Just Tell Me: What's the Best Way to Raise Money? Choosing a Revenue Strategy

It's aggravating to have someone say (at a board meeting, for example), "Look at how they over there raise money! That's better than what we're doing . . . we should do that!" Or for a funder to tell you what they think is the best way to raise money: from major donors, or from government, or from black-tie dinners, or . . . . you get the idea.

Think for a moment about two very successful stores: Target and Williams-Sonoma. Both sell cookware. Target sells inexpensive cookware through large stores in outlying areas and it advertises through newsprint inserts in local newspapers. Williams-Sonoma sells expensive cookware through boutique stores in high-rent districts and it advertises through glossy, full-color catalogs mailed to high-income zip codes. Each has put together a winning formula.

But what if Target were to try selling its colanders and measuring spoons at the same prices that Williams-Sonoma charges? (Would you buy a colander for $60 at Target?) Or if Williams-Sonoma were to try using newsprint flyers instead of its glossy catalogs? Neither decision would work.

So when we ask, "What's the best way to raise money?" we need to start by figuring out who are the best potential supporters of our work and why, what those people are interested in, how to reach them and how much to ask them for.

Fundraising Strategy vs. Revenue Strategy

Fundraising is about income that is contributed rather than earned. Fundraising strategies are ones that bring in money from individual donations, foundation grants, corporate contributions, church giving programs and the funding programs of other institutions.

Tuitions, ticket sales to performance, magazine subscriptions and almost all government contracts are examples of earned revenue. If you don't do the work, you don't get the money.

A revenue strategy, therefore, looks broadly at the range of possibilities for financial support and combines both earned income and contributed income. A revenue strategy is a crucial part of any plan for long-term financial sustainability.

The decisions you make about your revenue strategy - that is, who should be supporting your work and how to go about soliciting that support - should be based not only on who is most likely to give you money or pay for your services, but what makes the most sense in terms of who you are, what kind of change you're trying to make in your community and how your funding sources can help you get there.

Most nonprofits these days combine earned income (such as contracts, fees, sales) with contributed income. Like Target and Williams-Sonoma, each organization puts together a package based on its core supporters, its connections and positioning and its cause.

Different Strategies for Similar Programs

Let's look at how two after-school tutoring programs raise money:

Program A: Started in a racially diverse church, this program works with low-income kids who come for tutoring and after-school care in this mostly Latino, starting-to-gentrify neighborhood. Many of the volunteer tutors and board members are from the church, which draws from many neighborhoods across the city. With several upper-middle-class board members and the active support of the church, Program A raises $80,000 each year through fundraising events and several individual donations of $5,000 each.

Program B: With similar activities as Program A, Program B was started in a similar city quarter by a neighborhood center, itself often struggling for funds. Its volunteer tutors and board members are nearby residents, racially diverse, many in the helping professions themselves and some well connected to city politics. Coupling the center's importance to the neighborhood with its board's connections, Program B is able to obtain a modest annual grant each year from city government. In addition, it receives donations from the electric utility and a local family foundation. Car washes and a raffle raise more community spirit than they do funds, but are still part of the total budget of $80,000.

Both these community-based programs have developed successful fundraising strategies. Of these methods, which is the best? Individual donations? City grant? Foundations? Fundraising event? Corporate grants? The answer (like the answer to most questions) is: it depends.

It depends on the organization's external environment (the opportunities) and its internal strengths (the assets). Externally, in some cities there are many foundations while in others there are practically none. Organizational assets include who's involved in the organization - including constituents, board members, volunteers and staff. Other assets include the relationships the organization has built with other groups and its connections to government agencies, local corporations and community leaders.

The revenue strategy will be guided by the organization's philosophy about who should form the core of their support. Finally, the cause itself is important: some causes lend themselves more naturally to certain kinds of revenue. Corporations are less likely to support a prisoner-support organization than churches or government might be. Older constituents may be less likely to support international causes than younger constituents. (Note: these are just hypothetical examples!)

Getting from Here to There

Even if you don't think you have a revenue strategy, you already do have some kind of configuration of ways to obtain money. Start by taking a good look at the ones you are already using. In most cases a good first step is to expand the revenue areas where you are already having success and to link your various vehicles together. For example, Program A's major gifts program, which relies on about 10 board members asking their friends for donations, doesn't take much effort but raises $40,000 each year. In contrast, Program A's walk-a-thon raises about $5,000 in addition to raising community spirit and enthusiasm. Program A should focus its attention on expanding its major donor program and it should maintain - but not increase - the walk-a-thon level of activity. It can also link these activities by bringing donors to the walk-a-thon and using the walk-a-thon to identify prospects for larger donations.

