25 Tips for Fundrasing in Tough Times

Report prepared by The Ireland Funds


The last few weeks have seen the world experience unprecedented financial turmoil and we find ourselves in a position where it seems just about anything could happen. Things considered unthinkable in the past have come to pass and nobody, it seems, knows what the next day will bring. Doom and gloom prevails and forecasts of the apocalyptic collapse of the world economy abound.

This is, and will continue to be, a difficult time for all of us in the sector particularly organizations that depend on the generosity of the public to stay afloat. So what should we do and how should we react?

The following 25 Tips for Fundraising in Tough Times are based on the premise that this is not the end of the world. Neil Hennessey, President of the Hennessey Funds, was quoted last week in the Financial Times as saying “Remember that there is only one end to the world and this isn't it. We will get through this. Like a large kidney stone, it's going to pass but it's going to hurt”.

Having been around for over 30 years and active in 11 countries we, in The Ireland Funds, have seen momentous events before which we felt would adversely influence our business if not destroy it. They have, of course, affected us, but each time the Funds have recovered and come back bigger and stronger. The key was to be willing to change and adapt to different circumstances.

On the positive side perhaps good things will come out of this crisis -a demise of the ugly, brash, egocentric, conspicuous consumption that was a feature of the last decade. We could see a fundamental shift in values, a stronger sense of community and connectedness or, as the Chairman of The Ireland Funds, Hugo MacNeill, put it recently, the emergence of a “New Patriotism”, reflecting more care and concern for our fellow citizens. We need a community ‘call to arms’ to reach out and help the vulnerable and forgotten. Non profits will be front and centre of this particularly as Government are going to be able to do less and less and yet needs are going to increase.

This is going to be a difficult winter for many. We need to rekindle the spirit of the Special Olympics where an army of volunteers united the country around a common cause. One encouraging sign is the attitude of many of the younger generation who want to be engaged as individuals, employees and consumers. That, and the potential of the baby boomers, is heartening. The enthusiasm, engagement and success of the Ireland Funds' Young Leaders programme internationally is a manifestation of this.

There are 24,000 voluntary organisations in Ireland and over 7,500 registered charities. If, because of this turmoil, everybody turns inward and keeps low then no progress will be made. However, if a certain proportion go forward cultivating their donors (while understanding their current difficulties), communicating their increased needs and reaching out to new support then these organisations will be ahead of the others who have stayed on the sidelines. In the new environment you can either be a bystander or a player. In The Ireland Funds we all know which we want to be.

The key now is to manage the crisis, develop strategy and not to panic. Nobody has died. We all need to step back calmly and revisit all our assumptions. We need to analyse our mission, communications, supporters and audiences. Long time supporters need to hear from us and new audiences need to be cultivated, new sources of revenue identified and new ways to cut costs considered. Much of what is happening now is outside our control and we can do nothing about it. So focus on the things in your organisation and environment that you can influence and change. As Solzhenitsyn said “If you want to change the world, who do you begin with -yourself or others?”

So, despite everything that is going on in the world right now the onus is on all of us in the non-profit world to continue and increase our work and to show leadership. We should take heart in the words of Sam Walton, the US retailer, who was asked what Wal-Mart would do in the recession and he replied "We don't intend to participate". Tough times never last - tough people do. Don't get discouraged -get busy. If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.

If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. if you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody. ~Chinese Proverb

Six Fundamental Things to do Now

  1. Focus on mission
  2. Develop a strategy
  3. Cut costs and consider consolidation
  4. Remember the fundraising facts of life
  5. Lead your board and mine your database
  6. Ask, ask, ask

1. Focus on Mission

In all studies done throughout the world on why people give the number one reason invariably is belief in the mission of the organisation. Now is a good time to examine your mission and see if it is still relevant or if it needs to be tweaked or fundamentally changed. Compare it to other organisations and see how you stack up. In difficult times the mission becomes all important.

