Your first fundraiser: don’t be original!

In 2011, I co-founded the Ada Initiative, a charitable organisation promoting and supporting women in open technology and culture. Between 2011 and 2014, we ran five fundraising drives, four successfully. This article is part of a series sharing what I learned in the hope that new women in technology groups and other activist groups can skip to advanced level fundraising much sooner and spend the least time and the most joy on fundraising that they possibly can.

Learn from others

I’m an ex-postgraduate student and I know that hackers and academics are accustomed to not feeling that we’re working hard enough, or even behaving ethically, unless we either do something entirely novel, or at least learn everything from first principles. In business and fundraising, that’s not true. Save your originality for your projects and your approach to your mission.

Instead of trying to do original, innovative fundraising, look for best practices and copy them. Search for successful fundraisers and don’t be afraid to mimic their timeline, reward structure, and total goals closely. Eg, if you are launching a feminist hackerspace, you could look at what Double Union and Seattle Attic did for fundraising goals, rewards, and stretch goals, and learn from them in designing your own campaign. If you’re raising money through sponsorship, get hold of other sponsorship prospectuses and learn how they’re formatted, what their usual contents are, and what level of sponsorship is required for each sponsorship benefit.

And of course, also ask the founders/fundraisers of organisations similar to yours which bits of their fundraiser didn’t work for them.

Beyond that, there’s professional advice. At the Ada Initiative, our fundraising strategy was informed by working with four experienced fundraisers with different styles and insights; one for each of the four successful drives, in fact. If your goal is to raise enough money to pay staff (or your fundraising needs are otherwise $50k+), I strongly recommend you engage a fundraising consultant. Here’s some things to look for:

  • investment/alignment with your mission; perhaps not a close enough match to be an advisor or a board member, but the prospective consultant should be pleased with your mission and your major programs and interested in learning more about them
  • alignment with your core fundraising ethics (eg, at the Ada Initiative we didn’t work with consultants who bought or sold donor contact databases)
  • experience with online campaigns, eg, writing or editing blog posts, social media experience, experience with Kickstarter/Indiegogo/etc
  • experience with donors similar to yours (at the Ada Initiative we worked mostly with consultants who had experience raising money from tech workers)

Some of the things you could discuss with a fundraising consultant:

  • basic best practices they advise everyone on (eg, time of year to raise funds, weekdays to make major announcements on, the kind of thing I’m going through in this series)
  • doing donor outreach before doing any fundraising, such as phone calls to former/likely donors checking in on how they feel about the organisation (donors may feel more comfortable being critical of the organisation to a consultant than they would be to a founder, and the consultant will be able to hear the criticism non-defensively too)
  • doing, or subcontracting, or instructing your staff on, the detail work of the fundraising, such as writing copy, staffing social media, recruiting matching donors
  • choice of platform, eg, which crowdfunding site to use, which payment processor to use, which CRM to use, donation page UX (although these are rarer skillsets than fundraising best practices)

Organisations similar to yours are the best source of recommendations for fundraising consultants. It’s also something a good board may have advice on.

A good board are themselves invaluable. At different times we got key advice from both board members who were fundraising experts and board members who had run other kinds of businesses. Seek out board members, committee members, or informal advisors who have successfully raised money in any form in the past. They may not have much time to volunteer to help you with the nuts and bolts, but should be open to a few hour-long advice giving and war story exchanging conversations before and during your campaign.

Many brilliant and hard-working people have run fundraisers before you, and fundraising norms are generally well-established. Look for what works, and use it to get your organisation off to the best possible start.

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Your first fundraiser: don’t be original! by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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