18 Common Fundraising Mistakes

by Natasha Dresner, Mentor, JCamp 180

There are many fundraising mistakes and, whether we are new to fundraising, experienced, or anywhere in between, we all have made some of them at one point or another.  If you think you have not, then you've made the biggest mistake of all - you haven't learned from your mistakes.  According to Eli Siegel, "If a mistake is not a stepping stone, it is a mistake."

So, let's learn together.  Even though many of the 18 Common Fundraising Mistakes below are timeless, some of them are particularly true to the current economic and fundraising environment.  

Do any of these resonate with you or your organization?  Then check out our Webinar on this same topic to learn more about these mistakes and how to avoid them.

1. Failing to give yourself, and thinking that others can raise the money for you - There is a reason kings used to lead their armies into battle.  There is no surer way to get someone to follow you than to lead, and the best way to lead is by example.  And in addition to that, just because you just hired a Development Director, doesn't absolve you of your responsibility to personally contribute, raise money and/or otherwise participate in your organization's fundraising efforts.  If Hillel were around today, he might say, "If I do not give myself, who will give for me?"

2. Believing that just because someone is wealthy, they will give - At a recent Development Committee meeting, we were working on the list of prospects and I heard the following snippets of conversation: "…He just gave a million to the local Y…" "…she lives in our community and drives a Jaguar…" "…they're an older couple and I heard they are sitting on a lot of money - I think it's her family inheritance…"  Finally, one member asked a brilliant question: "And what does it all have to do with us?  They don't know us and have no connection to us."  Everyone quickly understood that we were taking the wrong approach by assuming that all those people had "extra" money to give and that we should be the recipient.  Remember, even the wealthiest people in the world look at their giving as an investment in something that is meaningful to them, something they are passionate about.  And if your organization isn't it, don't waste your time. 

3. Failing to ask and/or failing to ask for a specific gift - One of the main reasons people don't give is because they simply haven't been asked.  You've been working so hard on cultivating a relationship with the donor, don't throw it all away just because you're afraid to ask!  Remember you're not asking for yourself, but for an organization you believe in.  What's the worst that can happen?!  The donor will say "no".  It's not personal and, if you've done the cultivation well, it's also unlikely.  Asking for a specific gift is also a good idea.  Remember, you're not doing it for your benefit, but for the donor's - instead of creating an uncomfortable unspecific request, you provide a framework, an idea of how much you're looking for to accomplish the project.

4. Having weak camp leadership - Board/Staff/Fundraising Committee - Strong leadership is a key to success whether you're raising money to run your household, your organization, or the entire country.  The reason for this is because we look up to our leaders for guidance, inspiration, and support.  Our leaders are the ones to model the behavior - internally and externally - that we are seeking from others.  If the leadership is not there, it compromises the organization's overall reputation and, with it, its ability to raise money.

5. Failing to find the right people to ask and/or failing to train them adequately - How does a child know which parent to ask depending on what s/he is after?  How much would you give if your favorite person in the world were to ask you?  Appropriately matching askers and "askees" is what it's all about.  Our goal is not just to ask a certain number of donors - it's to have them be asked by the right people so that they are more likely to say yes.  Once you've found the right people, train them by discussing a solicitation strategy, roles, and techniques; most importantly, give them the opportunity to practice before the actual solicitation.

6. Believing you can raise $1M by getting 1,000 people to give $1,000 each - Here in America we believe that people truly are created equal, but it doesn't mean that their ability to give is the same.  As Orwell taught us, some of us are more "equal" than others.  You'll need to look at the levels of giving from your existing donors and top prospects, and develop a pyramid unique to your organization.  You may discover in the process that your $1M goal is unrealistic, and better now than later when that goal has been made public.  Or, if you truly have 1,000 people who can give you $1,000 each, then maybe your goal is too low.

7. Failing to have a clear agreed upon fundraising plan and deadlines - Have you ever tried to get married without sharing at least a date, time, and location with your partner??  I hope not.  So, why is it then that so many of us do not deem important the development of a clear fundraising plan and timelines?  Using an American classic for an analogy, if your fundraising goal is Oz, your plan is the yellow brick road.  Didn't Dorothy and her friends need it to reach Oz?

8. Believing that just because your organization is for a good cause, you don't need to make a strong case to raise money - Is educating children a good cause?  Or helping the homeless?  Or sending Jewish kids to a Jewish camp?  How many more great causes can you think of?  And now think about how many of them you support … and why.  With the number of nonprofits that already exists and that open up daily in America, there is no shortage of good causes.  The problem is that many of them offer the same product or service, and also that being for a good cause is not the same as being a good organization worth supporting.  Developing a strong case for support sets you apart from your competition. It allows you to articulate a specific need/opportunity and your ability to be the best in meeting that need and engages your constituency by sharing and "infecting" them with your vision.

