The Rights of Fundraising

The best definition I ever saw about successful fundraising is that it is the right person, asking the right prospect, for the right amount, at the right time, for the right project, in the right way. You might note that there is nothing there that talks about the right centerpiece, the right color tablecloth and napkins, and it certainly doesn’t say the right font on an invitation or letter. And yet, these are the kinds of things I find so many of my clients focus on.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the development director informed me that no, the annual appeal letter hadn’t gone out yet. She was still wordsmithing the letter and she wasn’t sure about the color of the stationary. This is true. Remember right time? I asked. You are quickly in danger of getting this appeal out at precisely the wrong time—just as everyone’s focus is on the holidays, parties, and the gifts they are considering are the ones for their families and friends.

Much of my work is spent trying to move staff and volunteers off start, where they seem to be stuck, unable to do the real work of fundraising.

That real work, of course, is building a relationship between the prospect and the organization and talking about the impact the prospect can have by making a charitable gift.

Philanthropic relationships are different than other relationships. They are focused on how one party (individual, couple, organization) can make a difference at an organization, for that’s organization’s clients or cause. The other part of this triangle is the person or people who are helping the first party make that difference.

This is best done by asking open-ended questions and then listening to the answers. And then asking, “Tell me more.”

Questions that ask how they found out about you and what compels them to support you. Or what other organizations they support. And why. Where does your organization fit in their philanthropic priorities. If you are not in the top three, what could you do to move up? What is it that those organizations offer that you do not?

Talk with them about their values and how those underpin their philanthropy. Ask what about their philanthropy has given them the most joy over the years.

And yes, you can talk about your programs, but understand that in a very real way, people generally don’t give because of the activities you offer. They give because of what you accomplish and how you change your piece of the world.

Right now, I’m working with several organizations on their follow up phone calls to those who received their end of the year appeal. And I say, “Throw out your scripts.” Be the right person—someone who cares passionately about the work the organization does. Ask for the right amount—which I believe should be one that makes your prospect stretch. The right time is, of course, now. For annual, the right project is the work you do to meet your mission, and the right way is by inviting them to join with you.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity and to develop stronger, more committed boards. Learn how she can help you and your board be more effective fundraisers at or email her directly at and ask for a free 30 minute consultation.