6. Fundraising and Gardening

Tips to grow your nonprofit’s greens

I love gardening. Fundraising, not so much. However, in the nonprofit world it is a necessary activity. What a concept, raise money (hard work) to support staff salary in order to be able to get the meaningful mission done (the real work). When I think of fundraising as gardening, it makes the process more meaningful and palatable in consideration of building a sustainable organization that endures to the next generation.

Sunflower in my little backyard Austin garden in 2020.

While I fundraised more than half a million dollars as well as recruited 10 board members and passed two bills in the Texas Legislature, I do not portend to know it all about leading a nonprofit. My grant proposals still get turned down. A $5,000 ask that I spend days on becomes a $1,500 grant. And in the case of board development, two of the 10 board members I recruited became part of the demise of the statewide nonprofit I ran. They made fiscally irresponsible decisions without the consent of the rest of the board and directed me to give nearly three-quarters of a million dollars to a rogue chapter that was not yet an official 501(c)3. Here’s what I learned in my crash course to fundraising against all internal odds.

Prep the Soil

First, finding a development professional to contract with or working with a partner organization that can share that resource is ideal. Hiring a development officer can be an incredible asset for a nonprofit, but it can be fiscally out-of-reach for most organizations in the first few years of startup or in a turnaround. A development professional will have connections or understand the connections you need to successfully fundraise along with improving current revenue streams like events, membership, and pipeline of foundation/donors. As always, good board members that understand fundraising and its importance can make all the difference too.

Raised gardens are like people who help you fundraise, they protect your back and make life easier!

Plan for Success

Second, put the work into a plan. I delineate my plan by month, identifying the source of potential revenue, key stakeholders, and correspondence notes. This will provide a helpful roadmap for the board to support in introductions as well as for the next organizational leader. Starting out the year with a balanced budget is key to guiding fiscal success and realistically looking at possible grants and donors.

Plant the Seeds

In Rising Strong, Brene Brown captured the dichotomy of storytelling and fundraising for a nonprofit leader by stating “vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

As a nonprofit executive, you must story tell, which is inherently a vulnerable act. Part of this fundraising journey is to tell the organization’s story, from the heart. The best fundraisers can weave the organization’s impact story with their own, thus imploring the funder or donor to take action. However, I do work hard to remember in the face of disappointment, that not every “no” is directed at me personally. Foundation’s have to answer to their own boards. Companies have their own bottom line to attend. And you never know when planting that story seed can grow into a collective impact opportunity, helpful contact, potential board member, extraordinary volunteer, or a larger bucket of money for the organization down the road.

Take the meeting. Tell the story. Be transparent and fact-based. Demonstrate the good work your organization is doing. Till the soil, plant the seed, then sit back and wait for the rain clouds to roll in.

Cultivating the Starts

If a foundation or donor makes a philanthropic investment, it’s up to you to cultivate that relationship. They have to be updated on the good work and educated on how their invested dollars made an impact. These relationships are important in the organization’s long game and coming back to donors who were treated well and appreciated will be all the difference from a donor who has gone cold. In my last role, I was introduced to the corpses of the organizational donors and it was an excruciating process. I would learn what these donors had given in the past, their expansive current giving capacity, only to find that they were done with the organization because they were not properly communicated with over the years. Keep them engaged.

One of my first places to put my new Master Gardener skills to use, our home in Hutto.

The Happy Garden’s Bounty

When you put these methods into practice you create a healthy pipeline of revenue for the organization. Someone once told me that an average life span of a nonprofit executive director is two years at any given organization. What that leader accomplishes in that short amount of time will have a lasting effect on the nonprofit and the needed financial security for scalable and sustainable growth.

When an executive director works hard for the mission and makes clear progress in fundraising for the organization, it may result in their personal burn out or simply needing a change of environment. It then becomes the board’s responsibility to transition that executive director out or provide them with the resources they need to re-energize. When a board or organization treats a hardworking outgoing executive director badly it is typically indicative of highly dysfunctional management model and funders will pick up on this. A good organization has a solid transition in leadership and is ready to pass the torch or the garden’s bounty to the next generation.

**Pictures in this article are from some of the gardens I’ve touched over my lifetime. The best fundraising is like the best gardening, it takes patience and time to grow.

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