The Art of Fundraising

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is, "How do you fundraise?" It seems like a simple question but, in practice, asking individuals and corporations for their support is more art than science.

That's because fundraising is much more than asking for money. A key goal in development work is cultivating long-term relationships with donors. A committed patron will prioritize your nonprofit when it comes to charitable giving each year.

The majority of nonprofits still rely on the generosity of donors, though giving patterns have changed. A decade ago, benefactors were inclined to support multiple organizations. Today, we see donors making more targeted gifts in an effort to maximize their impact. At the YMCA, program-specific giving attracts three times as many supporters as our requests for support for general operations.

People want to feel like they are making a tangible difference -- and know exactly how they are contributing to important, lasting change. So how do we accomplish this as other charities and nonprofits are broadcasting competing messages? Invite donors to see how their money is being used at the programmatic level.

One of my favorite memories at the YMCA involves a grown man sitting among third graders in a classroom. This donor, a journalist turned publishing executive, asked to see one of our after school programs. By chance, the students were working on a writing project -- stories about "my mom," "my dad," "my summer," and so on. The donor, who asked to see a couple of the pieces, ended up eagerly reading all of stories while sitting in a small children's chair.

"I had almost forgotten what it was like to write for pure pleasure," he said smiling. This 30-minute visit proved invaluable in strengthening the Y's relationship with this donor. If collecting gifts is the science of fundraising, working your way into the heart of the donor is the art.

Ultimately, an organization, regardless of its size, needs to go beyond the act of solicitation to secure a gift. Listening to and interacting with donors, discovering their passions, and finding out what motivates their giving should be the guiding principles of any development office.

Training staff to listen to donors and be good communicators is fundamental to this effort. Finding ways to connect with patrons will help your organization stand out. With people receiving so many e-mails every day, it's easy to have your message end up in a "Deleted Items" folder. Sometimes a simple phone call can make all the difference.

It is worth noting that some organizations may not always have the resources for such campaigns. If possible, enlist volunteers to foster dialogue with donors. Providing that human connection to your cause can pay enormous dividends. And remember: people give to make a difference.