2. Develop a Strategy

This is the time your donors want to see you do 2 things -manage the crisis and work to a measurable plan. The circumstances provide you with an opportunity to engage your leadership in long range planning. Strategic planning is a tool for transforming and revitalising your organisation. Set realistic goals, define action steps and responsibilities explicitly and get the views of many. The strategic plan is not a wish list, a report card or a marketing tool. Nor is it a magic bullet or quick cure for today's financial mess. What it can do is identify your organisation's strengths and weaknesses, spot new opportunities and ways to do things differently. It will provide an invaluable blueprint for growth and revitalisation enabling an organisation to take stock of where it is , determine where it wants to go and chart a course to get there. We, in The Ireland Funds, are currently engaging our leadership in Ireland and overseas in developing a 3 year strategy. One of our guiding principles is to “Do the same things only differently”. It has allowed us to engage many people and ask for advice. The cliché is 'if you want money ask for advice'. We all have great resources of talent on our boards and among our supporters. Meet them, call them and ask them “If you were me what would you do?” People are always flattered when asked for advice.

3. Cut Costs and Consider Consolidation

The current crisis and downturn in giving will mean that many organisation will have to cut costs which will be painful. There is no easy way to do this but, in terms of staff, try to keep frontline askers i.e. those people who interact with donors. Make sure all staff have job specs with precise and measurable goals and objectives which are reviewed regularly. There is a huge proliferation of non-profits which means there is duplication in the sector. This may be a time to consider merging with other organisations with similar missions. A good outcome from a bad situation could be the emergence of a stronger sector. We all know that money is attracted by strength not weakness. Philanthropic money goes to organisations that have the capacity to grow and carry out their mission.

4. Remember the 10 Fundraising Facts of Life

  1. Money is not given – it has to be raised.
  2. It does not come in – it has to be gone after.
  3. It is not offered – it has to be asked for.
  4. Money is the oxygen of your organisation.
  5. Money is not raised at your desks.
  6. Asking is your greatest fundraising tool.
  7. Money is attracted by strength, not weakness.
  8. People like to support winners.
  9. People need to be inspired by a vision.
  10. If you’re not asking your donors for money, somebody else is!

5. Lead your Boards and Mine Your Database

It is important to realise that no matter how talented your board members are in their respective fields they probably are not familiar with fundraising. Accordingly, the Board's effectiveness and engagement is directly related to your input and guidance i.e. we get the boards we deserve. Our challenge is to offer them a way to find their passion and pursue it to improve the lives of others. We have to lead this process. It won't happen without us. We are the professionals at work on this fulltime. They are part time volunteers with limited time, understanding and energy. We have to educate. It is a case of 'the Board as your boss -you as their leader'. They think fundraising is the same as asking (which they don't want to do) and thus take no part in the other 95% of the fundraising process. We have to show them that fundraising is a much more complicated process than just soliciting and show them easy ways to support fundraising that doesn't involve soliciting.

They have to be convinced that the conversation is not about the money - it's about the mission.

As with all sales the most likely person to give is somebody who has given before. Strangers don't give. Analyse your data base and build your prospect pool. Track and collect data on your supporters. Develop visit and call reports. Include follow up steps in call report summaries. Track 'moves' with prospects. Create individual strategies for individual donors. Design an individual plan for each of your top 50/100 donors. We all let prospects fall through the cracks. They may not want to give now for obvious reasons but that is not to say they won't be in a position to do so in the future. Work out what you do each month with each prospect.

6. Ask, ask, ask

The number one rule in fundraising -if you want to get, you have to ask. Nobody is going to ring you or call into your office to give you a cheque. Life just doesn't work like that. Before asking for money there are lots of things you can ask your supporters for, such as.

  • advice
  • involvement
  • to sit on a committee
  • feedback
  • to thank others
  • to host an outreach event
  • to talk to the press
  • to proofread a document
  • to make an introduction
  • to meet a grantee
  • to meet a specialist
  • to take people on tours of projects 

7. Go back to basics

The key to success in fundraising is building long term deep and abiding relationships with people who have the capacity and propensity to give to your organisation either now or at some time in the future. Systems do not raise money, people do, and individuals only give money away to other individuals whom they enjoy and trust.

Despite the recession the fundamental basics of fundraising will not change. A small number of people, perhaps as few as twenty, can help get you through this crisis. More than likely they will be existing long term supporters of your organisation rather than people new to your organisation. Think of asking your key people to contribute to a special Development Fund to help you manage the crisis and plan for the future.

