Jul 23, 2019

Running (and winning) the marathon of nonprofit fundraising

fundraising marathon

Securing donations for a nonprofit organization often feels like a race against time. It can be difficult to step back and look at the bigger picture when you’re knee-deep in paperwork and profiles of potential donors. You may be tempted to fixate on the next event on the horizon as the one that will turn things around and get the contributions rolling in.

You might think that maybe this next silent auction or volley of grant proposals will be a hit with donors, and pour all your energy into making these strategies succeed. While this type of focus on short-term goals can serve you well at crunch time, it shouldn’t distract from the bigger picture. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint,” and that approach is central to effective fundraising.

Why nonprofit fundraising is a marathon

why nonprofit fundraising is a marathon infographic

In the world of tech startups, sprints are a part of the agile management framework. Software developers work in short bursts to complete a set amount of work within a limited time frame. It was developed as a means to speed up the movement of software through the pipeline from prototype to finished product, and many companies still swear by it.

Sprinting as a work model is similar to sprinting in a race. You explode from the starting line and give it your all until you cross the finish and move on to the next race. The goal is to go farther, faster ⁠— and it’s an immense energy expenditure by necessity. That model simply doesn’t work when it comes to fundraising, and here are three reasons why:

1. You need a steady donor stream

Your organization’s donors are not resources you can take for granted. If you’re fundraising in sprints without interacting with donors in between, you assume that the prospects you have engaged in your most recent event will stick around. The fact is that your donor list is always going to be in flux.

People may move or change their priorities, and that will cause inconsistencies in your fundraising efforts if you don’t continually replenish your donor list.

2. You’re working with people, not products

A piece of software will not be annoyed when you drop it and move on to your next sprint. Donors, however, do not take kindly to being dropped after a major fundraising effort is over. Sprints leave no room for cultivating relationships with prospects and donors. Relationship-building is something that can only happen over the long term.

3. You need to educate your donors

Turning prospects into donors and keeping donors giving to your cause requires some conditioning on your part. People don’t always understand how their contributions impact the work your organization does, and it takes frequent communication to drive that impact home.

Think of it this way — would you rather receive acknowledgment through a yearly, 1,000-word letter or be notified about your impact in a series of shorter, more engaging messages throughout the year? Communication is an area where it’s clear that consistency is key.

Pitfalls of sprint-based fundraising

pitfalls of sprint-based fundraising list

So, why take measures to avoid sprint-based fundraising? What’s really the worst that can happen? Taking this approach can seriously limit your ability to meet your organization’s fundraising goals in several ways. These three consequences are a sampling of how:

1. Losing sight of metrics

Digging into metrics is one of the most important things you can do to track your fundraising’s efficacy over time. Figures like your donor growth and retention as well as cost per dollar raised will be instrumental in determining what works and what doesn’t. Sprint-based fundraising tends to limit your focus to whatever’s directly ahead, making it harder to fit metrics into the big picture.

2. Losing repeat donors

Your donor retention rate is one of the best indicators of how well you’re doing your job. If you’re finding that donors seem to be dropping off your list at a greater rate than normal, a sprint-based approach may be to blame. Consider slowing down and paying closer attention to details when it comes to communication, and you will see the positive results in your retention metrics.

3. Bigger, badder burnout

Burnout happens. In the nonprofit world, it’s especially challenging to avoid. Sprint-based fundraising sees you expending concentrated bursts of energy with little time to rest in between. If you’re putting in all your energy and don’t see the results you expected, you’ll be much more susceptible to burnout than if you take a more consistent marathon approach.

How to win the marathon of event fundraising

how to win the marathon of event fundraising infographic

To stay in the marathon for the long haul, you need nonprofit fundraising strategies that will help steadily grow contributions to your organization. These seven tips will help put into perspective what it means to treat fundraising as a marathon.

1. Focus on relationships

Relationships are the core of any fundraising effort. Without the perception of a relationship with your organization, you’re not going to get very far. Donors want a sense of connection, and it takes time to build up that rapport. Marathon fundraising requires that donors view their gifts as part of an ongoing relationship, not just a one-time business transaction.

Make it a point to fit at least 12 touch points per year into your communications calendar, so there is a steady stream of impactful information that will engage without overwhelming.

2. Make every contact count

Sprint-based fundraising is usually geared toward finding as many prospects as possible and hoping the quantity makes up for the lack of quality. In marathon-style fundraising, it’s all about making sure each contact is a suitable prospect.

Prospects need to have an emotional connection with your organization’s work, be able to contribute financially and be reachable through various contact methods. Referrals from current donors make some of the best prospects for cultivation. Putting more time and energy toward the most suitable donor prospects will help you avoid wasting time cultivating prospects that will never pan out.

3. Set goals for every event

Setting goals for fundraising events is an ideal way to use metrics to your advantage. Goals like attracting a certain number of attendees or sign-ups for your newsletter help you determine which events make donors the most likely to contribute. This information is crucial in your future decision-making.

The difficult thing about tracking goals for each event is simply keeping track of everything. A robust event management software can streamline the way you set up and track events by taking care of things like donor receipts and silent auction bid sheets. These and other features can free you to do the important work of setting goals and seeing how you can better measure up.

4. Develop strong value propositions

No one will give to your cause if they don’t understand it. Creating informative and engaging value propositions for prospective donors is a cornerstone of successful marathon fundraising. Donors want to know exactly what you do and how their contribution helps you do it. Messaging needs to be clear and to the point, and it helps if you can tug on some heartstrings in the process.

