  • Follow business and social news along with obituaries to keep track of people’s families, professional developments, and affiliations.

  • Pay close attention to contributor lists when you attend events at other nonprofit organizations.

Know your donors’ point of view

Think about your organization as if you were a prospective donor yourself.

Donors have different personal giving styles, so you need to put yourself in donors’ shoes when deciding how to raise money from particular individuals or companies. Some donors prefer the sociability of supporting a cause through a special event, others respond to e-mail appeals, and still others like to see as much of their money as possible going directly to the service being provided.

Whenever possible, ask donors how they prefer to be recognized and also ask them why they donate to your organization. Their answers will help you craft your future message and approach.

Build a donor pyramid

Imagine your fundraising approach as starting with those people at the peak of a pyramid and working your way down to the broader base. After asking people you know, try to enlist those donors in asking their contacts to support your organization as well. Some are likely to respond. Then ask those new donors to ask their friends.

Make it easy to respond

Always make immediate giving easy for them: Distribute an addressed envelope and reply card with each mailing, enable a reader to click through your e-mail to the Donate Now button on your website, or set up a labeled box by the exit where donors can leave contributions. Give potential donors pens, stamps, e-mail addresses, pledge cards, and any other tools to help them respond when you have their attention.

Keep good records

After you begin attracting contributors, your donor records become your most valuable fundraising tools. Individuals who give to your organization once are likely to continue giving for three or more years. If you treat them well, the size of their gifts is likely to increase over time.

Working with foundations, corporations, and government sources is a different story. In their case, you want to keep clear records of your original project goals and outcomes, project budget, and due dates for any required reports.

Consider investing in donor management software. Several good ones are available. Some are pricey, others are free. Find out more about donor software that’s right for your organization by following articles in Idealware’s e-newsletter.