Fundraising is a 4 step process that takes time: Research, Cultivation, Solicitation and Stewardship.

Continuous cultivation is the process of moving people from a state of unawareness to general awareness to informed understanding to sympathetic interest, to engagement, to commitment and finally to passionate advocacy. The task of cultivation is to move people along this continuum. Cultivation needs discipline. Ask yourself each week what you are doing with your top prospects. Distinguish between activity and progress.

Great relationships in fundraising happen the same way great friendships happen. You get to know people, you share things with them and you are intrigued with them. You become part of their lives and they become part of yours. Make them insiders to your organisation. They want to become 'family' which means they need to know about your organisation 'warts and all'.

Don't be afraid to share problems with them and ask them to help resolve issues, such as dealing with this current financial crisis. The greater a supporter feels like an insider the greater the stake he or she has in the organisation and the larger the investment he or she can justify.

8. Get Baby Boomers involved

It is possible that this recession will throw up a large number of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) who want to add a meaningful 'third act' to their lives and getting involved with non-profits would fit their needs. Many are wealthy, healthy, educated and curious and want to give something back. They have skills, ideas and contacts. They want a second crack at saving the world given the evident failure of their first attempt 40 years ago.

Philanthropy will be their way to shape the world. In the US the 18 to 49 age group will grow by one million in the next 10 years. The over 50 group will grow by 22.5 million. Many are not looking for things to buy but a way to retain relevance by giving something back.

9. Take advantage of technology

Fundraising is a contact sport and the velocity of these contacts is increasing. Technology allows people, money and knowledge to move quickly.

Mine your database which is a rich source of information. Technology will allow you to go from mass marketing to one-to-one.

The era of mass marketing through mass media is over. Develop information rich relationships with your key donors by providing individualised data that relates only to them. This will enhance their sense of engagement and involvement.

10. Use your volunteer skill base

Don't let high powered people do low level work. They are longing to do meaningful work so don't have them licking stamps! They are smart people who don't want to do boring work. Trawl your database to find people with specific skills relevant to your needs and match them up.

Build small teams e.g. a new Technology group, a Long Range Planning group, PR and Communications group, Young Leaders group, Women's group etc.

11. Put yourself in your donor's shoes

  • Spend more time with the people who give you the most money and study their psychology.
  • Find out why they gave.
  • The more you study them, the more you will be able to identify more people like them.
  • Organisations often don’t know why people give to them.
  • They don’t realise their real appeal because they’ve never asked and they’ve never listened.
  • They may have a unique appeal they are not even aware of. You don’t need a consultant to find this out – you just need to ask and listen. 
  • To build a stronger relationship with a friend you don’t need to buy expensive presents, you just need to spend more time with them.

12. Engage with Emotions

Fundraising is an emotional business. No matter how difficult the financial crisis is for your supporters and donors it is worse for many that you look after. Also, point out that this country, even in it's darkest economic days continued to donate to build churches, libraries, schools, hospitals and support projects in the developing world.

A point of distinction for non-profits from business is that what donors feel is often more important than what they think. That's why your cause must catch the eye, warm the heart and stir the mind. What motivates your supporters is not statistics, graphs and strategies but ideas and philosophies that bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye.

Remember, Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream”, he didn't say ' I have a strategic plan'. As always the challenge is to strike a balance. Support stories with statistics and statistics with stories. The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action and reason leads to conclusions.

13. Remember what donors are looking for

Philanthropic investors are looking for:

  • A compelling mission that engages them in issues
  • A clear vision that brings about change
  • A solid track record
  • A high return on their investment
  • Professional staff with energy, empathy and enthusiasm
  • Potential for leverage/matching funding
  • Timely and open response to enquiries
  • Regular information and feedback
  • The ability to be part of decision making
  • Thanks and recognition
  • An opportunity to have fun with people they like with shared values in a collegial environment
  • Emotional involvement
  • A way to give back and do something significant
  • The chance to ensure others have what they did or didn’t have

14. Remember Education is more important than PR

  • There is a tendency to believe that getting good PR will solve all of your funding problems. People will read about the good things you are doing and money will flood in. It rarely works like that.
  • To raise substantial money you must ask person-to-person regardless of any well-placed stories. Most campaigns depend on a relatively small number of major donors (20 people can make or break a campaign) and their decision to give won’t be much influenced by the media.
  • Think instead in terms of educating them about the cause, the people and how people’s lives will be changed.
  • Nonprofits need to communicate with individuals, not masses – it’s the only thing that works.
  • Publicity is important in building an image in the community, but it shouldn’t be relied upon as an avenue for fundraising.
  • Raising awareness of your impact and credibility as an organisation contributes to your brand recognition and, in this sense, paves the way for good one-on-one fundraising.
  • In all the publicity that you do, use real people being touched in real ways by your organisation’s work.

