Focus on Fundraising: Ditch the “Best Practices” and Make it Your Own

Focus on Fundraising: Ditch the “Best Practices” and Make it Your Own
May 2014 by Emily Anthony and Julie Edsforth

When it comes to fundraising, we’re a little bit over “best practices”.  Why? Because all too often, “best practices” really just means “”how everyone else does it.”  Sure, there are some fundamentals that you wouldn’t ever want to give up, like getting to know your donors and asking people in person as much as possible.  But beyond the basics, we’re not big fans of “paint-by-numbers” fundraising plans. The fundraising programs we have seen that really sing reflect both the values and the personality of the organizations they support.  The staff and board feel good about implementing these plans because they feel authentic, and donors respond because the fundraising is expressing what they love about the organization.  “When philanthropy is working, everybody is happier” goes the saying, and when the fundraising is creative and unique, it’s working – and it’s more fun for everyone!

Culture of Giving

Start with your Values

Sometimes fundraising can feel separate from the “real work” of the organization – something off to the side you are forced to do, rather than an integral part of the work itself.  Basing your fundraising plan on your organization’s values can be a powerful way to combat that problem. We encourage our clients to dust off that list of organizational values (or create it if they haven’t got one) and intentionally think through how their values could show up in their fundraising. For instance:

  • If inclusivity is a cornerstone value for your group, your board could make the effort to call every donor personally to say thanks and offer a meeting, rather than just reaching out to major donors as most organizations do.
  • If your organization values building cross-movement partnerships and alliances, are you including information about relevant topical issues in your donor communications? Most organizations highlight only their own programs and services, but if you value speaking out and seeing your work in a larger social context, then bringing attention to other related issues may make sense.
  • If your organization values economic justice, you could choose to list donors by years given rather than amounts – so your “Gold Circle” donors are those who have given the most years running, rather than the checks with the most zeroes.

Inject your Personality

It’s no surprise that the people who support your organization usually reflect a little bit of who you are. Younger, edgier organizations tend to have younger and edgier donors; organizations serving kids and families often have parents at the top of their donor lists. Planning your fundraising approaches to be a fit with your donors’ demographic and “vibe” only makes sense.  When there seems to be a mismatch (a gala for an organization that deals with homelessness, or a Casino Night for an early learning organization) many of your best potential donors may choose not to attend. On the flip side, one of the best house parties I ever attended was for an early education organization and featured a bouncy house (with supervision) outside, so kids played while parents inside learned about the program.  They knew their donors, and they knew we wouldn’t be able to get there if it required finding a babysitter.

In addition to demographics, consider your donors’ interests when planning your fundraising approaches, which likely have to do with your mission. Most theater groups have learned that donors like to come to events centered around the performance itself (such as receptions before a show, or “Meet the Director” talks) but it is less common to see other organizations using shared interests in fundraising (beyond just touring  the programs.)   So, suggest  walking donor meetings if you are an environmental or health org rather than meeting for coffee, consider a travel-only auction if you are an organization that works in other countries, or hire a graphic recorder for your annual meeting if your donors care about visual arts. 

Even a straightforward “best practice” like an in-person donor meeting can be done in your own unique style, to showcase your personality. Our friend Sheila Capestany is the Executive Director of Open Arms Perinatal Services which does home visiting, and when she hosts funders at her office, she takes great care to set the visit up in a relaxed, homey style.  Donors are treated to a hot cup of tea, a comfortable chair, and her undivided attention when they come in to talk.  Although she doesn’t necessarily point it out in the meeting, she has found that just this small taste of the warmth and connection their organization provides can help her donors understand why home visiting is so powerful and supportive for vulnerable families.  That approach might feel hokey to a lot of other organizations, but because of who they are, it works for them.

And Finally, Have Fun! 

Here’s the other reason Sheila puts on a pot of tea for her donors . . . because she likes to do that sort of thing. It’s how she connects with people in the rest of her life, and it’s just who she is. Fundraising works best when people are being themselves and having some fun with it -- because believe us, your donors can tell when you think what you are doing is a drag. So, if your ED is great in small groups but gets horribly tongue tied in front of larger groups, plan a series of informal lunches with 3 or 4 donors rather than bigger house parties where he has to make a speech. What you’ll get back from having an animated and relaxed ED will surely make the extra time worth it.  We know a Development Director who takes the time to hand-craft a beautiful thank you card for some of their most loyal donors.  Not every time, and certainly not every donor, but she clearly loves to do it, and when you get one of those cards, you feel like the most valued person in the world (and there is no tax –ID number in sight.)

So in the end, while it may seem riskier for a green organization to do a “paperless” fundraising campaign when the research suggests that snail mail appeals still work better, or it may seem too time consuming to have your donor meeting while hiking up Mt. Si, in fact doing those unusual things is exactly what will make your fundraising memorable and authentic.  If you take the time to figure out what “special sauce” you can bring to your work, you and your donors will enjoy the results.


This is a great post for anyone that is starting a fundraising campaign/project. This is a must read. I will definitly keep in my bookmarks! Thans for sharing. Regards, Pedro Pereira Fundraising Event Ideas

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