By Sandy Rees
If you’re working hard trying to find donors for your nonprofit, well done!
Regularly adding new donors is how you grow your donor base, and a big, loyal donor base is a foundation for success.
But if you’re new to the world of new donor acquisition, it can seem daunting.
Where do you start to find new donors for your nonprofit? Who should you target?
The truth is that you can work hard or you can work smart. If you want to catch fish, you have to fish in the right ponds. That means you need to know who you’re looking for before you start your search.
Unfortunately, many people just jump in, hoping to find ANYONE who will give. And I get that. Any donation is a good donation, right?
But, that shotgun approach will lead to a lot of wasted time and effort. In fact, here are 10 places nonprofit leaders often go to find donors—ponds they expect to be teeming with fish—but instead they come up empty.
These strategies seem like they should work. But they don’t and I’ll explain why.
10 Places You Can Stop Looking for Donors
1. Neighborhoods with expensive homes: It’s tempting to rent a list of addresses in wealthy neighborhoods and send an appeal letter to every resident in a pricey home. But sending appeals to random people is not a winning strategy.
The problem is that you don’t know anything about these people other than you think they have money. And they might not! Maybe they tapped themselves out financially just purchasing that house!
The residents of these fancy homes may throw your appeal away because they have no connection to your organization (and people MUST have some sort of connection before they’ll give). Maybe they aren’t direct mail responsive, meaning they don’t give through the mail. Maybe they don’t care about your cause.
Sending a letter based on an assumption of wealth is a bad idea and will waste a lot of money and time.
I don’t recommend renting lists to mail to until you know what you’re doing because even with the right list of prospects, mailing a fundraising letter is tricky business.
2. Other places where you think rich people hang out: Don’t waste your time hanging out at country clubs and other places where you think you will meet rich people. Don’t join a yoga studio in a wealthy neighborhood or a church that has rich parishioners.
Don’t work in coffee shops in rich neighborhoods hoping to make rich friends and convince them to donate to your organization. Just don’t bother. Rich people do not walk around handing out money. Donors give based on their connection to the organization’s work and their interest in the impact your programs have.
3. An event in a fancy venue. If you hold a fancy event in a fancy venue and expect fancy people to show up, you will be disappointed. The adage if you build it people will come does not apply to fundraising events.
Hold an event that will appeal to the people who already support your work. Create a super fun event, build it up over time, and you will attract a range of donors, including those who can give big.
You can encourage your donors to bring a friend and you can meet new donor prospects that way (and it tends to work well since birds of a feather flock together).
4. A luncheon with church pastors. This one is SO tempting, especially here in the south where it seems like there’s a church on every block. “Let’s get all the churches to give! I know – let’s invite every pastor in town to a luncheon.” It works on paper, but not in reality.
Churches get approached ALL THE TIME by community nonprofits looking for funding. Many churches choose several nonprofits to support each year or have pass-the-plate programs where money taken up during the offering goes to a particular organization. They don’t give money to every random nonprofit who asks.
Pastors won’t take the time to attend a luncheon for a nonprofit they don’t know unless they’re asked to attend by a friend or church member, and even then, their schedule may not allow it. And the truth is that the pastor is usually not the person who can make a decision to give church funds to a nonprofit. There’s usually a committee that decides who to support.
So, a better approach here is to get a church member to be your “inside champion” to discuss supporting your nonprofit with the leaders at their places of worship. When an active member of a church says, “let’s support this organization,” it carries weight!
Another way to leverage support from a place of worship is to ask if you can speak to a Bible study, women’s group, or social justice committee. Small groups inside a church often have their own “treasury” that they can give from or members of the group may give to support your cause if they’re so moved.
5. Your local Chamber of Commerce. Joining your local chamber may make sense, especially if they have a nonprofit rate. But don’t expect a mass email to chamber members to bring in sponsorships or donations. Business leaders hear from organizations like yours on a weekly or even daily basis and rarely will a business give money to a “cold call” which is essentially what that mass email is.