15. Organise a retreat

  • At The Ireland Funds we do this annually when we take our board travels to Ireland for a weekend every June, and it is a key part of our fundraising strategy.
  • The objective is to get your key people away from their offices and their usual surroundings and distractions (work, family, other nonprofits, etc.) and give them a top quality empowering experience.
  • The idea is to get their full and undivided attention and reignite their passion about the good work your organisation is doing. o You want to create a sense of collective ownership of your mission, goals and strategy.
  • Get them in touch with their vision for a better world. o You want to have some fun, break bread together and develop an esprit de corps. This helps build trust.
  • Collectively you discover core values and core purpose.
  • Remember, people support organisations which reflect their own values.
  • Shared values glue boards together.
  • Your supporters start saying ‘we’ should rather than ‘you’ should.
  • By collectively accepting exciting and demanding objectives they are also accepting the responsibility of raising the funds necessary to achieve them.
  • What you want to avoid them saying is, “Great objectives –you’re the fundraiser, now you go get the funds”.
  • This is a major culture shift in organisations and takes time to develop. Retreats really help.
  • They are opportunities to show donors’ money at work and convince them that the work they are doing is honourable and noble.
  • They can spend quality time with grantees and get educated and passionate about the cause.

16. Develop the Elevator Speech

In a fast moving world drowned in messages, your organisation needs to have the ‘Elevator Speech’ that everybody associated with you can deliver.

What this means is that you need to be able to answer the following questions before the elevator gets to the 10th floor:

  • Why does your organisation exist?
  • What does it do?
  • How does it do it?
  • Where is it going?
  • Why is it deserving of support?

17. Offer time to pay

Nearly all major gifts to The Ireland Funds are pledges over time (and many of them are gifts of stock). By asking for a gift over a certain period of time, one reduces the ‘pain’ of the gift.

Normal pledge periods are 3 to 5 years and many donors end up paying them off early. We ask them to sign a pledge card (nonbinding legally). There have been very few pledges that have not been paid in full. A nonbinding pledge allows the donor a way out should exceptional circumstances prevent him or her from honouring the pledge.

This could be particularly appropriate in the current climate.

18. Develop a stewardship programme

  • Stewardship is based on the realisation that there is a life cycle to giving and giving is a habit.
  • If donors are stewarded well they give and give. Whereas some, not many, are wary of recognition, everybody appreciates acknowledgment and thanks. This should not be regarded as a chore.
  • Remember that first impressions last and this is a way that you can be better than other organisations. It is part of the process of moving from monologue to dialogue with a donor and is an opportunity to integrate your brand values into the communication.
  • Neglect of stewardship is the foremost cause of donor drop-off in nonprofit organisations. People who give their money and then feel ignored will find another organisation where they feel appreciated and involved.
  • Use stewardship as an opportunity to build a deep and meaningful relationship with your donor. o Remember – every gift is a down payment on the next gift.

19. Do 5 ‘thank yous’

A single thank you letter is not enough. We aim for five ‘thank yous’ as follows:

  • A handwritten thank you card that goes out within 24 hours of getting the gift.
  • The official thank you letter and receipt which is used for tax purposes.
  • A personal phone call from the regional director to go with the CEO’s thank-you.
  • Two thank-yous from other Board members outlining the impact the gift will have

It is important to find novel and effective ways of saying thank you, and an effective thank you programme will build and strengthen your relationship with your donors.

