11 Experts on How To Get New Donors

by Marc A. Pitman, Fundraising Coach

As a fundraising coach, one of the most common questions I get is about how to get new donors for a nonprofit. This is asked by just about everyone in the sector: grassroots nonprofits with no list and established nonprofits looking to expand, veteran fundraisers bored with the tactics and board members brand new to the field. The question was well summed up in this question from an Ask Without Fear! email newsletter subscriber:

“How do I acquire new donors? I find that people keep saying donor acquisition is given way more attention than retention. I find retention articles are a dime a dozen but it is difficult to find quality articles on acquisition.”

It’s great to read about donor retention, or how to call donors, but what if you don’t have any donors yet?

Finding new donors isn’t rocket science

I’ve written about how to find new donors before and a dozen of us built a program to get 100 new donors in 90 days. Since my answers haven’t changed, I’m often at a loss when I’m asked. In my experience, getting new donors is a long, organic process. No quick fix.

So I reached out to dozens of nonprofit leaders around the world and asked them how they teach people to find new donors. I received some great responses. I think all of them are things you can do without a large budget. Some without any budget at all!

11 Experts share how to get new donors

Don’t look for new donors. Look for new supporters.

Teach your staff and board that when someone asks “what’s new? ” they should tell them about a personal experience they had with your organization. Not numbers, but the thing that made you feel warm and satisfied inside.

Then they should ask if they can include them on their list! It’s this last step that is often missing. The first ask is for permission to tell them more.

Susan Detwiler, Principal, The Detwiler Group

Well, as you’ve noted, Marc, there is no magic wand. You build your house list… and it takes time.

Of course, the more you get out and about, talking about your mission/vision, the better. The Internet has made making first contact infinitely easier for many obscure causes. You can climb existing networks through social media, too.

As for buying lists, yes, it does “work.” If you want to call it that. The returns will seem meager and costly. Often you spend two bucks to raise a buck. You send out 200 appeals and get one gift back (that’s considered a successful acquisition effort).

I think local charities have an advantage in this acquisition game, because they can pitch enlightened self-interest. We all want to live in the best place on earth: a place without problems, basically.

Every charity has a “natural constituency.”

  • Faith-based charities have their fellow congregants.
  • Universities have their alums. Hospitals, their grateful patients (not the ones suing).
  • Locals, their neighbors.
  • Odd diseases, the afflicted and their families.
  • Children, all adults (we are biologically hard-wired to care for our young; kittens and puppies do well, too, in the new-donor sweepstakes).

Tom Ahern, author Making Money with Donor Newsletters

Be where your potential donors are and give them a solution to their biggest pain point(s) and/or fears. Invite them to be a part of the inner circle, your organization’s inner circle so that you can capture their information. Then, delight them by keeping them “in the know” and giving them access to leaders.

Before you know it, they’ll want to bring their friends and family in to the inner circle too.

Natalia McNeil, Founder, Peer to Peer Nation

Donation is the result of effective engagement. If you’re blessed with passionate ambassadors, find or create events where they can share their passion to ignite others. If your charity is easy to experience directly (eg save the puppies, clean up the park, etc.) it’s time to schedule public events and introduce more people to your work directly.

Isaac Shalev, President, Sage70, Inc.

I’d prolong the organic growth phase as long as possible (as long as you keep growing). Then I’d turn my attention to online growth (organic).
Finally, I’d start looking at building a true direct mail file. Direct mail is a very expensive and complex medium. You can screw it up big time in many ways. Get professional help at this stage! Especially list rental. That industry is a den of vipers. You don’t want to go there without an experienced guide! They know who to avoid, or how to work with the less-dangerous vipers without getting bit. There are countless ways for list rental to go wrong.

Jeff Brooks, author The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand

It’s going to sound simplistic, but I get new donors by asking them to help.

I ask if I can meet with them to explain a project we need to do and see if it interests them. We meet; I explain the project and why it’s important; I ask if it’s of interest. If the answer is yes, I ask if they would like something in writing. And I tell them how much we need.

Of course, I have chosen them because I know them well enough to believe that this project will resonate.

