Tips for Highly Effective Fundraising

Tips for Highly Effective Fundraising

CompuMentor's International Fundraising Developer shares her secrets

By: Jody Mahoney


February 24, 2006

Fundraising is the ability to invent and reinvent one's organization, mission, and programs in a compelling way, over and over again. It's also about telling highly effective and engaging stories. If you are able to articulate your organization's story in a way that engages grantmakers, a big part of your job is done — even if you haven't asked for a dime.

Fundraising is the toughest job in the nonprofit sector, but it's also the most fun and rewarding. The key is knowing who to leverage in order to tell your story. Development should engage everyone in the organization — it shouldn't be reserved just for the executive director or the development director. While not as schooled in asking for funding, program directors can also be great fundraisers, and even better storytellers — and, they actually have significant influence with grantmakers, allowing them to present ideas in a more meaningful way.

Of course, there are as many ways to develop funding sources as there are to do anything else. This article is not only about finding dollars — it's about developing relationships.

Fundraiser, Developer, or Loan Shark?

I am a fundraiser, but I call myself a developer. That may seem like an odd statement, but the nuances of developing relationships and partnerships in order to secure funding encompass much more than simply raising money. Yet I could call myself a loan shark if I wanted — fundraiser, developer, or loan shark, at the end of the day, I am responsible for raising the funds needed to keep my nonprofit operational.

I came to nonprofit fundraising from a successful stint in technology sales in the for-profit world, arrogantly assuming, "If I can do sales, I can surely do fundraising." Boy was I wrong! While sales might have trained me for some aspects of fundraising (the door slamming in my face comes to mind), and the skills needed to make a pitch and cultivate relationships were similar, for me, that's where the parallels ended.

Double or Nothing

One of the main differences between fundraising and sales is the budgeting process. If, for example, you are the development director or executive director of a small nonprofit and you've determined that your budget is $500,000, you then need to double that amount to $1 million. Why? Because not every funding request yields results. And although I can feel animosity emanating from the development directors reading this article who think I'm making their jobs much more difficult, as a fundraiser, you must make enough funding requests so that if one proposal falls through, you can cover that loss.

Just recently, I worked on two funding opportunities that represented about $250,000 our organization needed to launch an international project. I'd met with the United States-based program officers. I'd met with the international program officers. I submitted multiple revisions of the proposals. In other words, I'd done everything right.

Except that neither proposal was funded. The first because money was diverted in another direction; the second because funding priorities changed. Unfortunately, I'd focused so exclusively on these two proposals that when both fell out of the development mix, I didn't have anything to replace them with. That's where a fundraising plan comes in.

Create Your Funding Plan

One of your responsibilities as a fundraiser is to make smart matches and maximize not only your time, but the time of the executive director and everyone else in your organization. You will likely have to meet your budget through a mix of funding strategies — foundation funding, individual appeals, earned income, and government contributions, among others. As a fundraiser, you can make the most of your time by seeking out those funding sources best suited to your organization and its mission. If, for example, you spend weeks presenting your environmental organization to a healthcare funder, you probably won't get very far. You may say to yourself, "I'd never make a mistake like that." Well, I did — and it's not such a hard one to make.

The best way to identify the correct sources of funding for your organization is to create a funding plan. If done right, your plan can also help you budget your time. For example, if you want to secure government funding and focus on the time-consuming process of submitting a government grant proposal, yet neglect to attend the pre-bidders' conference, determine what it would take to win the grant, or get signed memorandums of understanding ( MOUs) and letters of endorsement from your partners, you probably won't get the award. You will have spent weeks of precious development time on a proposal that you really didn't have much of a chance to win in the first place, all because you neglected to take other critical steps in the grant-seeking process.

Do some investigation, even if it might mean postponing your proposal until the next round of funding. Call the federal program officer. Invest in a trip to the bidder's conference. See if you can read a winning proposal from a prior funding round. Invest time understanding how the proposal will be graded. Above all, talk to grantmakers, other fundraisers, and potential partners. Ask questions. Spread your business card around.

The Right Way, the Wrong Way, and Getting Lucky

In my early days as a fundraiser, I was hired to raise money for an animal hospital and a pet shelter. I knew nothing about either sector, but was a relatively successful consultant in a number of other nonprofit areas and I had a small development business with a good track record. I thought, "I can do this, right?"

WRONG. In six months I only raised about $10,000. Needless to say, my contract wasn't renewed. During the fundraising process, I sent out letters of interest and proposals, I talked with other fundraisers, I did research at the Foundation Center. Yet I never picked up the phone to ask a grantmaker if my ideas had any merit. I thought that everything had to be perfect — the proposal, the cover letter, the questions — before I ever spoke with someone.

Yet because I relied on my proposal alone, I became just one more unsolicited letter of intent crossing a program officer's desk, hoping upon hope that I would rise to the top of the heap and catch his or her interest. The experience taught me that a proposal should be the last step in a larger process. Prior to submitting a proposal, you should have at least one substantial conversation, e-mail exchange, or meeting with a program officer — ideally one that culminates in an invitation to submit a proposal.

I'm not saying that you can't get lucky. While working as a fundraiser for the aforementioned animal shelter, I wrote a completely unsolicited proposal asking someone for $10,000 to implant microchips in kittens and puppies — and received funding! Why did my proposal make it to the top of the heap? Not through any planning on my part ...

First, my request was somewhat timely. I submitted my proposal just after September 11, when many pets were trapped in victims' homes. Second, the organization I was consulting for was based in San Francisco, an earthquake-prone region where increasing the likelihood that pets will be reunited with their owners in the event of a natural disaster makes sense. Third, the grantmaker passionately believed that micro-chipping was an important part of the pet adoption process. Yet while I got the $10,000 I wanted, my client was less than thrilled with the six months of retainer fees they'd paid me in the hopes that I'd raise a lot more than $10,000.

Copy, Copy, Copy

Grantwriting is an art — you may have told your story well, but now you have to translate it into an equally persuasive proposal. Find examples of compelling grants and model your writing after them, especially if writing doesn't come naturally to you. A great place to start is The Foundation Center's Guide to Winning Proposals, which features 20 grant proposals that were funded by some of the nation's leading grantmakers.

About the Author:

Jody Mahoney is Senior Director of CompuMentor.


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