Silos Are for Farms: How to Make Fundraising a Part of Your Organizing

March 10th, 2021 by dayat Leave a reply »

President Barack Obama’s successful Presidential campaign brought together organizing and fundraising more powerfully than anyone ever has on such a huge scale. We experienced a level of volunteerism and a level of giving that we’d never seen before. And, we are still seeing increasing numbers of people volunteering.

This is important because of the proven connection between giving time and giving money. A study done by researcher Penelope Burk showed that 93% of donors volunteer and 95% give to the organizations where they volunteer. So, there is a natural connection between organizing people to give time and organizing people to give money. And, you’ll notice that I used the word “organizing.” Fundraising is organizing. If you can do one, you can do the other. In fact, if you can do one, you must do the other.

A big part of my work focuses on helping groups integrate their fundraising and their organizing. This idea of building an organizational culture of fundraising makes sense to a lot of people in theory. Yet, often times they don’t know how to make it happen in practice at their organizations.

Here are some tips and strategies to get you started:

Discuss the Similarities of Organizing & Fundraising.

At their core, organizing and fundraising are both about building relationships and building community. Unfortunately, we often hear the word fundraising and immediately jump to the part where you ask someone for money, even though that’s only 5% of the job. Undoing this misconception is critical. Start by taking a step back and expanding your view of what fundraising is really all about – building a broad network of like-minded people who will give you time, money, advice, power in numbers, moral support in good times and bad, and lots more.

Organizers and leaders from your membership base will see striking similarities between identifying and involving new volunteers and identifying and involving potential donors. They both start by recognizing those who are predisposed to your cause and learning more about their interests, then getting them involved when the time is right by starting small, and continuing to build the relationship to steady, more dedicated involvement. Seeing these parallels helps organizers and membership leaders realize that they already possess most of the skills needed to be a great fundraiser – because they are the same skills that it takes to be a great organizer. This won’t single-handedly compel anyone to start fundraising, but it’s an important first step in understanding what fundraising is really all about.

Create Space to Talk about What is Hard about Fundraising. Discuss the Societal Taboos around Money.

Fundraising is scary for virtually everyone at first. There is no getting around that. It’s also incredibly rewarding and empowering but that doesn’t come until later for most of us. U.S. culture is riddled with taboos about money – it’s something that polite people just aren’t supposed to talk about. So, what does that say about those of us who are not only talking about money, but also asking you for some of yours?!

Here’s what it says to me… It says we will not play by these rules. It says we will not allow a system that has created such a vastly unequal distribution of wealth to go unchallenged. It says that we are proud of the life-changing work that we are doing, that we need money to do the work, and that we aren’t afraid to ask for it. Fundraising doesn’t support political work; fundraising is political work. Fundraising doesn’t support organizing; fundraising is organizing. Fundraising doesn’t support movement building; fundraising is movement building.

Now, as I get down off my soapbox, let me say how important it is that you talk with anyone who is new to fundraising about the societal taboos around talking about money. These are very real. Discuss where they come from. Talk about their first associations and earliest memories of money and share yours. Create space to talk about how they feel about asking someone for money. Depending on the culture of your organization, you’ll have to think about how personal you want to get with this. We certainly don’t want anyone to feel put on the spot or like they are being forced into some kind of group therapy session. Be aware of this and respect people’s limits as well as your own boundaries.

The other piece that’s important to recognize is that what’s challenging about fundraising can be different for different people. If you grew up in poverty or struggling to make ends meet, your perspective and feelings about asking someone for a donation may be different from your co-worker who was raised upper-middle class. This is not to say that organizers from families who didn’t have to worry about money are comfortable fundraising. It’s simply to say that everyone’s comforts and discomforts will vary.

Race and class dynamics are as present within fundraising as with anything else, probably even more so because we are dealing directly with money. Be conscious of this and incorporate the ways racism, classism, and privilege are at play into your conversations about fundraising.