Pauline Urbano Hechler, Nonprofit Consultant

Finding new donors is like going fishing. You need to have bait and a good place to fish. Our bait to attract new donors is the mission and our programs. How can people find out about what we do? Not everyone is going to be interested in us. Do we have a profile and some degree of public awareness yet? What can we do to increase our profile so that we are not some “best kept secret?”

Then we need to be looking in the right places for new donors. Are we viewing our events as relationship-building activities and capturing the contact information of those who attend? Are we taking advantage of opportunities to speak to local civic groups that are usually desperate for good speakers? Do we take advantage of social media tools to engage friends and expand our network? Have we started a young professionals group to appeal to a new sector of our community?

Michael Bacon, Bacon Lee & Associates

Where do we find new donors? We’re not speaking blithely when we say “everywhere!” One of the most interesting aspects of being a direct response fundraiser in our increasingly multi-channel world is that some donors continue to appear where we historically have expected to find them, and others are popping up in places they would not have even a few fast years ago. This means we need to anticipate where they’re going and get our relevant offers, attractively packaged, in front of them in the new arenas they frequent (in the new formats that those arenas accommodate). Thankfully, our newfound abilities to hyper-target through enhanced list modeling, demand side platforms (otherwise known as “programmatic”), and cable stations offering narrowly sliced pieces of the tasty viewership pie mean we don’t just have to throw more money out there and pray. We simply have to adjust the channel mix. (Did I say simply? Our media director will kill me. Figuring out how to attribute performance and assign success in an integrated world is the new challenge of our time. But that’s for another post.)

Adjusting the channel mix brings us to another point: direct marketers have historically focused on file size rather than file value. That dual-channel model (dependent on mail and phone alone) is falling in on itself as lower value and less committed donors churn off the file, resulting in objectionable fundraising costs. The new model focuses on using the right combination of digital (including mobile and social), TV, mail, phone (yes, mail and phone are still vital) – and augmenting them with outdoor, radio, alternative media, print, and more – to deliver a concentration of higher value donors whose loyalty and commitment can be grown over time so our good work can grow in its scope and impact, too!

Ps: One of the most exciting aspects of finding new donors today is that we often find and increase the value of our existing donors in the process. Acquisition is the new cultivation! And of course, it delivers many new donors as well.

Lisa Scott Benson, EVP Strategy, Insights & Integration, Russ Reid

Marc, I am assuming that you are doing a compendium of ideas, so I thought I’d focus on new corporate partners.

Corporate partnerships are constantly evolving and transforming, but in addition to trying to match CSR agendas try thinking of corporate partners as a ‘route to market.’ They have the power to introduce your cause and your brand to a wide range of stakeholders from employees through to customers. Corporate donations are often the ‘crumbs under the table’, but access to new potential supporters could be the gold you are seeking.

Few charities build their proposition and approach around ‘route to market’ and my experience is that companies find this a refreshing and relatively easy approach that then often leads onto a wider partnerships. This isn’t just about large companies, it works just as well with SMEs (Small Medium Enterprises) an often neglected source of corporate partners and therefore ways to access new audiences and donors cost effectively.

Charities will never have the marketing power of companies, but they can learn to capitalise on corporate access and success by thinking of creative propositions that companies will want to associate with and send to their stakeholders. Why would companies do this? Because they gain the association with your brand, goodwill and positioning. Make no mistake: this is a trade of benefits, but it will often feel an easier starting point for a company that may consider working with you.

Tony Elischer, Managing Director, THINK Consulting Solutions

Let’s start with a few basic facts:

  • 70% of Americans contribute to nonprofit organizations.
  • People who give, give. People who don’t, don’t. The number one predictor of someone contributing to your organization is that he or she already gives to others.
  • Typical donor households support 5-10 nonprofits per year.

Where can you find potential donors? The answer is clear: they’re already giving to other organizations.

The traditional strategy is to collect published donor lists from peer organizations, especially in your community. If you’re a health organization, study other health groups. If you work to protect the environment, keep an eye on other conservation organizations, and so on.

Look at their annual reports, newsletters, websites and event programs. Photocopy all published donor lists, staple them into sets, and present them to your board and staff.

