Out of all of the groups I’ve worked with, not one has characterized their group as adept at fundraising. Not one. Many have been particularly down on their group’s ability and/or willingness to engage in development. Some have told me they think members of their group are actually going to be hostile when the subject comes up.
Mike and I kvetched at the kitchen table this morning before work about the difficulties involved in fundraising. After listening to me go on about my job for twenty years, he knows quite a lot about what’s involved in asking someone for money. Still, he considers himself a newbie.
Recently he’s made a conscious decision to be more active in fundraising on behalf of two organizations. He got involved with our local YMCA Strong Kids Campaign. He’s coordinating a board fundraising training for another group and has volunteered the two of us to launch a series of house parties to set a good example.
He set out on some initial fundraising tasks with a great deal of enthusiasm. He made a commitment of his own gift, familiarized himself with the mission and message of the organization, scoped out some good prospective donors, strategized his approach, set up his meetings and asked for support. Twice.
He received two polite but definite declines.
He, like any rational adult, sees this as rejection. Fear of rejection is the primary reason people don’t launch themselves confidently into the world of fundraising. In his mind, his fear has just been substantiated.
But to me, these two asks were successes. Although he’s discouraged with the result, he’s proved to himself that he can weather rejection. If the organizations working with him are smart enough to realize his potential, they’ll make sure he knows just how valuable it is to them that he put himself out there at all, and work with him to do it again.
The only sure “no” in fundraising is in response to the request that’s never made. Even a “no” in response to a direct ask isn’t necessarily a “no” forever. In my husband’s case, one denial came from a company that really has no philanthropic history. The headquarters isn’t based here. They don’t sell their product here, and the connection between successful recruitment and ongoing employee satisfaction and the work of the organization was not as compelling to them as it should be. But it may be that he started some gears turning, somewhere, and the next time someone asks, they’ll be more open to the possibility of charitable giving.
In the second case, he missed the company’s budget cycle, but learned more about their criteria for giving (nonprofits with heavy company involvement get first dibs), their visibility and marketing objectives. I’ll bet if he times his ask better, and brings information about direct employee involvement in the organization next year, he’ll have a shot.
In both cases, he made his case. After that a “yes” or a “no” can hinge on so many variables that have nothing to do with the person making the request. The important thing is reaching out in the first place. We can research, develop our case, strategize and go back to the drawing board any number of times and never get anywhere because we don’t actually ever pull the trigger. We have no hope of hitting the target otherwise, but statistically speaking, even when we do fire, we’re still going to miss once in a while. We might as well start somewhere.
I had a great assistant at one point who could work the phones like a boss. She got me in front of more potential donors than I ever could do on my own. Her background was in telemarketing, and she said the only way to avoid letting that job crush her soul, was to turn it into a mental game of averages. She knew she would be successful about one in 20 times, so she started to celebrate a little for every “no” she got, knowing she was closing in on a “yes” eventually.
The work we’re asking of our volunteer board members and other fundraisers isn’t soul crushing. It isn’t scrounging or begging or scrambling for money. It is noble and it is worthwhile and it is something they should hold their chins up about. But that doesn’t mean that even the best fundraisers are going to get a positive response every time they ask.
Encourage your volunteers to celebrate the “nos,” rather than grieve or retreat. With each one, they’re that much closer to a “yes.”
When I’m talking to nonprofit board members and executives about the work I do as a fundraiser, I like to make clear at the outset that I’m not a superhero. I’m not the person who is going to swoop in and make sure everything is hunky-dory, then leave with a “my work here is done.”
It’s a tempting thought: “we hired a fundraising consultant, and suddenly cash started rolling in,” Kind of like: “who was that caped crusader? I don’t know, but we owe her a debt of gratitude.” Fact is, I have never seen a person single-handedly turn an organization into a fundraising machine without the enthusiastic cooperation and participation of those who were already there. For that reason, I would be reluctant to take credit for the successes I have been privileged to lead, witness or participate in, in any capacity.
Whether it’s professional staff, development committee chair or outside consultant, it’s important to realize the role of the fundraiser is that of a personal trainer rather than the cosmetic surgeon. With either one, you’re going to look different in the end, but with a trainer, you’ll sweat more and may hate her later, but your successes will be yours to keep, sustainable over time, and a direct return of the effort you put into them.
More than a decade ago, I was leading the charge in a campaign to solicit annual gifts from our staff. A colleague of mine, Sherry, told me she found the concept of a staff campaign offensive. She held up one of the women in our support staff as an example.
Consuela was a young, single mother. After years of saving she had just purchased a modest home. Sherry thought it shocking that we would be so bold as to ask Consuela to consider a gift to the organization she worked for on top of all of her other burdens.
A campaign volunteer once asked my advice on a call she was would be making on local executive. The sum total of what she knew about this person included: 1. She ran a family-owned business that was doing well, 2. She sat on the boards of several nonprofits (not ours), and 3. She was a young professional with elementary school-aged children.
Hmm, what was it I was going to talk to you about?
“What should I ask for?” my volunteer wanted to know. A good question, but premature. In the absence of a crystal ball, though, there are still a number of ways to find out what range of gift might be appropriate for an ask.