Book Preview #2: How to Fund-raise Effectively and Joyfully

As mentioned previously, while writing my forthcoming book Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, I spent several months writing down lists of lessons learned in what ended up being 14 categories.  The second longest list was about effective and joyful fund-raising.  Jt was comprised of 42 lessons I had learned from raising tens of millions of dollars with teams from Grameen Foundation, Fonkoze, American India Foundation and other organizations I have been associated with.  As I wrote all those down, I often recalled in my mind a time when I didn’t use these ideas and tactics, and how that made me a much less effective fund-raiser compared to what I became later. 

I have always maintained that fund-raising is 80% intuitive for most people.  In other words, be diligent, thoughtful, rigorous, and ethical.  That is not to say that all fund-raisers practice these fairly obvious things – they take discipline and focus.  But for most people involved in fund-raising, 20% is counter-intuitive.  And it’s not the same 20% for everyone.  Becoming a great fund-raiser involves figuring out what about fund-raising is counter-intuitive for you and then unlearning those instincts and developing new ones. 

Whereas most people dread fund-raising and do anything to avoid it, I have joined a minority of people who actually love asking people for money.  The non-profit world has far too many CEOs who are reluctant fund-raisers and treat bringing in big donations as a “necessary evil.”  This attitude usually confines their organization to scarcity and small-scale operations.  I became an effective and enthusiastic fund-raiser by applying in a disciplined way the methods I learned from an excellent consultant named Cedric Richner.  As my confidence grew, I made adjustments to his methods to account for my own style and preferences. 

Below are 10 of the 42 lessons.  If you send me proof that you have bought my book (which should be available around May 1), I will send you the entire list electronically.  If you send me proof that you have bought three or more books, I will send you all 403 lessons.

1.      Don’t think of fund-raising as taking something away from someone else.  That mentality is based on win-lose or zero-sum paradigms.  Instead, think of fund-raising as being a broker to a transaction where everyone can get something of value and come out ahead.   

2.      Never, ever ask for money (or anything important) apologetically or hesitantly!  Have the courage of your convictions and passions.  Excitement can be contagious, even if it may not be immediately obvious that you have excited someone to consider giving, as we all show our feelings differently.  

3.      If you are meeting with a donor to ask them for money, it usually makes sense to get the ask (including the specific dollar amount) out on the table in the first five minutes of the meeting.  If the meeting is over a meal at a restaurant, make the ask within five minutes of placing your orders.  (Typically, the time before orders are taken is time for chit-chat that helps everyone ease into a conversation.)  After you ask people for money in a solicitation meeting, just be quiet and let them speak, even if that results in an awkward silence at first. 

4.      Thoroughly document what happened in every meeting, phone call or substantive email exchange with a donor.  Share that information with people who can help you advance the relationship.  The report should not just be a summary of what was discussed, but also describe the mood of the meeting, what you learned about the donor from small-talk, family members dropping in, or their photos and decorations on the wall.   

5.      When a serious mistake is made with a major donor, or for some other reason they are unhappy with your organization, realize that this is no time to give up or stick your head in the sand.  Rather, use it as an opportunity to distinguish yourself as a fund-raiser and an organization that responds to problems in a creative, pro-active and pragmatic way.  In so doing, you may be able to turn a negative into a positive.   

6.      Spend 4-8 hours preparing for a meeting with a major donor, excluding travel to and from the meeting.  If you do less than that, you are effectively winging it.  The meeting and relationship may suffer as a result.  Your organization deserves having you prepared to meet with your most capable and committed donors and prospects.   

7.      If it feels too aggressive to ask someone for, say, a million dollars – an amount larger than you yourself could ever give to any cause – then ask people to “consider” donating that amount.  For some people, including me, that slight adjustment helps make the words come out easier.   

8.      Be confident that if you ask someone for more than they can or are prepared to give, their most likely reaction will be to feel flattered and to increase what they had planned to give you before you asked.  People are rarely offended by overly aggressive asks, especially if they are made thoughtfully and in a spirit of service to mission and to the relationship with the donor.  Far too many funding requests are for too little, especially from inexperienced fund-raisers who value making the donor feel comfortable than advancing their organization’s mission.    

9.      Talk through donor cultivation strategies with knowledgeable people you trust, since the initial ideas of even the best fund-raisers are occasionally mediocre or worse.  It may take others to help you see that and then adjust.  

10.  When you have a reasonably close relationship with a donor or a prospect that predates them coming on your organization’s radar screen, it is often best to let someone else manage that relationship.  At a minimum, get a trusted colleague with knowledge of good fund-raising practices to advise you so you avoid letting your personal agenda with them influence your professional agenda.