Essential info for nonprofits!

Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits

Real-World Strategies That Work

How to jump start your fundraising efforts

Raising money for your nonprofit is always a challenge -- the need is great, yet your time is limited.  Turn to Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits for advice and success stories from over 40 experienced fundraisers, foundation staffers, journalists, and more.  Get tips on how to:

  • solicit grants from foundations and corporations
  • work with individual donors
  • plan special events that will make your nonprofit money
  • communicate strategically to draw interest to your work.

Includes all the information a savvy fundraiser needs!


Available as part of Nolo's Nonprofit Bundle

  • Product Details
  • Whether your nonprofit has just gotten tax-exempt status or has been operating for years, its success depends on its ability to raise donations from individuals, companies, and institutions. The question you’re facing is, “How do we make our voices heard and bring in the needed support?” Here, you’ll find plain-English answers. Featuring advice and stories from over 50 experienced fundraisers, foundation staffers, journalists and more, this book explains how to:

    • make a fundraising plan
    • work with individual donors
    • keep givers giving
    • plan special events
    • solicit grants from foundations and corporations
    • use traditional and social media to engage supporters
    • start a side business to raise funds
    • and much more.

    Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits also provides creative grassroots strategies and dozens of real-life success stories. Best of all, it cuts out the jargon and “consultant speak” that’s all too common in nonprofit books.

    The 7th edition is completely updated to reflect recent fundraising trends, such as a rise in the proportion of gifts coming from wealthy donors owing to tax changes. It also suggests strategies for drawing supporters to virtual events.

    “If you have room for only one book on your fundraising shelf, Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits should be that book.” —Advancing Philanthropy, Published by the Association of Fundraising Professionals

    “Provides everything one needs to know, from strategy development to practical tips. This is the inside scoop….” —SoBruce Sievers, PhD & Senior Fellow Emeritus, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

    Number of Pages
    Included Forms
    • Fundraising Worksheet 1: Sample Cost Analysis
    • Fundraising Worksheet 2: Fundraising Assets
    • Fundraising Worksheet 3: Fundraising Strategy Chart
    • Fundraising Worksheet 4: Mailing Evaluation
    • Fundraising Worksheet 5: Meeting Checklist
    • Fundraising Worksheet 6: Projected Special Event Expenses
    • Fundraising Worksheet 7: Projected Special Event Income
    • Fundraising Worksheet 8: Grant Priorities Summary Chart
    • Fundraising Worksheet 9: Grant Prospects Research Overview
    • Fundraising Worksheet 10: Check Your Website’s Fundraising Effectiveness 
  • About the Author
    • Ilona Bray, J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

      Ilona Bray, J.D. is an award-winning author and legal editor at Nolo, specializing in real estate, immigration law and nonprofit fundraising. 

      Educational background. Ilona received her law degree and a Master's degree in East Asian (Chinese) Studies from the University of Washington. She is a member of the Washington State Bar. Her undergraduate degree is from Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in philosophy. She actually viewed law school as an extension of her philosophy studies, with its focus on ethics, fundamental rights, and how people can get along in society—of particular concern to her as the daughter of a WWII refugee. 

      Working background. Ilona has practiced law in corporate and nonprofit settings as well as in solo practice, where she represented immigrant clients seeking asylum, family-based visas, and more. She has also volunteered extensively, including a six-month fellowship at Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle and a six-month internship at Amnesty International in London. She is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association (AILA), the National Association of Real Estate Editors (NAREE), and the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). 

      Working at Nolo. Ilona started at Nolo in 2000 as a legal editor. Since then, she has not only continued to edit other writers' books and online articles, but also has taken an active role in planning and authoring new Nolo books. Many of these have become consistent Nolo bestsellers and award-winners, among them Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits, Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, and Selling Your House.  Ilona particularly enjoys interviewing people and weaving their stories into her books. She also won the 2012 "Best Blog" award from the National Association of Real Estate Editors (NAREE). 

      Spare time. (What spare time?) Ilona enjoys swimming, gardening (though she's still looking for a vegetable the squirrels won't eat every last morsel of), cooking gluten- and sugar-free meals, and writing children's books.

  • Table of Contents
  • 1. Your Fundraising Companion

    2. Fundraising Tools

    • Fundraising People
    • Fundraising Skills

    3. Developing Your Fundraising Plan

    • Get Started: Set Your Fundraising Goal
    • Evaluate Your Nonprofit‘s Fundraising Assets
    • Develop Your Fundraising Strategy
    • Create the Final Plan

    4. Attracting Individual Supporters

    • Make Your Organization Look Support-Worthy
    • Understand What Motivates Donors
    • Giving Thank-You Gifts to Donors
    • Bring in New Supporters

    5. How to Keep the Givers Giving

    • Send Regular Communications
    • Invite Supporters to Get More Involved
    • Analyze Donors‘ Giving Patterns and Interests
    • Thank Your Supporters (and Satisfy IRS Rules)
    • Know When to Call Your Supporters

    6. Midscale and Major Donors

    • Background Research
    • Get to Know Your Existing Supporters
    • Annual Renewals of Support
    • Lectures, Small Events, and Parties for Major Supporters
    • One-on-One Meetings
    • Setting Up a Focused Major Gifts Campaign

