Fundraising case study

Our organisation provides support services to a diverse range of disadvantaged people in the community. But as is typical for many social services, the vast majority of our income is received through government grants. However while these funds are administered through governments, they are funds provided through the redistribution of taxes and as such are also public funds. These grants fund the core of our service provision but based on our experience we thought fundraising might assist the organisation to supplement our income and fund innovative activities to support service provision.

Fundraising is of course, part of everyday life in a not-for-profit organisation and we were no different. For many years we have had a strong donor base through a relationship with a faith community and local small businesses. However, we were not reaching out to potential new donors. Due to a growing profile for our organisation, we needed to rearrange how we could continue to maintain and grow the interest and support we were receiving from a wide range of stakeholders. We wanted to strengthen our existing donor relationships as well as build our donor base.

Our Board, through the strategic planning process, recognised that we needed to rearrange roles and responsibilities to support the Board and the Coordinator in maintaining the relationships with donors and volunteers. In order to do this the Board supported a decision to invest in skill development across the organisation in understanding philanthropy, governance and fundraising. Several staff members working in roles across the organisation such as Quality Management and Finance Management enrolled in courses at Queensland University of Technology’s Australian Centre for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Studies (ACPNS – more on this later).

Our relationships with donors, volunteers and other community stakeholders was an area of interest that I particularly wanted to develop. I was already in the position of Community Liaison, working with community stakeholders who were supporting our work at a crisis centre we operate. While studying fundraising at QUT I became very excited about our organisation launching capital campaigns, online planned giving and bequest programs. However, what I was to learn is that there is a lot of groundwork that needs to occur internally to prepare an organisation before it can launch into structured fundraising.

I got started by networking. You have to get out there and meet people. Expanding our networks within the business sector and reaching into the general community was a great way to become known in the ‘marketplace’ and to conduct market research. One of the most valuable things I did in this regard was to join a business network. The particular network I joined worked on a ‘givers gain’ business referral methodology and was open to discovering how this system of reciprocity could support a not-for-profit. At weekly breakfast meetings, each member is able to market their business with a 60 second ‘infomercial’. As a marketing exercise, this became a great training ground and where I could:

  • Hone our organisation’s message. Being able to succinctly introduce who we are and what we do is vital to communicating with potential supporters. It is the ‘elevator speech’ but I also learned that you should be able to say as much in one sentence. That might be all the time you have to grab someone’s attention.
  • Tell stories. Fundraisers usually need to be good raconteurs. Facts and figures are great for illustrating the magnitude of your cause but nothing is as powerful as the story of just one person and how your organisation helped them. It is easier for your audience to connect with another person and the reality of their experience than statistics. After you leave them they will more likely remember the story you told than the numbers you prattled off.
  • Learn what to ask for and how to ask for it. You have to know what you want for people to know what they need to give you. One of the most vital and for many, scariest elements of fundraising is ‘The Ask’. I found it very confronting to come straight out and ask for what we need until someone in the network just said, “Tell us what you need; we won’t know unless you tell us”. It turned out the more direct the ask, the better the response. The second part of this learning was that if you are going to put the call out, you had better be ready for what you will receive. Systems and resources need to be devoted to receiving support from the community e.g. recruiting volunteers; processing donations; receiving in kind support.

This was perhaps the most significant learning since our organisation started on this path of expanding our fundraising. It exposed the areas in our organisation that needed to be developed if we were to really go to market with formalised fundraising strategies. It is impossible to launch a capital campaign or planned giving program without a whole host of resources to make it happen. What we have been learning over the past three years since the Board decided to dedicate resources to this work, is that there is a great amount of preparedness that needs to happen to bring an organisation like ours to a place where we are ready to go to market.

As we have grown as an organisation, we have been steadily building our capacity to grow our fundraising. We had to learn how to get the most out of our existing resources – especially our staff. For example, we purchased donor database software to manage our donor relations but we do not have a fundraising team dedicated to the task of maintaining the database. So we trained our Administration and Finance teams and they now share the work of managing the database. In recent times we have been able to employ a Marketing and Communications Manager. We recognised that at the end of the day, a professional approach was needed towards this work. This is a major step towards building our capacity to launch major fundraising campaigns. To support this staff person, we’ve trained other staff (myself included) in skills such as writing media releases. In this way, we have been able to create a Marketing and Communications team without hiring specialised staff.

