2.21 The Why of Grassroots Fundraising

Dear Kim:

My nonprofit has recently decided to follow your advice and build a base of individual donors.  (We have lost most of our foundation funding and see this as our only choice.)  We are very small, with only two staff and five board members and so we want to attract a small number of big donors ($5000+).  We are not trying to disrespect people who can only give $35 or $50, but we don’t have the staff capacity to deal with them and think it is more efficient to go after big gifts.  How can we best focus on major donors?  

~Seeking quality, not quantity

Dear Quality:

I hear your desire a lot and it reminds me of my desire to lose weight without diet and exercise. It could happen, but probably not.  You may find some donors who will start by giving $5,000 or more.  Some organizations have, mostly because they knew people in that category already.  I doubt this describes you or you wouldn’t be writing to me for free advice. People who give $35 or $50 are really not very high maintenance:  A nice, genuine thank you note and newsletter or some kind of information sent two-three times a year will keep most of them very happy.  Someone who gives $5,000 expects way more attention than a thank you and newsletter, so if you are trying to build a base of people who don’t want much from you, I would tend more to go to the lower dollar donors.  

The problem is your premise:  You are only thinking of going to individuals because you can’t raise enough money from foundations.  This is a little like someone saying “I married you because no one else would have me.”  The reality of individual donor fundraising is that you have to want to build a base of donors because you think this is the best way to fulfill your mission, you look forward to maintaining these relationships, you want to belong to the community you serve and not to funders, and you see the inherent relationships between fundraising, organizing, education, and outreach.  You see individual donors as another part of your strategy to move your organizational agenda.  If the only reason you are seeking individuals is because other doors are closed, you will not succeed.  You may attract some individuals who you will then abandon once you have foundation money again.  

Building and maintaining a broad base of individual donors is a lot of work and it isn’t worth it unless those donors also are part of your larger vision.  So start there:  What kind of organization are you building?  What incomes streams make the most sense for your organization?  You could go from foundations to earned income, for example.  Or perhaps you should become a program of another organization rather than having to raise all your own money.  You probably have many more options than you realize, but it all starts with asking the right questions.  

~Kim Klein