fundraising pre-conditions

Today we’re going to talk about the BIG PICTURE. Because fundraising abhors a vacuum. There’s no point trying to fundraise unless you do so in service of your vision, mission and values with fundraising pre-conditions in place to help.

Duh, you’re saying.

Why are you stating something so obvious, you’re thinking.

I do so because it’s all too common for nonprofits to lose sight of their raison d’etre when they focus on “fundraising” – which they think of as money grubbing. It becomes about process and monetary transactions. “Will you consider a gift of $1,000?” does not address the question of WHY.

Why might someone decide to give their hard-earned money to your cause? 

“Because we do good work” is insufficient.

You must think seriously about how to answer this question before ever asking for a single cent. I go through a four-step process to come to a full-throated, satisfying answer whenever I work with a nonprofit, and you should do the same.

This is the real heart of successful philanthropy facilitation (use this term to avoid the “F” word connotation). 

Let’s take a look at what I call the “4 Fundraising Pre-Conditions to Asking.”

1. Getting to the Heart of the Matter

What would happen were your nonprofit to cease to exist?

This is a critical question because having crystal clarity on your case for support– from a donor perspective – is key to successful fundraising.

I’ve had occasion to ask many people this question, from executive directors to development staff to board members, over my years in practice. And, oh my!

There is a lot of cloudy thinking out there. 

As Sartre famously said: “Existence precedes essence.”  The mere fact you exist will not justify your continued existence. At least not in the minds and hearts of potential donors. For that to happen, you must be able to forcefully and plausibly assert the essential detriment that would occur were you to cease to exist.

2. Parting the Clouds

There are two primary reasoning problems contributing to the cloudy atmosphere.

1. Failure to drill down to the essence of why you matter.

Why should people support you?

I often get answers assuming I understand the urgency of the problem the organization confronts. But if I’ve never heard of therapy horses, I may not immediately grasp their importance. Or if you work with a rare disease I’ve never heard of, the fact you’re striving to find a cure for it won’t mean much to me. Because the essence of your mission – why your existence matters – is not the horses or scientific research, per se, so much as the ways lives will be improved, even saved, as a result.

If you want to shine the light on the critical need for the services you provide, you must aggressively push the clouds away. You must make a case for support that helps people confront the problem in such a way they are moved to help you deal with it. You must dig deep using iterative questioning that gets to the heart of “but then what?” Here’s what I mean:

We should be supported because we provide… 

Why is providing that important?

Because it helps people with…

What if they weren’t helped that way?

They’d lose, miss, fail, suffer, be unable to… 

Aren’t there other similar resources; what specifically sets you apart? 

What would people miss if you exited the scene; how would they grieve

2. Failure to agree on the essential vision, mission and values

What’s your big picture or big hairy audacious goal (BHAG)? A BHAG is a concept developed by Jim Collins in the book “Built to Last.” It’s clear and compelling, needing little explanation; people get it right away. And it exudes a sense of urgency. In other words, it conveys why your organization’s demise would be a big deal.

Sometimes I’ll ask every member of the board to write down their big picture core mission on a piece of paper. Just one or two sentences. It’s relatively easy for singularly focused “moon shot” organizations (e.g., “to end hunger;” “to provide villages with clean water;” “to house our community’s homeless.”). It’s pretty challenging for organizations with a range of different programs (e.g., comprehensive human services; hospitals; universities; social justice charities). Have you ever tried this? It can be an interesting exercise. 

Here’s what happened when I did this years ago with an organization (I’ll call them “Cloudy Charity”) that brought art classes into low-income population elementary schools and juvenile detention centers:

  • Our mission is to supplement children’s education with arts curriculum. 3 board members
  • Our mission is to improve children’s self-esteem by helping them express their creativity. 3 board members
  • Our mission is to improve life outcomes for incarcerated youth. 2 board members
  • Our mission is to inspire budding artists who would otherwise never create art. 1 board member

It turned out there was broad disagreement about Cloudy Charity’s underlying purpose. The last answer surprised everyone. Certainly, that was a side benefit. But the organization was never founded with the purpose of discovering the next Picasso! Change didn’t happen overnight, but ultimately this organization ended up merging with another, becoming one project among several working with marginalized people to help them complete their education, tap into their creative power, and secure jobs. The project case for support was rewritten to focus on reducing the risk of recidivism among incarcerated youth.

This leads us to the next of the fundraising pre-conditions.

3. Knowing Your Enemy

All nonprofits, just like all good stories, need an enemy – or several enemies — to defeat.

And not just a namby-pamby one.

It must be a scary enemy. And not just generally scary, but scary to your donor.