    7. Funds From the Great Beyond: Bequests and Legacy Gifts

    • How to Attract Legacy Gifts
    • How to Handle Simple Inheritance Gifts
    • First Steps Toward Attracting Inheritance Gifts
    • Preview of Other Legacy Giving Arrangements

    8. Special Events

    • What Is a Special Event?
    • Survey of Special Events
    • Choose the Right Event for Your Organization
    • Plan Around a Pandemic
    • Develop a Realistic Budget
    • Plan and Pace Event Activities
    • Deal With Risks and Liability Issues
    • Last-Minute Tasks and Tips
    • After the Event: Assessment and Follow-Up

    9. Raising Money Through Business or Sales Activities

    • Tax Rules for Business Activities
    • Learn From Other Nonprofits‘ Experiences
    • Develop Your Own Great—And Low-Risk—Business Idea
    • What Customers Want or Need
    • Measure Your Ideas Against Reality
    • Create a Meaningful Business Plan
    • Minimize Risk by Starting Small
    • How to Find Start-Up Cash
    • Licensing, Sponsorships, and Other Relationships With Existing Businesses
    • The Next Steps

    10. Seeking Grants From Foundations, Corporations, and Government

    • Understand the Funders
    • Research Grant Prospects
    • The Proposal Process, From Query Letter Onward
    • Follow Up With the Funder
    • Grant Renewals

    11. Integrating Nonprofit Communications Into Fundraising Efforts

    • Brochures and Other Communication Materials
    • Website and Fundraising
    • Media Outreach and Fundraising
    • Make Your Own News: Social Media


    • How to Use the Downloadable Forms on the Nolo Website
    • Editing RTFs
    • List of Forms Available on the Nolo Website


  • Sample Chapter
  • Chapter 2: Fundraising Tools

    An organization’s fundraising office is often expected to perform feats of magic, sometimes with few more resources than the legendary pile of straw. But success will depend, in large part, on your leadership investing in the people, resources, and technology necessary to do the job right. This means more than investing only in activities that will produce immediate results: A successful fundraising program must budget for the long term, with plans for such things as donor recruitment, cultivation, stewardship, and acknowledgment.

    This chapter introduces the tools you’ll need to provide a solid foundation for your fundraising efforts. It covers:

    • how the position of each person in your organization—including volunteers and paid staff—can play a role in fundraising
    • personal skills that a development professional needs to have or develop, and
    • equipment and technology for fundraising, including computer and Web tools.

    Need help with legal tasks like incorporating your nonprofit? This book assumes that your organization has already taken care of some legal and tax basics—namely, forming a nonprofit corporation and successfully applying for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status and any required state tax permits. In addition, most states require you to register with their attorneys general before soliciting funds within those states (even online!), and many also require you to report your fundraising expenditures and revenues. For step-by-step instructions on incorporating your nonprofit and applying for tax-exempt status, see How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation (national and California versions), by Anthony Mancuso (Nolo). Then check out Nonprofit Fundraising Registration: Nolo’s 50-State Digital Guide, by Ronald J. Barrett and Stephen Fishman, J.D. (Nolo).

    Fundraising People

    In an ideal situation, your nonprofit would have a bustling staff of paid fundraising professionals, each with separate responsibilities and areas of expertise. More likely, however, it will need to cobble together a mix of board members and other committed volunteers, hopefully with the assistance of one or more paid fundraising staffers.

    Especially during a nonprofit’s early years, it’s common for several people to wear two or more hats—your best fundraiser might also serve as your volunteer coordinator or your executive director, for instance.

    Those who might participate in fundraising efforts include the organization’s:

    • executive director
    • development director
    • board of directors
    • advisory council
    • other paid development staff
    • paid staff in nondevelopment roles
    • other volunteers, and
    • outside consultants.

    Track your hours to find out your staffing needs. If you have the chance to expand your development staff, you’ll need to figure out what type of help will give you the most bang for your buck. The answer might be no further away than your own workday. Try keeping track of where each hour goes. Even scribbling entries such as “9:30 to 11:00 planning meeting, 11:00 to 12:30 research” can reveal that you spend hours in ways you wouldn’t have guessed. If, for example, you find that most of your time is spent on events planning, it might be worth contracting with an outside events planner rather than putting a new person on salary. Or, if most of your hours go toward clerical tasks, you might save money by hiring a support staffer.

    The Executive Director

    Fundraising is, or should be, part of every executive director’s (ED’s) job description. This includes getting to know the organization’s supporters, meeting individuals to solicit major gifts, interacting with staff at foundations, reviewing grant proposals, helping oversee special events, speaking at events, and more. Sounds like a lot of hours, doesn’t it? And most Eds already have plenty on their plates concerning their organizations’ missions, programs, and personnel. But any ED who doesn’t somehow make the time for fundraising activities isn’t fulfilling the job requirements, period.

    Former development directors can become great EDs. Drawing on his experience as a Bay Area nonprofit executive search consultant, J.R. Yeager says, “Many skilled, well-organized development directors are ready and well positioned to step into the role of ED, particularly with smaller nonprofits. Most smaller organizations truly need their ED to do much of the fundraising. As for the other parts of the ED’s job, these can be supported (for example, the board treasurer and outside auditor can help with budgeting and financial matters) and ultimately learned as the new ED grows into the job.”

