When it comes to nonprofit fundraising and grant writing, there are a million and one ways that you can chase your tail and end up with absolutely nothing. The internet is full of useless nonprofit fundraising ideas and tips that might sound interesting, but yield NADA at best and at worst, it costs you money that you don’t even have.
To be successful in pan-handling, sorry, I mean nonprofit fundraising, we first need to establish how thick your skin is and how smooth talking you are.
If you’re shy and “take no for an answer”; you’re not cut-out for this shameless task and should stop right here.
Nonprofit grant writing & sponsorship proposals
In order to understand nonprofit fundraising, we need to cover the methods and the venues for raising funds. The most common way for a nonprofit organization to get funding is through grants and sponsorships.
Sponsorships are either monetary or paid in goods / services whereas grants are almost monetary. What you need to understand is that getting real cash from the start is always harder than getting goods donated, but in my experience, you can make more money getting goods than getting cash out of people.
Before we jump into real fundraising, we have to address grants first. There are two kinds of grants that a nonprofit organization can apply for:
- Government Grants
- Private Foundation Grants
For government grants, whether State of Federal grants, you don’t to write grant proposals; they all have their own forms and requirements which you will follow. The best place to find available government grants is www.grants.gov which is an official US government website.
When it comes to applying for foundation grants, right off the bat, don’t pay for grant writers. A grant writer is someone who writes grant proposals on behalf of an organization and unless you’re utterly illiterate, you should do it yourself. If grant writers were all commission based, then you had nothing to lose and any money they got you would be money that you didn’t have before. But that’s usually not the case.
Grant writers generally charge hourly rates or per project basis, and it’s impossible to find a grant writer who will guarantee that you will get the grant. The biggest challenge is researching and finding the grant not writing the grant proposal, so instead of spending hundreds to thousands of dollars on shady no-good grant writers, write your own grant proposals, no one knows your organization better than you do.
Another thing to keep in mind is that sending a grant application without making contact first is just cold calling, so before you even consider applying for a grant, make sure that you make contact with the grant providing foundation first.
Write your grant proposals yourself; you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I have provided several grant writing book recommendations which should put you on the right track.
Nonprofit Fundraising Methods
When we talk about fundraising for a nonprofit organization, we’re talking about activities that are not carried-on on a daily basis, they are NOT the main source of income for the organization, and they are unique in nature. Fundraising and accepting regular donations on your website are two different animals.
You might think that getting any money is fundraising in any shape or form, but to the IRS it is NOT. Make sure to read my legal guide on fundraising and fundraising mistakes which could cost you your tax exemption status.
We already talked about grants, but grants are only a small portion of what you can do to raise funds for a nonprofit organization. There are several other types of nonprofit fundraising which we will cover here.
Generally, fundraising activities of a nonprofit organization can be summed up in three categories:
Online fundraising encompasses crowd funding, social media fundraising, e-Mail marketing and so on. This is a type of fundraising that every schmuck with a computer has tapped in to, and the pool is already saturated. You might have some luck but don’t expect consistent return on time and investment if at all.
Direct Mail Fundraising
Unless you’re targeting the people living in the last century, your money is best spent on virtually anything else. Gone are the days of direct mail marketing and mail fundraising, just look at the demise of Sears and Kmart to see where the mailing campaigns have gone.
Event fundraising is nonprofits’ best friend. Leaving another global pandemic aside, people give money to people they see, not the ones that have nice brochures. Event fundraising examples are holding banquets, sports events, motorcycle rides, and alike. Nonprofit event fundraising is what we’ll concentrate on in this article.
The following is the actual fundraising methodology which has served me well for decades in many different fundraisers:
Before you ask for money you have to pick the right donor
Over two decades ago, I was offered a job at a company called Fairfield Resorts. It was a timeshare company – you know – the kind that sell you the use of an imaginary real-estate and you think you got a really good deal. In my defense, I had just turned 21, I was utterly broke, and the idea of trawling shopping malls packed with pretty girls was a step up from working at a grocery store deli.
