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Fundraising 101: Fundraising from Scratch

Students use hammers and chisels to carve dovetails keys into the base of the boat as Douglas Brooks' traditional Japanese wooden boatbuilding apprentices.
Photo Credit: Fred Zwicky
Students learned to use hammers and chisels to carve dovetails keys into the base of the boat as Douglas Brooks' traditional Japanese wooden boatbuilding apprentices.

Assertiveness is important for fundraising, but it doesn't come naturally to many development and advancement professionals. This article outlines a way to create an effective ask that generates donations or support for your nonprofit.

Welcome, team. If you’re reading this article, I’d guess you a) are pretty sure you hate fundraising, b) are terrified of fundraising, or c) are being forced to fundraise but are dreading it.

I feel that. It’s not your fault. Fundraising doesn’t make itself a very approachable or accessible craft.

How mainstream fundraising is practiced and taught pretends that everyone comes to fundraising with the same lived experience and that there’s a standard, silver-bullet way of raising money that will work for everyone. If you’ve hated fundraising at some point in your career, if you’re terrified of it, if you’re dreading it – it could be because the fundraising you’ve experienced has kind of sucked. Maybe you understood, at an intuitive level, that the fundraising you were experiencing wasn’t built for you.

I feel that, too. It’s important to start by saying: that’s not some kind of wild delusion you and I share.

Let’s take something that’s presented as a universal truth in fundraising: you should be assertive with your ask. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? The way that plays out in real life, though, is much more complicated.

As one example, a former Executive Director of mine swears by standing at the front of a big gala during the Fund-A-Need and asking for members of the audience to give four- or five-figure gifts while waiting on stage in absolute silence until someone raises their hand. When he’s done this, it gets awkwardly quiet for awkwardly long periods of time. But it works for him. Folks eventually raise their hands, and he raises a bunch of money.

Mainstream fundraising would be like:

gif of Simon Cowell giving two thumbs up with an audience celebrating behind him
gif of Simon Cowell giving two thumbs up with an audience celebrating behind him

And if this tactic works for you, amazing.

However, this Executive Director, as you may have noticed by the pronouns in the story, is a cisgender dude. He’s also white. He also has a big voice, was raised upper-middle class, and has a lifetime of lived experience with other humans that gives him the confidence and presence to be able to make that tactic work for him without feeling like he was going to die.

Going even further, the audience at that gala, being based here in the United States, came to that gala trained by our culture to respond to his identities in a very specific and almost universally positive way. The audience was pre-trained to see his assertiveness, his directness, and his set of identities as positive and trustworthy, simply attributes of a strong competent leader.

Let’s be super clear: that’s simply not how it works for all of us.

Studies have shown that cisgender women who are direct like that in a different (arguably more safe) public space – the workplace – are regularly penalized by their colleagues for their assertiveness. Fundraisers of color face significantly different donor expectations and behavior than their white colleagues. And folks who don’t come from wealth often struggle to relate to donors.

Fundraisers who don’t share the Executive Director’s identities are actually taking a pretty significant risk by being assertive like that in front of an audience. So there’s a very good, research-based reason that if you’re thinking of this “basic” fundraising tactic and your body is giving you data that says “YIKES, HATE IT, NO THANK YOU,” you might want to trust your instincts.

This is all a long way of saying: if you’ve hated fundraising, or are dreading fundraising, or are terrified of fundraising, it’s okay. Fundraising, like every deck in America, is stacked against a lot of us. But once you see that, you can begin to make your own choices based on what is right for you and your own intersecting identities, and still raise significant money for causes you care about.

Let’s dive in and see what kinds of fundraising styles could feel great to you.

Exercise 1: Exploring Your Identities

As a way of exploring what kind of fundraising could feel great to you, take a few minutes and do some self-reflection around the questions in this worksheet. The answers to these could be very specific or very broad or both.

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Asking for Something

Asking to borrow a car is one thing. Asking for money is totally different, right? Let’s see.

Most asks for help – and for money – can be boiled down to this basic structure:

  1. 1


    This is the easiest part, and the piece I’m sure you do intuitively. “Hey Ted, so great to see you – how was your daughter’s graduation?” or sometimes in fundraising emails, “Hey Leah, I know you’re very busy and your time is tight, so I’ll get right to it.”

  2. 2

    The Problem

    This can be very specific or very broad. In the worksheet above, it’s easy to identify the problem: my car broke down. The problem for your organization could sound like, “We need to buy ten wolf costumes for our upcoming performance of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” or “Our first show featuring transgender photographers is coming up in a few months, and we need to raise $10,000 for installation costs.”

  3. 3

    Why Them

    Why are you asking this person for this specific thing? Sometimes this sounds like, “As our strongest supporter, I know you care deeply about this work” or sometimes, like the example in the worksheet, it is very specific: “Mom, I know you have a second car.”

  4. 4

    The Ask

    This tends to be the place where what we’d feel comfortable doing in any other arena of our life diverges from what we feel comfortable doing in fundraising. In other areas of our lives we feel totally fine being really specific: “Can I borrow your car?” or “Would you help me move this couch?”