Start with Small, Less Scary Fundraising Work. Demystify Who Donors Are.

It can be reassuring to organizers and members for them to see all the different ways they can help raise money without actually having to make “the ask.” This isn’t to say that they won’t grow into that part of fundraising. But, it’s helpful to get their feet wet doing other things first – calling donors to thank them for their gift, accompanying a seasoned fundraiser on a cultivation or stewardship visit, giving tours to donors, leading an open house, or writing handwritten thank you cards to a group who recently attended a luncheon. By beginning to have direct contact with donors, everyone will start to see them as the real people they are.

For example, I remember working with an organizer-in-training to write notes on thank you letters. She came across the letter for a close organizational ally and was blown away by the size of her contribution. This woman totally defied her vision of who a $1,000 donor is. That experience broke down the concept of “us versus them,” of donors being somehow different from people she knows. This was a critical step for her. She not only realized that she could be successful in asking for a donation of that size or more. She also discovered that she herself knew people and could relate to people capable to giving significant gifts.

Make Fundraising Part of Leadership Development.

Leadership development is a core program for many grassroots organizations. When members get involved and volunteer, they might learn about the political process, how to write a press release, public speaking skills, etc. Fundraising rarely makes this list. That has to change. Your members don’t need to be shielded or protected from the complications of budgets and balance sheets. By not including fundraising and organizational finances as part of our leadership development curriculum, we are colluding with the same system that makes money a societal taboo that’s not to be discussed.

Educate your members about the role of fundraising in building a movement for justice. Show volunteers your budget and help them understand how to read it. Tell them where you get the money to pay for all the work your organization does and all the time that goes into raising that money. Talk to them about how they can help, and not just by selling raffle tickets and organizing a yard sale. See if your volunteers would be willing to come with you to meet with a supporter to talk about the impact the organization has had in their lives. Ask them to write a “thank you” note to a donor or call a new contributor who just gave their first gift. As a supporter, there’s nothing more powerful than hearing directly from people on the ground about how their donation made a difference.

Offer Different Ways to be Involved in Fundraising.

Everyone has different talents. Match people up with the fundraising strategies that play to their strengths. If someone is a great writer, they may be able to help write direct mail appeals, newsletter articles, grant proposals, or donor acknowledgements. A born party planner could take the lead on house parties or grassroots events for the organization.

And always, always think about ways to connect organizers and members to individual donor work, including donors who give significant high-dollar gifts. Don’t assume your organizers only know low-dollar donors. They know prospects for “major” gifts as well. Remember – giving is not a state of wealth; it’s a state of mind. As I touched on above, the more you equate “major donor” with “rich person,” the less successful your fundraising will be.

Lastly, don’t assume that so-called major donors won’t want to meet with organizers or membership leaders. These high-dollar supporters are exactly the ones who want to hear firsthand stories about the work and who better to tell them than an organizer and a lead volunteer.

Provide Structure. Build in Systems of Accountability.

Fundraising should be part of every staff person’s workplan alongside their organizing responsibilities, as it is at Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts (N2N-MA) where I was the development director for seven years. Each organizer had a list of donors assigned to them, fundraising goals, and a timeline. There is also an agreed upon amount of time that each person will spend fundraising each week. This may vary from person to person and from week to week but it is planned into their schedules. Otherwise, it won’t happen. It can’t be an add-on for when there’s extra time. Because, as any organizer knows, there’s never extra time.

Regular reporting about fundraising should be integrated into staff meetings and supervisory check-ins. At N2N-MA, I put fundraising as the first item on the agenda as often as possible. This made sure the group was alert and that we didn’t run out of time and have to cut it short. When you meet, have people report on their fundraising priorities, accomplishments and struggles, just as they do with their organizing. This also provides a level of group accountability so each person can hear what their peers are working on.