Timeshare companies back then had a system. They relied on foot-soldiers and closers to deliver. Foot-soldiers would setup boots in shopping malls, conventions, car shows… and would get the potential suckers to go to a timeshare presentation with promise of a dinner, boat ride, golf course passes, or just plain cash. Once the suckers were lured in, the closers would dazzle them with an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Now I was one of the most prolific salesmen for the company in North Carolina, but to be honest, every time I was at a presentation, I myself wanted to buy timeshare, these closers were that good. They sold feathers to Indians and ice to Eskimos by truck loads.
In Fairfield Resorts, you got paid commission based on your sucker signing a contract. Most of my coworkers tried to bring in rich people, but not me, I wanted the middle class. You know; the ones that actually worked their butts off and never got a real vacation, but could make the payment at least for three months (I wouldn’t get paid if they canceled in 90 days).
- For example, if I approached a couple who had two kids, the wife was a nurse and the husband a police officer, I already knew that their combined income was enough for them to afford the timeshare package, but not high enough to pass on it thinking that they can do better like the way the rich would.
Fundraising is the same, you have to pick the right donor, connect and make sure they can afford it. Just like my middle class couples, you have to go after the middle class businesses and foundations. That’s where the residual but plentiful money is.
You need to be shameless in fundraising
To be a successful fundraiser, you can’t be shy and you have to be absolutely shameless. People by nature are guarded against sales pitches and they will shut you down before you can get a word out. Just think of telemarketers calling your own home – you want to rip their heads off before they even say hello.
Nonprofit fundraising is the same, no matter how worthy your cause is, people won’t give you the time of day. I’ll be the first to tell you that you will hear NOs all the time. If you’re dissuaded easily, you’re not cut out for nonprofit fundraising.
Once I walked into a glass cutting and window manufacturing business to talk to the owner without knowing anything about who he was. The owner was with a client so I said don’t worry I’ll wait. He kept on looking me up and down and judging from the briefcase I was holding, he assumed (correctly) that I wanted to sell him something.
I waited patiently in a corner for a long time but he kept looking at me, and all of a sudden, in front of everyone, he said condescendingly, in loud voice: if you’re selling something or panhandling he wants none of that and I should leave.
So what do you do? I knew I couldn’t get anything out of this guy, but that was the first stop of the day and I wasn’t about to start my day being put down like that.
So I said “no, I’m not selling anything, how dare you treat customers like this! I’m buyer for X construction company wanting to order 200 double glazed windows, but I’m gonna take my business elsewhere” and stormed out!
He chased me for half a block apologizing profusely walking to my truck while me telling him what an asshole he was.
Moral of the story: don’t take crap from anyone even if they are right. Fundraising is hard as it is, so you need to have the upper hand at all times.
As a fundraiser, you have to relate to your potential donors
Start your conversation with something that has nothing to do with why you’re there. To be effective, you have to know who you’re talking to, and what their interests are. You really need to do your due diligence and dig up information about your potential donors. If cold calling is one of your fundraising ideas, I can assure you that it will get you nowhere.
Here’s another story: I wanted to approach a local store owner for donations and I knew she rode her bicycle to work. I did my digging and she was very passionate about environmental issues. So instead of driving my behemoth diesel truck, I showed up on a Schwinn in February, in Montana, with ice and snow on the ground.
I didn’t have to look for a conversation opener; she did it for me because we seemingly had something in common. She offered me some hot chocolate and the rest is history.
Connect with people on their own level not what you think is right.
When fundraising, get to the point fast & don’t beat around the bush
When you ask for donation of goods or cash for your fundraiser event, don’t irritate your potential donors; get to the point fast. Fundraising and dating are not that different. Make the connection and put them at ease, but get down to business immediately. They are either going to say yes or no, so don’t waste your time or theirs talking about trivial things.
If the answer is yes, collect on spot or make concrete arrangements for the donations right away. Don’t leave the transaction open ended as you’ll find that they will flake 9 out of 10 times if you don’t collect right away.
