Dabbling in fundraising won’t get you there

by Christiana Stergiou

Organisations that take up fundraising in a casual, half-hearted or even superficial way, I call ‘dabblers’.

Definition of dabble: to take part in an activity in a superficial or casual way.

Recently, I’ve come across a number of dedicated people who care about their organisations but have no fundraising experience. They dabble. And that’s fine if you’re a local sports club or community group with small funding needs, or you only need a couple of dozen donors, or $25k a year.

But dabbling in fundraising only gets you so far. If you require significant, strategic revenue for your work, dabbling in fundraising will not get you to where you want or need to be. In fact, it may even hinder you.

Nonprofit organisations that dabble in fundraising are usually doomed to a vicious cycle of fundraising ineffectively, never having enough money to get ahead and urgently needing to try and raise more. Eventually the organisation that dabbles gets to a point where they have to make serious decisions. I think that in such a situation there are two options. Fundraise properly. Or don’t fundraise at all.

Why might you say no to fundraising?

  • Fundraising is not easy. There is a perception held by many organisations that don’t raise money from the public, or that ‘dabble’, that fundraising is the easy solution. It is not.
  • Fundraising is not free, nor is it very cheap. Effective fundraising costs money. It requires investment and often for the long term. It is not a quick fix. Normally, money that is invested now may not see any return for at least an entire year.
  • Fundraising can be scary. Effective fundraising strategies and tactics often require some level of risk, something to which boards and senior managers are usually averse. This is more the case for those who have relied on government funding for years on end. Now a change is terribly frightening.
  • Fundraising is not fair. If you don’t have a cause that appeals to the broad public, or perhaps to many people at all, you’ll find it even harder than most to fundraise. Although, that in itself is not a barrier to fundraising; even if you don’t have a ‘sexy’ cause, you might find that you have supporters that care strongly about what you do.

Here are just some of the options I think you could choose ahead of fundraising.

  • Get a loan from a benefactor or the bank. Have a business plan to pay it back.
  • If you’re running social businesses that are meant to make a profit and fund your charitable works, then make sure they are making the profit they should. Don’t fundraise to prop up unprofitable business activities.
  • Invest your money wisely and use the interest you achieve (sometimes doing this will show more of a return then spending the same money ‘dabbling’ in fundraising).
  • Don’t fundraise from the public. Spend more time and effort on your government grants and philanthropic trusts and foundations – these are two of the largest sources of income for the nonprofit sector. Work on becoming a sustainable organisation beyond these sources of funding. There are experts out there who specialise in this type of fundraising alone. This is often the most beneficial investment for organisations already dependent on such income.

Dabbling in fundraising is not a plan. In Mal Warwick’s The Five Strategies for Fundraising Success – the best book that I have read about fundraising planning – he argues that there are only five fundraising strategies: growth, involvement, visibility, efficiency and stability (GIVES). You can’t have a fundraising plan that does it all. You really need to choose only one or two of these and focus on them.

For example, right now, a few of the nonprofits I work with have a growth + involvement strategy. That is, their primary strategy is growth (lots more donors, giving lots more money), and a secondary strategy of involvement (more people involved in their cause and mission). The aim is that within five years they may be able to achieve a stability-driven plan (that they will one day know where most of the money they need is coming from each year).

Another important concept that Mal covers in his book is that of opportunity cost. This is the money you would have made if only you’d done things right. Dabbling in fundraising can result in you spending time on the wrong things and things that won’t lead to long-term sustainability. When considered carefully, opportunity cost may well drive you to outsource some areas of fundraising to established experts, such as those who specialise in grant funding or direct mail and concentrate your own efforts on ‘only doing what only you can do’.

If you want to fundraise, don’t dabble. Get serious about fundraising. Invest; plan for the long term. Plan for the day when your organisation knows, year after year, where most of your money will come from.

Now that would be a wonderful day.

This post was originally published on the www.sofii.org blog.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Lysh 30 June, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Good to see you blogging again Christiana.

Christiana Stergiou 1 July, 2011 at 10:40 am

Thanks, Lysh!

Dean 6 July, 2011 at 7:26 pm

As a fairly new consultant in this field I find it hard to convince”family” run charities or charities with minimum required trustees to follow clear funding strategies. They tend to be dabblers in the worst sense. No planning, crisis fundraising, non-reflective of their own ways of dong things. I would appreciate tips on how to overcome this problem.

Wendy Scaife 7 July, 2011 at 9:13 am

At this risk of sounding like a refugee from the 60s – Right on, Christiana! Completely agree with you and the importance of the message. A few of us are doing a session with some np CEOs soon and I will be quoting you :).

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