fundraising truths

I’ve created for you a little “Declaration of Fundraising Independence” to help you become a fruitful philanthropy facilitator from this day forward. This Declaration incorporates what I consider to be four essential fundraising truths — pre-conditions which must be met before you’ll be able to successfully exercise your fundraising strategies.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that not all charities are created equal, that they are endowed by their constituencies with certain unalienable visions, missions and values, that among these are visions, missions and values that some, but not all, members of the public share. That to secure these visions, missions and values, charities are instituted among the public, deriving their just powers from the support of the public. That whenever any form of charity becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to fail to support it, and to instead support those institutions as to them shall seem most likely to effect the safety, happiness, goodwill and public benefit of the populace.

Fundraising is not an end in itself. It serves noble ends.

(1) When those ends are ones valued by the people, and

(2) When folks trust you’re doing an effective job meeting needs they believe must be met, then

(3) You earn the privilege of fundraising and, in fact,

(4) You assume the responsibility to fundraise to assure those who rely on you that these needs are not left high and dry.

So… this is where you get your Declaration of Fundraising Independence.  You are ‘free to fundraise’ once you’re able to make a case to enough people that you deserve to exist. For this to be the case:

  1. You need the right donor prospects.
  2. You need to inspire people.
  3. You need a written communications plan.
  4. You need a written fundraising plan.

Please, hold these 4 fundraising truths close. They are essential prerequisites to productively raising money for your cause.

1. You Need the RIGHT Donor Prospects

This is the one thing I find myself needing to tell development staff, boards and executive directors until I’m blue in the face. This is so important I turn down work because of it.

Here’s what I mean:

Someone comes to me asking if I can write a fundraising appeal for them. Before I agree to take this on, I ask…


  1. How much did you raise last year?
  2. From how many donors?
  3. Is there a pattern, or some commonality, among those who support you?
  4. How many folks are on your mailing list(s)?
  5. Is the size of your list growing, diminishing or staying constant?
  6. How do you get new names onto your list?
  7. What was your percentage return on your mailing?
  8. Have you communicated with these folks since their last gift?
  9. Have you communicated with these folks since their last engagement with you of any kind?
  10. Why do you think you aren’t growing your donor base more robustly?

More often than I’d care to say, I find out they’ve been asking too few people and/or the wrong people. I tell them we need to work on building their prospect list before it makes sense to invest in writing better copy.

You can write the best fundraising appeal on the planet, but… it will do you NO good if you’re sending it to the wrong people.

Please let that sink in.

Fundraising is a people to people, value to value business.

  • You ask someone who shares your organization’s values to join with you in enacting those values – which happen to match their personal values.
  • They give you something of value to accomplish a specific outcome (i.e., a philanthropic investment).
  • You give them back something of value to make them feel good about having accomplished this outcome and enacted their values (i.e., gratitude and an intangible ‘feel good’ tied to the specific impact they’ve made possible).

People must be connected in some way.

Cold is cold. When you send your appeal to a list of cold names you purchased, or to a bunch of folks who attended a golf tournament one time, or to alumni you haven’t communicated with since they graduated, or to people who’ve been on your list for a decade and have never given, you’re not giving your appeal a fighting chance. Most of these folks aren’t feeling connected to you in any meaningful way.

Sure, sometimes it makes sense to purchase lists of names for donor acquisition. But ideally you still look for some connection. They’ve donated to a similar cause. They share an interest in common with your identified donor personas. They live in your neighborhood.  

Values must match

The entire universe is not your universe. When you send appeals to people who aren’t even philanthropic, you’re going to lose. When you send to people whose top priorities are nature and the environment, and your cause is the arts, you’re not going to connect. When you send to folks who have dedicated their lives to helping the poor, and your cause is higher education or scientific research, you’re not going to ignite their passions.

Segmentation according to interest area is key

Your entire list is not even the right one for any given appeal. When you send to folks who love cats, and ask them to support dogs, you’re going to lose. When you tell a story about a frail senior, and they care most passionately about at-risk children, you’ll be on the wrong track. If your appeal recipients don’t care about the focus of your appeal, you’re not going to float their boat. So… no smooth sailing for you.

To get the biggest bang for your buck, narrow your audiences so you can target your message. Look at things like:

  • Area of program interest
  • History of engagement with you (e.g., past giving; volunteerism; event participation; staff; client)
  • Demographic information (e.g., age, family, geography)
  • Psychographic information (e.g., casual, formal, liberal, conservative, generational)

Lists must be current

You absolutely must have a system in place to update your list regularly. You’ll also want a system to ensure you remove people who are deceased, and change records for folks who have divorced. For snail mail, you can do an annual address correction request. Some databases have this built in. For email, it’s more complicated. You need to work with your email service provider to determine which emails are getting delivered; for the failures you need to find out if the error is permanent (e.g., bad email address) or temporary (e.g., server was full; provider had an issue or bug).