Rule number one of collection is: even if they throw their shoe at you in anger, you keep the shoe and make it into money.
Work in fundraising teams of no more than two people
For going door to door, (business doors that is) don’t take five other people with you. One person is more than enough and the maximum should be two, it doesn’t take an army to explain your cause and what you can do for them. You’re going to ask for money or product and showing up in groups will scare the hell out of them. This is no time for a show of force; you have to navigate the iron curtain with finesse.
Your board of director is useless
If you’re relying on your board of directors to help with fundraising, I’ll say it loud and clear; you’re delusional. Except the person who created the organization, every other board member is just there for the ride, to criticize you, to come up with idiotic fundraising ideas, and to pretty much put sticks in your wheels. This is pretty much universal with far and in between exceptions.
The very first thing you need to do is to form a fundraising committee, give them autonomous powers to do as they see fit and only report to the board quarterly. Formation of committees should be addressed in your nonprofit bylaws, and ideally these committee members should not be board members for obvious reasons.
Make sure that your fundraising committee is comprised of local people who can actually raise funds instead of sitting down and talking about it to no end. If you have to hire people so be it. And make sure your hired employees have the incentive to make money for the organization, i.e. they should be commission based with no base salary. 7-10 percent is a very generous commission and money well spent.
Don’t go after big grants or big donors
Fundraising and fishing are very similar. You can either go after trophy size fish and spend months and years trying to land a big one, or you can be content with smaller fish and actually eat.
Here are three facts:
- Big donors don’t care about small organizations.
- Big grants have hundreds if not thousands of applicants. And,
- Return on investment (your time) is much lower on big grants
The Long-tail method of nonprofit fundraising
In digital marketing where keywords are the currency, each keyword has a premium. The more valuable the keyword, the higher the cost per click is. And because of their face value, the competition is more fierce for main keywords.
To rank and attract potential customers for a top keyword, you have to pay an arm and a leg and deal with hundreds of competitors. But there are “key phrases” that are left alone by the top bunch that are just as valuable and convert just as well.
Let look at an example:
- If I were to advertise this very article on Google (which I’m not), the natural keyword representing this page would be “Nonprofit Fundraising.” Nonprofit Fundraising has an average of 2,900 searches per month and it would cost me roughly $9.40 per click to attract a potential visitor.
- However if I targeted “Nonprofit Fundraising Ideas” as the main keyword, it would only cost me $1.75 per click. Not even mentioning that “Nonprofit Fundraising Ideas” has an average of 4,400 searches per month. This is the long-tail keyword with higher potential, less investment, and less competition.
What does keywords have to do with nonprofit fundraising you may ask? What I’m getting at here is that you should not spend your money and time chasing unicorns that you may not land. Concentrate on smaller grants and donors that have very little competition but higher rewards.
To be very specific, don’t apply for a $50,000 grant from Wal-Mart that has several thousand applicants, apply for a $2,000 grant from a small foundation that no one has ever heard of. You have 50% chance of getting the small grant and 0% chance of getting the big grant. You can decide which one is to your benefit.
Don’t waste your time with foreign donations
No matter the cause, if you have an organization that conducts its activities in a foreign country, don’t waste your time reaching out to foreign donors. 10 out of 10 times, you won’t get anything out of them. Cliché or not, there are no people anywhere on the planet more generous and philanthropic than Americans.
Why do you think that every foreign NGO tries to establish itself in the US? Not because Americans are rich, it’s because they are very giving. Do your nonprofit fundraising domestically.
Your nonprofit needs legitimacy to raise funds
When you start a nonprofit organization, you have zero credibility and no one wants to give money to brand new organizations no matter what the cause is. You have to build credit and reputation for this new entity and the fastest and best way to do it is through other credible sources such as local TV stations, local radio programs, and local news paper. I keep saying local because you have to concentrate your effort in a small geographical area in the beginning.
