How often have you heard someone say “I hate fundraising; I’ll do anything else,” or something along those lines?
Every time I hear this, my response is to get curious. “What makes you say this? How does fundraising make you feel?” Generally I’ll get a range of responses; mostly they boil down to some variation on the theme of FEAR.
Board members aren’t lazy because they’re afraid of asking for money. Your staff aren’t slackers because they fear fundraising. They’re just scared, and need help overcoming their fears and anxieties. That’s your job if you’re the fundraiser!
Today we’re going to look at how to get around these fears, so you can turn reluctant fundraisers into ready ones. Honestly, it’s not rocket science; it’s just not something most of us are taught. Very few people are “natural fundraisers,” so falling back on “some people are good at this; others are not” is neither true nor helpful. Everyone can become good at facilitating philanthropy – once their fears are addressed.
How to Overcome Fear-Based Barriers to Fundraising
It’s the job of a nonprofit’s leadership to work with insiders and stakeholders (staff and volunteers) to help them feel both passionate about the cause and confident in the fundraising process. Below you’ll find some top strategies to address challenges within your own organization so you can transform folks from fearful and reluctant to joyful and ready fundraisers.
1. How do you address folks who believe fundraising is the “F” word?
As long as people in your organization think fundraising is taking something away from donors, you’re sunk. Because often those same people think the only way to “take” that thing is to use strong arm tactics. In fact, too often people believe fundraising and aggression go hand-in-hand. They’ll talk about “hitting people up” and “twisting someone’s arm.” That’s the absolute worst way to approach philanthropy. And it’s a real turn-off for the lion’s share of people whose natural reaction will be: “That’s not for me; not my style.”
Your job is to make philanthropy all about love, not war… pleasure, not pain… giving, not taking. It’s really about offering donors a voluntary opportunity to do something they wouldn’t be able to do on their own. Something that will bring them joy, not sorrow. If you turn fundraising into a bullying activity, you’ll get few willing fundraisers and/or donors. So make sure to quash these aggressive phrases whenever you hear them. Talk to your prospective fundraisers about lifting people up, not bringing them down. Semantics matter. People feel positive about “gifts” and “investments,” and make them frequently in their personal lives. People feel more negatively about “donations” and “contributions,” seeing them as chores or actions that don’t yield a noticeable positive return. There’s a psychological difference between making a transformative investment and bringing joy with a gift, than there is with making a drop-in-the bucket donation or small contribution to a pool.
2. How do you address fear of rejection?
Reframe fundraising as offering an opportunity to experience something wonderful rather than a form of begging. Your staff and board, presumably, love your organization. They’re passionate about your mission and vision. So… why wouldn’t they want to share this with others? I often ask folks if they share a favorite restaurant or movie with their friends. Of course they do! Then I ask if they feel ‘rejected’ if their friend says “Oh, that sounds great but I don’t really like Thai food… horror movies… etc.” Of course they don’t! So then I ask them: “Why are you being so stingy with the charity you love?!”
Another way is to reframe fundraising as storytelling. Rather than insisting folks learn a bunch of facts, figures and talking points, ask staff and board to tell you how they first got involved with your mission and/or organization. Ask them to tell the story of why they stay involved. You need to connect people with their passions so they can share their passions. When someone tells their own story, in their own words, it’s not scary at all. They don’t need to memorize anything. They don’t need to worry they’re getting anything wrong. They simply need to speak from their own heart!
3. How do you address quid pro quo fear?
This fear stems from believing that asking is an arm-twisting, guilt-inflicting, “you rub my back and I’ll rub yours” endeavor. It’s not! In fact, quite often the dreaded quid pro quo ask never materializes. It’s a largely unfounded fear. But how do you handle it when a board member tells you they don’t want to ask their friends because they don’t want to be asked in return?
“Different strokes for different folks” is the way around the quid pro quo dilemma. Asking should be about sharing one’s passions with others, and then asking them to join you if they share your passions. It’s quite possible you and your friend both love music. So when you ask them to make a gift to the symphony on whose board you sit, this makes sense. When they later ask you to make a gift to the environmental organization on whose board they sit, it’s perfectly okay for you to decline if environmental issues don’t particularly float your boat. And you explain this to your friend exactly this way:
“Sarah, I’m so appreciative of the gift you made to the symphony. I know how much we both love classical music. I’d love to support a cause of yours, too, but this one just isn’t my thing. I’ve decided to make impact gifts to five philanthropies annually, which means I stick with the causes closest to my heart. This just isn’t one of them. I respect the work you’re doing for them and hope you understand.”
4. How do you address the “I don’t know any rich people” fear?
There are two ways around this one. The first is to reframe this by showing folks that passionate donors don’t have to be rich. Anyone can be a philanthropist. Try this:
“You don’t need to know rich people. Just think of your peers. Are there any who might be interested in what we do? You’re making a stretch gift here. Maybe they’d like to join you. You love this organization. Perhaps they will, too. Don’t assume they won’t be interested. Don’t say no on their behalf. Let them in on what we’re accomplishing here—maybe they’ll get just excited about it as you are!”