Lists need to be big enough to generate the returns you need, they must be kept up to date, they require segmentation according to interest and/or affiliation, and appeals must be targeted accordingly.

2. You Need to INSPIRE People

People give when they feel an emotional connection. Not a logical one.

The heart trumps the head. Every time.

If you stay in the ‘head space’ you’re going to bore folks silly. If you talk on and on and on… about numbers of people served… how many staff and volunteers you have… your geographical reach… the number of years you’ve been in existence (are you even still with me?)…  You get the idea.

Tell a story and paint a picture  

Write in a way people can visualize what you’re talking about, and why. Both the problem and the solution.  

Share compelling images and videos that pull on the heart strings. And include a caption with your photo that adds in any emotional color that may be missing – much as you might title a painting to complete the picture.

Personal Anecdote: When I began in fundraising, I found my family and friends had no idea what ‘development’ meant. I told them what I did was akin to developing a photograph. I took all the tools at my disposal (e.g., camera, tripod, photo chemicals, editing tools, choice of subject matter and perspective) and endeavored to create a picture of something so compelling people couldn’t help but want to enter into it and become a part of it.

Create some urgency as to why the donor needs to give now.

Urgency is not that your annual campaign is about to end. People don’t care about your processes and your deadlines. Most of them don’t care about tax deductions either.

Urgency is the disaster that will befall, unless the donor helps. The fact:

  • There’s a waiting list and people can’t get life-saving care.
  • The cold season is upon us and people are freezing on the streets.  
  • You’ll have to close your doors in the next six months absent necessary funding.
  • A hurricane just hit, and people need immediate help.
  • One more child will go to bed tonight without food in their tummy.


Unless you emotionally show your donor the problem and tell them specifically how their money will make an immediate, positive difference, you won’t inspire them.

“Give to our annual campaign,” “Give to support our cause,” and “Give to sustain our program” and even “give to restore hope” are not inspirational messages.

3. You Need a Written Communications Program

If people hear from you only when you have your hand out, they’ll get tired of you quickly. You need to communicate with folks regularly, or they’ll think you only care about their money. That won’t build a lasting relationship. Imagine a friend who you hear from only when they want something from you. Pretty soon you stop taking their calls, right?

Help more than you sell.

Communication must be perceived more as help, help, help than sell, sell, sell. If you want gifts you must give them. Balance your communications. Generally I recommend at least three non-fundraising messages for every fundraising one. Use a monthly e-newsletter or blog. Share stories, ‘how-to’s, the latest research, and other useful and interesting stuff.

Your goal is to be of service. Share what you know and provide little “gifts” now, to promote longer and more lasting interactions later. Remember: ‘philanthropy’ translates from the Greek to ‘love of humanity.’


Love your donors. Often. And plan ahead so you’re sure to do this systematically. For some help, grab this free Donor Love & Loyalty Plan.

4. You Need a Written Fundraising Plan

You just aren’t going to be as effective as you should if you don’t take time to put a plan in writing. Think ahead. Develop goals (why), objectives (what) and strategies (how). Have a timeline.

Assign responsibilities and hold people accountable.

Humans are wired for accountability, but we’re not so great at keeping vague promises or adhering to indefinite resolutions. As my favorite management guru Peter Drucker wisely stated: “A plan is just good intentions unless it degenerates into work.” And research shows it’s more likely to turn into work when you write it down.

It’s just too easy to push stuff to the back burner, and get caught up putting out daily fires or spending the lion’s share of your time writing and responding to emails. The work won’t happen if you don’t put things in writing and have someone assigned to hold folks’ feet to the fire. You’ll be busy, but not productive.

Don’t just keep doing things you’ve always done.

It’s easy to fall into status quo mode. Often folks are invested in old ways of doing things, even though they’re no longer yielding rewards. Events come to mind. Sometimes it’s just one or two board members who insist on holding onto an event that completely exhausts your staff and volunteer resources and pleases only a handful of supporters.

Don’t chase shiny objects.

Another point of a written plan is it forces you to seriously consider making changes to that plan. If a board or staff member suddenly says “We need to be on Instagram,” it’s best to think carefully about what that might mean for your current plan. How much time would this strategy take to implement, what goals would it serve, and would it do so better than other strategies currently on your plan? If so, what might you remove to make room for it? If not, perhaps you might want to defer this to consider for next year.

At least annually, review what’s worked and hasn’t worked.

Set aside some time to evaluate past strategies. You may have been doing the wrong things. Or those strategies may have worked well once, but they’re no longer working for you.


Without a dynamic plan, you’re in Lewis Carroll ‘Through the Looking Glass’ territory: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Or not.


Take a look at what’s true for you and your organization at this point in time.

If these four truths are not self-evident for you, think about what it might take to make them apparent.

The truth shall not only set you free, it will springboard you towards success that may have been eluding you up to this point.

Speak your truths.

Write down your truths.

Live your truths.

best donor prospects

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.