Fundraising Differently

The appeal was of the sky is falling variety.   Government funding is down.  We need you to replace those funds.  Less people attended our gala; we need you to step up.  Annual giving has tanked—be the solution to our problems.  The board wanted to take the same message to potential major donors.   So I asked what seemed to be the logical question:  How well did the appeal do?  Not very, was the answer.  So why, I asked, would you keep telling the same, not so successful story? It is tempting, I admit, to simply tell the truth.  For many nonprofits, the sky IS still falling.  Government funding IS down.  Galas are not doing as well.  Donor retention for annual giving is and has been dismal.  But perhaps those numbers are where they are because you are not telling the right truth.

Few people give because you are in need.  They give because you are doing things that matter to them.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the organizations who consistently raise the most funds.  By and large these are organizations that arguably don’t ever have to raise another dime.  Harvard, for one.  Yale, for another.  The endowments at these universities could carry them forever.  And yet, every single year, they are in the first, second, or third place for fundraising results.  Why?  Because their donors believe that what they do makes a difference.

Your donors, too, should believe that.  But for that to happen, you need to tell the right story.  And that story is not what you don’t have but, rather, what you accomplish.

One way to look at this is to ask yourselves—who benefits from what we do?  Think broadly here.  Yes, your clients, perhaps their families.  But who else?  As you keep moving outward you will think of more stories (and truths) to tell.  Because of your donors what things are you able to do?

One of my clients keeps saying that her organization doesn’t do anything—they “just” help those who can’t help themselves.  That’s not doing anything?  What am I seeing that she is not seeing?  Make sure your donors see the big picture.

And then, bring that big picture down to something manageable.  One person.  One community.  One baby step that leads to a giant success.

In a lot of my trainings, I start by asking participants to look at their names and see if, within those names, they can see something that shows what they bring to their organizations.  For example, my first name is Janet.  The last 4 letters can be reorganized to spell the word “neat.”  Which, as I ruefully admit in my classes, my husband will tell you I am not.  But neat also means “Marked by ingenuity and skill.” I like to think that I bring those traits to my consulting.

The purpose of the exercise is to get the class thinking differently about known things.  Instead of seeing what they always see, to see something new, something exciting.

Too often in fundraising, people are hoping to do something different.  Something that will preclude taking the time to build relationships and ask for money.  But that is what fundraising success is built upon.  You need not to look for different answers, just a different attitude about what needs to be done.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations, helping them to increase fundraising capacity and build stronger and more committed boards.  Learn more at  While there, sign up for the free, monthly newsletter.