Understanding where our organisation was at in our journey is something I would have liked to have known at the start. Furthermore, it became apparent that at the very start that you have to have a clear understanding of the role of your organisation in society. As social services, we have a role that is much more than the government contracts that fund our work but is instead driven by our mission. Recognising that role and articulating it is vital to our message.

What we would have done differently is to have done all of this work much earlier! Hindsight (isn’t it a marvellous thing?) showed us that we should have dedicated resources and started on a strategy to engage donors and marketing and communication our message to the community sooner than we did. Ah well, better late than never!

Sometimes we learned the hard way what works and what doesn’t in fundraising in social services. One of the tough lessons I learned was that all of our staff had to have an awareness of how to relate to donors; all of our staff are potentially fundraisers. I nearly died the day a kind soul came to our crisis centre with bags of donated clothes and one of our staff loudly announced, “Where did all of this rubbish come from?” right in front of the donor!

Here is a list of what does and does not work compiled from our experience and what we have seen other organisations do in the sector:

What doesn't work:

  • using social services or government jargon to communicate what we do with the public
  • complaining about the conditions of government funding and wages 
  • being negative about other organisations
  • adopting language that does not reflect the core values of the organisation 
  • using business language about products to describe people (we are in the business of people not transactions or products)
  • not having a clear mission 
  • not having clear fundraising goals
  • not bringing the whole organisation along with you in the change
  • valuing change as a strength and motivation towards a goal and not a response to deficits
  • a belief that business and corporate people do not have values and or do not understand the issues to which we are responding.

What does work:

  • providing a clear message to donors about where donations go 
  • providing feedback about the difference the donation made to people lives
  • open and accountable information to donors
  • acknowledgement and inclusion of donors in organisational celebrations
  • engaging and training all staff in basic donor relations
  • having an inspirational message
  • being positive and optimistic 
  • problem-solving the wishes of donors that have the potential to compromise your organisation’s integrity; e.g. a donor wants to be photographed ‘with the poor kiddies’ that their donation goes towards. Instead, set up a photo opportunity with staff and use the opportunity to educate your donor about what it means to uphold the dignity of vulnerable people.
  • using every opportunity to education people about the mission and not just the need for money
  • make the most of every situation and opportunity – you never know who your next donor or supporter could be
  • developing a common mission – where our values and worlds intersect with the donors’
  • remembering that people have families and friends who may share the experiences of your organisation’s work e.g. supporting people with a disability, mental illness etc.

Our Coordinator has said the the most useful resource in fundraisging needs to be a passion for the mission of the organisation; an understanding of the journey the organisation has been on; and a commitment to the aspiration to make a difference in the lives of people for whom our organisation exists.

Professional development

Professional development continues to be essential for building my skills and confidence in fundraising and continues to guide me in my work. Here are some of the most helpful resources I utilise:

  • Mentors really help to guide me in my work and give me personal encouragement. Over the years I have utilised different mentors for different stages in my professional journey and for different aspects of the work. For example, in the early days a business coach was great for helping me learn about converting people with a mild interest in our work into donors through common sales techniques. For guidance on how to always keep marketing and communications relevant to our work in the community, the Coordinator of our organisation continues to be an invaluable mentor.
  • Reading, in print or online, is a great way to fit professional development into your schedule. I found Fundraising Management: Analysis, Planning and Practice by Adrian Seargant and Elaine Jay to be full of practical information. Subscribing to publications like Fundraising and Philanthropy Australia or enewsletters like the Not-For-Profit Network’s Finding Funds is a great way to get new ideas and keep on top of developments in the sector. Our Community ( is a fantastic resource that all Australian not-for-profits should tap into.
  • Workshops and lectures can be great ways to hear first hand from the experience of others and interact with other people in fundraising. I have found the Fundraising Institute of Australia’s Professional Development breakfast series to always be engaging and informative. Take a notebook!
  • Formal study really cements your understanding of fundraising and gives you a qualification. ACPNS offers post-graduate business courses with flexible entry requirements. The teaching staff are extremely supportive and there are scholarships and bursaries are on offer. Much more than just fundraising, the courses give a very broad understanding of the business of being a not-for-profit organisation.
  • Peers of other professionals in fundraising offer support and ideas to assist in your work.
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