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Learning Opportunity: True Confessions of Fundraising Mistakes

Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, Notes on Nonprofits

Here’s a reboot of true confessions about all the mistakes I have made in my nonprofit fundraising career.

When it comes to raising money, I have made them all. I have asked for too little, didn’t send the right person to ask, didn’t ask for the right project, asked too soon, waited too long to ask, gave a donor a reason not to give, didn’t do enough homework, talked too much, did not listen carefully, and simply didn’t ask.

In the stewardship department, I have sent small thank you gifts nobody wanted, sent the wrong letter to the wrong person, spelled the donor’s name wrong after receiving a big gift, enclosed an envelope in a thank you letter asking for a future gift (what was I thinking?!), and published long lists of donor names very few people ever read.

To improve my skills, I educated myself about best practices and learned to do things more effectively. I believe successful fundraising starts with having a passion for the mission of the organization which is why I have always worked for organizations I believe in. This doesn’t make the job easy but it does make it rewarding.

Follow your passion

Besides, donors, volunteers, and co-workers will know you don’t love it because it shows. You can’t fake passion. It may take a few tries to find the right place but once you find a mission you are passionate about, stay there. Fundraising is a marathon not a sprint. 

Fundraisers have to leave their ego at the door. When I helped a nonprofit receive a big gift, generous bequest, or multiple gifts from the same donor, they have always been organizations with solid, respected staff leaders.

I experienced this at Big Bend Hospice where the former CEO, Elaine Bartelt, led the organization for many years and engendered tremendous community respect and admiration along with donor support. 

Fundraising icon and author Jerold Panas always pointed out the importance of donors having trust and confidence in the CEO before being asked for a gift.  The larger the gift, the more critical that trusted personal relationship between donor and CEO becomes. My job was to take a back seat and facilitate these important relationships rather than being at the center of them. 

Practice what you preach

I have also learned to practice what I preach. Whenever I started a new fundraising job, I made a gift to the organization before I asked anyone else to give. I believe in buying whatever you are selling. This is followed closely by the importance of buildings relationships with board members, donors, staff members, and volunteers.

In the early days of my career, I didn’t recognize the importance of these relationships and found myself raising money alone which never works. How do you know if you’re building a relationship?

Think about a loyal donor whose support and involvement is critical to your organization’s ability to provide services. Do you know how they first got interested in the organization, what inspired them to make their first gift, and why they continue to give? If not, you are not spending enough time getting to know them, their interests, and the significance of the mission in their life.  

The pandemic may have made this work more complicated but it can and must be done via phone, Zoom, notes, emails, and in person when appropriate. 

Learn how to say thank you

Over the years, I have learned to make stewardship a priority and thank people promptly. I cringe when I think about some of the properly written but utterly unremarkable thank you letters I penned.

They were more about the organization and not nearly enough about the donor. Sheesh…they were terrible. Learning how to write a thoughtful, personal thank you letter is a critical skill in life and in fundraising. My advice to new fundraisers is to get really good at writing an authentic, heartfelt thank you note until it becomes second nature.  

I often tell a story about the generous but modest gift my organization received instead of the mega gift we sought. We didn’t get the bigger gift because we didn’t know enough about the donor, their interests, and how our project might align with their priorities. As the fundraiser, I simply didn’t do enough homework. 

Details matter

It is also important to pay attention to details. Proof everything you write, print, mail, email, design, post, and produce. Joy Watkins, founding CEO at the Community Foundation of North Florida, taught me this valuable lesson. Your materials don’t have to be expensive to look professional, but they must be thorough, clear, accurate, and timely. 

I also learned to recognize what I do best. Although I have written grant requests of all shapes and sizes, they are best left to other experts. I will stick to the things I like to do including engaging people’s interest in a worthy cause, building relationships, and understanding why people care.

I hope these true confessions are a reminder that mistakes are part of the process and the best way to learn.

Most of all, I hope they help you avoid some of the doozies I’ve made over the years. 

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 Sunday, March 12, 2022. Please send your comments and questions to [email protected].

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