Think about it: would YOU give money to a nonprofit you’ve never heard of and know nothing about? If you got a letter or email that said “Our nonprofit just joined the chamber. Please support us.” would you give? I didn’t think so.
Building relationships with businesses takes time and usually starts with small gestures of support. Attend networking meetings, support local businesses, and propose ways your organization and businesses can work together for mutual benefit.
6. Foundation spam-a-thon. Once you learn how to write grants and create the case statement, program budget, and other documents foundations require, it’s tempting to send grant proposals to every foundation in your area, just so you can make sure you’ve tried every single one.
This will only result in large numbers of rejection letters and erode your confidence. Instead, look for foundations that are interested in funding the kinds of programs you already have. Make sure there’s a fit between your mission and theirs. Do your research and see what grant opportunities are out there, get their deadlines on your calendar, then start working your way through the list.
By targeting the right foundations at the right time, you’ll save yourself a lot of wasted time and effort.
7. Product sale customer list: When you raise money through a product sale (like a t-shirt or calendar sale), you may be excited to see all the new names and emails populating your database. But just because people buy something from you doesn’t make them a donor.
A poinsettia sale or a wreath sale around the holidays may be a fine way to bring in some money, if there’s a desire in your community for that product. But don’t expect these customers to become regular donors or longtime supporters. Think about it: Most bought the poinsettia because they wanted the poinsettia, not because they are interested in your organization’s work.
People who buy something are customers, not donors. They’ve engaged in a transaction and got something tangible for their money. Yes, you could develop and execute a follow-up email sequence to attempt to convert these customers into donors, but don’t expect a large conversion rate.
An occasional product sale might make sense for your organization, but fundraisers where you ask people to give to change lives will bring in new donors who are interested in your work and will stick around long term.
8. The latest social media platform: Every so often, a new social media platform takes off. TikTok is riding high right now. Should you be on TikTok? If the people your organization works with are on TikTok, then absolutely get on TikTok. If your organization’s supporters are on TikTok, absolutely get on TikTok. But if you’re trying to find donors for your nonprofit simply because it’s new, don’t bother. You probably won’t find new donors there.
A more effective social media strategy is to invest time in social media platforms where you know your audience is already hanging out. If your organization is looking to target older women, Facebook is your best opportunity. For younger women, Instagram is better. For professionals, LinkedIn is fantastic. For politicians and journalists, you want to be on Twitter. And … for young advocates looking to shake up the status quo, you will find them on Tik Tok.
A few years ago, there was a push to get on Snapchat, but the chat app never took off for nonprofits. Pinterest also made a big splash some years ago, but it didn’t grow into a major player, though it might be worthwhile if your prospective supporters are hanging out there.
You’ll exhaust yourself trying to be everywhere. Go where you are confident you have supporters and potential supporters and invest the time required to find and hook them.
9. Networking events: Putting some networking events on your calendar and forcing yourself to go is a good strategy. You will meet people at networking events, because everybody is there to meet people. (And almost everybody had to force themselves to go. You are not alone in feeling awkward in staged socializing experiences.)
But you won’t find donors for your nonprofit at these types of events. Networking runs both ways. People are there to meet people who can do things for them. People do not go to networking events to find organizations to give money to.
That does not mean networking events are not important. You may meet someone who works for a business that is looking to get more involved in the community and ends up sponsoring your next fundraising event. You may meet someone who later on introduces you to your next biggest donor. You may meet someone who becomes a terrific volunteer.
More likely, you will meet people with similar goals facing similar obstacles, and you will enjoy sharing strategies and commiserating over universal frustrations like finding new prospects and figuring out the best messaging. And that’s not a bad thing to know you’re not the Lone Ranger in this work!
10. Celebrities known for generosity: Oh, gosh, speaking of universal frustrations for people working in nonprofits: let’s talk about Board members and well-meaning friends who suggest you contact Oprah, Bill and Melinda Gates, or Mackenzie Scott for a few million dollars.
