Your first fundraiser: your early donors

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.

Pre-drive pledges

In my article on how much to ask for I wrote:

To estimate your donors’ ability to give, it’s time to start asking people for money. Specifically, you need to figure out who is very likely to donate, and begin asking them to pledge to donating once your campaign kicks off. The pledge total will comprise a reasonable fraction of your donation total, somewhere between 10 and 25%. Once you have your pledges in, multiply the total by four. Is that enough to do what you need? No? Then you’re at serious risk of not reaching your goal, and you need to either bring your goal down, or figure out who else to ask for pledges.

Specifically, you’re going to send core supporters and likely large donors a message like this:

Dear [Name],

[1–2 sentences: Express excitement about your organisation and its progress.] [1 sentence: Explain your organisations’s need for money.]

To help us get [organisation] off to a great start, we’re going to be doing a fundraising drive, aiming to raise at least enough for [12 months of salaries? 6 months of rental? 6 months of rental costs? 5 memberships for folks who can’t afford one? 10 scholarships?] and get new people involved at the same time.

We need your help! Can you pledge to giving [$X] during our upcoming fundraising drive during [month]? Having your support, especially in the campaign’s early days, could make a big difference in the success of the campaign.

Thank you!

Key things in this message: it’s short, concrete, and asks for a specific amount towards the goal. Each person sending these will want to write a version in their own voice, possibly also tailored to the recipient.

Who to ask, and will they hate me?

This bit is scary, because it is the first time you are putting your name and your relationships to the service of your fundraising. But this doesn’t require cold-calling or asking people who you know will be annoyed you asked.

Here’s who you’re looking to ask: people who already have expressed excitement about and commitment to your mission, people who are interested in you personally and want to see you succeed, people who can afford donations. This isn’t the time to harass a broke friend who is sceptical about your cause into donating. There’s never a time to harass that friend! It’s also not ethical to ask people who you have other financial power over, eg your dependants and your employees (including the organisation’s own employees). Ask people who can say no to you.

Instead, here’s some people you should consider:

  • yourselves, your board, your other volunteers
  • your members and attendees
  • people in your circles who have expressed enthusiasm about your organisation or mission
  • people in your circles who are supportive of you personally, and want to see you succeed

In later fundraising drives, this set of people will also include some of your previous donors, specifically the ones who gave large amounts, the ones who wrote in asking how they could please help further, and the ones who have since become volunteers.

One thing you may find reassuring: angry replies to requests are exceptionally rare, and in fact so is a polite “no”. There are plenty of people who won’t agree to pledge, and the way you’ll know this is their silence; they simply won’t reply to the request.

Estimating pledge amounts

Since you are asking money from committed and interested people, ask for an amount that is meaningful to them, and that represents a commitment when they reflect on it. Once you’ve run other fundraising drives it would be usually be one of the higher suggested amounts on your donation page, which in turn are suggested because some reasonable proportion of donors have proved to be willing to give that amount.

For a first fundraising drive, you and your board and core volunteers can consider your own donation histories. What amounts do you give to organisations you are particularly interested in and want to see succeed? You can also, as always, avoid originality, and survey the donation webpages of similar organisations and those with similar donor profiles (eg, donors are retirees, donors are wealthy professionals, donors are anticapitalists…) and look at their suggested donation amounts. You’ve probably made it onto a few organisation’s mailout lists, how much do they try and solicit from you as a year-end gift? These amounts are around about the right size.

It’s quite common for people to ask if they can pledge a smaller amount than you asked for. Of course you should agree to this.

Other things to ask for

If any of the pledges come in and offer additional help, take it! Depending on who is offering, you could:

  • ask them to volunteer for fundraising: either to join your core fundraising team, or to spread the word on social media, in their workplace, amongst their online community and so on
  • ask them to appear in your marketing: eg ask if you can interview them your website or quote them on your social media about their reason for donating, or if you can use their photograph on your donation website
  • ask them to volunteer their pledge as a matching donor, as in “if you donate during the next 48 hours of the campaign, Mary will match your donation dollar for dollar!”

You probably don’t have the capacity during planning your first fundraiser to also be recruiting and training non-fundraising staff and volunteers for your board or your projects, but if you think your pledged donor would be a better fit for that, you can of course make sure to follow up with them after the drive.

Follow up pledges!

Build a basic tracking list, eg a spreadsheet. Enter in:

  • The potential donor’s name
  • The reason you believe they may pledge
  • The relationship they have with your organisation and who should ask them
  • How much you’re asking for
  • Whether you’ve heard back, what their final pledge amount is, and whether they’ve donated it yet
  • Any complete opt-outs you get (“no, and never ask again”), so that you don’t ask them for future drives

Since silence is a ‘no’, you shouldn’t follow up with people who didn’t respond to your original ask. However, those who did reply and agree to pledge should get two or three followups.

First, contact your agreed pledges first thing after the launch of your campaign (or during any soft launch you do), with a specific message that the best way to help is to donate as early in the campaign as possible and share their participation. A sizeable proportion will enthusiastically do so and let you demonstrate to other donors that there’s a community that has faith in you.

For the others, you’ll want to remind them a couple of times; around halfway through your drive, and shortly before its close. Stay friendly; these are people who have some faith in you, and even if they do not fulfil their pledge they may contribute at some other time. But it’s perfectly fine to follow up along the lines of “you pledged $X to our campaign. If we’ve missed your donation please let us know, otherwise, we’d love it if you donated $X at [site] so that we can [reach our fundraising goal/work on our mission]. Thank you for your support!”

Usually more than 90% of your pledges will be paid, and as per the previous article on setting your goals, they will make up up to 25% of your fundraising total. And they will contribute immeasurably to your belief that your fundraiser and your organisation can succeed!

Matching campaigns

Extremely large pledges are best converted into matching campaigns; the “you give $1 and [person] gives $1” style of campaign. These are usually more time limited than your campaign as a whole, perhaps 3–5 days. Announce big matching challenges in the last two weeks of your campaign to encourage the least committed donors.

Be careful to make the matching total achievable; it should be a stretchy but not unrealistic goal for that time period. Donors won’t act on “help us reach our $250,000 match pledge” if you’ve only raised $10,000 to that point. As a guide, you probably don’t want to announce a matching pledge that exceeds half your total raised to that point. In addition, people should always be encouraged to give immediately. Don’t announce something like “a big donation reward/matching campaign is being announced Friday! look out for it!” or people who were intending to donate will wait until Friday and some of them will forget to come back. Plus you’ll be worried because suddenly your donations have dried up.

Your matching donor should be willing to work with you to promote their matching offer to their own community. You should actively help them: offer them a them a hand preparing or reviewing draft blog entries and social media about their offer. Seek their advice about your outreach during their matching campaign. Check in with them daily during the period of their match offer, letting them know how close they’re getting to their total, how people are hearing about the match and (where you have permission) who donated. Treat your matching donor as the committed fundraising partner they are.

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Your first fundraiser: your early donors by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.