“Here,” you say, distributing the packets, “are the names of 2,000 people in our area who support similar organizations. I believe you know some of these folks. Take the list home, grab a cup of coffee (or a beer – your choice) and read through the names, underlining anyone you know. If you have contact info, even better. If not, we will find it. ”

Every marked name meets the three criteria that define a prospect:

  • Access via an existing relationship with your board, staff, or volunteers
  • Belief in your cause – potentially – as evidenced by their gift to a peer organization
  • Capacity, because they have enough disposable income to make charitable gifts

If your colleagues raise concerns about “poaching” donors, remind them that most contributors give to multiple organizations. Besides, once the names are published – a good practice, since many supporters appreciate the recognition – that information is public.

If you use this strategy systematically – collecting names, sharing them with your team, looking for existing connections – over time you will build your list, add more prospects, and convert some of them to donors.

Of course, you still have to ask.

Andy Robinson, trainer & consultant based in Vermont

I like to thinking of finding new donors as “champagne taste on a beer budget.” Finding new donors can be expensive, time-consuming, and challenging. There are alternative measures that can help get the process started – regardless of budget. Start with your “inner circle” and grow as time and resources allow.

Don’t let “limited development staff” become an excuse; rather, make it the call to action to enlist the help of others.

Ask board members for names of people who will take an interest in supporting the organization. Better yet, engage your board members by being an active part of the cultivation process of the names they suggest. Do the same with key stakeholders, employees, and volunteers. If you have a way to offer incentives to help with this process – great; if not, life will go on…but an old school “thank you” can go a long way to express appreciation for any help given to this process.

If you involve volunteers in the process, be clear about expectations, provide training, set mutually agreed upon deadlines and establish communication protocol for updates. For example, find out the best mode of communication (e.g., phone, email) and time of day to contact for updates. Be prepared to contact volunteers when most convenient for them – even if early morning, evening, or weekend.

Is anyone in the organization monitoring media sources – i.e., new businesses, personnel promotions, new hires, growth/expansion of companies? Reach out personally to these people and organizations. Use the good news to open the door and introduce your organization. Too forward for your tastes? Enjoy a good game of Six Degrees of Separation – who do you know that knows these people and organizations? Ask for their help to open a door…a window…or the mailbox.

Headed to the symphony, sports arena, or theatrical performance? Whenever you are handed a program, think of it more than a fan or coaster. It’s inspiration. Are the listed sponsors and contributors people who could be helping your organization? Do the listings spark your imagination to think about others – jumping to uncontested waters in your own “Blue Ocean Strategy” to find some of the not-so-usual suspects? Think outside the box. Travel outside your bubble.

Whether you opened yesterday or 75 years ago, every day must be “Show and Tell.” Show what your organization has done. Tell who and/or what it has helped. Give people a reason to want to support your efforts. Don’t assume people already know the mission, message, and how great you are. Show them. Tell them.

Throw a party with a purpose. Who is on your “dream team” invitation list? Go back to the Six Degrees of Separation game. Who can help get that “dream team” into a room for a chance to learn more about the organization and spark philanthropic support? “Show and Tell” here needs to bring the “A-game” and be direct with a call to action for the “dream team. ” Make the event intimate; personal.

In my past life, a local accountant told me that I wrote more personal notes on gift acknowledgment letters than any other charity. If the accountant noticed, imagine what the donors thought? In this technological age of emails, text messaging, and other forms of social media, never lose sight of what “old school” hand-written signatures and personal messages say about you and your organization. It is a simple way to take that “new” donor to higher levels of giving. Tell me, which would you rather open at the end of a long day: junk mail or a hand-addressed envelope? Stand out from the crowd. Be bold. Be personal. Be you.

Maureen Egan, Senior Consultant, American City Bureau, Inc.

Time to get to work!

There are some great tips in here. As you can see, it’s going to take getting to work.

So choose a strategy here and start implementing it! There are people who will be glad to give to your nonprofit. They just don’t know it yet.

If you want to see how this fits into a broader plan, check out Do It Yourself Fundraising a simple step-by-step guide for asking without fear.

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