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Follow these dos and don’ts when asking for donations

By Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, Notes on Nonprofits

I heard from a loyal reader about a frustrating experience. They received an email requesting sponsorship of a fundraising event they have never attended, from someone they do not know, and for an organization they know nothing about.

The request provided minimal information about the organization, type of event, how funds will be used, and who is involved. The tone of the message was a little terse and not very warm or welcoming.

After almost 20 years as a front-line fundraiser, I know firsthand the pressure nonprofits are under to generate revenue and how that impacts staff and well-meaning volunteers responsible for raising money. That said, cold calls and blind emails rarely work. In fact, they can produce a negative reaction, like the one I just described, which is counterproductive to friend raising and fundraising.

Here are my dos and don’ts:

Don’t send a request for funds to someone you don’t know, have never met, and expect them to respond with a “yes.” Even if there are extending circumstances in which you are writing on behalf of someone else, that doesn’t work either.

Do recognize successful fundraising is a person-to-person exchange. The more personalized the approach between people who know, like, and respect each other, the more likely a gift or sponsorship will be made. Start by introducing yourself before asking for a donation.

Don’t send a request for money addressed “dear friend” or without a name. No exceptions. That’s a red flag the asker has not done their homework or made any effort to identify who they are asking and why.

Don’t send a request without including information about the organization, its mission, how the money raised will be spent, and who will benefit.

Do let people and companies know how their donation or sponsorship will make a difference in the lives of people served by the nonprofit.

Don’t expect people you do not know to contact you for more information.

Do let the recipient know if you are a staff member, board member, or volunteer asking on behalf of a cause you care deeply about. Ask the donor when they are available to talk in more detail about their potential interest.

Don’t be vague in describing how a donor’s gift or sponsorship will be recognized. Providing social media recognition, website promotion, and print advertising tells a prospective donor absolutely nothing about how your organization plans to promote the event, what audiences you are targeting, and why they will want to attend.

Do provide a detailed description of the event marketing plan that includes specific strategies, timelines, target audiences, social media channels including number, days, and times of posts, use of video, television, radio, earned media, and print advertising. This is especially important when contacting a company’s marketing director.

Don’t assume you know what matters most to an individual donor and their family or to an organization or business. Getting to know them first enables the asker to personalize the request based on the prospective donor’s interests.

Do take the time to understand why a person or business might be interested in your mission or event.

Do ask donors what type of recognition will mean the most to them. Be authentic and willing to customize how you appreciate a donor or recognize a company’s investment.

Don’t let the event and donor recognition overshadow the nonprofit’s mission. I’ve attended way too many events where the mission took a back seat to the auction, band, food, games, cocktails, decorations, photo booth, speeches, and everything else.

Don’t exaggerate about the event or make promises you can’t keep. Potential sponsors are not fooled by grandiose promises that thousands of people will attend and thousands more will instantly buy their product just because they attended or sponsored the event.

Do let donors and sponsors know if it is a first-time event and provide a reasonable estimate of who you expect to attend rather than how many. If it’s a repeat or proven event, provide the history, scale, and success over time.

Don’t expect staff to make every ask, solicit every sponsorship, and raise all the money by themselves. A lack of involvement by board members and other volunteers is often an underlying reason why staff members take the desperate step of sending blind emails in the first place.

Don’t require fundraising staff to send a certain number of sponsorship requests to people they do not know or who don’t have any connection to the organization.

Do ask for financial support from internal stakeholders including board members, volunteers, staff, members, and beneficiaries. Ask external stakeholders who already know your organization including former board, staff, volunteers, beneficiaries, members, donors; stakeholders; and vendors.

Nonprofits must and should fundraise to support their important work and the outcomes that result. This is not an excuse for poorly implemented fundraising approaches that don’t work. The better the ask, the more likely the gift.

Notes on Nonprofits is a column in the Tallahassee Democrat produced by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting, and includes resources, responses to reader questions, guest columns, and timeless topics. This column first appeared on March 4, 2023 in the Tallahassee Democrat. Please send your comments and questions.

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