Fundraising Expert Roundup

smiling woman and man working

What’s essential to successful fundraising? And what’s the biggest factor you’ve seen that prevents nonprofits from fully realizing their fundraising potential?

These are the questions I asked to learn more about how to understand key drivers in the nonprofit sector.  With nearly 2 million non-profits in the US, many organizations struggle to choose which traditional and digital fundraising tactics are best for them. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and like you’re not going anywhere. Fundraising best practices are important barometers for performance for nonprofits. But they aren’t for every organization. 

What are the tried and true factors that help and hurt fundraising growth? 

I turned to 9 of my incredible network of fundraising and nonprofit expert peers for their thoughts on what they think drives nonprofit fundraising successes and challenges.


In order to be successful in your fundraising efforts, nonprofit professionals need to understand that they are not their audience. Even if you don’t like Instagram, you don’t want email, you don’t like storytelling, etc. - your donors may respond to these strategies. It’s vital that fundraisers take a step back from their own experiences and preferences and take the time to truly understand what their donors want, what they need, and the kind of information that they crave.

Nonprofits get stuck in the martyrdom cycle - thinking that they are entitled to people’s attention and money simply because they do great work and because they are bootstrapping and have limited resources. Being successful in fundraising, digital or otherwise, requires a lot of time, effort, and creativity - there are no shortcuts, even if you are a tiny nonprofit with no paid staff. But that doesn’t mean that fundraisers are doomed before they even start. Start small, be consistent, show up for your donors, become a valued resource to your audience. Think of fundraising like a marathon and not a sprint.


Too many well-intentioned people get into nonprofits without realizing how to fund the work. So, they treat fundraising as a dirty task, something to be subcontracted to the least experienced person as quickly as possible. Leaders just want to get generating revenue off their back. But as I recently told a group of NGO leaders in Beirut: nonprofit leaders ARE fundraisers.

Stephen Covey used to say, "When you pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other end too." In this case, when you pick up the end of the stick of nonprofit work, you pick up the other end: fundraising. Every single person in a nonprofit is responsible for some aspect of fundraising. Leaders especially. It's good to get great, skilled help to run the fundraising.

After all, fundraising IS a profession. But the leader will always need to be actively involved in generating revenue. Living like fundraising is somebody else's responsibility is sabotaging some of the best social service work. Work the world desperately needs.


Successful fundraising requires a long-term communications game plan that looks at how and why people connect with your cause from the very beginning and how they will continue to engage with your organization over time. If you only focus on the myopic goals like "How much did this month's appeal raise?" then you are missing tremendous opportunities to build donor loyalty and the kinds of donor relationships that sustain nonprofits over time.


Your board can make (or break!) your fundraising efforts. Recruiting, managing and engaging a leadership team made up solely of volunteers is one of the most ambitious, delicate, and daunting responsibilities an Executive Director will have.

Your board needs training to be successful in fundraising. We aren’t born knowing how to be confident, successful fundraisers. It is a skill like anything else. Most nonprofit professionals I meet are frustrated by their board’s unwillingness to engage in fundraising. When I ask how often they provide training for their board members, the room goes silent. Your board doesn’t know what they haven’t been taught and until they feel confident about fundraising they will likely feel intimidated by it.

The biggest factor that keeps nonprofit boards from realizing their fundraising potential is we jump ahead to the fundraising tasks we want our board to carry out for us (like sharing all the prospects they know that we want to meet) without helping them first understand the role fundraising plays in our organization and feel the real joy of giving. Giving truly does feel amazing. Scientifically it’s the neurological equivalent of winning the lottery.

When we start from that place board members don’t feel like asking is taking something away from someone. They realize it’s an invitation and it feels less scary and intimidating. Ultimately, we must create conditions that help board members motivate themselves and making fundraising feel joyful is the most important step.


If an organization really wants to be successful in fundraising, they need to have focus. There are few different ways to think about this word. There’s focus in message, focus in the ask, and focus on people. Focus in the message is where a lot of organizations go wrong. They start with “here’s why you should give.” It’s very much around “here’s what’s on our agenda, you should support us.” Flip it to “let’s talk about the big picture and the world around us.” Then you can engage people in a more meaningful way.  The fundraising campaign is more of a two-way conversation than “help us meet our goals.” It should be “let’s solve this together.”

Next, there’s focus on people. You have to think about who is delivering and who is receiving the message.  The pitfall is that many organizations talk about their community versus creating a platform for their community to tell their own story.  The best condition for success is to think about who is delivering the message and is it truly inclusive about the community you are working to advance. 

The final is focus in the ask and it gets back to the message. It’s like a plane taking off and landing. A lot of fundraisers work really hard to get the take off right planning how they’re going to get in the door, build a connect, grow their pipeline.  Where a lot of fundraising trails off is how they are building a relationship with their potential donors so they can create a path that is clear what the donor can do.  It’s hard for organizations to be really clear in their ask. 

While you need to have the message and ask right, those two things don’t come easy. To get them right you have to have the strategy in place so that across an organization--not just in fundraising or communications department--but all individuals at the organization feel they understand where they’re going and the role each of them plays in moving the organization in that direction.


Our recent Donor Trust Report shows that while 73% of people say it is essential to trust a charity before giving, only 19% say they highly trust a charity. Our report tells us that people want to be generous, that people want to trust a charity before giving, and that people want to make informed assessments before they give. A successful fundraising effort will elicit trust without requiring too much analysis on the donor’s end. It is important to keep in mind that different generations and racial groups assess trust differently, so a successful fundraising effort will be mindful of its target audience and highlight different factors like passion for a cause, appealing stories, or third-party evaluations.

