I fell in love with fundraising at age seven when I created handmade “Avon” products and sold them door-to-door. The money collected from those kind neighbors was donated to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation in honor of a school friend, and I was hooked. It took me a lot longer – and a lot of dates – to fall in love. After recently getting married, I realize that those dates not only helped me find the right guy, but they taught me how to be a better fundraiser.
#1: Know Before You Go
There was that guy who arrived for our coffee date on a bicycle with a rusty chain while smoking a cigarette. As a health nut and avid cyclist, I sure wished I had done some Google research before I agreed to a date! Before even thinking about approaching a foundation or individual donor, make sure you have something in common, and that they have an interest in your organization’s mission and location. For the 75% of funders who don’t have a website, search funder databases like Foundation Center Online (FCO) or Guidestar to learn about their priorities and application process. Review their 990 tax return to uncover whom they have funded and how much they typically give. And don’t waste your time (or theirs) with prospects that aren’t a good fit; take them off your list and move on.
#2: Work Your Network
My best friend met her husband after posting a request to her Facebook friends for leads to good men. One warm introduction, a few great dates, and today, Michelle and Danny are thriving in New York with two fabulous kids. Create a list of your funding prospect’s key staff and board members/trustees. Take the list to your own staff and board and ask them if they know anyone or can find a connection through LinkedIn. As soon as you find a connector, write a short (no more than three sentences) summary about your organization along with a suggestion for a meeting or call, forward the email to your contact, and ask them to email it with their own few words of support. And when others come to you with a similar request to make an introduction, be ready and willing to open doors.
#3: Slow and Steady Wins the Race
There was that guy who told me that he slept with a machine to manage his sleep apnea, that his ex-wife wouldn’t let him take the kids out of state, and that he was in a fight with his new boss – well, that was probably too much sharing for a first date. Like any new relationship, prospective donors need to be engaged slowly and thoughtfully. Create an every-other-month or quarterly schedule to send out tidbits about your organization that are aligned with their interests (which you learned from the research you did in tip #1). At Smarter Good, we call this “drip storytelling” that gets prospects slowly engaged. For example, send a client success story along with a one line personalized note, forward an article about best practices in the field you have in common, or invite your prospect to join you at a conference workshop where you are scheduled to speak and they could offer some valuable perspective to the discussion.
#4: Be Curious and a Great Listener
And then there was that date where he talked the entire time and didn’t ask me a SINGLE question. If you have the opportunity to talk with a prospective donor, it’s tempting to try to impress them by sharing everything you know and love about your organization. Don’t do it! Ask them questions: what they’ve learned about the fields they’ve been funding; what excites and frustrates them about grant making; what they’ve learned from their nonprofit grantees over the years. Not only will they appreciate being asked for their expertise, but you will get to have a meaningful conversation about a shared vision that could lead to your being able to help each other down the road.
#5: Develop a Meaningful Relationship before Asking for Anything
I’ve known the man I married for eight years and we dated for 12 months. Our relationship involved flowers sent across the world, hundreds of hours on FaceTime, and a “pilot trip” to a new country to make sure we really fit. When he proposed, there was no question that my answer was “yes”. There are four main stages of fundraising: identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship. Solicitation, the part that most people fear the most, is only 10% of the whole process. 50% of your time should be devoted to cultivation, which Smarter Good defines as “engaging people in your mission over time so that when you eventually make the ask, they are excited and honored to say yes.”
Sending wishes for successful fundraising (and dating)!
Nicole Levine Bittelman has been a nonprofit and philanthropy executive for over 25 years. At Smarter Good, she is helping nonprofits around the world fundraise more easily and effectively with a team of experts in the Philippines.