But if we were to adapt those two asks to what folks in our sector tend to do around fundraising, they would sound like, “Can I borrow something? Anything at all would be helpful!” and “You can help us by following us on Facebook, volunteering twice a week, locking the doors on your way out, or helping us to move this couch – anything makes a difference!”

Do you see the problem there? By making your ask super vague or lumping your ask in with four other options, your audience has no idea what you actually need. Your donors want to help you and they rely on you to be direct with them and tell them what you need.

Exercise 2: Drafting Your Ask

That final component – what you need – needs to be as specific as you would be if you were asking to borrow a car. Practice drafting your ask and making it specific using this worksheet!

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Start With Your Organization’s Biggest Fans: Your Board

Now that you have this beautiful, buddy-approved ask, who should you ask first? You read the heading of this section, so you probably know where I’m going with this.

Your board of directors consists of your organization’s biggest fans! Most of the time, board members know that their role includes giving and fundraising. They’re also usually very decent human beings who like to be useful. My guess is you already have a relationship with them – they know who you are, and you’ve probably met them several times, so they’re not strangers. In many ways, they are the perfect folks to ask.

I can hear some of you squirming, hoping that I’m going to give you a worksheet in this section that involves a lot of WRITING, and RESEARCH, and DRAFTS, at least two weeks’ worth, so that you don’t have to actually go out there and ask each board member for a gift. A dear co-conspirator of mine in fundraising, Veronica Garcia, pointed out that lots of us hope strangers will fund our work because it’s easier to deal with strangers than it is to ask people who are close to us for support. (That statement deserves some of your journaling time this week: what is that about?)

But the reality is that folks who love us and love our work are the very folks we should be asking to donate. As some of you may have uncovered in your reflections in the worksheets, relationships are at the heart of good fundraising.

Exercise 3: Practicing Your Ask

This third worksheet is sparse, friends, because the goal is simple: take that beautiful ask you wrote and ask them to make a gift.

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Taking Care of Your People

Now that you’ve asked board members for money, how are you going to keep track of their gifts?

Databases are typically the way that organizations keep tabs on who donates what, when. (I already know what you’re going to ask, and no: I can’t tell you the perfect database for you. They’re all flawed in some way and what will work for you will be very specific to your mission and priorities. This resource is a good start >>)

If you’re a small shop and don’t have hundreds of donors, even just having one single spreadsheet with all of your donors’ contact information and giving history is a solid start. Without a database or some kind of central memory bank of your donors and their information, you’re going to run into some problems.

If you don’t have a central place for your donor info, you can’t delegate. Say you’re the one with everyone’s contact information in your inbox – how easy it is for you to ask a volunteer to handle the mailing this year? Or have a board member send thank you emails?

If you don’t have a central place for your donor info, you’ll struggle to take care of your people. Have you ever met someone multiple times, but they still have no idea who you are? How did that feel? That’s the way our donors feel all the time. Let’s be real: if your job is not 100% fundraising, you cannot be the only person in charge of dozens of relationships. It’s not sustainable, for you or your organization, over the long term.

If you can’t take care of your people or delegate, you can’t grow. Let me give you an example. Say you ask a board member to bring two friends to an event. Say one of their friends is inspired by your work and makes (for them) a pretty significant donation.

If you didn’t collect that friend’s contact information at the door and don’t have a central memory bank, you’ll struggle to send a thank you note, which damages that friend’s sense of goodwill towards your organization. They’re going to share their frustration with your board member. Your board member will feel embarrassed and may be less likely to invite their network to fundraisers for your work in the future.

Exercise 4: Examining Your Data

Take some time to do some data inventory for your organization with this fourth worksheet! This piece is intended to be a kick-off, team, and I hope it gave you a few additional tools. If you continue to be curious and want to know more, I’ve included some of my favorite resources below. Go get ‘em!

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Additional Resources

  • Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training

    Starting in the 1990s, the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training began teaching folks that fundraising could be better. They taught me how to fundraise, but their primary audience was BIPOC community organizers. The org is closed now but their journal archive is free and available online. If you have a fundraising question of any kind, this is the first place I’d go.

  • Community-Centric Fundraising

    This new constellation is also a fantastic resource on how fundraising can change and get better for all of us. There’s a local chapter to get involved with if you’re interested in going deeper.

  • Fundraising for Social Change by Kim Klein

    If I was going to buy one book to help me out with all of my fundraising questions, this one would be it.

  • Future Fundraising Now by Jeff Brooks

    While there are a lot of fundraising experts on the internet, this guy has been consistently smart and thorough for the last 10 years. He cuts through the noise and has a snarky sense of humor I appreciate.

  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

    If you’re curious about how the audience at my former ED’s gala was trained to respond to my ED that way, I’d strongly recommend this book. It’s a fantastic overview of the ways that we’re all trained to react to each other, as she so eloquently puts it: “As we go about our lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.”