Absolute transparency around income and expenses is even more critical for organizations where all staff have fundraising responsibilities. Report on budget projections and provide financial reports regularly so that it’s clearly known how much money needs to be raised, how much has been pledged, and how much is left to go. Also, discuss potential shortfalls as a group and troubleshoot new fundraising strategies to close the gap. Everyone in the organization deserves to know and understand the state of the group’s finances. It also helps staff to understand how their piece fits into the big picture.

Give Trainings, Templates, Tools & Talking Points.

Spend time regularly on skill-building exercises related to fundraising. At N2N-MA, I tried to give my organizers a new fundraising script every month or two and I’d pair them up at staff meeting to practice. I’d have people sit back-to-back so it would be as close to a real phone call as possible, without the benefits of eye contact and body language. I’d also sometimes pair veteran organizers who had been fundraising for a while with newer recruits for peer mentoring and support. It was incredibly powerful for organizers with little fundraising experience to see what a skilled fundraiser “someone like [them] could become,” as I’ve heard more than one organizer say.

I’d plan enough time so that each person got to play the donor and the fundraiser at least once. Then I’d bring the group back together to share what worked well and where they got stuck. With any new script, I found the organizers were more comfortable getting on the phones if they’d already had a chance to run through it a few times.

In addition to training, it’s important for development staff to consistently provide template letters, sample voicemail messages, and talking points on recent accomplishments and upcoming campaigns. Some people use them. Some don’t. Some just feel better knowing they have them if they need them. Either way, giving organizers all the tools they need to succeed maximizes the effectiveness of their fundraising time and enables them to hit the ground running. You don’t want each person reinventing the wheel every time a follow-up letter needs to be sent out. Providing these materials also sends the message that you respect and value their time. Something that all organizers never have enough of!

Meet People Where They Are. Not Everyone Will Grow to Love Fundraising.

While every organizer can be an effective fundraiser, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be everyone’s favorite thing to do. Some will like it. Some will love it. Some won’t. That’s okay. They don’t have to love, or even like, every aspect of their job. But fundraising is a core skill. All organizers and members need to know how to do it. This model is also the most sustainable way to build a long-term, integrated movement for social change – so it’s responsible organizing too.

Since fundraising isn’t the primary job responsibility of any organizer, it’s important to understand that they will have more time to give to fundraising at some times than others, depending on the ebb and flow of your group’s program work. Be sympathetic to this. At the same time, it is also important to remind organizers that the best time to raise money is often at the height of a campaign. This is a delicate balance. It is also one of the reasons why it is so important to have a structure in place where fundraising is part of everyone’s weekly workplan, and is discussed regularly at supervisory check-ins and at staff meetings. Otherwise, it’s the first thing to go at crunch time!

Lead By Example. It’s a Two-Way Street.

It should go without saying that fundraising staff must be included in strategic planning sessions, staff retreats, and other organizational meetings. As a development director, I also found it important to spend some of my time organizing. Not at the level that organizers spend fundraising, but a few times each year. It kept me connected to the work to spend some time in the field door-knocking or phone-banking. This isn’t anything fancy that requires training as a professional organizer, but it’s enough to give you a real sense of the work on-the-ground. And, since I usually “volunteered” at peak campaign season when extra hands were desperately needed, the organizers and the membership really appreciated it as well. This was good for our relationships and contributed to all of us feeling like part of the same team.

My Final Pep Talk

These practices won’t all work exactly as outlined for every organization. And, transitioning to this model can be a long process. But, you have to start somewhere and the benefits are enormous.

Here is just a glimpse of what you can expect if you take steps towards breaking down the divisions between your organizing and your fundraising:

More collaboration within your organization.
More resources dedicated to fundraising.
Stronger relationships with your donors.
More volunteers as donors.
More donors as volunteers.
More money for program work.
A stronger movement for change.
Now, who wouldn’t want that?

Tina Cincotti, owner and principal consultant of Funding Change, is a fun


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