The smaller the town, the higher your chances are at getting press exposure. Get yourself an interview with any of these mediums and make sure to get a copy of the exposure, such as a DVD if it was a TV interview. You can use these legitimate exposures to highlight your cause when you’re pitching your panhandling requests to potential donors.
You can include newspaper clipping or the DVD of your exposure along with your grant proposals or take them with you for in person solicitations for the fundraiser you’re planning. Without good press exposure you might not have a shot in hell.
If you can’t get interviews, at least send out a few press releases. No one ever reads press releases, even more so a press release from a nonprofit organization. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It’s still good exposure.
Don’t ask businesses for money, ask them for products and services
Small or even medium size businesses don’t have cash laying around to candy out to every person that walks in the door asking for a handout. What they do have is the product and services that they sell and it’s a thousand times easier getting them to donate their products or services for your fundraiser event than cold-hard cash.
If you walk into a store and ask for cash donation, they can very easily tell you that they don’t have any, but if you point to a toaster oven and ask for that to be donated, they will have a harder time turning you down.
All these non-monetary donations can be turned into cash easily at your next event fundraising auction and you might even net higher than the cost of the products themselves.
A profitable banquet for a nonprofit fundraiser
Having a lot of cute nonprofit fundraising ideas will hinder your judgment to actually throw a profitable fundraiser. To tell you the truth, most of fundraising ideas are just that; ideas that don’t raise anything at all.
Banquets and dinner fundraisers on the other hand are the most profitable fundraising events that an organization can hold, and if you play your cards right it should cost you next to nothing except your time.
Without further ado, let’s jump right into the art of getting free stuff to turn into cash for your organization.
Reading the following, you should keep two important nonprofit fundraising rules in mind:
You have no money and the only currency you have at your disposal is your credibility, and the ability to give exposure to these brands and businesses through your fundraiser event. Promise them the heaven above if you have to, but not a single cent.
Selling fundraiser event tickets is not necessarily your goal. It is your goal when you’re selling tables to businesses for the event, but you should also give away tickets for smaller businesses to get them to donate products for your auctions and actually attend the event. You can hit them later for more donations through auctions and raffles.
You can see where the dilemma begins; you can’t give away tickets that cost you money. This is where you learns how to organize an almost free event where you can candy out tickets like there’s no tomorrow.
A successful nonprofit banquet fundraiser needs three main elements:
- Dinner, drinks, and entertainment
- Attendees, these are your potential donors
- Auction items
You cannot have one without the other two or you can’t raise anything.
Sell tables for your fundraising events, don’t sell individual tickets
When you organize a fundraising event, don’t go after small businesses, this is where you need to go big. Small businesses don’t have the cash flow or enough employees to benefit your event. This is the only time that you should go after the big fish to pay for the small minnows.
Sell a complete table or two or three tables to a medium / large company, and they almost always give the tickets to their employees to attend your fundraiser event. Don’t expect their CEO to show up but you shouldn’t care about that, you want the minnows at your event. These are the people that didn’t have to spend any money to get to your event and have some cash to blow on your auction items.
Hold silent or live auctions at your fundraiser banquet
You can come up with all kinds of fundraising ideas for your event and you should, but one of the most effective tools of fundraising is holding a silent or live auction. This is where you can liquidate all the products that you’ve been gathering and turn them into cash to be added to the general fund of the organization.
For live auctions you need an auctioneer who will engage attendees and encourages potential donors to bid on items. Silent auctions, as the name suggests don’t require an auctioneer and people will write their bids on a piece of paper or do the bidding on their phones (there are multitude of apps out there to help you with this).
Digital bid taking sometimes works better than live auctions as you can setup a projector screen to show all the items, current bids and let people do their thing.
Whether it’s appropriate to use high tech means or paper and pens for your fundraiser silent auctions depends on the age and the demographic of your attendees. You know your local community better than anyone else, use that knowledge.
Quantity of donors vs. Quality of donors
Nonprofit fundraising is more about quantity, and not always about quality. You might be rolling your eyes and thinking how on earth is it possible to get more money out 50 average donors rather than 5 super wealthy donors. Well, it is what it is.
