Fundraising for Small Groups Newsletter

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December 16, 2018

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A Fundraising Success Story:
Lessons Learned

by Robert Zimmerman and Ann Lehman

There is so much gloom-and-doom news every day about fundraising that ZimNotes decided to tell a success story about a preschool. There are lessons here for everyone.

When we started working with a wonderful preschool in Berkeley, California, called Step One School, we asked them about their fundraising methods (other than tuition) and discovered that the school's main activity was a dinner with an auction. This event required countless staff and volunteer hours (the school had no development director; the co-directors did all of the staff fundraising work), and netted a pittance. Occasionally a board member would send a friendly holiday letter that would garner a few donations. No follow-up, no tracking of donors, and an event that grew more burdensome each year, burning out many folks along the way.

Colleges, universities, and independent schools had used a variety of fundraising strategies for years- most preschools did not, and Step One was no exception. Further conversations with board and staff members revealed little fundraising experience and a serious fear and loathing about asking for money. The co-directors and the board dreaded rejection, and they were concerned that fundraising would create "class issues" which would ruin their inclusive community. That is, parents of moderate means would, they worried, be treated as second-class citizens. One board member also equated fundraising with "prying."

We began our efforts at Step One by meeting with their staff and board to plan a more diversified fundraising strategy and simultaneously conducted a series of trainings for the school's board of directors. Through the use of a few tried and true exercises (provided in the book, Boards That Love Fundraising), we moved board members- as well as the co-directors- past their fears. We reviewed the wonderful work of the teachers and service the school provides, and demonstrated that tuition alone could never cover all the school's expenses (especially if preschool teachers were to be paid a worthy wage). The board members and volunteers realized that there might indeed be a few people who could subsidize the rest by making larger donations. These individuals could be honored along with others who devoted time and energy to Step One, and the school could additionally hold community events that would be inclusive of everyone.

We also emphasized follow-up with those who did give (including alumni and grandparents), as well as the importance of researching potential donors, the publication of newsletters, and practice in making "the ask". The school initiated a formal annual campaign via letter and a major donor campaign. The first few major donor asks, though difficult, elicited significant sums, and this encouraged other solicitors to soldier on. The annual campaign grew exponentially each year, and a larger portion of alumni made gifts. Within six years, the annual campaign was netting close to $100,000; parents, board members, and staff had become accustomed to and comfortable with both asking and giving; askers felt "they were doing donors a favor" by creating opportunities to give; and donors felt honored to be able to help this wonderful institution that did such a great job teaching their young children.

The school began an endowment fund for their teachers as well as a capital campaign for a novel educational garden for preschoolers, and they turned their formerly exhausting fundraising event into a simpler community event for all. When we asked what they considered key to Step One's success, one of the co-directors replied: "We learned how to ask for the money."

So remember these crucial lessons to ensure successful fundraising:

  • Ask for money in as many ways as appropriate (diversification, similar to a good financial investment plan)

  • Keep the donor in mind (good donor/customer relations, cultivation, and appreciation)

  • Focus on the worthy cause of giving donors the opportunity to invest in your successful community enterprise (your nonprofit business/mission)

Do this, and we promise you the money will follow!

This story is featured in the book Boards That Love Fundraising: A How-To Guide for Your Board.

Copyright 2007 Zimmerman Lehman.

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About the Authors:

Robert Zimmerman and Ann Lehman are leading experts in the field of fundraising and board development. Visit their website, for more information. There you can Test Your Nonprofit I.Q. and sign up for ZimNotes, a free monthly E-newsletter with articles and information to help your nonprofit forge a better future.

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