The Fundraising Cheat Sheet for Board Members

By David Lansdowne

Attention spans have shrunk today, especially with board members and volunteers who have myriad responsibilities weighing upon them. In this vein, here’s a quick recounting of the most important fundraising truths they need to know.

You’ll find an in-depth discussion of these and other fundraising maxims in my book, Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face: A 1-Hour Crash Course on Raising Major Gifts for Nonprofit Organizations.

Know Your Mission

Why does your organization exist, why is it more effective than similar ones, what are your priorities now and in the future? You can be sure that would-be donors, those capable of making sizable gifts, will probe you on the nature of your mission and its importance today.

Write a Check

If you haven’t already, make your own gift now. By virtue of your position as a board member, you’re expected to be the organization’s most steadfast supporter. You can’t legitimately expect others to give generously if you haven’t done so yourself.

Target Individuals

Of the billions contributed annually to charity, roughly 85 percent comes from individuals (90 percent if you include bequests, which come from individuals, too). Don’t ignore the hard data and spend a disproportionate amount of your time chasing corporations and foundations. Focus almost all of your attention on individuals with a link to your organization.

Focus on the Few

As borne out by decades of experience and literally thousands of campaigns, 90 percent of the funds raised in a typical campaign come from just 10 percent of the donors. It’s powerful evidence of income inequality. To reach your goal you’ll need to devote most of your time – as much as 90 percent – to identifying, cultivating, and soliciting your top prospective donors.

Disregard Publicity, Mostly

Those who think publicity raises money tend to be novices or loosely committed volunteers. They hope the media will do the heavy lifting. But except in natural disasters, getting a splash in the media results in very little. To raise substantial money, you have to sit down with your would-be donors face to face.

Beware Special Events

Like honeybees to nectar, board members are drawn to special events. It seems like fun and it’s easy to get excited, especially when associated costs like printing, flowers, decorations, music, and room rental are ignored. In terms of the relative effectiveness of fundraising, special events rank near the very bottom. To restate what may be an uncomfortable truth for you: sitting down with your would-be donors ranks first in effectiveness.

Know Your Donor

Ignorance isn’t bliss in fundraising. You have to learn a good deal about the people you plan to approach – their values, desires, and aspirations. Those in philanthropy understand that prospect research is usually the difference between success and failure.

Avoid Drift

Who among us doesn’t procrastinate? The more time we have the longer we take to get things done. As far as fundraising is concerned, the most potent antidote to campaign drift or paralysis is a detailed timetable of who does what by when. We all need pressure to do what we say we’ll do.

Seek Proportionate Gifts

A widespread misconception in fundraising is this: “If we ask each person for the same amount, our job will be a cinch.” For example, all it takes to raise $100,000 is to ask 100 people to give $1,000. But this one-size-fits-all “strategy” ignores reality. Not every one of those 100 people will give, not everyone will give $1,000, and asking for $1,000 limits those who could or would give $5,000 or more. Forego this misguided approach. Instead, research your prospective donors, carefully rate them, and then seek a generous and proportionate gift.

Remember to Ask

Donors give for a variety of reasons: they believe the organization is trustworthy, they believe the organization is effective, and they feel the organization supports a cause they believe in. Even so, what sparks a gift in the first place is the fact that there you are, in the flesh, sitting across from the would-be donor and asking. The problem is that many of us are willing to do practically everything but ask.

Name a Specific Amount

Would-be donors want a sense of what you’re hoping for in terms of a gift. Are you seeking $500, $5,000, or $50,000? You have to be specific. This can be unnerving since it’s hard enough to ask for “any amount you can give.” But if you’ve done your homework and not plucked a figure from thin air, you won’t upset your prospective donor, especially if you phrase your request tactfully: “We’re hoping you’ll consider a gift in the range of $5,000” or “Will you consider joining me in giving $5,000 to this worthy cause?”

Don’t Apologize

When visiting a would-be donor, keep in mind that you’re a solicitor, not a supplicant. As Kay Sprinkel Grace, author of many books on fundraising, succinctly puts it: “It’s not begging when a donor’s gift provides housing for the homeless, food for the hungry, scholarships for deserving students, or medical help for those with chronic conditions. It’s not begging when the organization, on whose behalf you are asking, is stable, accountable, and successful in its work. By no means is it begging; it is an investment you seek.”

Yours is a noble undertaking.

David Lansdowne is author of Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face, from which this article is adapted.