Every so often, like last spring, I get calls from potential clients desperately hoping I will give them donors. It's like they think I have some sort of "magic Rolodex" that I'll offer them, a list of people anxiously looking for worthy causes to give to.
I've never found that Rolodex. Fundraising is a long game of building relationships and proving your impact. There are billions of dollars that will be given away this year. But you have to earn it. It takes work.
Part of the work is doing your mission incredibly well. That's the fun part. The other part is doing the work of funding that mission. And for the vast amount of charities I work with, that funding is from individual donors.
A couple months ago, I asked my colleagues: What do YOU say when asked "Where do you find donors?"
There are close to two dozen comments. I was relieved (but not surprised) to see that the answers were similar to what I was saying. The answers were more or less variations on: work out from your inner circle and keep building connections.
One reply that came to me via email but didn't make it to the LinkedIn post was from Simone Joyaux. She wrote:
"Ah yes, the constant question. People asked me that yesterday in Italy at the Festivale del Fundraising. I always say:
- First, people pay attention to what interests them. They do NOT pay attention to that which does not interest them. The job of fundraising is to find those who are interested in your particular cause.
- Second, do NOT trespass on your personal and professional relationships. You know what interests your friends - and that may (or may NOT) be a cause that you cherish. Your job as a fundraiser and as a board member is to adopt as a lifestyle listening to others, finding out their interests, sharing yours, and building links as appropriate. Do NOT ask people to give money because they like you.
So that's my summary! And this is a long and sometimes fun and sometimes tedious process."
Fundraising isn't about winning the lottery. At least sustainable fundraising isn't. It's about building relationships and discovering new friends and funders.
In the responses, I was dismayed to see that we nonprofits can treat major donors with the same unrealistic, desperation-motivated expectation of having a magic Rolodex. Ruth Ann Harnisch said:
"I agree, Marc - as a donor who has given some major gifts, I'm often treated as if I'm stingy for not turning over that mythical magical Rolodex you reference.
Or as if I must surely have a treasure map to the secret pile of donor money.
Or as if all of my friends have millions of discretionary dollars just sitting around waiting for a good cause to appear.
When people ask me where they can find donors, I ask, "If you are having so much trouble getting support from your current stakeholders, clients, donors, directors, and their circles of friends and associates, why does the organization deserve to exist?"
The world is full of great causes, great ideas, great needs. Not every nonprofit can attract enough support to continue operations. Them's the grits." [emphasis added]
Them is the grits. But rather than letting them be depressing, use them to spur you on to revisiting the basics of:
Remember that old saying of having two ears and one mouth? This week, try listening to others twice as much as you talk about your cause. See how many more people find you interesting as you get interested in them.
Focusing on your family
Are your current stakeholders donating? If not, go to them and practice step 1: Listen. Find out why not. Be prepared to have a thick skin. Some of the feedback may be hard to hear. But it will be worth it if you cause is going to have a shot at existing over the longterm.
Asking your donors to introduce you to others
Not in the cloying, "you're holding out on us" way Ruth described, but in a way filled with gratitude for their support. Most won't ask their friends for you. But many will be willing to host a gathering to introduce your cause to them.
That will get you started. Be sure to read all of the answers to "Where do you find new donors" over at LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/answers/non-profit/non-profit-fundraising/NNP_FUN/835452-8616660.
I've reopened the question so feel free to add your thoughts as well!
Update May 2013: Linked in has discontinued the "Answers" option that was linked on this page. But since this post, a dozen of us got together to create 100 Donors in 90 Days. This has proven highly successful for nonprofits. Read more at: http://100DonorsProgram.com/