Good fundraisers tell stories to engage donors. This storytelling helps to define your organization’s mission.
Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.”
Perhaps you can relate. Whether you’re writing a thank-you card or a doctoral thesis, it’s often the very act of articulating an idea or opinion or belief to someone else that allows you to understand it for yourself.
I’ve come to believe that fundraising works in a similar way: it’s primarily through the act of asking other people for money that we come to understand what our organization is for.
Let’s say you start a nonprofit that plants and maintains vegetable gardens in urban spaces. You’ll recruit a board, come up with a vision and mission statement, and draw up a strategic plan. Then, of course, you’ll need to start asking people for money.
You are unlikely to win much support if your fundraising pitch is little more than a summary of your strategic plan, followed by a recitation of your mission statement. What you’ll need to do is tell your donor a compelling story about what your organization is doing.
But as for that story—as for the description of what your organization is doing—consider just how varied it could be. When it comes to your gardening nonprofit, the story could boil down to, “We are encouraging better eating habits.” Or, “We are equipping families to be more self-sufficient.” Or, “We are getting people to spend more time outdoors.” Or, “We are reducing emissions by changing habits in food production.”
These are all valid descriptions of what you are doing. They are not mutually incompatible; to some extent, you could tell all of those stories at the same time.
But it’s also true that these descriptions of your work cannot all quite exist on the same plane of importance. One will take precedence over the others. It will be your primary story.
Now, it’s not impossible to figure out your organization’s story by means other than fundraising. But I would suggest that fundraising is the most powerful tool that organizations have for shaping their own identities and developing their primary stories. No matter what your official mission statement says, it’s the stories you tell through fundraising efforts—in the form of a year-end mailing, or an online campaign, or a grant application, or a conversation with a major gift prospect—that allow the organization to sustain itself, and thereby come to better understand itself.
I said earlier it’s only through the act of fundraising that we come to understand what our organizations are for. The truth is that an organization is, to a large extent, whatever its fundraisers say it is.
It’s unfortunately common to think of fundraising as a kind of auxiliary activity that nonprofit organizations do “on the side.” But fundraising is not a secondary activity. It cannot be separated from the other things a nonprofit does, because fundraising has the ability to inform and alter those other activities.
Fundraisers and nonprofit leaders will be most effective when they understand this inherent truth about the work of raising money—that every conversation with a donor has the potential to reinforce, strengthen, or change the organization’s identity. It doesn’t matter whether the fundraising is performed by the executive director, board members, or paid development staff.
This is perhaps more obvious to me because I work in a very large hospital, with hundreds of programs spread across dozens of divisions and departments. Before I can begin work on any given grant application for any given program, I have to ask the program staff to describe the work they do. Very often these descriptions are incomplete, or inconsistent, or not compelling. My job as a fundraiser is to help them refine this description for an outside audience.
If this process works well, the result can be program staff who, flush with new funding, have a clearer sense of their own objectives. If the process goes badly, we could still end up with funding, but the terms of the gift, whether they’re implicit or explicit, might pull the staff away from what they ought to be doing.
Never forget that fundraising is a powerful tool. It allows your organization to thrive. More importantly, it shapes your organization’s very identity. Know thy fundraising, know thyself.