What Does It Take to Be a Board Fundraising Superhero?

It can be easy to think of board members who raise funds as supernatural. After all, they can appear to swoop in and rescue a favored program, payroll, or even the organization itself. At a minimum, they can make a daunting task—fundraising—look easy. But under that cape and muscular build is a set of traits that any mere mortal can emulate:


The mere mention of the word fundraising is enough to scare many board members. If you can get beyond the label, you will quickly realize that there are so many steps in securing a gift that one of them is bound to appeal to you. Take the time to speak with staff. Learn about how you can help bolster the current fundraising program. Maybe you can make some phone calls to thank recent donors, or you might write a first-person online appeal. There are so many options, most of which do not involve asking for a gift face-to-face.

A Sense of Responsibility

Continue to give of yourself. If you talk about your organization—whenever it is appropriate—you plant seeds that blossom in budding donors. When others take interest in your mission, you can gradually engage them—through a facility tour, an event, or even a cup of coffee to learn more about their interests. These activities so often inspire charitable gifts. This cycle is central to the ongoing process of bringing donors closer and closer to the mission.

Extraordinary Power

Novice fundraisers rarely think about the power they have to connect people with their passions. You are not just raising funds—you are helping people invest in worthy causes they love. You are a connector. Few board member activities are more fulfilling than knowing that you initiated someone’s desire to contribute to the good work of your organization.

If you are up to asking donors for gifts, say so. If you are not there yet, you can still bask in all the glory of a board superhero. Just learn how to bring new and existing audiences closer to the work of your organization. Most nonprofits have tools in place to help secure the gift itself. There is no kryptonite in this story—just the potential for a pot of gold.
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Should Foundations Be Part of Your Fundraising Mix?

It’s official: Foundation giving has officially exceeded pre-2008 levels. Many of us have been waiting for this day. Then, why is grant-seeking still so targeted and competitive? Is it worth the effort? I get asked that question often these days.

My response: If your organization has a compelling message and competitive results, then yes. It’s certainly true that nonprofits that are now entering the grants game for the first time face significant challenges. Staff must come prepared to deliver succinct, compelling statements about its work. Employees must forgo early-state proposal writing for cultivation efforts. They must know when to contact program officers and when to back off. In short, there are more nuances than ever.

Preparation is also increasingly critical. It begins with solid research. A long list of prospects is not typically a good result these days. It tends to signal a need to cull through the list again. Why? As with all types of fundraising, there is a true opportunity cost to pursuing grants. When you begin the process—or continue it—with a honed plan of action, you reduce the likelihood of rejections or time wasted getting to “yes.” While a development plan lays a solid foundation for any fundraising shop, solid planning within each funder type can focus staff on the most important foundations and their year-round deadlines. Consider making a plan, keeping a calendar of activities, and maintaining regular touch points with potential donors throughout the year.

For nonprofits who have done their homework, created a solid plan, and are ready to diligently execute it, foundations can still be a good funding partners. Not only do they continue to fund new and expanding programs, they often provide bridge funding while a nonprofit develops other revenue sources. A growing number provide capacity building assistance. Still others are open to the increasingly creative breakthroughs in our sector. So, don’t give up on foundations. Just be prepared to spend more time in the lead-up to the solicitation than you do on the proposal.

Write a Great Fundraising Development Plan: 7 Key Elements

Is there is really a benefit in creating a written development plan? Many organizations rely on the one in the chief fundraiser’s head, or the one sketched out in the income lines of the operating budget. Too often, those “plans” are low on accuracy and are unlikely to see strategic adjustments if the income does not come in as expected.
A good plan will contain these elements:

  • Analysis of recent fundraising results
  • Current contributed income need
  • A realistic projection of what can be raised
  • Infrastructure improvements that would benefit fundraising efforts
  • Goals and strategies by funder type
  • Relationship-building strategies
  • Timeline and accountability calendar

So, the plan is a terrific internal gauge. It highlights an organization’s recent fundraising results and trends. It builds upon them and allows for reflection. It also encourages conversation about the barriers that might be keeping the organization from attaining more: Are board members engaging prospective donors? Are employees making personal gifts? Are the area’s five capital campaigns taking a toll on the annual fund? As the year goes on, the plan lets everyone know, with specificity, whether the organization is on track to attain its income goals.

It is also a roadmap. If your major donors are dropping like flies, it is not enough to find another high net worth prospect. Your development plan will lay out the strategies that will help retain current donors. It forces you and your team to think through opportunities and weaknesses that form the foundation of all of your solicitations.

The plan is also an educational tool. Board members, and sometimes executive directors, can have outsized expectations about the ease of the fundraising process. A development plan that includes all of the requisite elements illustrates the many pieces that lead up to a gift. It can provide the back story on why last year’s goals were not attained, or the resources needed to make this year’s goals achievable. It can spark conversation about infrastructure needs. It also lets stakeholders understand how they can help. Anyone who has a hand in fundraising can read and comment on the contents. Good development offices will listen carefully to the feedback and incorporate it into the plan.
Maybe most importantly, a plan allows an organization to project realistic income benchmarks. Many organizations base their (sometimes unrealistic) fundraising goals on program costs, but development plans enable programs that have a realistic chance of being funded. That change in mentality makes a big practical difference.
When staff and board members review the plan at least quarterly and suggest tweaks that account for the unexpected, the document can become a backbone for the most ambitious and well-run fundraising operations.

Essential Fundraising Tip: A Case for a Case?

Does your organization go from appeal to appeal, grant to grant, recasting its message for each next document? A case for support—the neglected child of fundraising communications—can provide consistency and clarity for your donors. Not to mention efficiency for you and your staff. Coming up with a hook can be the most time-consuming part of the writing process, and this tool forces a focus on that core message.

A case statement provides the most compelling reasons for your organization’s existence. A great one takes shape by asking those closest to the mission—staff, board members, donors—why they feel so connected to this organization. Contrary to popular belief, it is less a list of programs than it is your most rational and emotional reason for being.

The case becomes your mantra. It underlies all of your other messaging. Its contents become enmeshed in your website, your appeals, your grant proposals.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently published an article touting the effects of repeated use of a message across multiple media. In some cases, when an image was emblazoned across a nonprofit’s website, e-blasts, direct mail pieces, even billboards, fundraising increased by double digits. Call it branding, call it marketing. It works. When that advertising is grounded in a case for support, graphics and taglines transform into well thought-out prose. It allows donors to translate those sound bites into something more substantial.

It can also serve as a donor cultivation tool. As you put this document together, you can ask supporters what they think about the draft and how they might suggest strengthening it. That process serves as a great reminder to donors as to why they love your organization. It also makes them feel part of your inner circle.

So, ask yourself and your core supporters: Why is our mission essential? Why do our donors keep coming back? Which of our stories is most compelling? What are some of our major successes? What is our vision for the future?

Once you have a solid case statement in place, do you still need to tailor communications for each individual donor or funder? Sure you do. But, the core of your message will be consistent—a drumbeat that makes your mission resonate.

An Occasional Series on Effective Fundraising Recommendations