Just like the Target and Williams-Sonoma example, it may not work to take a page out of someone else's book. Begin by assessing what your organization has going for it internally and externally and choose a mix that suits what you've got. Then and perhaps most important, focus on doing well in those areas and recruiting the right board members and others to increase those fundraising areas before spreading out into new ones.

The best way to raise money? The one that has the potential to increase (or at least stay level) and the one that you already have the skills and connections to tap.

We're pleased that a longer version of this article is appearing this month in Grassroots Fundraising Journal.

See also:

Comments (3)

  • First, if you are one of the 20 million Americans who serves on a nonprofit board, thank you. Secondly, if you as a board member, or non-profit leader, has responsibilty for the generation and stewardship of resources for your non-profit, take a look at the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) to see if it's a good fit for your non-profit. There is a lot of misinformation about the CFC in the nonprofit sector, and I've listed seven of the myths below. If, after reading the myths, you would like to learn more about the truths, please go to the www.cfcfundraising website, and I'll be glad to send you my special report about the CFC.

    Seven Myths about the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC)
    by Bill Huddleston, CFC Expert

    1. Myth: It is hard to get into to the CFC.
    Fact : 94% of nonprofits that apply are admitted.

    The CFC actually has an “open admissions” program. If you meet the criteria, your non-profit is in. The acceptance rate is 94%, and in general the 6% that don’t get in are the ones that don’t follow the directions. There are exceptions to this, and for non-profits that don’t get in, but believe that they should, there is an appeals process.

    What is the appeals process at the foundations where you’ve applied for grants, if you are unsuccessful?

    2. Myth: The CFC doesn’t raise significant money.
    Fact: $1 Billion Dollars of Unrestricted funds in the past 5 years.

    In the past five years, CFC donors have contributed more than $5 billion dollars to thousands of local, national, and international non-profits. CFC monies are unrestricted, reliable and predictable.

    3. Myth: The only place that has Federal employees is Washington, D.C.
    Fact: 89% of Federal employees live outside of the Washington, DC region.

    The National Capital area CFC is the largest CFC, but there more than 250 regional CFCs, and 40 of these raise more than $1 million annually in their region.

    4. Myth: The CFC is only for the “big guys” (National Nonprofits).
    Fact: 40% of the funds raised go to local nonprofits

    5. Myth: There’s a lot of red tape.
    Fact:: No more than any grant application, much less on the “back end.”

    The regulations were substantially streamlined in 2006, so even if this was the case before, things have changed. There is zero red tape for the non-profit after the funds are received -- (not bad for a government program!)

    6. Myth: Some “expert” is going to decide if our non-profit gets any money.
    Fact: More than 90% of the funds are designated to specific charities.

    The ones deciding who receives the funds are your supporters who are Federal employees who choose to donate through the CFC.

    7.Myth: CFC Donors are fickle
    Fact: Most CFC donors are multi-year donors.

    How many ten year grants have you gotten from foundations that support your organization?


    Bill Huddleston, CFC Expert

    Dedicated to helping non-profits make the world a better place.

    Author of soon to be released:

    A Hidden Treasure for Your Non-Profit,
    How to tap into the CFC, America's Largest Workplace Giving Campaign

    Email: BillHuddleston@verizon.net

    Jun 17, 2008
  • Good comments most of the way around. The unfortunate fact is that these ideas are not new and, as a result, do not promote the idea of creative thinking that is becoming more necessary as the world of doing good gets impacted by the business necessities of the BUSINESS parts of socially responsible investing.

    I hope many of the new members of the ever-growing family of nonprofits take your advice. But then again I hope some begin to have some serious discussions with those in the business world who understand the concept of community and global sustainability. These folks are trying to figure out how to make profits out of this new thinking, when, with a little support, they might actually find exciting ways to write our needs and values into their emerging and evolving bottom lines.

    It is good to take stock in the basics, but it is increasingly necessary to look at creative new options that better understand where the money aspects of our world are heading rather quickly. Your advice remains sound to balance your revenues with what works for your mission; but there may be many new ways to do this today.

    I'm trying to explore some of these opportunities under the name of Venture Charities (www.AllanShore.com). My goal is to bring together some of the tools and techniques the nonprofit sector is already familiar with and to find a way to use those in partnership with the business of cashing in on social good.

    Thanks. I hope to come back and share some stories as my project unfolds. You are free, too, to send me a note at Allan@AllanShore.com.

    Sep 10, 2008
  • Do you have any articles on Non-Profit Art Center Organiations? Tom Becker, Mendocino Arts Center, Mendocino, Ca.

    Mar 01, 2009

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