    The smaller your organization’s staff, the more time your ED will need to spend on fundraising. But if your organization can afford to hire a development director, the ED might be tempted to delegate most fundraising activities to that person. This can be a mistake. To the outside world, the ED is the face of your organization, the person seen (rightly or wrongly) as having the fullest sense of how your organization’s need for money intersects with its mission, goals, and day-to-day work. Whether pursuing a large grant or trying to coax a major donor to increase support, the ED is usually the best staff person to close the deal.

    Fortunately, the ED won’t be solely responsible for all or even most parts of the fundraising process. The ED should help solicit major gifts, for example, but need not be present for every gift request. Nor will the ED have to be involved in the day-to-day work of staying in close contact with donors. Your board and staff members may also participate, depending on who is being approached. And when it comes to grant applications, the ED’s role should be limited to reviewing proposals, not writing them. If you can afford a development director, grant writing and other behind-the- scenes tasks will be done by that person. If not, your organization might use board members and other volunteers, as well as paid consultants and freelance contractors, to do the work.

    On the other side of the coin, an ED must be willing and able to share fundraising tasks with other board and staff members, especially the development director. An ED who can’t bear to part with these tasks, or won’t trust others with them, can spell trouble for an organization’s long- term survival. Over and over, one hears stories of a charismatic, successful ED who successfully grows a small nonprofit—but then continues to attempt to single-handedly raise all the money and lead the organization. Such EDs tend eventually to either burn out, neglect important tasks, or move on to another job, thus crippling the nonprofit. Consultant J.R. Yeager notes that a wise organization (no matter its size) will plan “a formal and clear line of succession,” so that “a ‘void’ will not happen—or will at least be minimized if an organization’s ED departs.”

    The Development Director

    Perhaps you are the development director at your nonprofit, or perhaps you are a board member or an ED of a smaller organization. Although some small nonprofits plan to stay small—let’s say, Friends of the Rose Garden—and find it practical to delegate fundraising to volunteers, most growing organizations need to hire a part- or full-time development director. (What salary can development directors command? Sources list a range of anywhere between $89,000 and $145,895.)

    Ideally, a full-time development director will oversee all aspects of the fundraising process, including planning strategy, gathering input from the board and ED, identifying potential funding sources, and ensuring smooth operation of fundraising activities. Frequently, however, the development director ends up carrying out practically every other aspect of the fundraising program: writing appeals, acknowledgment and stewardship correspondence, and grant proposals; meeting with donors to solicit gifts; posting on social media sites; coordinating events; and more.

    When this turns into busywork, it can prevent the development director from concentrating on important fundraising tasks. It will, therefore, be key to your group’s long-term success to identify other people who can help take care of discrete or routine tasks.

    A successful development director brings certain skills and abilities to your organization. Among the most important is good communication— in writing as well in person. You need a “people person”—someone who genuinely enjoys interacting with others. Remember, asking for money is just a small part of the greater—and often more fulfilling—process of building the nonprofit’s relationship with donors.

    Unfortunately, experienced and personable development directors are hard to find. Those with an ounce of savvy won’t hitch their wagons to organizations that are teetering on the edge of financial collapse, dealing with internal dissension, or experiencing other serious problems. Less- established organizations often have to compromise by, for example, sharing a development director with another (noncompetitive) organization, hiring someone who isn’t fully qualified, or hiring a part-time or assistant development director. Such a group usually gives the ED primary responsibility for fundraising.

    The good news is, sources for training, mentorship, and so on are not hard to find. Even an experienced development director commits to professional growth, for example through programs offered by the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), local organizations, or a database service provider.

    A little recognition goes a long way. Smart EDs and board leaders knowthat a dedicated and effective development director can easily burn out. One way to prevent this is to make fundraising a high priority and encourage all key people to participate without whining. Another is to recognize the development director’s hard work by expressing thanks, sincerely and in front of others, for jobs well done. Too often, recognition goes primarily to board members and volunteers, as if receiving a salary diminishes the value of the passion and energy the development director throws into a project. Don’t make this mistake!

    Board of Trustees

    By law, every nonprofit must have a board of trustees (sometimes called a board of directors, a board of governors, or another similar term). This is usually a volunteer group of 12 to 15 people whose responsibilities include overseeing the organization and being accountable for its compliance with legal and other requirements. Board members are not mere figureheads: If they neglect their duties and an organization is sued or collapses as a result, they can be held financially accountable. (Many boards buy insurance to guard against this type of liability.)

    As a practical matter, a good board will not only set the direction of your programs, but will also help make fundraising an organizational priority and participate in it personally. To this end, it’s a big help to have someone on the board who thoroughly understands nonprofit budgeting and finance.

    Find Board Members Who Are Willing—And Able—To Raise Money
    Unfortunately, there’s often a wide gap between what nonprofits hope board members will do for them and how prospective board members envision their roles. In my earlier life as a corporate law associate, for example, my law firm employer encouraged me and my fellow associates to join nonprofit boards. The firm wanted us to get involved with the “community”—that is, with people whose incomes were high enough to hire lawyers—by any means necessary, and offered to help us get onto the board of just about any organization we wanted—the opera, the symphony, whatever. That sounded good: I envisioned myself sitting around a meeting table, mulling over a group’s mission and giving sage advice. In short, like most novice board members, I was clueless. I not only had no idea about the depths of a board’s responsibilities, I hadn’t even considered that it might include plenty of time spent fundraising. (Luckily, I quit corporate law before inflicting myself on any boards.)

