Everything I Know About Fundraising

In 1980, a few weeks after Ronald Reagan was elected President, I answered a classified ad in the Portland Oregonian. The first word was ACTIVIST. I can’t remember the rest of the ad, but the main idea was that I would get paid to work for social justice. I was adrift and anxious about the future, and this seemed to me a small, tangible miracle.

The next day I was sitting on a cracked vinyl sofa, waiting for my interview. The linoleum was streaked with dirt, and a pile of dead office machines (remember mimeographs?) rusted quietly in the corner, but the atmosphere was electric. Phones rang, people ran in and out with picket signs, a typewriter (remember typewriters?) chattered in the back room, and I overheard an argument in which the word “tactics” played a big role. I didn’t know what was going on, but I wanted in.

That night I started knocking on doors, asking strangers for money to fight the utility company. I was – surprise! – a fundraiser. By the time I left Oregon Fair Share in 1983, I had canvassed thousands of homes and given my pitch 10,000 times. I received lots of training in community organizing and tactical research, but my door-to-door experience – talking with people about a better world and asking them to help pay for it – was the most compelling, frustrating, and empowering part of the job.

Almost every day, I am reminded of lessons learned while canvassing. As you go forward with your fundraising program – writing proposals, designing direct mail appeals, meeting with major donors, etc. – keep these points in mind.

Don’t waste your time on lost causes.

Our crew leaders had a favorite expression: “Canvass with your feet, not your mouth.” Rather than waste time talking with marginal prospects, I was encouraged to make a quick evaluation, offer a polite “Thanks for your time,” and move on to the next house.

All successful fundraising is based on targeting. Spend the most time, effort, and money on your best prospects.

You want a dialogue, not a monologue.

Our canvass “raps” included periodic questions: “Are you concerned about these issues?” “What have you heard about our work?” “How would you like to be involved?” If the prospect responded with a blank stare or an unenthusiastic answer, it was time to head for the next door.

This lesson has important implications for all face-to-face fundraising, especially asking for major gifts. Many novice solicitors are so focused on the needs of the organization, they forget about the needs and interests of the donor. To be an effective fundraiser, you must be a good listener.

Craft the pitch to meet the needs of the individual.

I always mentioned two or three current issues to see if any touched a live wire. If I got a bigger response on utility rates than community reinvestment (“Am I concerned about utility rates? Look at this,” one man said, displaying shut-off notices from the electric, gas, and water companies), then I talked about our efforts to reform the public utilities commission.

If you don’t identify and promote the right “product” for each individual, you won’t get the sale (donation).

Tell the truth.

It’s hard work finding the right people, figuring out what each one specifically wants, and providing it. You might get frustrated. And when you’re frustrated, it’s easy to stretch the truth by embellishing your organization’s track record or promising extra benefits to the prospective donor.

After knocking on 40 doors – an average night’s work – I was often tempted to say the first thing that came into my head. To edit myself, I tried to remember that someone – maybe me – would be knocking on that same door in a year.  We had to be accountable to that particular individual.

When you stretch the truth, it has a way of wrapping itself around your neck. Never promise more than you can deliver.

The stronger the relationship, the larger the gift.

As the old cliché goes, “People give money to people, not organizations.” My favorite canvassing moments came while visiting members I had signed up during a previous circuit through the neighborhood. These people often remembered my name, invited me in, “wined and dined” me, and renewed their membership for higher amounts.

This is the power of fundraising: people give you their money freely, then thank you for doing good things with it. Their trust is strengthened as they get to know you, and your organization, on a personal basis.

Hermits need not apply.

I trained a few well-meaning folks who had the right politics for the job, but were basically loners. They lasted a few days, then quit. No surprise; canvassing, like all fundraising, is about people.

If you don’t like people, fundraising is the wrong line of work. However, if you genuinely enjoy other human beings, you’ve passed the first and most important test of a successful fundraiser.

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Jeff Anderson, of Oregon Community Foundation, says, “Don’t apply for a foundation grant unless you’re truly ready for the scrutiny of outsiders, regarding everything from your office’s appearance to the documentation of your organization’s impact to the accuracy of your accounting.”

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