The First Rule of Fundraising

The first rule of fundraising is that people give to people. The corollary of this rule is that the people who are getting must have a viable list of prospects who can give. As Shakespeare said, “There’s the rub.”

Some schools and hospitals have great lists of those who have used their services and have the means to support those services so they will exist for others. Most nonprofits, however, are not so lucky. Their clients are neither affluent nor influential. How, then, do you build a prospect pool?

Your board, of course. But too many board members balk at opening their rolodexes. Others open it up, but refuse to make the contact. “Say I sent you,” they tell you, but that is not the best way to turn a perfect stranger into a friend.

Whining about the situation, while personally gratifying, isn’t going to resolve anything. But neither are nice platitudes about mining your data, picking “low-hanging fruit,” or the fact that long-time donors are likely larger donors—especially if you have none of the above.

By all means, if you have a viable database, go through it. Identify your top donors and make sure you have a solicitation plan for each. Look to see if there are folks who have been to four events in a row but have never given beyond that. Call them and see if they fit that low-hanging profile. But my experience has been that if I don’t know who to call, it’s because my organization has not done even basic cultivation and tracking.

With all due respect, a list of names—even in Excel—does not a database make. If your organization has been erratic at best with its direct mail or phone programs or any other not-really-annual giving plan, you probably do not have a viable prospect pool of likely larger donors.

What you have to do is connect the dots. You do that in any case—Board Member Joe knows Sally who gets involved and then introduces you to Joan. Or you see someone at an event who you know from another life and you reconnect with them while connecting them more tightly to your organization. Now, you just have to do more.

Draw a profile of a likely donor. While I think wealth as a primary indicator can be over-rated, do think about zip codes where they may live or work. What about profession—is there a natural connection or a connection you want to develop? For example, if you live in an area where there are a lot of high tech companies, might you consider those working there? What’s the age group you want to target?

Mainly, though, think about your mission and who is likely to care. Having a huge suspect pool is not the goal. You must identify people who are likely to become involved and invested in what you do.

Now comes the hard part. If you don’t already know these folks and your existing friends won’t introduce you, how do you get in front of these folks? Well, if the mountain won’t go to Mohammed….go where the mountain is.

If I want CEO’s of large companies, I’m not likely to go to the local Chamber mixer, but if I’m looking for entrepreneurs in my community, those are events I’ll attend. Ditto service clubs.

A friend who works at a small nonprofit in a smallish city thought that the likely donors in her area would also be the most community minded. So she started attending City Council and commission meetings. Over time (and development takes time) she made contacts with the movers and shakers. They are now not just donors but board members—and they know they have to open doors.

If you are my age, you remember society columns in newspapers which were wonderful ways to identify the likely philanthropic. Those pages may no longer exist (in LA where I live, it’s all about celebrities and those are not the folks I want to concentrate on), but my local throw-away does still write about who attended what event and the phone book often provides the rest.

Historically, prospecting referred to the physical search for minerals, fossils, precious metals and the like. It was hard work. So is prospecting for major donors. But it is work that will pay off over time. You’ll find that identifying one good prospect often leads to several others, and best of all, as your board members start seeing new faces and hearing about your successes, they are likely to want to join in.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at