Getting New Charitable Donors For Your Nonprofit

Ten ways to recruit new donors for your nonprofit.

By , J.D.

Individual donors are crucial to the fundraising success of most nonprofits. But finding new donors is among every charitable organization's biggest challenges. So what's the best way to build your list of donors? Here are ten good methods.

1. Collect Names Whenever Possible

Every name added to your mailing list is potentially precious, representing someone who can be cultivated into a major, lifetime, or even legacy donor. You're probably doing a lot to collect names already. But could you be missing anyone? Don't forget to collect the names of people who call for advice, pay cash to attend an event or benefit (or come to an event as a guest of someone else), or stop at your open house.

To capture names of non-paying guests at events, hold a small raffle or giveaway, register people for a silent auction, or simply put out a sign-up sheet for people wanting more information.

Any member of your organization's staff who interacts with the public should also be ready with a standard question like, "Can I take your address or email and send you more information about what we do?" Email is often the least threatening for people, who know it's easy to delete if they're not interested.

Respect donor's wishes regarding the use of their names. Putting someone on your mailing list shouldn't be a prelude to drowning them in a stream of requests for money. You need to be ready to also follow up with genuine information, such as a newsletter or encouragement to get involved in your activities. And create a system allowing people to opt out of receiving your mailed or emailed communications.

2. Create Ways to Interact With Potential Donors

Be creative about ways to reach out to people so that they want to give you their names or the names of friends. For example, some theatre troupes will ask for written audience participation—for example, to vote on the best outcome for the play—but require both a name and contact information in order to vote.

Many advocacy groups ask their website visitors to sign petitions (and forward them to their friends) also requiring contact information. Contests are also a way to create action through your website. Examples include a competition to raise the most money through grassroots efforts or to suggest the best name for an animal under your care.

Don't forget to continue cultivating existing donors. It costs a lot less to keep a donor than to find a new one—for most organizations, around 20% of the amount.

3. Get Names of Prospects From Board Members, Staff, and Volunteers

Request that people in your organization's inner circle pull out their address books and provide you with names. That's especially important to do on a regular basis, so that you capture information from new staff and changed contacts and friends. Or consider an outreach campaign—for example, asking volunteers to make a pitch at their workplace for more volunteers or to their friends.

4. Capture a High-End Donor's Interest With an Intriguing Trip or Insider's Benefit

One new major donor will make up for a big shortfall in other donors. If you have a connection to a potential high-end donor, look for a hook, or something your organization can uniquely provide to pique that person's interest.

The classic example is a foreign trip or nature tour, especially popular among environmental organizations. Tailor the trip or tour so that it introduces participants to the work your nonprofit does. Sign up existing donors and then invite new ones. Be sure to get names of people who couldn't come but want to hear about upcoming events.

Charge participants enough to cover the event costs and more—but don't focus only on immediate profit. Seeing your work up close might impact a participant so much that they begin making major gifts, host a fundraising reception, give you names of friends, and so on.

If major trips are beyond your capacities, look for other things you can offer to potential high-end donors—say, a behind the scenes tour of your prenatal unit or theater set. There's no substitute for showing what you're doing, especially if it's a sneak peek not available to the general public.

5. Provide Short-Term Volunteer Opportunities

Getting volunteer help can offset your need to fundraise, and many volunteers turn into donors. But training and orienting new volunteers can be a full-time job by itself. That's why planning a short-term or temporary volunteer activity can be ideal, like fixing a building or cleaning up a beach. And it attracts people who are too busy to sign up for a longer commitment. Find new volunteers by:

  • approaching a local business about having its staff come and pitch in
  • posting your event on volunteer or social networking websites (as well as your own website), and
  • talking to local religious organizations, schools, or community groups.

Be sure to make the day fun, collect the names of every participant and, ideally, reward them with food!

6. Trade Mailing Lists With Another Organization

If you're using direct mail to reach out to prospective new donors, you might have experience with buying (really, renting) a mailing list from a marketing company that acts as middleman. But, if this isn't in your budget right now, think about a one-time trade with another nonprofit.

Although research shows that you won't end up stealing away each other's donors, both of you will probably feel more secure if your missions aren't too similar. But look for alignments in donor sympathies. For example, a donor who supports military veterans counseling services might also support a program that retrains veterans in organic farming techniques.

7. Be Active on Social Networks

Establishing a consistent presence and interesting voice on social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter allows you to reap the advantages of people-to-people fundraising, in which your fans or supporters tell their friends about your cause and fundraising needs, and maybe even find their own ways to raise money for you. Some of this activity will yield only one-time donations, but with the right attention, you might turn some donors into long-term ones.

8. Hold a Joint Event With Another Organization

If your organization isn't usually in the public eye, hold an event with another organization that is. For example, a women's services group might help plan and carry out a performance by a women's choir. Of course, your groups could trade mailing lists for purposes of promoting the event, and maybe for other purposes, too. Don't forget to use the intermission or other break to cross-promote both groups to people who attend.

9. Change How You Communicate With the Outside World

Many organizations have pools of potential donors, such as like alumni or past clients, that they can't quite figure out how to turn into donors. Also, every organization has some lapsed donors, who were interested enough to give money to you once and may be ready to be approached again.

To determine how to best get these folks to donate, take a hard look at how your organization communicates with the world. For example, if you publish a newsletter, does it assume that its readers are mostly of a certain age? If so, you might include stories directed at older or younger readers.

If reaching younger people is your challenge, ask a young staff person to help, perhaps by creating some buzz on a social networking site.

10. Try Something Wacky

Potential donors (and maybe you, too) might be tired of formulaic letters, gala dinners, and other standard fundraising approaches. For a break, try something offbeat (but not too time-consuming). Perhaps a dunk tank at a local festival, a moustache contest (online or off), or some variant of cow bingo.

At the very least, you might get some press coverage for your nonprofit organization, which is another nice way to raise awareness and even direct contact from interested supporters.

For a comprehensive, plain-English guide on gaining support, get Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits: Real-World Strategies That Work, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).

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