Six Top Lessons Learned from Ten Years of Fund Development Experience

Last month ALW Consulting celebrated its 10th year helping nonprofits find affordable solutions for sustainability. Although landscape of the sector has changed over the last decade, giving way to a need for increased engagement, data-driven measures, and visual storytelling, some valuable lessons learned in the early years of our establishment remain true today.

1. It’s all in the planning
Every nonprofit organization, regardless of its size, needs a strategic plan for fundraising. Identifying specific funding needs and crafting a detailed plan for obtaining those resources are key activities to operating effectively. Planning may be first step in fund development efforts, but it can become a powerful tool that builds your organization’s overall capacity and sustainability.

2. It takes money to drive the mission
Nonprofits may be tax exempt, but the common myth is that they should not be profitable. The reality is that organizations in the nonprofit sector should always strive to plan and implement fund development activities that permit them to build a 7-year reserve. Often this requires an investment: In-house or outsourced fund development activities like strategic planning, grant writing, annual appeal planning, and strategic communications. A commitment of resources to these activities will grow every other area of your agency!

3. Board members need to play an active role
Every nonprofit board of directors should be active in the fundraising process. But rather than jumping right in with fundraising efforts, their presence and activity should begin with education: Learning about and coming to understand the myriad of activities involved in fund development. Too often boards leap straight into the fire, asking for money without realizing that fund development is about building and keeping relationships, not simply soliciting funding. Board members are uniquely positioned to begin conversations with potential donors, but these shouldn’t begin or necessarily be about donations at all: Such discussions should offer board members opportunities to share the strategic plan and vision of the organization for a stronger, healthier community and a better world.

4. Always say thank you
Whether someone has given you $10 or $100,000, it is important to be grateful. You never know what a simple (or prominent) show of gratitude may lead to—weekly $10 donations, your next major gift, or a planned gift in the far future that leads to greater sustainability. Saying thank you does not just tell donors you appreciate them, it demonstrates something about your organization and its commitment to the small things that, in the end, really matter most.

5. It is still okay to ask why
If your organization receives a decline letter after submitting a fundraising appeal, there is nothing wrong with reaching out to the potential donor to ask why they chose not to fund your proposal. Not only can you learn more about them by doing so, you can come to understand a great deal about the public perception of your organization and its vision, needs, services, and fundraising strategies. Let’s be honest: If a funder is adamant about not having contact with prospective grantees or unresponsive, your organization might consider whether that type of donor relationship is one you would have wanted to invest resources in.

6. When you’re wrong, admit it
Everyone makes mistakes. Nonprofits do not receive an exemption from this truth. If your organization has made a mistake in the proposal writing process, missed a deadline, been slack in reporting, or simply not been able to spend the funding as initially allocated, say so. Being a nonprofit leader has a lot more to do with professional integrity than the amount of donations your organization has garnered.

Some other things have stayed the same too.

Proposal writing, much like prospect research, requires a natural inclination for not only writing, but for empathetic storytelling. If everyone could do it just by reading a book, watching a video, or putting the long hours needed, everyone would.

Think about that the next time your organization sees an advertisement or tweet for a webinar, book, or blog that can show you the way into the good graces of donors.

Keeping your organization informed on trending topics is important, but when we see those status updates marketing quick seminars and guidance systems for what we know to be a deep and complex process, it makes our social media twitch. The urge to re-tweet with a comment about the misleading depiction of fund development as something you don’t really need any expertise, skill, or natural ability to facilitate is overwhelming at times.

Those are the moments when we chant the grant writer’s prayer:

Grant us the serenity
to accept the status updates we cannot change;
the courage to change the minds of the nonprofits we can;
and the wisdom to know social media
should not be used for ugly, public debates,
even if we can write 140-word critiques
that can make heads spin.

And then we surrender to the will of a tweet or status update quoting Abraham Lincoln or Eleanor Roosevelt instead, knowing that words are power and the force is strong in theirs.

Most of all, we believe it is important for nonprofit leaders to maintain a realization that relationship building is still a key aspect in the development of successful requests for funding. The connections made in this industry can lead to wonderful outcomes, if an organization puts the time in to develop them.

To all those nonprofit, small business, and grassroots clients, fellow consulting firms, foundations, corporate-giving programs, and government granting agencies we’ve had the pleasure of working with, we say thank you for maintaining excellent relationships with us through the last decade of up and downturns of the economy.

To all the individual consultants, nonprofit workers, volunteers, and community leaders we have engaged and been engaged by on Twitter, Facebook, GooglePlus, etc. we hope you keep sharing!

We have been truly blessed to have made some wonderful connections over the years. We hope to make many more in the decades to come.

Adrienne Lewis-Wagner is a freelance fund development consultant living in Michigan. Her blog The Prospect can be found at

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