  • It is also a way of bringing the donor into contact with the results of his donation.
  • The most important reason that your donor is giving you money is to make a difference in somebody’s life – the least you can do is report back.
  • The bigger the sense of making a difference your donor gets, the bigger the future gets for your organisation.
  • Involve everyone in the organisation with saying thank you.
  • It’s not just the preserve of the CEO – let others build relationships.
  • Just make sure all of the communications are one-to-one.
  • They have more emotion and feeling than newsletters, press releases and mass mailings, which often fail to excite and make no friendly references to the individual.

20. Be alert to continuous giving

Your database is a goldmine of information and an opportunity to recognise and reward giving landmarks, such as when certain giving targets are reached or years of continuous support.

It always comes as a surprise to the donors and they are impressed when it is pointed out to them. One of the greatest human cravings is to feel appreciated – by not doing this you are suggesting that you are taking people for granted – that’s not good enough.

21. List and involve spouses

  • All major gifts are joint decisions, so always pay attention and tribute to the spouse. Organise events and occasions that include them and get to know their interests, hobbies, what nonprofits they support, etc.
  • Make sure their names are included in any lists and listen to what they say, ask them for advice and involve them in decision making.

22. Move from taking to giving

In our fundraising mindset we tend to look at ourselves as takers of money. This puts us at a disadvantage and it doesn’t make us feel very powerful. The challenge then is to look upon ourselves as givers and shake off the Robin Hood identity.

Here is what we all have to give:

  • Ourselves: our passion, personality, enthusiasm, wit, humour, charm Knowledge of our cause, our organisation and our competitors
  • What’s happening around the world
  • Insights into issues, solutions to problems, opportunities to invest, ways to make a difference
  • Emotional and memorable experiences
  • Fun and friendship and access to people
  • Acknowledgment; innovative, highly personalised thank yous

All of these will make you at ease with your donors and they will begin to thank you for the relationship.

23. Try asking and why staff is sometimes better than volunteers

Many textbooks say that the only person who can ask for a gift is somebody who has themselves made a gift of at least the same amount as that being asked for. Our experience, at The Ireland Funds, is that very often senior staff can also make major gift asks. With board members so much busier these days, it is sometimes the only way to ensure that asks get made on a regular basis. There are even some reasons why staff is better at asking than volunteers:

  1. Desire – Staff often enjoy asking whereas volunteers can lack enthusiasm and persistence.
  2. Dealing with Objections – Volunteers often don’t know how to handle objections whereas staff can be trained.
  3. Enthusiasm – Volunteers tend to be enthusiastic about the invitation or programme but not about asking.
  4. Time – For staff, major gift solicitation is our number one priority and what we spend our time thinking about –this is not the case with volunteers.
  5. Training – Volunteers don’t take to training and, usually, don’t understand sales.
  6. Preparation – Staff prepare diligently for each ask – volunteers rarely do.
  7. The Ask – Often volunteers are not specific, the ‘whatever you can give’ approach. Staff ask for specific amounts.
  8. Accountability/Follow Up – Good staff do this naturally, volunteers don’t.
  9. Trading Euro – Volunteers are afraid that they will be asked back – this doesn’t apply to staff.
  10. Skill – Over time staff can become very accomplished major gift askers. Development is a sophisticated, challenging and competitive profession that requires total commitment.
  11. You.

24. Time, Treasure and Talent

Everybody can help in some however small it may be. Extraordinary times require extraordinary support. We may be surprised by the extent to which people want to lend their shoulder to the wheel at this time of crisis. There are many ways people can help. Work out a series of options and go sell them.

25. Summary

To sum up this is all about change and how to respond to it. The landscape and architecture of the world's financial systems have been changed dramatically in the last couple of weeks. There is a sense we are in uncharted waters, the world will never be the same again and we don't know how it will affect our daily and professional lives.

It would be naive to expect our sector could sail on unaffected so we have to be willing to accept and embrace change. Change will become the new normal. But it has always been so. I think everybody would accept that the strategies that got us to where we are today will not get us to where we want to go in the future. Success in the past is no guarantee of success in the future. We live in a world where if you want to stay the same you have to be willing to change. Or, as the legendary management consultant, Peter Drucker, put it many years ago “To create the future is to be the enemy of today”.

Last word...perhaps, just perhaps, where we are going will be a better place than where we have been.

Further Information

Report prepared by Kingsley Aikins, President & CEO, The Ireland Funds