    What lessons can be gleaned from my experience? Willing board members might be easier to find than you think, but:

    • You must be selective to find the ones with the knowledge and experience you need.
    • You need to be up front about your fundraising expectations.

    Most board members serve three-year terms, with one or more renewals allowed. Check your bylaws—and think about amending them if board members can serve “life terms,” and you’ve got a few who are running low on energy and ideas. (Or think about enforcing your bylaws if people are overstaying their prescribed welcome!) Also build a process to incorporate new board members into the ongoing work of your organization.

    Why would anyone voluntarily commit many hours per month to a demanding position? A few are truly selfless. Some are newly retired, with an adequate income and time on their hands. Most are hardworking people genuinely interested in the cause, who hope that they’ll be able to fit board responsibilities into already-stretched schedules. Unfortunately, too many busy people turn out to be unrealistic in their hopes and unable to do much more than attend meetings (if that). Finally, there are the aforementioned staff of corporate law and accounting firms and other companies that have a material interest in encouraging their employees to join boards. Even this category isn’t all bad, especially if you can make use of their professional skills (but realize that nonprofit finance and law are specialty areas that your average accountant or lawyer knows nothing about).

    No matter people’s motivations, many of them will have trouble making the kind of long-term commitment that active board membership entails. Some nonprofits are thus rethinking how their boards are structured, perhaps paring them down to ten or fewer members, but asking these members to farm out work—including some fundraising—to committees. The committees may be composed of nonboard volunteers who can commit to the occasional sprint of activity—say, a donor campaign or a special event—but not to the marathon of full board membership.

    Recruiting board members is a topic well covered in other places, so this book won’t go into detail on this.

    No matter what else they bring to the table, however, you must make sure that potential new board members have an interest in fundraising— and understand that this will be a substantial part of their role. Because there are so many ways to raise money, there’s a role for any willing board member to play. You can help by preparing materials that excite potential board members’ interest, particularly when training new board members.

    Board Donations
    Some organizations give prospective board members a clear up-front understanding of their fundraising responsibilities by asking them to commit to making a major financial contribution every year. You might require board members to contribute a set amount or base contributions on a sliding scale.

    Asking board members for donations might seem odd—after all, they are already asked to give generously of their time. One reason for this practice is that board members tend to be better at soliciting large gifts from others if they can say that they’ve given themselves. It demonstrates their commitment to the cause and their confidence that the donation will be well spent. In fact, potential donors—individuals as well as foundations—have learned to ask, “How much have board members given?” You might literally lose out on a grant opportunity because the foundation was unimpressed with the answer.

    An environmental organization I know of not only specifically requires each board member to make a $10,000 donation, but also makes clear that their primary role will be fundraising. When the organization needs advice concerning technical parts of its mission or activities, it turns to a separate advisory council, made up of scientists and other experts.

    Of course, your organization will need to decide for itself—based in part on what kind of work you’re doing and what community you serve—whether to solicit mostly affluent board members, or to ask for a particular monetary commitment. For less-well-off board members, an alternative to the up-front donation might be to ask them to bring in an equivalent amount of money from a new donor or business. Still, the last thing you want is for representatives of a low-income community or dedicated former clients to be shut out of serving. That doesn’t mean you can’t still ask a financially able board member to make a major gift.

    Board Involvement in Fundraising Activities
    Board members can help plan your fundraising program, spearhead or help carry out a special event, represent your organization in public, provide names of likely supporters, approach supporters for gifts, host house parties or other events, institute giving programs within their own workplaces, coordinate a new member drive, write personal letters, make phone calls thanking people for gifts, and more. All of this will help take weight off the shoulders of in-house development staff. Those who are reluctant to ask for major gifts can readily find a role behind the scenes.

    Once board members become genuinely committed to your organization, they are more likely to stay interested and involved if you call on them for help on a regular basis. Performing minimal board activities—attending meetings and the occasional workshop, for example—can be less than soul satisfying.

    Properly orchestrated, fundraising gets people out from behind the meeting table and into the community, where they can share what excites them about your organization. It also gives them a chance to enjoy the company of fellow board members on a less formal basis, thus helping them form enduring friendships.

    What If the Board Just Won’t Fundraise?

    Coping with board members who won’t take the fundraising ball and run with it is a common concern. If you’re a development staffer, it shouldn’t be your responsibility to talk balky board members into helping raise money—this is the job of the board president or the chair of the development committee. However, because you’re being judged by how much money you raise, you might find yourself with a vested interest in getting board participation. Here are some potential remedies:

    • Identify the board’s strongest leaders. Often, all it takes is one committed board member to inspire others. For example, Grant Din, former executive director of San Francisco–based Asian Neighborhood Design (www.andnet. org), recalls, “We had one board member who was a development director at another nonprofit, which was perfect, because he could emphasize the importance of fundraising—and not have others tune him out the way they might if a staff member said the same thing. We also had another board member who really pushed for full participation by the board, and the two of them tried to create more of a giving-and-getting environment. As a board member for other nonprofits, I try to support the development staff by talking up the importance of board involvement in fundraising.”
    • Make sure your board members understand and care about your organization’s mission. Some board members feel distant from the organization they serve. They might have joined the board for personal or career reasons rather than commitment to the cause. Will attending board meetings cure this? Not likely, if they consist of a superficial report by the ED and hours spent worrying about financial issues. But you can jazz up board meetings—for example, by bringing in staff members to do some “show and tell” of sample projects, art works by clients, videos, and so on. Also try moving fundraising higher on the meeting agenda (it’s often left until the end). And serve food!
    • Enlist an outside voice. Consultants are available to address a board meeting, lead a board retreat, and more. (Ask colleagues at other nonprofits to recommend a good one.)