When you have fundraiser auctions, you need people. Even if the attendees are all average income individuals, you have a much better chance of selling average items to average people than selling average items to people who don’t need them.
You can’t sell an Applebee’s gift card worth $50 to a guy that makes two million dollars a year, but I personally would bid on that gift card because:
- I’m not a millionaire; and
- I have three kids who would appreciate a mediocre dinner without complaining one bit.
Remember that you’re collecting your auction items from small local businesses and unless you have been given high ticket items, attendance of super wealthy individuals won’t do you any good to raise the bar.
The venue for the fundraiser banquet
You have to get the fundraiser venue donated as this is probably the most expensive cost of any banquet beside food. You shouldn’t go around private venues and asking for a free night; they will never do it. A venue owner makes his money renting the place and they get asked all the time for free nights so don’t waste your time.
You should go beg the city, fairgrounds, public parks, public libraries, other local nonprofits, churches, ranches and farms, or any other community supported location that you can think of. If you are persistent enough, I promise you that you’ll get the venue through your own community contacts for free or at least for a small fee.
Every fundraising banquet needs great food & you should get it for free
In order to successfully raise funds at your event, you need two simple elements. You need to feed the potential donors with good food and get them drunk on cheap alcohol. Don’t do it the other way around. Whatever you do, don’t serve bad food as you’ll lose your donors for the next event, no matter how worthy your cause is.
First of all, you should get all the food and drinks donated for the event. This is not an option, this is a must. You should start talking to your local restaurants and local food suppliers. Talk to restaurant owners that you frequently dine-in and get them to at least donate their time to prepare the food for you. Hammer the cause and back up your claims with how big of an impact they can make. (Forget about restaurant chains, they won’t do it so don’t waste your time.)
In return as always like any other business solicitation, give them exposure at your event, a banner, their logo on everything… you get the idea.
They may help you with the ingredients as well by talking to their suppliers as they have an ongoing business relationship with them.
I already said that getting the food and beverages donated is an absolute must. The reason aside from saving money on these items is that you can give away event tickets that include dinner and drinks to other businesses to sweeten the deal when it doesn’t cost you anything.
This is extremely important. You CANNOT give away free tickets when it costs you money, but when it costs you nothing, these free tickets will bring in more people that you can capitalize on for donations and your auction items.
Soft Drinks for the Fundraiser Banquet
Hit Pepsi or Coke to sponsor the soft drink for your event. You have a cause, they have the drinks, and you have to make it work.
Don’t ask for bottles or cans; ask for a soda machine for the event. When you ask for 50 cases of Coke, the guy will calculate in his head in a split second the approximate cost right away, but when you ask for a soda machine, he doesn’t calculate the syrup, the water, CO2, … not knowing the amount that would be used. Don’t make it easy for your donors to tell you NO.
Be persuasive and they’ll set you up with everything including cups, chairs, tables, and outdoor umbrellas if you ask nicely.
Don’t contact the headquarters of Pepsi or Coke; you need to find the local representative or distributor in your own community to do this. Most of the time, these local distributors have beer and wine in their inventory as well so ask for that too, even if you already have it taken care of from another place.
Alcoholic Drinks for the Fundraiser Banquet
Same as food, get the alcohol donated as well, talk to your breweries, wineries, and drink providers in your local area. Get them to donate some good and mediocre bottles of wine and beer.
Keep the expensive bottles for auctioning off and serve the cheap ones to get your audience relaxed enough but not drunk.
Live Music for the Fundraiser Banquet
Find small bands in your area and contact them to play at your charity event. If they are small enough and have no gig that day, they’ll most likely say yes. Even the bigger bands usually do it because of the exposure. Don’t pay for the music, get it donated.
Another benefit that comes from getting a band to play for free at your event is that they’ll bring all the sound and lighting equipment which you can use for your auction without having to rent those as well. You hit two birds with one stone.
