In all my years of fund raising, both doing it and teaching it, every successful experience comes down to understand 5 fundamental truths or axioms. They are:

  1. People only give to people.
  2. People give to your future.
  3. People give to success.
  4. People get something from giving.
  5. People do not give unless they are asked.

Yes, they almost seem too simplistic to be profound. However, your understanding of these fundamentals of fund raising should shape your planning and strategies at every turn. I use them over and over: in developing strategies for a particular donor or a specific ask; in special event marketing or friend-raising, and; to shape underlying themes for grant proposals, fund raising letters and campaign case statements.

Here is what each one means:

People only give to people. Obviously, this does not mean that people do not give to animal or environmental causes. It only means that giving is a person to person enterprise. Fund raising is a relationship-oriented business. When done successfully, an organization uses its closest constituencies — board, past board, committee members, volunteers — and their relationships to reach out to new constituencies or prospects with which they have a connection.

People give to your future. Many nonprofit organizations and charities are steeped in a rich history, which bodes well for establishing credibility. But history is not what excites donors. They are interested in giving to your future, not to your past — much like an investor is interested in what their money will buy or earn going forward. This is why strategic planning is inextricably tied to successful fund raising.

People give to success. Supporters are further interested to give to success rather than distress. Whining about government budget cuts or a weak economy and their effect your resources has little appeal. Identifying a community problem that you have addressed successfully and outlining your future goals — to enhance the outcomes or tackle the next problem — does much more to excite someone to invest in your experience and success.

People get something from giving. You do not need to feel uncomfortable or like you are imposing on people when asking them for money. Presenters are inspired by what they catch from giving — whether a good feeling, a sincere desire to help others, to identify with a group they admire or for a tax benefit (yes, in fact, generally the tax break ranks last). You are not offending them or using a relationship inappropriately.

People do not give unless they are asked. Why do churches and religious institutions get so much of the philanthropic pie? Because they ask you to give, they ask often (weekly and sometimes more) and they create a habit of giving. Too often I hear of organizations that have long standing relationships with potential donors on their mailing lists, wondering why they have not supported the organization at all, or in a larger way. Often the simple answer is that they did not give because they were not asked. Speculating why Ms. Plenty bucks or Mr. Deep pockets has not chosen to support the program that he or she always talks about serves no purpose unless you have asked them in a way more involved than your annual fund appeal.

Remember these truths as you develop your fund raising plans and strategies. They will guide your nonprofit organization to more donor-centered thinking, improving your success in the future. Good luck!

Tom Dowdall is President of Unlimited Prospects, a fund raising and nonprofit management consulting firm he founded in Washington, DC in 1991. He has more than 20 years of experience in fund raising as a consultant, trainer, nonprofit executive and development director. Tom’s experience at the national, state and local level ranges from multi-million dollar capital campaigns to grassroots fund raising, special events and campaigns.

As a member of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives (now the Association of Fundraising Counsel), he has held its certification (Certified Fund Raising Executive) and served on the board of directors of the Washington, DC Chapter. Tom also served as Adjunct Faculty for George Washington University’s management certificate program in fund raising as well as for the Support Center of Washington, DC, serving national, state and local nonprofit organizations.


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