    Advisory Council

    A nonprofit isn’t required to have an advisory council (or board or committee), but there are good reasons to establish one. Such a group’s responsibilities include little more than—as the name suggests—offering advice and input on what the nonprofit is or should be doing. Members might be experts in a certain field, represent a community you’d like information from, be well known, or be past staff or board members whose experience you don’t want to lose—but who aren’t able to commit to board membership.

    For fundraising purposes, your advisory council can be a source of additional friends. At a minimum, members’ names should be added to your mailing lists. Their quasi-ceremonial role makes them particularly well suited to special events—you might call on them to buy seats, sell tickets to friends, greet arriving guests, make speeches, and more.

    As the advisory council members develop an increased sense of connection to your organization, you might be able to solicit them for major gifts. They might even be willing to put in short-term volunteer time on fundraising activities.

    When it comes to the famous folk, your expectations of their actual participation should be minimal. You might be content for them to lend nothing more than their name, so that it appears anyplace that you list people associated with the organization—perhaps on your letterhead, website, and newsletter. Your cause gains credibility, and the people named enhance their reputations by appearing to be caring and compassionate. If such people actually show up for your meetings, it’s a bonus.

    Other Paid Development Staff

    Although there’s always pressure to run a lean development office (so as to minimize the percentage of the organization’s money spent on fundraising), penny-pinching isn’t always a good thing. If your potential donor pool is large enough, you might actually become more efficient at raising money by hiring more people.

    A first priority is usually to hire a “development assistant” to handle the mail, enter names and other information on supporters into your database, check emails and other communications, prepare and mail thank-you letters, and handle other day-to-day tasks. Obviously, these chores could also be handled by a dedicated volunteer or another clerical person in your office, but the person will need sufficient oversight to make sure that the tasks get done on time and that the paperwork doesn’t get jumbled with unrelated matters.

    A midsize organization might be able to afford a three-person department, adding a “development associate” to the mix. This is typically someone at a junior professional level, who works side by side with the development director, handling similar but less critical tasks. The associate would also have less responsibility for fundraising planning and dealing with key donors, and would be presumed to be “in training” for a director role.

    Larger organizations often split fundraising tasks into subject areas, assigning a development officer to each. For example, care and feeding of major donors might be assigned to one person, while another handles grant proposals. A few nonprofits, such as universities, have development officers who spend much of their time just researching funding prospects.

    Paid Staff in Nondevelopment Roles

    A truly successful fundraising office maintains close communication with and calls upon program staff as needed. For starters, you want program people to keep your office informed about what they’re doing, supplying you with interesting stories (and photos) to illustrate their important work.

    As a development staffer, much of your job is to explain the importance and success of your organization’s work to the outside world. But simply repeating your mission ad nauseam is not going to bring in donations.

    You need details—colorful, lively stories of difficult situations that your organization confronted and helped to overcome, for presentation in your appeal letters, newsletter, social media pages, and more. Here are examples of compelling stories from my own days as an immigration attorney at a nonprofit:

    • a father who literally got off his deathbed to take the citizenship exam and thereby ensure faster immigration for his children
    • a Somali youth who was beaten in intertribal violence and who was desperate to get through the immigration process quickly in order to go search for his missing mother, and
    • a Guatemalan who’d watched his entire village be massacred by the army, only to have an unsympathetic immigration judge deny his case because conditions had supposedly “improved” in Guatemala.

    Because all of these stories so graphically illustrated the important work our group was doing, they were good material to communicate to potential donors. Unfortunately, however, because few nonprofits foster communication between program and fundraising staff, program staff members might resent being asked to weigh down their schedules or dirty their hands with the business of fundraising.

    Try gentle persuasion rather than a frustrated lecture. Take a few key staff members to lunch, ask about what they’re doing, and find out what fascinates—or frustrates—them about their work. This information will give you a fuller sense of what your organization does beyond its mission statement. Don’t finish dessert without explaining how you communicate with key donors and funders who are likely to give more if they understand why your group’s current work is so important.

    How Share Our Strength Gathered Stories

    Between needing content for its fundraising appeals, website, email updates, and several bloggers, Share Our Strength and its No Kid Hungry campaign were, well, hungry for regular information from program staff. How else would its communicators find out about things like the volunteer who drives around in a non-air-conditioned truck to deliver summer meals to hungry children, or the mother who declared that, thanks to the Cooking Matters class, she could triple the value of her WIC check?

    Opening the channels of communication wasn’t something that happened by accident, however. As Jason Wilson, then director of digital communications, explained, “We deliberately created a culture of storytelling within our organization. This involved bringing in three new people who focus on storytelling—called the Impact Communications Team—as well as identifying key stakeholders throughout the organization who were also responsible for sharing stories. We ask everyone to set aside time to find the stories that represent the impact we’re having, and then to connect with the Impact Communications Team, who were putting this information together for the Web or other materials.

