No Shortcuts to Success: A Real-Talk Guide to Successful Fundraising

Published by on March 5, 2024

Find Your Own Fundraising Success Nonprofit Pro

Philanthropy is not a spectator sport. This is the one mantra I have lived my professional life by. Successful fundraising is hard. Really hard. It is not for everyone, and it is especially not for the faint of heart. 

I’m not standing on my lawn shaking my fist as I write this. I truly and deeply love the nonprofit sector, especially those involved in fund development – something I have participated in for more than 30 years. I wanted to play second base for the Chicago Cubs or get into litigation. I never thought that I would be in nonprofit fundraising. But I can’t hit a curve, and I wanted a more immediate, direct impact on the world around me. Nonprofit fund development has offered me that chance. 

In development, we have the good fortune to support incredible organizations doing critical work, and, even more importantly, we have the great privilege of facilitating the resources needed to make missions happen in very tangible ways. 

Why Flashy Doesn’t Always Mean Effective

There seems to be a growing serious case of magpie syndrome: chasing shiny objects because we think it will make our lives easier or because we are told we have to (because it makes someone else’s life easier.)

It is madness making us spectators in our own work. 

Yes, there is A LOT of great content available. BUT we are CONSTANTLY offered ways to “make the work easier,” a secret formula, process, or tool like no other that will give us some multiple of revenue we’ve never experienced. And that’s just in my social feeds. Don’t even get me started on the “suggestions” — nee demands — that board members and Executive Directors put on us to do things more effectively, cheaper, more creatively…”like SUPER COOL ORG does.” How do I put this delicately? I don’t: BARF. 

 The Unvarnished Truth of Successful Fundraising

Consistency: The Unsung Hero of Successful Fundraising

I’m going to say this right here and now: no system, formula, tool, or secret makes fundraising easier. No genie ready to grant all your fundraising wishes. With over 30 years of experience, I know this to be true. Oh, AND, to go a step further, AI won’t either — so we can all stop worrying about the robot overlords. For now…

Translation? There are no shortcuts. And you know what else?  I don’t have any more F’s to give when I say that anyone who claims that there is a secret formula, hack, or shortcut to success is offering nothing but a lot of jazz hands.

I use plenty of tools daily and developed a system long ago to make sense of the multiple-priority circus, but those tools don’t make fundraising easier. At best, these tools can give you the discipline or the confidence to do hard work. And maybe that is enough – but I don’t think it is because far too often, people end up being managed by the tools, not managing them.

They chase the next thing, the “right” tool, the super creative idea that they hope will make a campaign a success. And when none of those things materialize, when – GASP! – they realize hope is not a successful fundraising strategy, they start all over, insisting that what they need is still out there if they could only find it.

 Tools I use for successful fundraising

Name of ToolWhat the Tool is forFundraising Use CasesCost for Nonprofits
TodoistTask managementOrganizing tasks and deadlines for fundraising campaignsVaries; offers discounts for nonprofits
Trello / AsanaProject managementManaging fundraising projects and collaborationVaries; free versions are available, paid plans offer more features
Spark (email)Email clientSending out fundraising campaign emails and newslettersFree for basic use; paid plans offer more features
SlackCommunication platformTeam communication and coordination for fundraising eventsFree for basic use; paid plans offer more features
Auxilia CRMCustomer Relationship ManagementManaging donor relationships and fundraising activitiesVaries; typically offers nonprofit discounts
Various office toolsProductivity and document managementDocument creation, management, and collaboration for fundraisingVaries; many office tools offer nonprofit discounts
TogglTime trackingTracking time spent on various fundraising activitiesFree for basic use; paid plans offer more features
CraftNote-taking and document managementCreating and managing fundraising planning documentsSubscription-based; costs vary
PaperPhysical record-keeping and brainstormingTraditional brainstorming, notes, and reminders for fundraisingCost of paper and related supplies

The Unvarnished Truth of Successful Fundraising

Mystery solved: successful fundraising is you being relentlessly consistent, dare I say, boring? Yes, yes, I dare. Because “boring” isn’t boring. By being boring, you are getting things done. Boring means that you have a chance to show up every day, whatever that may look like. It means you can do the work that moves things forward, even in small ways. Maybe it is one paragraph on a grant or a direct mail appeal. Maybe it is one phone call or one acknowledgment. Maybe it is one email to a potential supporter to start the engagement process. It doesn’t matter. It is progress. Progress that YOU are making. Give yourself some credit. 

Debunking Fundraising Myths

The work requires you to be willing to do it. Day in and day out. Yes, AI or a system can help you organize yourself, GAWD knows I’m a sucker for organizational tools, but at some point, YOU have to do the work. Write the appeal or grant, pick up the phone, look someone in the eye and say, “our values and vision are aligned, will you invest X to help us take this cause further…” 

The maxim is “no money, no mission” (aside, I would say that that maxim gives far too much power to those with money; it should be the reverse.) That maxim puts extraordinary pressure on fundraisers, making them feel they must constantly be creative and find new and different ways to do X or Y, or even Z is no way to live. It isn’t a way to raise money, either. It is a first-class ticket to Burnoutville; we can’t have that. Not now; the stakes are too high. No, we are not saviors, but we are doing valuable work.

Making matters more challenging? Far too many leaders want fundraising to be “fun,” “creative,” or “easy.” For them. They don’t have the desire to do the challenging day-in and day out that makes fundraising work. They claim not to have the time, and how dare you if you seek to strike a balance in your life. They assume you’re not doing enough if it isn’t “shiny.”  If you’re an ED or leader of an organization and you have embraced development, and you’re willing to be a true partner by empowering those around you to be successful, KEEP DOING THAT. Seriously. If more people see you rocking it, that’s how we will affect actual change. Know that you are not alone in this effort, even if it feels like you are. 

Embracing Realism in Fundraising: Respect, Resources, and Realistic Goals

We deserve all the support and resources necessary to do this work. We deserve workplaces that are not toxic, that are respectful, and that reflect reality – that means realistic goals, that means leadership that respects us and the work we do and doesn’t come to us saying, “how come we are getting money from <insert name of super-rich philanthropist here>” TBH that’s a whole different blog post. 

Often, it feels grinding and thankless because often it is even in the best of circumstances. But we have all we need to do this work – we have ways to communicate, we have a reason for working within a mission, and we have a community around us to support us when things feel most challenging. We can do it, but more and more, it seems like we are letting others dictate to us how we should do something, or we get in our own way and are afraid to do something – even if we know it is the right thing to do, so we look for ways to make it less scary, easier, safer. It isn’t any of those things. Now is the time to be confident in ourselves, believe in our work, and refuse to fall/be pushed into the trap that there’s some magical way of identifying, securing, and stewarding the support our organizations need to do their good work. 

Are you ready?

Or are you a spectator?

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Paul F. Morris is a highly-skilled professional comfortable with strategic visioning and “brass-tacks” tactical fundraising. Over a 30+ year career in fundraising, Paul’s work has resulted in millions of millions of dollars being raised and thousands of donors being engaged for a wide spectrum of not-for-profit organizations. Now, in his consulting practice, Paul works with clients nationwide with a focus on planning/systems, annual
and major gift support, and grants. He is also a passionate member of The Nonprofit Hive community and was an original member.

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