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Non-Profit Fund-Raising Demystified

by Tony Poderis

When it comes to fund-raising, there are truths and myths. The truths illuminate the path to success. The myths speak with the dark voice of "conventional wisdom" of what can't be done and won't work. Throughout my career I have had to overcome three myths of fund-raising that would have me give up before I start. My tools have been The Nine Basic Truths of Fund-Raising.

Myth 1: Face it, fund-raising is impossible and the process is a mystery. Anyone who has failed at it or has managed to avoid being held accountable for that failure knows this.

Myth 2: Everybody knows you need a proven track record if you are to raise money. If you doubt it, just look at all the help-wanted ads for development officers that list as a qualification "successful history of managing a major annual campaign or soliciting large donations."

Myth 3: It's common knowledge that corporations and foundations give most of the money. Just ask those who have never done any fund-raising or who would find a contribution of $50 a strain on their budget.

Those three "beliefs" have helped doom many a fund-raising campaign. On the other hand, there are some insights about fund-raising that successful fund-raisers have gained. These insights often fly in the face of the myths of conventional wisdom. They offer no shortcuts. They promise no instant results. However, they are not hard to understand, and nearly anyone can profit from them. They are The Nine Basic Truths Of Fund-Raising.

The Truths, The Whole Truths, And Nothing But The Truths

Sometimes in this world that showers us with new technology on what seems like an almost daily basis I think we can lose sight of the basics. It's easy to get caught up in the newest tools and the hottest theories. As concepts are wrapped in bright new language and claimed as fresh discoveries, it's easy to forget, that at its most basic, all fund-raising is an endeavor of people, trust, and mission. By our actions, we earn from people the trust that the money they give will be wisely used to carry out a mission they support.

To be sure, there are refinements and tweaks to this business of development that help ease the job of assuring a steady source of contributed income for our organizations. And yes, some approaches that worked 10, or 20, or 30 years ago, don't deliver as well in the twenty-first century.

But the basics remain. Some things do not change. They are the bedrock upon which all fundraising efforts are anchored. They are the insights that have been gained through experience -- through success and failure. These insights sometimes seem old fashioned to the gurus of leading-edge wisdom. They do not have the attractiveness of shortcuts and instant results. They do not offer a new paradigm. They are not the latest style. They are not quick fixes that can be employed to relieve the ever-increasing pressure to deliver more contributed income from fewer sources over shorter periods of time.

They are time-tested approaches. They are the basic truths that define successful fund-raising. And they are basic, not simply because they work, but because their absence yields failure. A development effort that ignores the basics dooms its organization to missed goals, shrinking income, and a spiral of diminishing possibilities.

When I talk to groups, the most important things I have to share from my more than three decades of fund-raising experience are The Nine Basic Truths of Fund-Raising. They come from hard-earned knowledge shared freely and enthusiastically with me by countless, gifted development professionals and volunteers over these many years.

Basic Truth 1: Organizations are not entitled to support; they must earn it.

No matter what an organization's good works, it must prove to those who support it the value of those works to the community and the efficiency with which the organization delivers them. The primary key to fund-raising success is to have a first-class organization in every sense. There are no entitlements in the nonprofit world.

Basic Truth 2: Successful fund-raising is not magic; it is simply hard work on the part of people who are thoroughly prepared.

There are no magic wands, spells, or incantations. Whenever you hear that someone has the magic fund-raising touch, laugh. Otherwise, the joke is likely to be on you. No one pulls a rabbit -- complete with its own lettuce farm -- out of the fund-raising hat. No one!

Fund raising is simple in design and concept, but it is very hard work! It is planning, executing, and assessing. It is paying attention to detail. It is knowing your organization and what it needs. It is knowing who has the money, and how much they can give.

Basic Truth 3: Fund-raising is not raising money; it is raising friends.

People who don't like you don't give to you. People who know little about your organization give little at best. Only those people who know and like you will support you. Raise friends and you will raise money.

Basic Truth 4: You do not raise money by begging for it; you raise it by selling people on your organization.

