Fundraising. What is your first reaction to that word? Existential dread, anxiety, a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach? If so, you are certainly not alone. The majority of people get very uncomfortable with even the possibility that they may be asked to assist with fundraising. Some people may be willing to perform background tasks but would run for the hills if they were expected to actually ask for money. While this reaction is understandable in American culture, fundraising is a completely vital aspect of operations for all nonprofit organizations regardless of size. Consequently, anyone who is working with a nonprofit and is invested in seeing it succeed will need to overcome their aversion to fundraising. The purpose of this article is to help the reader start to set aside their gut reactions, change their relationship with the term “fundraising”, and be empowered to engage in fundraising activities (even direct asks!) without angst.
That may sound too good to be true, and certainly a single article isn’t sufficient to fully accomplish all of that. However, from my own experience I can tell you that just a few key realizations can greatly increase your tolerance for engaging in fundraising. While a lot of practice may be required before you are truly comfortable with it, I hope that the ideas I introduce here will at least allow you to be willing to engage in that practice so you can reach the point of being truly comfortable, and maybe even enthusiastic.
First and foremost, fundraising is NOT begging. The act of begging as most people perceive it is that one person is asking for something from another without giving anything in return. American culture is a very transactionally based society, so this type of interaction is generally looked down on and no one wants to be in the beggar’s position. So for US-based would-be fundraisers, it is important to realize that when you ask for money on behalf of an organization, you are most definitely offering something in return.
The organization that you are representing is presumably performing a needed and desired function in your community, and the money that you are asking for will be directly enabling that organization to do its work. I find it most helpful to think of both myself as the fundraiser and the organization I am fundraising for as a conduit between the donor and the mission outcomes that they are investing in. The truly valuable outcome in this interaction is the work being done, not the ones who are doing it. If you can keep this perspective in your mind, it is easy to see that while you may not be directly giving a donor something in return for their donation, their money is being used to accomplish a mission that they as individuals want to see realized and would be unable to make happen on their own.
As a side note, this is also important to realize at an organizational level; a nonprofit organization’s job is to efficiently and effectively execute programs and activities that will further its mission goal. As a professional fundraiser, I have only once been in the position of coming to realize that the organization I worked for was failing to efficiently and effectively work towards realizing it’s mission. Partly because I felt ethically unable to fundraise for them (as well as a truly toxic work environment), I resigned soon after joining the organization. This isn’t common but it can happen, and I encourage anyone who is fundraising for an organization (even volunteers) to review the code of ethics put forth by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, an international professional association for fundraisers.
Another method for changing your perspective is to realize that fundraising is a form of community building. When you ask someone for money, you are asking them to invest themselves, at least in a small way, in the mission of your organization. All nonprofit missions boil down to improving their communities in some way, whether that community is the population of the world or a handful of students with disabilities in a small town. Asking a donor to be part of that mission is effectively asking them to be an active part of their community, and that interaction can open the door to other types of community engagement. Once someone has invested money, they may be more open to educational communications, requests for volunteers or invitations to attend organizational events. Giving money is just one of the ways that you can ask them to engage with the work of your organization, and it can be an excellent starting point for a deeper relationship that both parties will benefit from.
It is also useful to think about the known or likely interests and aspirations of the specific person that you are asking for a donation. Why are you asking this person to donate? You aren’t walking up to a stranger on the street (or if you are, that’s a different type of fundraising with its own considerations). The vast majority of the time, you are asking someone who you know for a fact is already interested or invested in the mission of your organization in some way. Thinking about this in advance helps you to both see how your organization is helping further their goals (showing once again that asking for donations is NOT begging), and it will likely help you tailor your approach as well, which is always helpful. Most organizations have missions that touch multiple issues, and a donor might be more interested in one than another. For example, 500 Women Scientists’ mission is to make science more open, inclusive and accessible by fighting racism, patriarchy and oppressive societal norms. I can choose to emphasize different parts of this mission for donors with different interests fairly easily (for example, making science more open and accessible may be more important to some, while others will care more about fighting racism and/or patriarchy in science), and it is broad enough that some part of this mission is likely to apply to nearly everyone.
Another anxiety that some people have when they think about asking for money is the fear that they will ask for too much money from a donor. In my experience, in practice this is very unlikely - you are far more likely to ask for less than the donor is willing to give. More importantly though, if you were to ask for more than the donor can comfortably give, the most likely scenario is that the donor will consider your ask, and then tell you the amount that they can comfortably give. An important function of any fundraising ask is that it gives the donor an idea of what your need is, so asking for a specific amount addresses that as well - it gives them a number to react to (either yes; that’s reasonable or no; I can give X amount) and gives them information about your goal amount. If you ask for a donation without a specific amount requested, then the donor has to both think about what they can comfortably give and speculate about what you might need, which they likely have no information about. The most likely result of a donor guessing about the amount you might need is that they will give less than you are hoping, through no fault of their own. Most people have no idea how much money a nonprofit or community organization requires to operate, and it is your job to give them the information they need to contribute meaningfully - in this case, by asking for a specific amount.
Changing the terminology that you use for fundraising activities, if only in your own mind, can also be helpful for becoming more comfortable with the concept. The term “fundraising” emphasizes the activity being done (raising funds) but not what that activity is accomplishing. The more common term that professional fundraisers use is “development”. Using “development” puts the emphasis on what is being done with the money; developing the organization, and by extension the mission work. This may seem like simple semantics, and on one level it is, but it can make a big psychological difference if the term “fundraising” causes a freeze response in you. I personally use both terms, depending on which would be most accessible for my audience, but when I was first learning about fundraising and came across the term “development”, it helped change my perspective immensely.
A final trick you can utilize for changing your perspective about fundraising is to think about when you yourself are in the role of donor (or volunteer). What motivates you to contribute to an organization? How does it feel when you are asked for money? If you haven’t been asked as an individual (as opposed to through a mass email or social media campaign), can you imagine what it would be like for someone to ask you, in a one-on-one scenario, to contribute to an organization you care about? Your personal preferences for that type of interaction may not hold true for everyone (although it is a starting place for imagining how to ask others, and worth thinking about), but the important thing is that most likely, you would be pretty forgiving of awkward moments or small mistakes if you imagine yourself in the role of donor because at the end of the day, the opportunity to contribute towards a mission that you care about is the important thing. The donation, the fundraisers and the organization itself are just vehicles for that act. They are important too, but it may help you let go of some anxiety to realize that in these situations, you are just one fairly small part of a larger picture.
So, in summary:
There are many wonderful articles and books out there with excellent practical information about how to be a better fundraiser. The most helpful book for me, in my first job as a fundraiser, was “The Joy of Fundraising” by Terry Axelrod - the author challenges many society-held beliefs about fundraising and nonprofits, as well as offering practical advice for how to ask for donations from individuals. Other resources I turn to frequently for both ideas and practical advice is the Association of Fundraising Professionals (which offers many training opportunities as well as other resources) and the Blue Avocado, for articles on all topics related to nonprofits.
At the end of the day, if you want to help your organization sustain itself and grow, fundraising has to happen in some form, and individual donors are often an excellent place to start. Hopefully the ideas offered here will help you start to feel more comfortable with asking for donations, but at the end of the day the only thing that will truly help is practice. Keep the organization’s mission in the forefront of your mind and focus on how the organization is contributing to the community and the donors, and it should be easier to think about asking them to contribute in return.