It can take time to figure out how best to demonstrate the impact of your organization, but the time spent will greatly increase your retention in the long run.

5. Get your board involved

People may dive into a nonprofit board thinking that fundraising is only a minimal part of their role. It’s sometimes challenging to convince board members to participate, as they may feel that they are being asked to solicit money from the same people over and over again. Rather than demand board members make asks, you can encourage involvement by requesting their participation in non-ask events.

Reassure your board by letting them know that all they have to do is make the introduction, and you will take it from there without making an ask during the first or second interaction. This approach will allow you to earn introductions rather than demand them, slowly growing your portfolio of prospects over time.

6. Reach out to lapsed donors

While there are many reasons donors may stop their contributions, one of the leading causes is that they feel disengaged. Lapsed donors actually make good prospects for your organization, as they’ve already proven in the past that they care enough to contribute. The bottom line is that you don’t know why they’ve stopped giving until you ask.

Schedule time to work on reactivating lapsed donors. Those who gave major or mid-level gifts deserve a face-to-face meeting or at the very least a phone call. It’s a good idea to work on reactivating lapsed donors at least quarterly. Depending on the size of your organization, trying to finish that race with a sprint may be more than you and your staff can handle.

7. Pay attention to details

Donors don’t want to be treated like faceless cogs in a machine. Their contributions come from a place of compassion, and they want to be acknowledged for this promptly and frequently. Every donor who contributes should receive a thank you note when you get their payment, and recognition of their impact at regular intervals.

Sending personalized notes to mid-level and major donors is an excellent way to show how donating to your organization is a win-win. It’s hard to underestimate the potential impact of individualized attention.

Avoiding burnout: strategies for staying in the race

strategies to avoid fundraising burnout infographic

Even when you pace yourself and conserve your energy for the long haul, there is a danger of getting burnt out on fundraising. It won’t happen as quickly or spectacularly as it does with sprint-based fundraising, but you should still have strategies in place to minimize your chances of experiencing burnout. These five tips will help you finish your fundraising marathon strong.

1. Use your time off

This is a tough one for fundraisers. You may be tempted to work 12-hour days and forego your paid time off in the name of finally finishing what you’re working on, but this sprint tactic has no place in the fundraising marathon. Taking a couple of days off after arranging a significant fundraising event like a gala or festival can be instrumental in helping you recharge for the next leg of the marathon.

2. Avoid isolation

There’s a delicate balance between needing alone time and withdrawing into social isolation. As a fundraiser, you spend much of your day making phone calls and facilitating meetings. It’s understandable to need quiet time alone, but if you find that instead of relaxing, you’re just stewing in stress, it’s time to phone a friend and get some healthy social interaction beyond work.

3. Connect with the cause

Being swamped by paperwork in the office can really remove you from the whole reason you became a fundraiser — helping your organization’s cause. When you start to feel disconnected from your work, one of the best remedies is to get out in the field and see examples of your organization’s impact on real people.

4. Learn something new

If you’re one of those hardworking people who truly struggle with doing much outside of work, you can still get out of a rut by adding some new elements to work. Taking a seminar or participating in a workshop for fundraisers can give you a new perspective on your work as well as provide you with new tools to increase your effectiveness on the job.

5. Seek out support

It’s okay to let your boss and peers know you need a little more support. When you feel like the well of ideas and motivation is running dry, ask your supervisor if they have any helpful tips to beat the burnout. If you’re at the top of the chain of command, try to seek out a mentor with more experience than you have. They are likely to have insights that you can use to walk back from the brink of burnout.

How online donation software can help you cross the finish line

Keeping organized and on-track with fundraising events doesn’t have to consume all your time and energy. Online donation software has the power to automate many of the tasks that take away from time spent cultivating relationships. GiveSmart is proud to offer the most fully-featured fundraising event management platform on the market.

With GiveSmart, you can perform a variety of online donation functions with incomparable ease. Manage items in silent and live auctions, assign seating and register donors, sponsors and table purchasers with just a few clicks.

GiveSmart allows you to take the tedious work out of receipts and thank you letters by automatically generating them for you, potentially saving you and your team hours on each fundraising event. GiveSmart also offers access to powerful data reporting that gives you up-to-the-minute info on the success of each event.

If you’re ready to bring your fundraising efforts into the future, GiveSmart is ready to help. With three tiers of service package, we can meet the needs of virtually any type of organization. To see how GiveSmart can reinvigorate your fundraising efforts, we invite you to register for a live demonstration.


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What our clients say

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The Rotary Club of South Whidbey Island

Using GS has created ease in auction bookkeeping, payments, and generating post-event thank you/tax letters. While we were online during COVID, our interactions with our GiveSmart via phone, email, and zoom were seamless. A representative always got back to us within the day. I would recommend GiveSmart to anyone doing a large online event.

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MicroFinancing Partners in Africa

GiveSmart is highly flexible - you can use it for [a] simple registration and check-in, to full-scale galas with complex order forms, onsite upsells, live auctions, seating management, and more.

Jamie F.

Hope Chest for Breast Cancer

GiveSmart is easy to use and ideal for virtual events and can be used for in-person events to manage the silent auction, seating charts, and check-in to the event. Being able to use the platform for unlimited events within the contract year is very useful and being able to add other users and volunteers for different levels of access is helpful as well.

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Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County