No matter how good your organization, how valuable its services, how efficiently it delivers them, people will not give money unless they are convinced to do so. Fund-raisers function much as sales and marketing people do in the commercial world. So, be ready, willing, and able to "sell" your organization and the programs for which you are raising money.

Basic Truth 5: People do not just reach for their checkbooks and give money to an organization; they have to be asked to give.

No matter how well you sell people on your organization, no matter how much money they have, no matter how capable they are of giving it, they have to be asked to give. There comes a point when you have to ask for the money. And by the way, make sure that you are asking for a specific amount. Don't leave it up to the donor to recommend how much to give. People with money to give are accustomed to being asked for it. The worst thing that will happen is that they will say no, and even then, they're likely to be supportive, even apologetic.

Basic Truth 6: You don't wait for the "right" moment to ask; you ask now.

If you are always looking for the right moment -- the "perfect" time -- to ask for the money, you will never find it. You have to be ready, willing, and able to close the solicitation at any time. You have to take the risk of hearing no.

If that happens, don't take the rejection personally. They are saying no to the organization, not you. Once you have presented your case, ask for the money. Don't wait. Either close the solicitation, find out what the objection to giving is and overcome it if possible, or get your turndown, and move on.

Basic Truth 7: Successful fund-raising officers do not ask for the money; they get others to ask for it.

The professional fund-raising officer is the last person who should ask prospects for money. The request should come from someone within the prospect's peer group. It is the job of the professional development officer to design, put together, and manage the campaign. Volunteers who are themselves business executives, well-off individuals, community leaders, or board members, are the ones who should ask their counterparts for donations.

Basic Truth 8: You don't decide today to raise money and then ask for it tomorrow; It takes time, patience, and planning to raise money.

Make the decision to initiate a fund-raising campaign before the need becomes dominant. It takes time to develop a campaign and its leadership. With each prospective donor the chances are you will get only one chance to present your case. Be prepared. If you present a poorly prepared case, you will be told no.

Basic Truth 9: Prospects and donors are not cash crops waiting to be harvested; treat them as you would customers in a business.

No successful businessperson deals with customers as if they had a responsibility to buy. Prospects and donors have to be courted as you would court a customer. They must be told how important they are, treated with courtesy and respect, and if you expect to do business with them again, thanked.

There are, of course, exceptions to each Basic Truth, but if you rely on the exceptions to support your organization, you will find them to be few and far between and dollars in short supply. In the end, we raise money from people who:

  • Have it
  • Can afford to give
  • Are sold on the benefit of what we are doing
  • Wouldn't have given it to us unless we had asked
  • Receive appreciation and respect for their gifts

It doesn't take a genius to raise money. The process is a combination of common sense, hard work, preparation, courtesy, commitment, enthusiasm, understanding, and a belief in what you are asking others to support.


About the Author: Tony Poderis was for 20 years to 1993 Director of Development for The Cleveland Orchestra and its Summer Home, Blossom Music Center. He was responsible for Cleveland's largest annual institutional fund-raising campaign. Since 1993, Tony has been a fund-raising consultant serving all non-profit institutions' needs to develop and to maximize their potential to raise Annual, Endowment, Capital, and Sponsorship & Underwriting funds.

Tony's experiences have won him a wide audience. At many hundreds of seminars and workshops in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and Mexico over the course of his 30 years in fund-raising, he has addressed every facet of raising contributed income for social service, medical, educational, religious, and cultural institutions. He is a fund-raising Speaker/Specialist consultant to the United States Information Agency and the Mexican Government.

Tony is the author of a 115 page book on fund-raising published by FundAmerica Press titled "It's a Great Day to Fund-Raise!" In this publication, he has condensed his nearly three decades of fund-raising experience to provide a concise step-by-step guide to help all volunteers and professionals be as successful as possible as they carry out their fund-raising responsibilities for their respective non-profit institutions.

Visit his web site at for more information about his book and lots of other great fundraising advice.

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