Because if what you’re doing and striving for doesn’t matter to me, I’m not going to support you. Sure, I might think what you’re doing sounds noble and give you a pat you on the back. “Good for you!”

But I’m guessing you want to inspire more than a high five.

In the case of Cloudy Charity I, as a potential donor, might care more about helping assure my community’s marginalized youth stayed out of prison, stopped committing crimes and learned life-changing ways to go on to live fulfilling, productive lives than I did about finding one diamond in the rough budding artist. I can visualize the former; not the latter.

The donor must be able to visualize the enemy in order to care.

Mary Cahalane calls these scary enemies dragons. Your job is to find within your vision, mission and values the scariest enemy, or enemies, for your donor to defeat; then figure out a way to make your donor sense the danger at hand.

Successful fundraising is not intellectual; it’s emotional.

EXAMPLE: I worked for four years as director of development at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. We had disagreement about our core mission as well. Some thought it was to develop tomorrow’s professional musicians. Some thought it was to offer low-cost concerts accessible to the entire community. But the scary dragon? What our donors cared about more than anything else? What they could not imagine without wanting to curl up into a fetal position? A world without music! The world needed composers, conductors, musicians, and singers dedicated to filling the world with music.

Without music life would be a mistake.

— Jean Paul Sartre

EXAMPLE: I had a client that provided low-cost legal services. Their website and fundraising appeals focused on people needing access to lawyers so they could secure “housing, health care, food and other life necessities.” Noble? Yes. Scary? Not until the organization began to understand the need to paint a picture of the enemy. Today their home page leads with the timely and pressing issue: “How you can help immigrants & refugees.” Because separating children from families? That’s an enemy donors can see, hear, touch and feel. Deporting people back to countries where their families have been tortured and killed? Ditto. It smells bad.

4. Focusing on Inspiration

Once you know your enemy, you must get into the mind frame of inspiring people to defeat it. This is another way to get away from the dreaded “F” word perception of fundraising, and why I use the terminology of “inspiring philanthropy” as a substitute. 

Inspiring connects people to values and aspirations while fundraising connects people only to money.

Also, inspiration is about feeling. If you can’t make me feel in my gut… heart… soul… that what you’re doing is among the most important things that needs doing, right now, then I’m not likely to give to you.

The organization of which Cloudy Charity became a part understands how inspiration is one of the fundraising pre-conditions.

I absolutely love that they have “Get Inspired” on their Menu Header! And when you click on it, you come to the page above. “Explore our stories. Hear from others. And don’t hesitate to reach out. We are of the community, by the community, and for the community. We will talk. We will listen. And we will inspire. If you are so moved, consider supporting us.” There’s a video you can listen to. There are stories you can read. There is art and plays you can feel. Inspiration abound.

Summary Take-Aways

These are essential, successful fundraising pre-conditions:

  1. Heart of the Matter: Get clarity on your vision, mission and values. Know what you should and shouldn’t be doing as it relates to your goals. Consider a board and/or executive management retreat to figure this out. Consider hiring an objective facilitator. Or do it yourself using this “Mission Sniff Test” from nonprofit guru Joan Garry.
  2. Parting the Clouds: Drill down to the essence of your existence. Do you know what separates you from all others; what people would miss should your nonprofit disappear? Sometimes visions and values change; missions evolve over time. Some enemies are defeated; new ones arrive. Do you have agreement on your current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? We’re moving into a novel economy in 2021; it’s a good time for reassessment and strategic planning. When’s the last time you did a comprehensive SWOT analysis
  3. Know Your Enemy: Know how to talk about what you do. Are you showing an enemy that clearly needs defeating? Or just telling people to send you money so you can reach your goal? Are you listening to what your constituents care about, right now? Or just talking at people? Consider making phone calls, or sending a donor survey, to find out more about your donors’ current passions and interests.
  4. Focus on Inspiration: People give based on specifics of what they believe and sense; not on generalities, data and logic. Are you doing all (or any) of the things that inspire people to want to engage and invest with your vision, mission and values? Do you tell emotional stories on your website? In your e-newsletter? In your appeals? Do you describe the problem clearly, and then offer believable solutions that show the donor specifically how to be the hero?

A final word about fundraising pre-conditions: If you’ve a big enemy to fight, big problems to resolve, a way to talk about these things in a manner that resonates right now with folks who want to help you, then – and only then – will you be able to attract donor dollars in large measure. Donors don’t give much to problems that appear little, cloudy or just not relevant or urgent.

If that describes you, you’ll continue to fail at fundraising until you resolve these issues and get your fundraising pre-conditions firmly in place. First things first.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.
Claire Axelrad