Fundraising in Challenging Economic Times

“What’s happening isn’t going to get better – that’s what we all believe. It might even get worse.”

Those were the cautionary words of fundraising expert Judy Lightwater when she gave the workshop, “Fundraising in Challenging Economic Times”, to a group of Volunteer Victoria’s member agencies this past March. She was talking about the state of our economy and the significant impact it has had on the ability of nonprofit agencies to seek out and receive funding from external sources. “You have to be even more concise than you used to be,” Lightwater advised, referring to the way agencies write funding proposals. She told the group that the most important question to address is: “What’s the need and what are you doing about it?”, and advised that including hard numbers in proposed project outcomes is absolutely essential.

The message came across loud and clear from Lightwater that nonprofit leaders need to be very familiar, off the top of their heads, with what their agencies need in terms of money, per project. If agencies don’t know themselves where they stand financially, then they will not be able to accurately reflect this need to potential funders. Lightwater also noted that it is crucial for agencies to collect and become very familiar with their own clients’ impactful stories that can be shared with potential funders, the media, or other possible supporters. She advised that nonprofits should “never assume that people know what you do” and recommended that we find a teenager to share our “elevator pitch” with to see if they understand it. (Lightwater’s grandson has been very helpful in this regard!) If the teenager in question doesn’t understand the message, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and revise the pitch until it works.

Lightwater also talked about the importance of having fundraising professionals as part of our organizations, even if only on a part-time basis. She suggested that a fundraiser should be able to raise monies for their organization equal to ten times what they make in salary. And, while it may seem obvious to some, Judy also noted that an agency’s fundraising person has to be able to ask for money: “If you don’t ask, people won’t give.”

Finally, Lightwater advised our member agencies that concerned individuals form the best group of potential donors. “Spend time with them, build relationships, ask for advice, and the money will follow.” Lightwater says that we have no evidence of a lack of money in our community, only a shortage of asks that are based upon informed and conscious relationships with those who want to help.

Additional tips from this workshop included:

  • Spend most of your time seeking funds from groups and individuals that bring you the most money. “Spend your time where the most revenue resides.”
  • Think about letting go of your fundraising events, because they usually don’t make money (once you add up all the staff time spent in organizing them, as well as other budget items). 
  • Invest in your local community foundation, e.g. The Victoria Foundation. They have donors that might be interested in investing in your organization if you invest with the foundation. 
  • Remain conscious of the language you use in funding proposals, as some terms can be unclear or over-used. Lightwater’s “groan” list at this workshop included the following terms: resources, access, issues, needs, day program, awareness, and support. 
  • Place your “Donate” button front and centre on every page of your website. Use social media tools to capture new audiences.
  • Organize a joint donor and volunteer appreciation night, and don’t even mention fundraising.

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