While many celebrities give big to their favorite organizations and causes, it’s not a great use of your time to spam them with requests for support. A better strategy is to make a list of celebrities you have a connection to who you know are interested in the kind of work your nonprofit does. Without a connection and interest, there will be no support, so be sure these two factors are there before you waste your time chasing down a celebrity just to ride their coattails.
If someone who knows you and your work can make an introduction to the celebrity or the celebrity’s manager, you will be in a strong position to build a relationship that leads to a donation, as well as an endorsement that will bring in even more support.
When thinking about celebrities, think small and local, not Harry Styles and global. You would be surprised how generous a popular chef in your town or a local band that sells out every show they play can be.
Where to Look for Donors … and Actually Find Them
You find donors for your nonprofit by working from the inside out. Here is our three-step process for finding new donors in the right places:
Step 1: The best place to start when building your donor base is with your inner circle: your friends and family. They already know and love you, and they want you and your nonprofit to succeed. It is hard to ask people for money, even people you know, or maybe even especially people you know.
But the more you do it, the more comfortable you will feel.
Think about people you work with or used to work with. People you hike with or are in your yoga class. What about the man who owns the dry cleaners you use every week? It might be helpful to do a “Sphere of Influence” exercise to see who is in your life that you’re overlooking.
After the friend-and-family round of asks, invite those who are already committed to your nonprofit to give: Board members and volunteers. In some cases, you may be able to invite program participants or their family members to give. For example, if you have a therapeutic horseback riding program for children, their parents might be happy to give.
Not everyone from your inner circle will donate, but many will, and you don’t know who wants to give until you ask them directly.
Step 2: Work your way out to the next level of potential supporters: the friends and contacts of the people who have already supported your organization. Now it’s time to leverage the connections of those in your inner circle. Ask each Board member to host a Facebook birthday fundraiser. See if three Board members can host small house gatherings to introduce their friends and family members to your organization. Ask them to send out a call for donations via social media. Every Board member can take at least one step toward bringing in a few new donors. Make the same challenge to your volunteers!
Donors and volunteers often ask what else they can do to support your organization. Take this opportunity to ask them to host a gathering of friends in their home to learn about your organization’s work. Ask if they belong to a club, association, or other group that might welcome you as a guest speaker. Speaking gigs are a great way to spread the word about your nonprofit and find new supporters!
People give to organizations they trust. When you leverage relationships, you get to attach your organization to a person the prospective donor trusts, and that trust will often be enough for them to donate. “If Cheryl is so passionate about this organization, it must be a great cause!”
Step 3: Reach beyond your inner circle’s inner circle. Now you have to venture farther away from your inner circle and find new donors you aren’t connected to personally. This is where you have to work harder for fewer donations. But it’s necessary in order to grow your donor base.
Think about your ideal donors and where you can find them. How would you describe your typical donor? What are they interested in? What do they value? Where do they hang out?
If you’re running an environmental organization, where can you meet people interested in helping preserve our planet? Can you set up a table at a local farmer’s market? Have a booth at the town Earth Day fair?
If you’re running an animal rescue organization, where can you find people who love animals? Could you set up a table at a dog-friendly community festival? Can you invite people to become donors at adoption events?
If your organization supports women and families affected by domestic violence, find women’s groups to speak to. There are many all-women professional organizations full of members who might give because they are touched by your mission or because of their own experience with domestic violence.
If your organization focuses on education, retired teachers can be a wonderful source of support. See if your local teacher’s organization has a chapter for retired teachers.
There are many ways to find donors for your nonprofit. You just have to think about your ideal donor and where that person spends their time. Then go there, meet them, and ask them for money!
The Bottom Line
As you grow your nonprofit, you have to look for new ways to bring in more donors and make it part of your ongoing work. If you’re always looking for the quick-and-easy big gift, you will spend a lot of time going down roads that don’t lead anywhere. When this happens, it’s easy to feel like no one cares about your work and that you’ll never raise any money.