The second is to offer a different fundraising assignment. They don’t have to identify donor prospects, at least not until they become comfortable doing so. Board members can play a number of different fundraising roles—as ambassadors, advocates, and askers. Ultimately, your goal is to get them to wear all three hats. But sometimes you must work up to this slowly. Try this:
“If you can’t think of anyone to refer right now, let’s look at some other ways you might be able to help us with donor development. Would you be willing to make thank you calls, write personal notes on appeals, speak on our behalf at a community group, escort prospective donors on tours? How might you be comfortable sharing your passion about our mission with others?”
5. How do you address fear of learning new things?
This fear arises when people are comfortable in their status quo mode and the idea of rocking the boat is scary. How do you handle it when a board member tells you “I’ve been on this board for years and never been asked to do this” anxiety? When board members resist in this way, they either don’t understand or feel supported in their role, or they’re in the wrong role. Often this happens with board members who’ve been on since the organization’s founding, or who were improperly on boarded. They may have even been told they didn’t have to help with fundraising. Times change. And this is why boards really should have terms of office established in the by-laws. Relationships get stale. Rolodexes get used up. Strategies that didn’t work yesterday just might work today. You need to escape from the cycle of “that’s not how we do things here.” Plus, you need opportunities to move new folks onto your board as a “reward” for being a dedicated donor and/or volunteer. If you limit the ways new folks can get involved with your organization, you limit your ability to raise funds going forward.
A board’s highest priority is to assure demonstrated needs are being addressed. They do this through their double-fisted governance and financing roles. The board as a whole has governance responsibility to establish policies, programs, procedures, and budget and to assure the mission is carried out effectively. In this regard, it also collectively hires, evaluates, and fires the executive director. The board members as individuals have the responsibility to assure financing is in place to carry out the mission. If they refuse to ensure funding is in place to carry out the plans and budgets they’ve approved, they’re essentially creating an unfunded mandate. Often, staff will criticize board members for “underperforming.” But how can they perform well if they don’t understand their role and responsibilities? Staff have an ongoing responsibility to orient, educate, and develop their board so they can effectively fulfill their job. For an interesting take on board roles, check out Problem Boards or Board Problem?
I’m often asked what you can do if board members remain resistant. Is it acceptable to ask them to step down? To that I say, absolutely! Board slots are valuable, and you can’t afford to have them filled with folks who just sit on the sofa. Plus, cranky and passive board members drag other members down. One rotten apple truly can spoil the whole barrel. Ask them to do something else if being a board member is not a good fit for them at this point in time. Suggest they may be more comfortable, and more useful to you, on a committee or advisory group. Or set them up with a meaningful volunteer activity. Board leaders who fear fundraising spread that fear. A scarcity mindset prevails where everyone whines about how difficult it is to raise money—to the point where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cup-half-empty boards lead to cup-half-empty nonprofits. You need radiators, not drains.
Everything Boils Down to Inspiring Philanthropy
Fundraising must be viewed as a servant to philanthropy. No one asks for money merely for the sake of money. They ask to serve a greater purpose, engaging others in a compelling story, and then matching folks interested in this story with a cause they value and a solution they can endorse. Board members and staff alike are best equipped to make appeals when they’re passionate about what they’re “selling,” and come to understand selling is not a bad thing (at least not when you’re offering something your would-be donor values). Leadership should help board members identify which services speak most to them and make those services the heart of each person’s appeal. It comes down to inspiration trumping hesitation.
I never run a “fundraising training” session. Who wants to be trained? It makes the process sound difficult. Instead, offer a session on “inspiring philanthropy.” Remind folks that philanthropy comes from a place of love, not money. It’s literally in the definition of the word (love of humankind).
Begin with igniting your stakeholders’ passions so their important role of ensuring your mission survives and thrives follows as naturally as flowers follow spring showers. Passion emboldens people rather than frightening them. Passion is contagious.
The Magic Passion Formula
Simply ask folks to take these three actions and they’ll transform into ready fundraisers almost like magic:
- Get in touch with their own passion for your cause (by reminding themselves why they first got involved and/or why they stay involved).
- Enact their passion for your cause (with a stretch gift).
- Share their passion for your cause (by asking others to join them).
Deeply felt, articulated and shared passion turns fear into curiosity, confidence and courage, making the act of fundraising eminently approachable.
Let’s face it: The number one reason people don’t give is because they aren’t asked. So you absolutely must overcome asking anxiety if you hope to be successful in generating the resources your nonprofit needs. Learning to address the most common excuses for avoiding ‘the ask’ will help you leverage your resources – volunteer and staff – so fundraising is not relegated to one or a few people. Fundraising is everyone’s job, because the more resources you generate the more people benefit.
Want to learn more to overcome fundraising anxiety?
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