Fresh out of college in the mid-1990s, I took a traveling sales job. My responsibility was to sell as many industrial tools and supplies as possible. Yes, that’s just as exciting as it sounds.
My liberal arts education hadn’t trained me to sell anything. Puzzled yet determined, I set out to crack the code. I spent hours at bookstores leafing through business magazines and “how-to” paperbacks.
I read advice from one expert that suggested sales was a “numbers game.” I’d cast a wide-enough net and try to sell to anyone tangled in it. To my 22-year-old self, that strategy sounded intriguing.
Another expert recommended creating a flashy sales pitch, telling the prospect what they needed. They’d be convinced, and I’d walk out of the meeting with the order!
These two ideas were just the tip of the iceberg of snazzy sales strategies I read about and tried out for myself.
The problem was, none of the advice actually worked.
One day, my father, a salesman himself, handed me a little briefcase. Inside was an audio cassette training program from the early 1970s. The expert was an older gentleman teaching how to be successful in sales. My father told me to listen to the tapes because — even though they were old as dirt — from them I could learn the fundamentals.
So, I listened. And believe me, the tapes were BORING. (I may have even dozed off a few times.) What the trainer was talking about was incredibly straightforward. Could the direction to success be that simple, that boring? (So boring, I won’t bore you with the details.)
The answer was yes.
I don’t dare say that selling products is the same as fundraising. But what sales and fundraising have in common are the basic principles of building relationships, following processes, and reflecting on the data.
Too often, we overthink the path to success in fundraising. We tend to get distracted by the latest fads, tools, or hacks, assuming that “new” and “fast” are always better.
What if we could move all our fundraising onto TikTok? Or hire this unicorn person a board member recommends? Or find the hidden way to get people to give without being asked?
Any of those sound familiar? The truth is, it’s human nature to seek out what seems fresh, easy, and exciting… so that’s the direction we often drift.
Oddly, though, the “boringness” of the fundamentals is what makes them exciting. Because once you get the simple, unglamorous basics right, you will transform your entire fundraising program.
You’ll raise more money, serve more people, and create lasting change!
Here are seven ways to get back to the basics and put your fundraising on the right track:
1. Write an Annual Fundraising Plan
Fundraising can be chaotic. A written plan helps bring focus and order to all your hard work. Keep in mind that your fundraising plan is not a budget. Rather, it’s how you will achieve your financial goals. Your plan will allow you to prioritize activities that raise money and that represent the best use of your time.
Your annual fundraising plan should define responsibilities, set deadlines, and measure progress. Review your plan often, and you’ll be better able to adjust on the fly… and still stay on track to meet your goals.
The best part about a fundraising plan is that it helps keep your entire team moving in the same direction.
2. Ask for Donations More Often
Do you feel squeamish about asking donors for money? Maybe you think you’re asking too often, so you decide to let donors “rest.” Don’t do that! As fundraiser Steven Screen says, “Letting donors rest gets them out of shape for giving.” You’ll find that donors who are the most likely to give are the ones who recently gave.
Also, you experience your communications differently than donors do. You read every word of every piece of correspondence. Donors typically read some words of some of what you send. They also read a lot of other words from other sources in between your appeals. That’s why you need to write more appeals than you think are necessary.
Most of all, remember that donors love to give. They want to invest in great causes and feel the joy of giving. So ask away!
3. Make Thanking a Priority
Your mother was right. Thanking is the proper thing to do after someone gives you a gift. But in fundraising, that’s not the whole story. If you think of thanking as merely polite and obligatory, I’ve got good news for you. A mindset shift about thanking will help you build better relationships with your donors.
John Haydon, the late, great nonprofit marketing expert, said something to me that I’ll never forget. He said, “Thanking is not the effect of a gift. Thanking is the cause for the future relationship.”
The central purpose of gratitude is to help us form strong bonds with other people. When someone makes a gift, that gift should start the process of bonding them to your cause. And you can do a lot to help form that bond with your lovely, heartfelt thank-you communications.
4. Report Back to Donors More Often
Just as thanking donors serves a special purpose, reporting back to them helps in another way. Donors want to know that their gift made a difference. Newsletters are an excellent way to show donors exactly how they’re changing the world.
The most successful newsletters share things that are important to donors. Impact stories help donors connect emotionally with the cause and beneficiaries. And storytelling helps build trust and affinity too.
While success stories are the focus, money-raising newsletters also include an urgent need and call to action. Conveying the message, “We still need you,” tells donors that there’s still more work to be done.
5. Listen to Donors
Are you really listening to donors, or are you presuming you know what they want? If you set out to actively learn more about your donors, you will be able to build better relationships.
Reviewing reports from your donor database is one way to listen. Paying attention to what donors do — namely, their giving behavior — will help you know what the next right step is for them.
Surveying is another effective way to listen. Surveys like the one described here help you find mid-level and major donors that you didn’t know you had. Surveys also uncover donors who are ready to give monthly and those who can provide a matching grant for your next campaign — and even the wonderful people who will put you in their will.
6. Invest in Fundraising
“It takes money to make money.” This saying is older than your Great Uncle Eugene. Nonetheless, it is still true for businesses today, including your nonprofit. You need to invest in fundraising in order to grow.
This means investing in your team and infrastructure so that you can steward donors and acquire new ones. For example, spending money on donor management software will help support your fundraising. You’ll be better able to collect and manage data, analyze reports, and automate some processes.
These measures will help you build strong relationships with donors — and position your nonprofit for sustainable growth.
7. Keep Learning
New fundraisers and seasoned professionals alike need to hone their skills. If you’re like a lot of fundraisers, you’re a real go-getter. That’s a great thing to be! Except, at times, movers and shakers zoom right past the basics.
When you invest in yourself and your career, you develop the know-how and confidence to take on any challenge that comes your way. In fundraising, there’s always something new to learn… and something old to relearn! Keep learning, and you’ll be able to raise more money and create a lot more joy in your life.
Julie Cooper, a charter member of The Fundraisingology Lab, is a copywriter and coach specializing in fundraising copywriting and design. You can find out more about her at her website.
Learn with other smart fundraisers like you from around the world. Join The Fundraisingology Lab, by Moceanic. Julie’s a member too!
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