September 2007 Archives

September 19, 2007

Get Those Dead People Out Of Your Donor Records!

It happened again yesterday: I got a letter from an alumni association directed to a previous occupant of our house--a woman who passed away many years ago. I don't know how long ago that was, but we've lived in our house for eight years.

Now, unlike other types of nonprofits, I can understand an alumni association continuing to send letters to potential donors long after the time when most other nonprofits would have given up on them. But, there's a catch: I've called this office at least twice to ask them to please remove the person from their mailing list.

MailboxWhat's the harm, other than wasted paper, printing, and postage? It looks bad! If I were a potential donor to this organization, I'd be wondering about its efficiency. And if they sent me personalized letters, I'd know just how personal a connection they felt to me, given that they don't take note of whether their donors are alive or dead.

Just another reminder that, when we send out letters containing wrong information, they don't just disappear into a black hole. Someone reads them, possibly gets annoyed, and makes judgments. That makes updating donor records seem less of a time-wasting chore than it might first appear.

For more tips on how you can run a more efficient organization, check out Starting & Building a Nonprofit: A Practical Guide, by Peri H. Pakroo (Nolo).

September 17, 2007

Are Gala Fundraising Events Frivolous?

You could read that judgment into the words of billionaire investor William H. Gross, who recently talked to Stephanie Strom for her September 6 The New York Times article, Big Gifts, Tax Breaks and a Debate on Charity.

Mr. Gross said: "When millions of people are dying of AIDS and malaria in Africa, it is hard to justify the umpteenth society gala held for the benefit of a performing arts center or an art museum" and "a $30 million gift to a concert hall is not philanthropy, it is a Napoleonic coronation."

Ouch. If your organization holds gala -- or semi-gala -- events to support arts and culture, should you be cringing at that statement? Actually, Mr. Gross's main point seems to be that the government should be handling more public functions, rather than giving big tax breaks to philanthropists whose self-interest may drive their donations. So, perhaps he's not making such a sweeping judgment as it first appears. In any case, we can be pretty sure of three things:


  • The government will never take care of all public needs, so there will always be a place for charity.

  • If we wait to support arts and cultural causes until we've wiped out all of human suffering, we could wait forever, and lead less meaningful lives while we're at it.

  • We can't count on donors to seek out organizations to support on their own. Most will be drawn by nonprofits' efforts to gain visibility, including through special events.


So if your organization can pull off a gala event that's akin to a coronation, don't be shy about it. You'll probably bring in dollars that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise, for a cause that's obviously supported by at least as many members of the public as show up. And so what if it's glitzy and attracts the rich and famous? Someone's got to give them something to do on a Saturday night! If they don't spend their money on your gala dinner, they'll spend it down the street at the latest celebrity chef's restaurant.

For more tips on how you can throw the right event for your organization, pick up a copy of my book, Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits: Real-World Strategies That Work (Nolo).

September 14, 2007

About This Blog


Welcome to Nolo's Fundraising Tips for Busy Nonprofits. This blog will offer lots of ideas for raising money for your nonprofit -- whether you're a staff member, board member, or volunteer -- in a world where no one seems to have enough time to do all they'd like to, even for a good cause.


Ilona BrayThe blog is written by Ilona Bray, a Nolo editor and the author of Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits: Real-World Strategies That Work. Ilona has worked and volunteered for nonprofit organizations in practically every imaginable capacity, from staff attorney to development director to book-sale coordinator to advisory board member.


Among Ilona's most memorable experiences were passing out HIV+ literature in Guatemala, researching U.N programs as a legal intern for Amnesty International in London, and representing (pro bono) disabled, low-income people seeking Social Security benefits in Washington, DC.


The opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of Nolo, its clients, or its partners. This blog may provide legal information, but not advice. Consult a lawyer if you want professional assurance regarding how the law applies to your situation.

September 13, 2007

Fundraising Classes in College--How Cool Is That?

The leaves are turning, the fashion magazines are gushing about Katie Holmes wearing plaid, and I can't find parking within a mile of the local campus. It must be back-to-school time. And I admit it, I'm jealous. Not just because I'd happily return to school anytime, permanently, but because of all the great classes they get to take. And look, even classes in fundraising!

College scene That's right, students can sign up to take classes with titles like "Grantgetting, Contracting, and Fund Raising;" Introduction to Nonprofit Management;" "Fundraising as Ministry;" and "Fundraising in Museums." And they're on campuses from Columbia to U. Michigan to the Covenant Theological Seminary to San Francisco State.

