6 big mistakes small organizations make with fundraising1

a man with his head stuck in a wall

Like it isn’t hard enough being a small organization, right?

Not enough staff. Not enough time.

And definitely, not enough money.

You get used to making do. Find shortcuts. You work a lot.

But too often, you don’t do the things that will dig you out.

If you need more money, you need to prioritize fundraising. And if you want to be more secure financially, it’s smart to focus more on your individual giving program.

There are a few mistakes I often see organizations making – especially the smallest ones. These mistakes come from good intentions – being careful with money, working diligently, caring so much. But in making do, you starve your organization’s future to pay for today. And you don’t have to!

1. You send one appeal a year

Yes, I know. It takes effort and time to create an effective appeal. But once a year is almost certainly not enough.

You’re not nearly as present in your donors’ minds as you’d like to be. That’s the hard truth. But one way to become better known is to communicate throughout the year.

Your once yearly request starts to feel like “you only love me for my money” to donors.

You don’t have to start sending 12 appeals a year. But you do need to both communicate more and ask more.

And don’t worry! Your appeal doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, something very personal – even home-made – can work well.

Just remember to make all your fundraising communications about donors and their impact.

There is plenty of advice here on writing better appeals. And see here. And here.

And there is an amazing, detailed, thorough tutorial on SOFII, from Jerry Huntsinger And it’s your favorite price, FREE. Start here.

2. You put your mailings together yourself, in-house

So many organizations feel appeals are time-sucks because they spend so much time just getting the things out the door.

Organizing a small army of volunteers or staff to stuff envelopes. Countless rubber bands and envelope boxes to sort everything by zip. Paper cuts.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

Find a good mail house. Talk to them about cost and savings. Remember that your time is valuable. And the staff at a good mail house will know what they’re doing. I depended on mine wherever I worked – because I knew they could perform.

A good mail house can print better and faster, sort so your mail for less, and offer you great ideas. Work with one that’s familiar with nonprofits. They’ll be able to share what they’ve learned from other clients and make suggestions. Make them a trusted partner in your work!

3. You depend only on email

Email is free. Or that’s what it feels like. But limiting yourself to only email communications could be cutting out many potential donors.

The truth is you have to be where your donors are. You can’t make them conform to your chosen channel.

And honestly, today you really don’t have a choice: it’s not mail or email, it’s both. Direct mail still gets better response rates than email. So yes, you sent those email appeals for “free”. But what response did you get?

Email and mail together can be very effective. And both are in reach for any organization.

4. You are not actively trying to build a monthly giving program

Monthly giving isn’t just for the big guys. In fact, it could be vitally important to your smaller organization. You might not see immediate results. But as with so much else here, the most important thing is to start.

Begin by being sure you are set up to accept monthly gifts. In some cases, this might mean talking with your online donation processor. And be sure your online donation form is set to offer the option. (You might consider making monthly the first option!)

Then, ask.

I would begin with your most loyal donors. They already love you – ask them to support you this way.

Erica Waasdorp has so much great information on monthly giving! I strongly recommend taking advantage of it as you design a program. You’ll find starter kits, templates, and checklists that will help you begin a monthly giving program.

Remember not to forget your monthly donors once they commit. You need to keep them informed. You need to thank them. And you can even ask them for special needs beyond their monthly giving.

5. You send receipts instead of thanks

This one always makes me shake my head. Do you care about donors? Do you want more of them? And the ones you have – do you want them to stick around?

Then make them a priority. And no thank you at all, or just a tax receipt, sends one message: “you don’t matter much”.

Thanks are an area where even the smallest organizations can shine. Only 100 donors? Great! You can hand-write those thanks. You can pick up the phone and call them. Those donors can feel like they mean the world to your organization.

Because they do.

If you have more to send – and I hope you do or will – then it’s still easy to write a wonderful thank you letter. Keep the tax statement in the background and put it at the end of the letter, after the P.S.

There’s no excuse for not thanking donors well. It’s as easy to generate a merged thank you letter as it is an impersonal tax receipt.

6. 2005 wants its website back

Your website is your storefront. It’s the place people go to evaluate you before making a giving decision. How you present yourself says “I can trust them with my money” or “Oh dear, what amateurs. Maybe I should give to someone else”.

If the last time you built a website was decades ago, you’ll be surprised at how different the process is now. Back then, you paid someone to build the site from the ground up. They worked in arcane languages. And you had to pay them again if you wanted to change anything.

Now? You can control it all. Easily. And for very little money.

The key is thinking through what you want before you begin. What’s the purpose? What do you want someone to do on each page? Just like your appeals and newsletters, this is not the place to design to please your organizational ego. It’s all about the user. If donors are a key audience, make sure the site shows it.

But once you know what you want, you have so many low-cost options now. WordPress is free. And there are some lovely themes that are quite inexpensive. And new all-in-one options, like Squarespace and Weebly, might work well for you as well. Neon offers some tips on website buildershere.

Best of all, updating the site’s content is as easy as using Word.

Please also remember that mobile is increasingly important today. Your site MUST be mobile responsive.

If your needs are simple you can probably do it yourself. If you need something more complex, you will probably need help. But a good website is no longer nice-to-have – it’s a necessity. TechSoup offers a good outline for how to get started.

So no more excuses. And no more 2005. Put your best face forward.

One note: you might not put fundraising at the top of the priority list when putting together your site. You should. If donations matter, they need to be front and center on your homepage. And look carefully at the giving process. Ask someone who knows nothing about you to make a small gift and report back.

6. You’re guilty of data abuse

As my friend Pamela Grow says, “Excel is not a database”.

If you’ve been getting by with multiple spreadsheet lists instead of using a real donor management system, it’s time to fix that.

And as with websites, if you haven’t considered it in a few years, you might be surprised. New, lighter, online choices have sprung up in recent years. And some are priced for small organizations.

There isn’t one choice for every organization. There are many options out there now, and it’s worth looking into what’s best for you. Recommendations I’ve been given for smaller organizations are Bloomerang (if you’re really small, look at free Bloomerang Lite), Neon and Little Green Light.

One hint: if learning the system requires two weeks of staff training, it’s the wrong choice. The system should make sense right away. And support should be part of the package. Ask to talk to current users. If support isn’t great, choose something else.

Yes, getting a grip on your data will take time. Conversions are never a lot of fun. But when you’re done, you’ll have information at your fingertips that will guide successful fundraising.

Plus, using the new system will take far less time. (Or it should. If it’s too complex and confusing, then it’s the wrong choice whatever the cost.)

You are not too small to matter – or to grow

Unless you’re content to stay small and scrappy – and struggling – you need to think in terms of investment. Investing in fundraising and communications is smart.

Look into funding to cover the costs of this investment. Some savvy community foundations are aware of the struggles small organizations face and might be willing to help. Or ask a board member to underwrite the effort.

The key is to think of this investment as possible – and then make it actual.