    “We saw the effect of this storytelling culture, and the more that people began to see their stories presented—perhaps in an email campaign or as online content—the more they realized the double satisfaction in not only accomplishing something through their day-to-day work, but also through the telling of that story.

    “There was no set schedule for sharing—either the staff would pass news along, or the people in charge of content might approach them with questions like, ‘We’re looking for stories about X, what do you have to share?’

    “An effort like this really needs to be organization-wide, and involve accountability. For our team members, storytelling became a formal part of their performance goals.”


    When you later use information a staffer gave you, be sure to do “internal marketing.” In other words, show the staffer the appeal letter, or tell them about your successful meeting with a supporter or foundation officer. Some development professionals distribute brief emails or memos to staff describing recent fundraising efforts and successes, or post the classic thermometer to show progress toward a fundraising goal.

    Your next step might be to request something more systematic from staff members. For example, you could ask program staff to write up regular reports on their activities, or to supply photographs or videos of their work.

    Go light on the disaster shots. Although evocative photos of grieving family members and emaciated victims are undoubtedly moving and can be of some use in fundraising, upbeat pictures showing successes are usually even more effective. For example, a photo of the new buds of a nearly extinct flower that your group helped preserve will be far more powerful than a photo of the cracked cement that previously covered its habitat.

    If your organization holds staff meetings, make sure all development staff attend. If you’re a development staffperson, this will give you a chance not only to keep abreast of what’s happening, but also to give a regular report on the fundraising office’s activities. Such reports should include more than dry numbers; they should also convey your hopes, challenges, and disappointments.

    Staff meetings can also provide a convenient forum for holding a general fundraising training. Such trainings can cover basic issues like the importance of developing an extensive list of supporters, how staff can help contribute names, how they and their clients can help represent the organization on their Facebook pages or at special events or meetings with funders, and what your organization’s strategic plans are for the future, fundraising plans included. Also encourage brainstorming about fundraising. A staffer might have the next great idea for bringing in support.

    As program staff hopefully get more attuned to the symbiotic relation- ship between themselves and your fundraising staff, you’ll want to encourage the more charismatic ones to help you with occasional, specific fundraising activities—for example, participating in an important presentation to a potential major supporter or a foundation or writing or editing a portion of a grant proposal. A staff member who works directly with clients or issues is often the most eloquent and credible person to explain your nonprofit’s work to the outside world.

    Other Volunteers

    Many nonprofits begin their lives with an all-volunteer fundraising effort, initially led by a few dedicated board members. Even some established organizations rely heavily on volunteer participation or have more volunteers than paid staff.

    The development office is certainly one place where volunteers can be useful, whether for ongoing support or for labor-intensive, one-time projects, such as mailings or telethons. No matter what role they play, however, they reduce the need to raise money to pay salaries.

    You can advertise volunteer opportunities in your written materials, work with local volunteer placement organizations or online matching services, and check with local colleges and schools, some of which require students to perform community service.

    What’s far more difficult is keeping volunteers around for more than a day or two and managing them effectively. If you’re going to inspire volunteers to provide you with meaningful free service over the long term, you must:

    • Understand and respect people’s motives for volunteering.
    • Train volunteers well and ask for a specific commitment.
    • Make volunteering as convenient as possible.
    • Find ways to allow volunteers to have fun.
    • Show your appreciation early and often.

    Big businesses might offer their paid staff as volunteers. While they don’t get a tax deduction for these contributions, businesses do get goodwill, an opportunity for employee bonding, and an investment in a more economically stable community. Your best bet is to approach businesses that are geographically near to your organization, especially ones patronized by your staff or clients. Be ready to point out how, through your newsletter or other means, you’ll publicly recognize their business’s contributions.

    Cater to Volunteers’ Motives
    Most people who agree to volunteer for an organization will be drawn to the cause, intellectually or emotionally. But of equal importance to many is the chance to meet new people, develop skills, and feel needed. A volunteer who shows up full of energy and enthusiasm, and gets assigned to photocopy stacks of reply cards for hours, might never return.

    Unfortunately, you probably don’t have the time to create work that will keep every new, inexperienced volunteer happy. But if your organization really does plan to rely on volunteers in a big way, you might want to create the position of volunteer coordinator. Because foundations are always interested in leveraging their grant money into maximum results, you might be able to attract the financial support necessary to make this a paid position.

    Fortunately, there are simple ways to satisfy volunteers’ needs and interests. Asking them at the outset what they’d like to get from their experience is a good way to start! But be prepared to talk with them individually (or to save time, in small groups or on a group Zoom-style meeting) about what you can and can’t involve them in. Emphasize that volunteers are most likely to construct useful, fulfilling roles with the organization if they commit to sticking around long enough to allow you to help each of them find a good fit.

    Volunteer Training and Commitment
    A formal training process in which you explain the work of the organization and the volunteer’s place in it will make the experience more satisfactory for all concerned. If the volunteer is willing to help in the development office, briefly go over the annual budget and fundraising plan. Explain the importance of seemingly mundane tasks such as writing thank-you letters or entering data. Discuss what you normally expect volunteers to do and what more interesting tasks they might “graduate” to after proven good work. You might also want to create a volunteer manual explaining:

    • what you expect in terms of hours, calling when they’ll be late or absent, and so on
    • your commitment to making the volunteer experience a positive opportunity for community involvement, and
    • basic office policies, such as personal use of photocopiers.