9. Failing to research and evaluate prospects - Do you ever buy anything significant or invest in something without researching the item and comparing it to other similar products?  My husband and I just spent 4 hours picking a Stroller and a Car Seat for our soon-to-arrive baby?!  And these are products we are talking about, so it's even more important when it comes to human beings: your prospects.  Since fundraising is about relationship-building, knowing as much as you can about your prospect, including his/her aspirations, potential, history with your organization, and more, allows you to do it more successfully.

10. Believing that you need to downsize the amount of your asks in a bad economy - Don't get me wrong, the economy is bad, but should your decision about the gift amount ever be driven by it?  No.  Because you shouldn't make assumptions about your donor's capacity and wishes.  Since this mistake really applies mostly to major donor solicitation, the last thing you want to do is to offend them by asking for a smaller amount than last year assuming, for example, that their business isn't doing well.  A good solicitation is a conversation, so let your donor tell you what they can and cannot do for your organization. 

11. Failing to cultivate prospects/Asking them too soon - Have you ever been asked for money out of the blue?  How did that make you feel?  The act of giving is a natural outcome of relationship-building, so don't confuse the order in which real philanthropy happens.

12. Believing that mismanagement (of funds and operation) has no fundraising impact - Imagine that as a result of your year-end appeal, you received a restricted donation for scholarship.  Your staff didn't deposit the check for two weeks, didn't thank the donor for another two, and then the Executive Director decides that this money is better spent as his bonus…  Wow!  We are looking at mismanagement of funds and the donor relationship, not to mention a conflict of interest.  Do you think that donor will ever give to your organization again or recommend you to others?!  Nooooooo way!  So remember, establishing transparent management practices and policies - and following them - will build your reputation and public standing which, in turn, will improve your ability to fundraise.  Just remember that today (and in the last 10 years in particular) your nonprofit management practices and policies are being scrutinized by donors, the public, government, and watch-dog organizations like GuideStar.

13. Failing to thank and steward your donors - When I was little, my Mom had a friend who gave me candy.  "Here is something sweet for a sweet girl!" she'd always say to me.  I'd take it hesitantly looking at my mother, who'd laugh and say "And what do you say, Natasha?"  And I would say "Thank you, Aunt Zina!"  When we got home, I would draw a picture of Aunt Zina giving me candy with a big Thank You at the top and bring it for her the next time.  So, in addition to giving me my mother-approved amount of candy, she'd quietly give me another one when my Mom wasn't looking.  Whether it was right or wrong, good or bad, the point is my stewardship strategy worked and came very naturally.  Didn't we all have an aunt just like this one?!

14. Believing that all you need to do to raise money is get a grant or two - Let's say you do receive two grants ($100K and $50K) year after year that take care of your entire annual fundraising goal.  Good for you!  But what's going to happen the moment one of them ceases to exist?!  You never want to put all of your eggs in one basket.  On the contrary, you want to diversify the sources of your fundraising income as much as possible so that if one diminishes or even dries up, your organization can still stay financially healthy and serve its mission.

15. Failing to focus on and see your top prospects in person - When you're looking for a job and networking with people, you first go to your top, most promising contacts, rights?  And you'll meet with them for coffee or lunch?  The only difference is that instead of asking them for money, you are asking them for help finding a job.  The same logic applies to a fundraising strategy of needing to focus on your top prospects and making sure to see them in person.  What it means is that anything you do vis-à-vis your top donors should take the majority of your time, including finding the right solicitor, developing a strategy for the face-to-face meeting, and finally scheduling the meeting.

16. Failing to close the solicitation once it has been made - If you don't have many years of experience asking for funds, you may easily, though unintentionally, fail to close the gift.  But this teeny tiny step is crucial.  To avoid misunderstandings with donors, invest time and energy into teaching your staff and volunteers closing techniques as well as ways not to forget this important step in the post-ask excitement.

17. Believing that Fundraising is a static process that doesn't require adjustment of strategies - "…The world and how we do business has changed…," President Obama said in his State of the Union speech.  And so should we and our fundraising approaches.  I'm not suggesting that we disregard traditional fundraising wisdom, but we should question it and adjust our strategies to the current reality and trends. For example, women today play a very different role in philanthropy than they used to (both as independent donors or as spouses/partners who are part of the decision-making process). We also see more and more younger people participating in philanthropy more actively than ever before, and we need to take them and their interests into account and adjust our fundraising strategy accordingly.

18. Failing to utilize Technology - These days you can't afford not to use the Technology available for Fundraising management and outreach as this would be the biggest waste of your donors' money.  Technology is not a panacea and mustn't replace other fundraising strategies, but it is something that can make you competitive or drive you out of business no matter how good your cause is.