I’m on the Board of a suburban ministry in Michigan serving low-income families in our area. Like any nonprofit board, we spend a good amount of time talking about fundraising.
Michigan is in the financial pits these days. Unemployment is rising and recently our state government’s budget ran dry, and state workers were told to stay home. The local context for raising money for our ministry, in short, is hardly ideal!
But, praise God, our ministry is actually running over $40,000 ahead of budget. At a recent meeting, all of us on the Board were tempted to breathe a sigh of relief over the financial statements, pat ourselves on the back, and take a break from the hard work of fund development. Thankfully, we were able to resist that temptation.
What I’ve learned in my 25 years of work in the nonprofit world is that it’s always fund raising time. In fact, often the very best time to ramp up fund raising efforts is when your ministry is doing well. Think about it: in your own financial giving, are you more drawn to nonprofits that are doing well, or to those that are struggling? Typically, success attracts more investment. One of the best ways to generate revenue is to exceed budgets. Success will attract new donors as well as old donors who want to increase their pledges. It’s the healthiest nonprofits that get the majority of donations. Effective nonprofits continue to fund raise even when their budgets have been met.
Everyone’s looking, of course, for the most effective fundraising ideas. What I’ve seen work well are fundraisers that (a) are largely staffed by volunteers and (b) that capitalize on the interests of the people in the locale. Some examples:
Dinner/silent auction/live auctions -- ours nets more than $30,000 per event
Sponsored races – we do 5K and 25K runs. People around here love to run! Since we use mostly volunteers to manage the event, and get corporate sponsors, we net around $6000 in these half-day events
When they’re not running, folks in our town are checking out flea markets. Our nonprofit hosts two flea markets each year on our campus. We sell space to vendors and we sell food during the event; we also run a bake sale during it (we netted more than $3000 per event in our first year). It is 100% volunteer driven. People here love flea markets and they are willing to pay for the activity.
Another nonprofit in our area figured out that we’ve also got a lot of hunters around here. They put on a skeet-shooting contest and generated $17,000!
The trick to accomplishing a successful fundraiser is to match what people in your area love to do, with a reason to do it for a good cause. Always remember that the best fundraisers are fun. Emphasize ones that will be gathering events that bring the community together.
Lastly, we’ve learned that even successful fundraising events are no substitute for the hard, but imperative work of soliciting individual donors. Forty percent of our nonprofit’s revenue comes from individual contributors-–folks who give $50 to $1000 per year. Individual donors should be the backbone of any nonprofit. They provide that oh-so-needed general support (grants, by contrast, are typically for specific projects). Be sure to go hard after a few big-time donors too, local people with high net worth who are looking for a solid nonprofit to invest in right in their back yard. Our ministry is blessed with two key supporters who together provide fully 5 percent of our annual operating budget.
Most nonprofit staffers would rather be “doing frontline ministry” than raising dollars. Leadership that fails to engage in the hard work of fundraising, though, will jeopardize the ministry’s ability to keep on doing ministry. Several months ago, our nonprofit had gotten too soft in our fund development efforts, and we had to cut back the hours of some staff. I’m grateful that we are solidly in the black these days. But if we’re to continue doing the work we do in our city, we can’t rest on our laurels!