10 Common Mistakes Nonprofits Make While Fundraising

Over the course of my 40+ years, I’ve observed that most organizations make the same mistakes that end up negatively impacting their fundraising programs. Following is a list of the top ten fundraising mistakes, counting down from number 10 (David Letterman style… ).

Mistake #10: Treating donors like commodities

It’s pretty easy in our data-driven world to think about donors in terms of their bank accounts and donor IDs. Donors are not ATMs nor should they be treated as such. Instead, you need to remember that on the other side of the donor ID is a person with real needs and a heart to support your work. This mindset will help you do those things that will develop a long-term relationship with your donors, and as a result, they will become more committed to your ministry, both emotionally and financially.

Mistake #9: Believing there is a magic bullet to fundraising success

At Dunham+Company, we subscribe to the Vince Lombardi School of Fundraising: it’s all about consistently executing the fundamentals well. Vince Lombard is the winningest coach in professional football, and if you read any of his story, he was always about consistently drilling into his teams the importance of knowing and executing the fundamentals well. The same goes for fundraising. There is no magic bullet. The best fundraising program understands the fundamentals of successful fundraising and commits to consistently executing those fundamentals well.

Mistake #8: Believing you can grow revenue by cutting expenses

You can’t cut your way to growth. It’s impossible. When organizations face difficult financial headwinds, the tendency for many is to cut expenses across the board, including the development or fundraising budget. Instead, they need to protect those expenses that will drive revenue.

Mistake #7: Expecting growth to be linear        

Many board members and CEOs go apoplectic when revenue dips for a month or two. The reality is, the philanthropic environment experiences seasonal ebbs and flows, and there are always uncontrollable variables that can affect your fundraising program. Every month can’t be a record month. Rather, an effective fundraising program works to a plan that can be adjusted to ensure the program is trending positive.

Mistake #6: Believing that donors actually care about your organization

This may seem harsh, but it’s true. Donors don’t care about your organization; they care about your cause and the work you do to transform lives. Many ministries focus on communicating what they do, like digging wells, feeding children, helping the homeless or educating students. That’s really not what your donors are supporting. Instead, they are supporting the outcomes of those activities and the effects they have on the lives being reached.

Mistake #5: Neglecting to diversify revenue streams

At Dunham+Company, we believe the most effective fundraising program is one that has diversified streams of revenue. Think of your program like an investment portfolio. You would never take all of your money and put it into a single investment, but instead, you would diversify to provide stability and counter market swings. The same goes for fundraising. You need a diversified portfolio of income that will help you weather whatever economic storms might come your way.

Mistake #4: Failing to develop a brand strategy

Your ministry has a lot of competition from similar organizations, so how do you stand out from the rest? How do you convey the need for what you do and, as a result, inspire donors to support you? A brand strategy articulates the distinct promise that your organization makes within your marketplace and helps you cut through the clutter to connect with your audience in a way that is uniquely you.

Mistake #3: Thinking that your preferences matter – because they really don’t

Your like or dislike of marketing and fundraising techniques can’t factor into your strategy. For example, you may not like telemarketing, but it’s one of the most effective ways to reactivate lapsed donors and you can’t push it aside. Instead, you have to focus on using the particular tactic or channel you need to use for the outcome you desire whether it’s your personal preference or not.

Mistake #2: Confusing your own burnout for donor fatigue

I don’t believe donor fatigue exists. Just boring or irrelevant communication. You have to remember that your donors don’t think about your ministry 24/7. You live, eat, and breathe your work, but they don’t. So, when you start getting burned out on a campaign, that’s probably when your audience is beginning to engage with it because they haven’t spent nearly as much time with it as you.

Mistake #1: Believing that amateur input will result in professional output

How you develop your strategy and your marketing will determine its effectiveness and results. This is why I strongly encourage you to use outside expertise when your staff lacks training or experience – because if you develop a direct mail piece or social media strategy without knowing the best practices, then you won’t achieve the success you are looking for. Think of one of those cooking shows. An amateur chef never outperforms a professional no matter how well-meaning or passionate they might be.

For more information about fundraising best practices, check out Rick’s Dunham Institute course, Fundamentals of Effective Fundraising.


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