Get your printing for the fundraising event donated
If you pay a cent for printing posters and flyers for your event, you paid too much. Start by going to your local (small) print shops and ask them to sponsor your event. Talk about your cause, the benefits they get out of the exposure and sell them the idea. They’ll usually do all the printing for you in exchange for their logo on the materials.
Remember, you’re reaching out to local businesses that are normally not solicited for anything, let alone for a fundraiser event. This is new for them and they don’t have their guards up like everyone else.
Raffle games for the fundraising banquets
One fun and profitable way for a fundraiser is to tap into gambling. Nonprofit organizations are allowed to hold gambling events to certain extent and 50/50 raffle games are a great way to raise funds.
This is how a 50/50 raffle game works and how you can make it even better:
You sell double-stub raffle tickets to your audience for let’s say $5 each. Each stub goes into a pot and at the end of the evening you do a drawing. The winner takes 50 percent of the pot and the other 50% goes to the organization.
But the game doesn’t stop there. You bring the winner right in front of everyone and congratulate him/her. Then you will ask the person if he would like to donate his winning to the cause! (To save sick babies for example, paint a graphic picture of your own.) In 20 some odd years, I’ve never seen one person saying no this request.
You can even go further and ask the audience if someone would match the donation amount if the winner donates his winning to the organization. It always works and you just doubled your money.
Remember the audience is there to help you raise funds, not to gamble. One word of caution; Fundraising gambling has certain rules and regulations so please read up on IRS compliance on 501c3 organizations conducting gaming and gambling.
Can you get everything donated for your fundraising event?
I’m sure you think it’s impossible to get everything donated for your fundraiser event, but to the contrary it is very possible to get almost everything including table cloths, napkins, sound equipment, lighting,… donated for the event, and all the works should be done by your volunteers from start to finish. You have to play your cards right and have faith in yourself and your cause.
The more fundraisers you throw the better you get at it, and it will become a fun challenge to see how much you can push yourself to do it even better next time.
Attend nonprofit banquets and fundraising events
You can’t learn to be a master if you don’t study your craft. In this article you got a sense of what nonprofit fundraising event should look like, but the best place to learn more about it is to actually attend successful fundraising events. For example, Ducks Unlimited, arguably the world’s leading wetland and waterfowl conservation organization has made nonprofit fundraising and specifically event fundraising a masterclass.
Regardless of whether you like ducks or not, I would highly recommend attending one of their fundraising dinners (they hold an event in almost every city) and take notes on how smoothly they demonstrate all the points I mentioned above. Not only they succeed in face to face fundraising, they are also very efficient in online fundraising because of the human-level connections they make at every event.
When it comes to nonprofit fundraising ideas, forget about what everybody else is doing. You have to blaze your own ideas, and the best way to raise funds for your cause even with all the technological advances and online tools is still face-to-face local solicitation from your donors.
Sure, door to door community pan-handling is time consuming, but the rewards are still much higher than any other form of fundraising. Just look at political campaigns for the crooked politicians; all these wolves can’t be wrong!
After all, you have to have a human element to raise funds for a human-driven cause, and hiding behind online fundraising tools simply makes your donors shy away. Online fundraising has its place but use it in conjunction with traditional proven fundraisers.
To sum it up, fundraising is hard when you don’t have the passion for the cause or don’t have the guts to ask for things you may think are impossible. Find the right donors, be persuasive, stay local, have the facts to back up your claims for your cause, and use all your resources to get what you’re after. The funds will follow, I promise you that.
- Nonprofit Articles of Incorporation,
- Nonprofit Bylaws,
- Nonprofit Conflict of Interest Policy,
- Conflict of Interest Policy Acknowledgment,
- Form 1023 Attachment with all the answers,
- Form 1023 Expedite Letter template,
- and Donor Contribution Form
in Microsoft Word Document format, please consider making a donation and you’ll get to download them immediately. Not only they're worth well over $1000 in value, they will save you weeks of copy pasting and formatting as they are ready to go templates which only need changing names and addresses.
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