Fundraising Basics

Fundraising from Individuals

Many women artists are familiar with writing grant proposals to government agencies or foundations, but they are not sure how to raise money from individuals because there are no clear guidelines or application forms.  This article will focus on strategies for raising money for your projects by approaching individuals for contributions.

There are many advantages to building a base of individual supporters for your work.  First of all, individuals tend to support the same organizations year after year, while most foundations do not.  Second, if you can develop a group of individual donors, then your organization will be stronger because you will not be dependent on any one person or funding source. If someone decides to stop funding you, you will have other people to turn to.

How Much Do You Need?

Whenever you want to do any fundraising, the first step is to figure out how much money you need.  The number does not need to be exact, but you need to make your best guess. One way to come up with the budget is to take some time to imagine the event in as much detail as you can, and then make a list of the things you will need. Do you need to hire some people? Do you need to rent space? Do you need supplies? Equipment? Insurance?

Start by making a careful list of what you need, and then try to estimate the cost for each item on the list.  Many grant application forms include a budget page, and sometimes it is helpful to look at one of those pages to see if there are any expense categories that you have missed.

How Many Donations Do You Need?

It is very unusual to get all of the money for a project from one source. Once you have figured out how much you want to raise, try to break the number down into manageable chunks.  For instance, if you need $500, maybe you have one friend who can give $100 and two friends who can give $50.  That gives you the first $200 and then you need to find 15 – 30 people who can do $10 – $20 each.

Whether your budget is $500 or $5 million, the principal is the same – you need to figure out how much your potential donors are likely to give. When large organizations are uncertain about whether they can raise the money for a project, they often do a “feasibility study” first, i.e. they hire a consultant to interview potential donors to see how much they might be willing to give.  If their potential donors are not willing to support the project, then they know that they need to re-think it.

If you are just starting out, it is good to pick a goal that you have a good chance of making.  This will help you build your confidence and a track record of success.  The next time you want to raise money, you can tell people about the success of your first project and it will help you get bigger gifts.  You can gradually build up to larger budgets if you keep building on your base of supporters.

Whom Should You Ask?

Once you have determined how much you need and what size gifts you are looking for, you need to figure out whom you should ask.

Look for People Who Give to Related Causes

The first thing to understand is that the people who make charitable gifts usually give to a variety of causes that interest them.  For instance, in my own case, my main interests are women, theatre, the environment, and bicycling.  It is not that hard to persuade me to give to a new group that falls within my interest areas, but it would be hard to persuade me to give to an unrelated cause like a hospital or church group.

When you are trying to find the people who are most likely to give to a SWAN Day event, you are looking for people who already give to the arts or give to women’s issues.  If your work involves a particular issue, you could also look for people who support that issue.

In the US, most theatres and other arts groups have programs where they list their donors.  One easy step is to look over those lists carefully to see if you recognize any of the names or businesses.  Is there anyone that you or people who already support you can approach?  Another strategy is to look for groups where your potential donors might be members – for instance, associations of women business owners or professional women.  Often those groups are looking for entertaining speakers for their meetings, and if you can get them to invite you to speak, that would be a good way for you to introduce yourself to a lot of potential donors quickly. (Remember to bring some pledge cards with you!)

Ask People For Reasonable Amounts

The second important point is that people give according to their income level.  For instance, for someone making a middle class American salary, it is fairly easy to make gifts of $50 – $100 to a variety of groups – it is hard to spend less than that on an evening of entertainment.  Some people make more and can easily give $500 – $1,000, some people can easily give $5,000 – $10,000, etc.

You want to make everybody feel good about whatever they are able to give, and also, you want to be sure to ask the people who have more to give more.  If you are living on a tight budget, it is hard to remember this, but the people who have more money are often looking for good ways to use it.  In the US they get a tax break for charitable donations, and often their accountant has told them some amount that they should give away to maximize their tax benefit.  You are not asking them to give something up in order to support your company – you are simply asking them to give you some of the money they are planning to give away anyway.

When I was younger and did not have much money myself, I always felt very awkward about asking for money because I assumed everyone else was struggling as I was, but they weren’t.  If you are talking to someone who has several thousand dollars a year to give away, you are simply trying to persuade them that your cause fits their interests and that they will do a lot of good by giving to you.

Also, some people are much more generous than others. Some very wealthy people do not give nearly as much as they could, and sometimes people with less income are surprisingly generous.  USA Giving has done studies of charitable giving by state and found that some regions are considerably more generous than others.   It is important to remember that these larger socio-cultural factors can affect your fundraising as well.

Build Your Base

The people in each income group tend to socialize together, so if you can find one person in one of the higher groups, they will probably know other people who can give at the same level. You should look at the list of people who are currently supporting you.  If there is anyone at a higher level, you should ask to meet with them (or offer to take them to lunch) to talk about who else they know that might be willing to help you. 

If they are willing to talk to their friends on your behalf, that is extremely helpful, since most people prefer to give to causes that are endorsed by people that they know. Sometimes you can give people materials and ask them to mail them on to their friends with a cover note saying you are really great.

Sometimes people will do a party at their house where you can speak.  This does not have to be a fancy time-consuming gala.  Sometimes a small dinner party where you can get face to face with someone who has a lot of money can be the most effective.  You need to get a sense from your host about the giving capacity of these guests.

When you are meeting with your current donors, it is always good to break down your budget for them – for instance, if you need $5,000, you can tell them, “We are looking for 5 – 10 people who can do $500 to $1,000 each – can you think of anyone who could make a gift that size and might be interested in our work?”  Then ask them, “What would be the best way to approach that person?”

How Much Should You Spend on Fundraising?

A wise friend once told me that you don’t raise money by spending money on big parties or by creating fancy brochures – you raise money by asking people for it over and over again.  That has definitely been my experience. The Fund for Women Artists has never had a big gala party and most of our materials are printed in-house, and yet we have raised over $4 million in the past decade. We have done it mainly through one- on-one meetings with donors, well-written letters, and a few house parties.  Once someone gives to us, we make it a point to stay in touch with that person year after year, and we have steadily built our base of supporters.

You need to make sure that you are using the right approach for each individual.  Some people love big parties, others prefer a business lunch.  Some people will respond to a thoughtful letter, others throw out anything that looks like a fundraising letter.  There are no hard and fast rules, you just need to be yourself and try to communicate honestly with people.

Celebrity Endorsements

If you can get any kind of celebrity or well-known person in your community to endorse your cause or make a gift, that can give you credibility and help you persuade others to give.  The difficulty is that most celebrities are approached constantly.  Someone who worked for the television comedian Bill Cosby told me that his office gets 100 solicitation letters every day. Unless you have some personal connection, it can be frustrating to pursue the stars.  It never hurts to ask, but keep in mind that they are probably long shots.  You will do better with people in your own community whom you can meet face to face.

Think Long-Term

When you are doing fundraising from individuals – always think about developing long-term relationships with your donors.  If you can get someone to give this year, they will probably give again next year if you make sure to thank them and keep them informed about your work.  Often people will start with smaller gifts and then build up to larger gifts if they have a larger giving capacity.

Also, someone may say no to you this year, but give to you next year or the year after.  I have had a number of situations where people did not give for several years even though they seemed interested, but then they finally started giving annually.  Sometimes people have other commitments and they need to finish those before they can take on your project, even though they like you a lot. So never take a “no” as a permanent rejection (unless they tell you to leave them alone).  Just keep trying each year and you will find that many people come around over time.