Stop Being a Sick Nonprofit

For the past several days, I’ve been sick with either a cold or allergies.  In any case, I

can do what I need to do, but doing new things defeats me.  And moving to a new spot?  That causes coughing which, after a few minutes, exhausts me.  It struck me last night, after I coughed for what felt like days and only wanted to curl into myself, that many nonprofits are exactly like sick people.

Like a lot of people when they are sick, they do what they need to do—and often they do that quite well.  I am often surprised at how amazing the programs of very small nonprofits are, or how robust, when the entire organization is hanging by a string.

But the other work—the work of fundraising and board management, is a little beyond their strength.  And so they do the minimum or less, keeping them weak and sick,

If articulating the problem brings you halfway to solving it, the road to health should be obvious.  But knowing that I need to stop coughing is no more helpful than telling a nonprofit it needs to fundraise and be more mindful about who gets on their board and how the members need to act.  Both are true, of course, but we must get beyond the what to the how.

The how is less easy to define.  It is different for most nonprofits.  I can say with absolute assurance, for example, that fundraising is about building relationships with individuals who care about your cause, have the ability to support you and are people who will respond to your initial approach, but an organization without a database and no fundraising staff, will find it difficult if not impossible to discover who those people might be.  Unless, of course, the board is willing to do its job—and alas, most boards are not.

This does not, however, mean you cannot build a comprehensive and robust fundraising program.  It does mean that you will not be able to go from zero to 60 in seconds.  This is a multi-year process.  But if you don’t start now, getting there will be that much further away.

Start small.  Pick one thing and do it.

But be wise about that one thing.  Big events cost time and money.  The return on investment is small.

Remembering that fundraising is about building relationships, consider how you can do that in a sensible way.  Personal outreach (letters, phone calls, an invitation to a small group gathering) to the ten people you know can bring in 8 gifts.  Size at this point doesn’t matter.  Anything is more than you have now, and you never know what lurks behind a small first gift.

Keep in touch with those you’ve asked—showing gratitude to those who gave and impact to all.  “Because of you…” and “Because of the support we’ve received” are two sides of the same coin and can sometimes turn nongivers into supporters.

Keep building on what you are doing and know that sometimes it will feel like a slog.  But add just a few names each month and pretty soon you’ve got hundreds, and hundreds will turn into thousands, and your fundraising program will be helping your organization to flourish and grow.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to go from mired to inspired. She helps her clients create fundraising plans that fit their needs and resources and help them to grow.  Learn more at