    Unless you are recruiting for a one-time effort, ask for a commitment to a certain number of hours per week or month. Be prepared to make this flexible, however. Your best source of daytime volunteers could be freelancers who have spare time—but not always at the same time each week.

    Be ready to provide constructive criticism as well as positive reinforcement. Volunteers who are trying to develop job skills or will eventually ask you to serve as a reference need to know how they are really doing. Your feedback will be taken best if you tell the volunteer during the initial training that you’ll periodically sit down for a performance review—and make clear that the volunteer will then have a chance to give you feedback on the volunteer experience and what would make it better.

    Make Volunteering Convenient
    If the very mechanics of volunteering for your office are difficult—for example, if the volunteer has to call someone on your staff who’s hard to reach—it creates another reason for the volunteer to drop the obligation.

    Let’s look at how a school literacy program in Oakland developed a volunteer program that’s convenient for all concerned. The program is in a public school, in an area with numerous senior care centers. Seniors and others are encouraged to spend one hour a week reading to schoolchildren. No experience is required. To participate, they simply call one of the volunteer coordinators and say they’ll be there that week. The coordinators prefer it if the volunteers can make a long-term commitment, but it’s not required. For weeks when the program is short on volunteers, it has a list of backup people to call. And, to make sure the program doesn’t become too much of a burden for any of the volunteer coordinators, each of them is in charge of managing one day a week.

    This literacy program has run smoothly—and succeeded in boosting the children’s interest in reading. It creates a system in which no one feels overwhelmed by the amount of work, and people with more or fewer hours to spend can commit accordingly. It also has the virtue that volunteers perform the same task every time, to reduce the amount of oversight needed. This won’t always be possible in your office, but it’s something to bear in mind.

    Make Volunteering Fun
    Although you don’t have to make it a party for volunteers, they won’t come back unless they can share in some way in your organization’s sense of purpose. One of the most common requests volunteers make is to work directly with the people (or plants, animals, or environment) being served. If they’re working in the development office, that won’t always be possible. However, there are other activities that will allow them to work with the public, including:

    • canvassing
    • asking local businesses for raffle donations
    • calling donors to express thanks, and
    • participating in telethons.

    Your volunteers are the face of your organization. Be choosy about who you let interact with the public on behalf of your group. If the only human contact a supporter has with your organization is a grouchy high schooler who is doing mandatory volunteer service and is not well-versed in your program, you’ll turn the supporter off. (Not that all high school kids are grouchy—some of them are developing interests in community service that will last a lifetime, so giving them interesting and appropriate volunteer tasks is a community service in itself.)

    Show Appreciation
    All volunteers want to know that they’re making a difference and advancing the cause, so say thank you early and often. For example, I fondly remember volunteering for a school garden tour committee that hardly ever let me walk out empty-handed—I was given a school T-shirt, a pair of gardening gloves, a poster from last year’s tour, tomato seeds, and more. I was momentarily embarrassed by their generosity, but I got the message—they appreciated the help. Most important from the school’s point of view, I kept going back to do more.

    Try also to plan organized volunteer appreciation activities: holding an annual volunteer party, for example, or inviting volunteers to your nonprofit’s other events, such as a gala or lecture. Don’t forget to take advantage of a well-attended occasion by giving a little speech about how much particular volunteers have done for your organization—which you can accompany with awards or certificates.

    Outside Consultants and Contractors

    To supplement your salaried development staff, it can be useful to hire consultants and contractors. Be warned, however—the hourly rates of well-established writers, designers, accountants, and others can dwarf your own salary. But independent contractors start to look more affordable when you realize that you don’t pay for their health insurance or office space, and you don’t have to find a way to pay their salaries year-round. You can assign them to a limited task and tightly control the hours they spend.

    Consultants and contractors are probably available in your area for just about every task a development office does, from grant writing to direct mailings to individual solicitations to leading board seminars or retreats. Ask other nonprofits for recommendations.

    While outside workers can provide valuable expertise and take the pressure off when deadlines loom, you’ll want to avoid three common problems. First, make sure you remain the “boss” in this relationship, and don’t end up unsuccessfully trying to manage an opinionated and balky consultant. Second, carefully define in advance exactly what the contractor will do on your behalf, when the job will be completed, and how much it will cost. Third, be sure that the services to be completed according to the contract are ethical, are honest, and follow fundraising approaches with which you are comfortable.

    You’ve probably heard of scandals where hired fundraisers go out and solicit money (by telephone, for example), then take a healthy chunk for their own salaries and “costs” before turning the remainder over to the nonprofit. Although the nonprofit isn’t directly at fault for depriving donors of money that doesn’t go where they thought it would, the nonprofit won’t emerge unscathed from any resulting negative publicity.

    In addition, some states’ laws address nonprofits’ use of professional fundraisers, for example, by requiring the fundraisers to disclose their status to the people being asked to donate. Whatever you do, don’t hire outside contractors on a commission basis—that is widely viewed as unethical and, in some states, is illegal.

