• Featured Expert: Elizabeth Finlayson On The Importance Of Individuals To Non-Profits

    LizHeadshotElizabeth Finlayson is an independent development consultant and an expert for DonorPath software. She has been working in fundraising since 2001 and has recently served such clients as the Chicago Child Care Society, MoneyThink, and No More Empty Pots. She can be reached at [email protected].


    Kelly Luchtman, Lightfellow: When I was on the board of a small non-profit, I remember struggling to decide which type of donor to pursue the hardest: corporate, foundation, government or individual. We hired Elizabeth Finlayson to come in for a workshop, and she gave us direction with this one statistic: 80% of your funding will come from individuals. So in prioritizing our small board and even smaller staff’s efforts, we decided to focus on individuals for now, and tackle the others later. I asked Elizabeth if I could interview her for this newsletter, and she graciously agreed.

    Why are individual donors crucial to non-profits?

    Elizabeth: Newer, smaller organizations tend to think “I need to get foundation and corporate funding,” and if you are a newer organization, you do want to go to foundations, because they may give you some of your first breaks. But they also tend to take a funding break after 3 years. Corporations are going to be harder to get until you build a name for yourself and their support is based on their budgets for the year. Individual donors, however, are more loyal; they’ll stay with you during a recession, when everybody else is cutting back. Individuals will believe in you and stay with you, and those dollars are really, really important.

    Many people find asking a person for money nerve wracking.

    When people are scared about asking, a lot of times it’s because they don’t have the preparation that’s going to help them feel confident. If you have researched someone well, you should be able to walk into a meeting with a pretty good idea that they already like to give to organizations [like yours], or maybe you see in your database that they’ve come to a few events before.

    I find once I get a one-on-one meeting with someone, there is already some kind of interest there, otherwise he or she wouldn’t be there. When you’ve had several meetings with someone and have gotten to know them over time, you should be able to ask. Often the analogy is made of proposing marriage. If you’ve been dating long enough, a proposal is a natural outgrowth of the relationship; it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Proposing marriage on the 3rd date or the 1st date, that is scary.

    What are some suggestions for building a relationship with donors?

    You write handwritten notes on your newsletters, you invite them to events.

    You have all these methods for testing people’s interest. You have direct mail that you send out at least once a year. If people are responding at a little bit of a higher level, that’s a hint that they can be a little more involved.

    As a fundraiser, I use surveys or requests for feedback on strategic plans, recent programs or events, to make contact with someone. You constantly want a back and forth with your potential donor. You don’t want to just think of them as a checkbook, and they don’t want to be thought of that way.

    After you’ve reached out to your own contacts, where do you find prospects?

    You research. It’s best to start by looking at similar non-profit organizations by mission, size and geography. Go to the section on their website with their publications. Look at their annual reports for the last couple years and review their donor lists. This is the beginning of your “suspect” list.

    The next step, then, is to present the list to your board, committees, and major donors to ask if they know the individual or a person at the organization, because the personal introduction is so important. And don’t neglect new advocates who can connect you to prospects. If you’re having a first-time meeting with someone who wants to be helpful, show them how they can best do that.

    What’s tough even for seasoned fundraisers to do?

    Personally, I find that the hardest part is going after people you really know. I enjoy asking people because I enjoy getting to know them and supporting an organization I believe in, but when I have to ask my OWN people and there are ramifications in my own life, it’s much harder to do. However, I think it’s important to do, and if you’re upfront about your own motives people are usually receptive…and some may even thank you for introducing them to a great cause.


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