On the flip side, the early donor behaviors tell us that giving is deeply personal – driven by emotion and tending to be reactive. It also tells us that people are detracted by information overload or the appearance of too many options. So, while people want to think of themselves as being mindful in their giving decision and doing their homework, small donors are unlikely to work that way.

For the sector, I see a real potential breakthrough for upping donations by relying more on donor behavior insights and I think that has the potential to be the next shift in fundraising and cause-engagement appeals. Now, is understanding donor behaviors an “absolutely essential” part of a fundraising appeal? No – but I do think it has the most potential to set fundraising efforts apart – and I think the lack of ability to experiment in this arena may be preventing nonprofits from fully exploring their potential.


The one element that is absolutely essential to successful fundraising is the Ask-Thank-Report Back communications cycle. It means that a single annual organization-centric appeal and cluster of "e-blasts" does not a fundraising program make. We've seen how following the Ask-Thank-Report Back strategy works: increased retention, increased revenue, and leading to everything from middle and major gifts to in-kind donations. 

A good, direct mail donor communications plan for revenue and retention is:

  • 4 donor newsletter packs (not self-mailers)
  • 4 appeals
  • Customized thank-yous
  • Integrated with email, website, and social media
  • Ongoing acquisition, 2-3 times per year

Some of the ingredients will vary, but done properly, this method takes nonprofits to new heights.

On the flipside, there are two factors where communications can hinder fundraising success:

1.) Devaluing the thank and report-back pieces of the donor communications cycle, and

2.) Misunderstanding or neglecting your supporter database.

If you still send a dry, generic "on behalf of" thank-you form letter, don't send it promptly, or don't make it relevant to the gift that prompted the letter, that’s a problem.  Improper report-back, for me, means you discount the deep and wide body of research now out there around gratitude and what makes a good direct mail donor newsletter by continuing to focus on your organization as the hero (it's your donors, not you); ignoring the principles of readability and design for older eyes (the majority of your donors are almost always 55, and probably 65+); failing to integrate that newsletter into your online communications.

Also, if you tell me your database has 35,000 active donors, and it turns out that 30,000 came in from chocolate bar sales and the annual 5k run and none have given anything apart from that, that’s a heavy blow to your organization. Audience/list is a huge piece of your success, and you ignore it at your own peril. Same goes for acquisition: list quality matters.


One element that is absolutely essential to successful fundraising is being able to be present. It's so easy to hear—a physiological response to sound—and yet not listen for understanding. Often times we are waiting for a pause in conversation; for the opportunity to say our piece or share a story that will light a potential donor up and we miss being in the moment because our minds have raced ahead. Being present means taking in the energy, the vibe or watching for the non-verbal cues that indicate you've connected with the mind and heart of the individual(s) sitting across from you (or maybe that you need to go in a different direction).

One of the biggest factors that prevents nonprofits from fully realizing their fundraising potential is fear. Fear is like quick sand pulling you under with every attempt to pull yourself out. Since people do the asking (and not organizations) we can let our own fears get in the way of exponential fundraising. For some of us it's the fear of not making payroll. For others it's the fear of getting a "no" to the ask you really wanted. And for others, it's fear of not measuring up.

Whenever fear grips me tight, I will myself to be present and remember that there are amazing people who want to give. They want to have impact. They want to help. Fear has no place in propelling our missions. It has no place in ensuring that as fundraisers we create the runway our organizations and institutions need to thrive and grow.

I'm sure there are rubrics I could share and 6 steps programs on how to raise money I should recite. But what I know is this: if you are present in your work and drop fear like old luggage that has done it's time—you'll see a shift in your fundraising results that'll surprise...well…you.


Bringing value to the person on the other side of the computer/email/social media post.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the “here’s what we are doing and how it’s great” messages. But, at the end of the day, people connect with people and they connect with something that moves with them, and feels personal to them.  In this digital, ever changing world that we live in, digital relationships are the new normal. It is crucial that we place at the forefront of our minds and our efforts that there is a person on the other side of our email or our Facebook post.  Is what you are posting or emailing going to bring them value and connect to them on a personal level? Or is it simply self-serving to your fundraising goal? When you bring value, the rest falls into place. I believe that with all my heart because its in our nature to pay attention to the messages that brighten our day.  

On the flipside, the idea that nonprofits are “always five years behind” (with technology adoption) is considered okay. It’s not okay.  I don’t accept that laggard thinking. I’ve worked with amazing fundraisers that don’t accept that thinking. They inspire me to inspire others. Our industry can do better than that. At Pursuant, we talk about “Going Beyond”. Our industry deserves to go beyond that mindset.  

As you can see, fundraising is a long-term game, there are no shortcuts.

It’s about creating intentional, authentic, present, and transparent relationships where we thank and report more than we ask for money. It’s a full-team sport, and nonprofits can’t successfully fundraise without the full involvement of their boards and executive leaders.

What do you think? What’s been a key to your nonprofit’s fundraising success or challenges? Tweet your thoughts with the hashtag #PowerUpYourFundraising.

barbara oreillyBarbara O’Reilly has more than twenty-five years of annual fund, major gifts, and campaign fundraising experience at major non-profit organizations including Harvard University, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Oxford University in England, and the American Red Cross. Her consulting firm, Windmill Hill Consulting, helps nonprofit organizations of all sizes cut through the noise and develop a profitable fundraising strategy that focuses on the resources, skills and tactics they need to build more effective donor relationships and catapult their revenue. She serves as president-elect of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Washington, DC Chapter, is a member of the Advisory Panel for Rogare, The Fundraising Think Tank, and presents frequently at conferences and webinars.

This article originally appeared on the Windmill Hill Consulting website and appears here with permission.

Paid Advertisement
Want The Latest AFP & Fundraising News Delivered To Your Inbox?Sign Up Now!

Recommended for You

Members: Sign in to view your personalized recommendations!

Sign in