Written by Martha Geier, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at The Food Literacy Project
Fundraising was an activity I never expected or wanted to do. The thought of asking someone for money was most unappealing. I have trouble even asking for help. However, much of my eight years as a volunteer with the Food Literacy Project involved development projects and now I find myself the VISTA Philanthropy Coordinator. And I have a completely new perspective of development.
First, you have to know yourself. We just had a community engagement training with the amazing Jennie Jean Davidson of Better Together Strategies during which she presented the intriguing concept of person, role and system. It’s about self-awareness and how our personal stories affect us in our various life roles in the many “systems” we are part of. Google it to learn more. I recommend the Myers-Briggs personality type instrument as another indicator for understanding self. https://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/home.htm?bhcp=1
You have to know your organization. In addition to understanding its mission, what about it affects you most strongly – the general cause, specific programs, specific outcomes, etc. You need to be able to briefly describe it to others in an elevator speech. And you may need more than one. I find I need one for a general introduction to people who are just learning about us, another for a specific program, another for our expansion to Iroquois Urban Farm. In other words, you need conversation starters.
You have to know your donors. Ask them about their lives and interests. Our stories are what connect us. These connecting conversations help you see what about your organization will interest them. We find that some of our supporters are really foodies. They love our annual Field-to-Fork Dinner for its unique courses and once they are full and happy, they are quite willing to participate financially in the silent auction and other fundraising activities of the evening. Some donors are all about farming and a sustainable food system. Others about helping underserved children and families lead healthier lives. There can be differences among age groups. Older donors may be happy to provide money; younger ones may want to have hands-on involvement. These clues help you determine the best way forward to deepen their involvement. And getting to know donors is one of the best parts of development. Some of ours have become my personal friends.
You must thank your supporters sincerely and often. For a smaller organization like ours, we can get thank you letters out within 48 hours, we can mount thankathons, we can schedule site visits or coffee catch-ups. You will find ways to connect with your supporters. Most of these interactions are for stewardship rather than making an ask. Stewardship is critical.
You are not asking for money/in kind materials or services. You are providing an opportunity for investment in the community, in solving a problem, in changing someone’s life. You will have learned enough about the donor to know what will most likely resonate with them.
For those who want to continue in the non-profit space, some level of fundraising knowledge is critical even if development is not your specific role. As VISTAs, we know that we need to be able to speak knowledgeably about our organizations and, in so doing, we are spreading awareness that may lead to donor prospects. Positive volunteer experiences and really any connection we make with the outside world will have impact. I recommend acquaintance with two organizations for those who want to explore fundraising in particular and Louisville’s non-profit scene.
Fundraising Executives of Metro Louisville (FREML) https://freml.org is a membership organization for anyone in development, but you can attend as a guest a time or two to see if it is a good fit. They have monthly programs, provide mentors, have scholarships and a job board.
Center for Non-Profit Excellence (CNPE) https://www.cnpe.org offers programs, classes and consultation that are open to anyone. Your organization is likely to have a membership which reduces any costs associated with their offerings. They have a job board.
We all have talents that feel natural to us. Some people are born fund raisers. I was not. However, I feel such a deep connection with the mission of the Food Literacy Project and am continuously inspired by our staff and board, our farmers, and the youth and families who participate in our programs that engaging our wonderful donors is no longer a challenge.