June 2, 2014

Don’t Just Find Donors, Grow Your Own

In fundraising, we talk a lot about finding donors. Donors are like Superman. Many are secretly willing to be heroes. Until you grow a relationship with them, you won’t learn their true identities. Finding donors by creating relationships with new people is one way to get them. Another is to grow your own.

The Prader-Willi Syndrome Association (USA) has developed a great model. The syndrome is the most common known genetic cause of life-threatening obesity in children with a prevalence of around 1:15,000. Often, just after their child is diagnosed, parents receive free and low-cost services. Memberships start at $50, and relationships with parents usually continue for years.

Support for the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association has grown one family at a time over its nearly 40-year history. With help, the parents have transformed into advocates, board members, and donors. While the board of directors includes national experts, the majority of the directors are dedicated parents. “Over 40 percent of the Associations’ funding is raised in grassroots events sponsored across North America by relatives and friends,” shares Ken Smith, the association’s executive director.

Like growing fruit, growing your donors requires a long-term approach. The results are the difference between having an orchard on your back forty or hunting for wild fruit trees in the forest. The orchard is sustainable, efficient, and productive. It reduces labor long-term. Efforts to care for your orchard today grow and nourish your future. The search for wild fruit trees is more adventurous. It is also riskier. The trees you found last year may have been knocked down by a winter storm or harvested by others.

What can we learn from The Prader-Willi Syndrome Association about growing donors?

1. Create fertile ground. When properly nurtured, donors become a natural by-product of good mission work. Provide first quality services. Ask for donations to support them. Do you have both of these actions working for you?

2. Plant now, harvest later. Even though you seek donations and other revenue for today’s needs, recognize that it is very likely that you or your successor will encounter the same challenge in the years ahead. Dedicate some of your efforts to the future. Take care of your current donors and supporters. Plan for and build a community of people who support your efforts. What do you offer to those who support you long term? What does it mean to belong to a group dedicated to supporting your nonprofit?

3. Survey the orchard. If your organization has been active for several years, it is likely that you already have some opportunities to obtain more donations and support. Go out to your orchard and find out. Thank one long-term supporter per week. Ask what role they would find interesting. Ask for their thoughts on how you might increase income. Listen. Ask about a project about which they care. Ask if they would consider giving seed funding for it.

All nonprofits would like more donors. When you grow your own, you already know that love your cause. In all likelihood, they will help you to leap buildings in a single bound.


Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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