    Can You Pitch Your Nonprofit in the Space of an Elevator Ride?

    As part of your personal skill building, it’s important to be able to quickly engage others about what your organization does, and why it’s important. According to Mona Lisa Wallace, an attorney and nonprofit expert, “It’s amazing how even some established organizations can’t describe what they do—I’ll hear vague statements like, ‘We’re sort of a homeless organization.’ But what people really want to hear is who and where your organization is, what you’re all about, where you’re heading, and how you plan to get there. So, for example, a good elevator pitch might be, ‘Our homeless-families support network provides temporary housing and support services to parents and children with no place to go. We help them get back on their feet and find a stable, long-term home. We may never be able to eliminate homelessness altogether, but we’re going to keep trying to reduce it, one family at a time.’”

    Oakland nonprofit management expert Randolph Belle recommends taking out a stopwatch and practicing saying what you need to in 30 seconds or less. He suggests practicing succinct answers to follow-up questions, such as:

    • “What would you do with $10,000?”
    • “Tell me about the needs of your constituency.”
    • “Who are the other service providers in your field and what makes you special?”
    • “Tell me about the composition of your board of directors.”
    • “What made you get into this field?”


    Don’t inadvertently turn a contractor into an employee. If you treat contractors or consultants like employees (by requiring them to keep regular office hours and closely supervising them, for example), you’re headed for legal trouble. The IRS, as well as state tax and employment authorities, may claim that you should have paid the same taxes and benefits as you would for ordinary employees. For information about the legal differences between employees and contractors, see the independent contractor materials on Nolo’s website, For more detailed information, including a wide selection of sample contracts, see Working With Independent Contractors, by Stephen Fishman (Nolo).

    Fundraising Skills

    This section briefly covers the most important personal characteristics and skills a good fundraiser needs. Of course, there’s no one perfect way to raise money—a variety of approaches and styles can work well, depending on your audience, personality, and so forth. Some of these skills may be hard to develop if you weren’t born with them, so be patient with yourself, and concentrate on bringing out the things you do best. Of particular importance are:

    • interpersonal skills, and
    • writing ability.

    Interest in Other People

    You’ve probably heard the saying that “people give to people, not to causes.” While that’s a bit of an exaggeration, the takeaway is that a fundraiser’s ability to relate positively to fellow human beings is crucial. They should enjoy interacting and networking with donors, foundation funders, board members, fellow fundraising professionals, and so on.

    If you’re interviewing a prospective new development staffer, and the consensus is, “We’re not crazy about his personality, but he’s smart, writes well, and knows our work,” proceed with extreme caution. Your supporters and funders might have the same tepid reaction.

    Writing Ability

    The ability to write effectively plays an important role in nearly every aspect of fundraising, whether it’s drafting a thank-you letter, an email appeal, or a grant proposal.

    Here are my top five tips for effective writing:

    • Write like you talk. Or better yet, write like you’re on the phone with your Aunt Millie, who’s a little deaf and wishes you’d get to the point. Too many people think that using long words and convoluted sentences makes them sound professional and authoritative. They’re wrong. Turn your writing into a conversation with the reader. Reading your written work aloud is a good way to test it. If the voice you hear doesn’t sound friendly, straightforward, and passionate about the cause, try again.
    • Find out what makes your own writing flow. With all due respect to high school writing teachers, many of them propounded rules that can hinder your subconscious writer—like the one about creating an exhaustive outline before setting pen to paper. I know many excellent writers who use alternative techniques. For example, some instead write in bursts, only later weaving the pieces together to discover a structure. In short, if you have your own style of getting your thoughts out, go with it.
    • Be your own editor. No one I know can produce a finished writing job in fewer than three drafts, and important tasks often take far more. So, when you are finished writing something, read it over with a critical eye. Look for issues like:
      • overlong sentences. Any sentence that runs on for more than two lines can probably be chopped.
      • boring or extraneous words. Eliminate every word that’s not necessary to the sentence. See whether a tired word can be replaced with a more expressive alternative. For example, instead of using “difficult” three times in a paragraph, try “thorny,” “obstinate,” or “tough.” Give your thesaurus a workout.
      • potentially misleading word order. We all love to laugh at signs that say “Half Baked Chicken, $7.99!”—but some of your supporters might be less amused if you announce that “Volunteers help burn victim’s family.”
      • passive voice. The passive voice is well named; it sounds as if the writer wearied of the cause long ago. Just say “no” to phrases like “it is of concern that” and “a donation of $xx was received.” Use active statements that explain who did what, like “our counselors are worried that” and “the Family Foundation generously donated $xx.”
    • Never, ever send anything out without a final read through. Mistakes and typos can lurk in any document—even one that’s been read a dozen times. Ask someone you trust to give your written work a careful going over. Also, if you can, put every document aside for a few hours or days before finalizing it. You’ll be amazed at what pops out—or what new inspirations arise—with a fresh reading.
    • Lose the lingo. After you’ve written a few grant proposals and attended some United Way trainings, your head will be full of terms like “outcomes,” “mission statement,” and “service-driven.” And your organization’s own area of expertise is probably jargon laden, too. Learn the jargon and use it when funders or others won’t be happy hearing any other terms—but don’t let it take over your entire vocabulary. Even funders fall asleep when they read too much jargony stuff.

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