Many in the world of nonprofit fundraising come into their role with little to no formal knowledge or training of fundraising itself. We are there to serve the organization because we are passionate about the cause we are supporting, but may be unprepared to navigate the world of donor cultivation, grant writing, email marketing, and so much more that comes as a part of “the package” in most fundraising roles.
This can be overwhelming, and, let’s be honest, a little scary! If not acknowledged and addressed, this overwhelm can turn into paralysis. So in today’s blog, I want to help you break through some of the common fears and unhelpful thoughts that creep up around fundraising for all of us from time to time. When you address these thoughts head-on, you can find fundraising confidence and clarity so that you can more effectively do your job and position your organization for success.
So let’s dive right in to address the narratives in our heads that are holding us back. We’ll look at six different fundraising mindset myths. For each, I offer a strategy or quote to help you reframe your focus into a more helpful, healthy, and productive mindset.
I am not professionally trained or educated in fundraising… so I’m never going to be a good fundraiser (or Development Director, Executive Director, Board Member, etc!)
While education is great and it’s important to understand the mechanics of successful fundraising strategies and systems, I can’t understate the importance of learning by doing in the world of fundraising. As someone who was formally educated in nonprofit management at the graduate level, I can attest that I have learned just as much (if not more) from on-the-job experiences than I did in a formal classroom setting.
Lifelong (and career-long) learning is something that I find very important in my own life. So, yes, seek out educational opportunities where you can! Even if it is just selecting a book per month related to what you are trying to learn about, that can go a long way in building your knowledge of (and confidence in) your fundraising skills. But if you need to dive deeper, I’ve got a few other ideas, too.
Whether it is your boss, a colleague, or someone you simply seek out on LinkedIn or through a community group you belong to, find someone willing to help you learn and grow in your career. If they are someone whose opinion and experience you value, they will be a great source of education and support as you navigate your fundraising career.
Free and low-cost learning opportunities abound in fundraising and nonprofit management. Google your local nonprofit training center – almost every major city has one. Look up your local Association of Fundraising Professionals chapter. Or look online for the many nonprofit conferences, blogs, Facebook groups, and more that exist. (Shameless plug: If you aren’t already, you can sign up for the Banyan Bulletin here! Every two weeks I share a round-up of the most practical & to-the-point fundraising and communications content I’ve found – from me and other trusted sources around the web. If I do say so myself, it is a GREAT source of free fundraising education…)
Sign up for the fundraising emails, letters, etc of other nonprofits that you admire the work of. Sign up for nonprofit education email lists. And then as these come across your desk – read and study them! Note what you like and what you didn’t. Google anything that piqued your interest to understand why it might have been done that way. The goal here is to just get a lot of content to learn from in front of you regularly – and then to be curious about it! If you want to read a few past fundraising case studies Banyan has done, you can find one on digital fundraising here and one on grassroots social media fundraising here.
Fundraising makes me uncomfortable. I don’t think I have “it” in me.
Almost every fundraiser I know still gets a little jittery when making an ask or appeal for support. Nerves before these difficult conversations simply mean you care about what you are doing. So chalk it up to being a human and sit with the feelings, but don’t let them take up too much of your time or energy!
To combat these nerves, it can be helpful to take away some of the pressure from the conversations and interactions you’re having. Bring it back to basics — don’t think of it as “fundraising”, think of it as simply getting to know people and learning more about their values and the issues they care about in their community. You can find a helpful guide on how to jump into “major” giving without making it too complicated or intimidating here.
Anytime I am feeling uncomfortable or self-conscious about my role as a fundraiser, I think back to this quote:
Fundraising is the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving. – Hank Rosso
Who doesn’t want to have the opportunity to teach others about the joy that comes with giving to our communities?
Focus on the good – the transformative feelings – you are offering to and making possible for the donor. With this perspective, those feelings of discomfort tend to feel more purposeful and less consuming.
I am not experienced enough. I look at all these other Development Directors and am intimidated. I need way more confidence/coaching/training before I am ready to make big fundraising asks!
This is one I have always struggled with. No matter how well I may do or how many things can go right, it is easy to slip into the feeling that everyone else is in some way better, faster or smarter than you.
But the truth is, at its core fundraising is about building relationships, caring about others, and listening. If you are in the role you are in, I would bet these three skills are ones you already have in spades. So start there and remind yourself of your strengths in these areas, so that you can build the confidence to go out there and get some real-world experience! Because as you’ll see in my reframe strategy below…
Fundraising is best learned by doing. And the only way to get more experience? To go out there and get your feet wet and try it!
Whenever I was feeling like I was not “experienced enough” in certain roles or situations, I would repeat to myself the following:
“No matter what, after this ask, I will be a better fundraiser.”
“No matter what, after this grant application, I will be a better grant writer.”
No matter what, after this ________, I will be a better ______.
Because the only way you will get better is by putting yourself in the position to try. And learning from what does (and doesn’t!) go well.