I don't think we had fundraising classes when I was in college. Or maybe I was too occupied with aesthetic theory and Chinese philosophy to notice. But I hope today's students are taking notice, because a class in fundraising could offer them two of the things they may want most for their future: a practical skill and the power to change the world.

As Lupe Gallegos Diaz, who teaches a course on development at U.C. Berkeley, said in my book, Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits:

"At first, I put 'fundraising' in the course title, but students weren't attracted by this, not realizing that it would prepare them to make real change in their communities. So, I changed the title to 'Leadership and Community Involvement.' Once I get the students in the class, they say things like, 'Wow, we didn't know fundraising was a profession, something you can use.' I try to show them that fundraising can be both a career that utilizes their academic degree and skills, as well as a way of serving their own community."

Does the availability of these courses have any relevance for people already out there working in nonprofits? I think so. For one thing, you can look for new staff who actually have fundraising training and a demonstrated commitment to nonprofit work. For another, if your local colleges and universities offer such courses, you might make yourself available as a classroom speaker (and of course tell students how they can get involved in your nonprofit), or offer your organization up as a placement opportunity for internships.

September 10, 2007

Walking the Talk: Motives for Volunteering

Because I like my job--research, writing, and editing--I thought I might be an exception to the general rule that volunteers are happiest doing work that's different than what they do all day. I was wrong. I tried board membership and other responsible roles, and found that making phone calls or editing donor letters felt too much like work--which turned out to be the last thing I wanted to do at the end of the day.

But now I've found the perfect volunteer gig: dog walking. My office is near a Humane Society, and after a little training, I'm signed up to walk their rescued dogs for two hours a week. I get a break from the workday, the dogs get out of their cages and get a little leash-training, everyone wins. Maybe I win the biggest, because having a dog who was fearful and unhappy look up with grateful eyes and a slobbery smile is better than any therapy.

Is there a lesson here for nonprofits who don't have cute animals, but want to offset their costs with some volunteer help? Maybe it's to keep focused on what's in it for the volunteer. Yes, every volunteer wants to help the organization, but that can feel rather abstract. Call me selfish, but when I head out for my weekly walk, I'm not thinking "I'm off to help the Humane Society," I'm thinking "Will my favorite dogs still be there, or--better yet--will they have gone to a good home?" (It's a no-kill shelter, so I don't have to worry about a third alternative unless they were aggressive or seriously ill.)

Delta the RottweilerAll of which leads me to the first of a regular feature here: The "Moment of Awww" photo, featuring a dog that I walked who's up for adoption. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, check out Delta and other potential new canine housemates at the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society.

September 5, 2007

Hello Busy Fundraisers!

You're too busy to raise as much money for your organization as you'd like. Your donors are too busy to read what you send them or get back to you. Heck, I'm probably too busy to write this blog. So what are we all supposed to do?

Answering this question will be at least one of the ongoing themes of this blog. In the few minutes it takes you to read this, I'm hoping you'll pick up concrete tips on how to make your efforts more efficient and productive.

So let's launch right in. One answer - which may sound obvious, but which I see all too many nonprofits overlooking - comes from that Type A, 21st century concept of multitasking. Just like I've got the toaster and kettle making my breakfast while I write this, you can find ways to have your fundraising and marketing efforts do double - or even triple - duty for you. Here are three possibilities, with more to come later:

1. Ask board members to do something concrete at their meetings. For some members, board meetings could as easily be called bored meetings, as they study financial charts and hear dry reports. They'd be only too happy to set aside an extra half hour to stuff envelopes, handwrite some thank you letters to your donors or volunteers, or even do some of the photocopying and filing that's been piling up around your office.

2. Use every human contact as a way to gather names for your mailing list. I've been to benefit concerts where I paid cash and no one asked my name. I've volunteered for organizations that don't send me their literature. And yet their fundraising staff probably tear their hair or spend big bucks trying to expand their direct mail lists. When you encounter people with even a little interest in your organization, get their names!

3. Include more than one fundraising method at special events. If you're doing a walk-a-thon, add a raffle at the starting point, which family and friends can sign up for. This one does triple duty, because you get more names for your mailing list. (Just make sure raffles are legal in your state). At a dinner event, add a silent auction. But notice that I'm not recommending selling mugs or T-shirts - retail sales are risky, because you can easily wind up with more inventory than buyers want.