I will bet that, at the end of the day, you would rather try and maybe not achieve perfection on the first go-round, than not try at all and GUARANTEE you won’t reach your goal.
Faith in yourself is key here! So I’ll offer this quote to help you remind yourself of the faith you need to keep to fundraise confidently:
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Think of each ask as a step on the staircase. You’ll only get better (and closer to your goal) with each step you take.
I don’t want to waste my donors’ time! I hate bugging them. Not to mention, I sound like a broken record!
This one is so hard and something I definitely struggled with in my nonprofit roles. You feel passionate about the cause you’re asking for support for, but no one ever wants to feel like a burden or a nuisance.
But here’s the difficult (or maybe really simple?) truth:
You must give your donors the opportunity to engage for them to support you.
In order to get their donation… 99 times out of 100, you must ASK.
So that means, some of the time you may feel like a broken record. You may feel like an annoyance.
But just remember that every time a potential donor opens an email, shares a post, or attends an event, they are showing you what they’re interested in supporting and how they’re interested in engaging. Use that to help build the relationship and open doors to your mission for them.
And when the time feels right, give them the opportunity to support your work by asking for their support.
This quote is a popular one in the world of marketing, but I think it fits just as well here in the world of fundraising and philanthropy:
“Give the people you serve the opportunity to express their values by buying what you have to offer.” – Michael Port
Nowhere do people express their values more than in the charitable gifts they give.
Allow yourself to be the vehicle that helps them express those values by asking for their support!
I feel like get so many “NOs”… that is literal PROOF I am not a good fundraiser!
Half the time, the no’s you get are really “not yets”.
And the other half?
In what other area of your life do you expect yourself to be 100% perfect every day?
We all have days where we may not eat super healthfully; we may not be at our most productive; we may not remember a loved one’s birthday until Facebook notifies us. 100% perfection isn’t sustainable and shouldn’t be the goal. You only progress with practice, and with practice comes some slip-ups.
Another way I always love to reframe the idea of failure is to think of any “fail” as an opportunity for data acquisition. And collecting data is exactly what you’re going to do to reframe this unhelpful thought!
Create a word doc, a note on your phone, or use a mini hardcover notebook for jotting down lessons learned. Every time you get a “no” in a fundraising setting, take some time to answer these three questions:
What can you learn from it for the next ask you make?
What do you need to shift, change, or update? (The answer here may very well be that the donor is not interested in your cause and you are going to connect them to another community organization that better fits their interests!)
List as many things as you can think of!
Psst: this even works for less concrete fundraising tasks. Have a social media post that floundered? A grant application got denied? Struggling with a volunteer program? Any of these issues can benefit from working through what is and isn’t working – and reminding yourself what you are doing right!
I am not doubling or tripling my fundraising year over year, so I am not successful.
We’re never going to grow at this rate.
Here’s the thing. While huge improvements in fundraising may be great (and can be doable in certain scenarios!) the best, most sustainable growth is the growth that may very well be slow and steady. In all of my roles, a 10 – 20% increase in funds raised year over year was often our organizational goal. This felt doable but like we were still making progress.
To address this concern internally, it’s vital you understand precisely what you are fundraising for. What will the funds go toward? Make it as concrete and as mission-oriented in your mind as possible. When you have that idea securely in your mind, the amount raised will not only feel more plausible, but it will feel more worthy of your time, effort, and – let’s face it – stress. Because you’ll be able to lean on the clear shift in your impact that raising these funds will make possible in your organization when things aren’t going as well as you hoped.
In his excellent book Atomic Habits, James Clear (very successfully) argues that achieving lasting, impactful change doesn’t require HUGE shifts in your routines – it requires small, consistent actions. He talks about the importance of focusing on 1% improvement in making changes that last and the snowball effect that a 1% change can have on the big picture of your life or work. This applies directly to fundraising!
Rather than focusing on “how on earth am I going to raise 20% more this year than I did last year?”, I challenge you to focus on “how can I do 1% better at fundraising each day (or week)?” This could mean committing to reach out to 1 donor at the end of each day to share an update with them about the organization.
I guarantee you, by the end of the year, all of these reach outs and individual attention will snowball into much more willing and engaged supporters ready to give to your organization than if you spend your time stressing about the big picture or attempting to raise all of the additional funds purely from your gala revenue (sorry, galas… but sometimes you need to be picked on).
If you are someone who sees any improvements you make or successes you have as “not enough” I highly recommend giving Clear’s book a read. It will help you shift your focus from “end goals” that are often unsustainable and/or unrealistic to systems you can put in place that will inevitably lead to great improvement in your work and that put the focus on the actions you can complete that you know will pay dividends in the long run. If you’d like a sneak peek, I have a write-up on Atomic Habits and two other excellent non-fundraising books I think all nonprofit professionals should read here!
So there you have it. Six of the toughest mindset challenges every nonprofit fundraiser deals with in their career, and the strategies that have helped me address them in my own work, too.
Which mindset myth do you suffer from the most?
Have you developed any strategies for pushing past it?
I’d love to hear from you!
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