Want to Raise More Money for Your Not-for-Profit? Then Don’t Ask for Any!

June 10, 2016

This post was written in collaboration with TriNet Regional Vice President of Sales Jim Blackie.

If you ask for money, you’ll get advice. But if you ask for advice, you’ll get money twice. This well-known fundraising adage is a lesson every not-for-profit organization president, board member and fundraiser should embrace.

What this saying means is that if you want to convince donors to contribute to your organization, you shouldn’t ask them for money. This may come as a relief for business leaders uncomfortable with fundraising. However, it may be a surprise to those who come from a traditional sales background that advises you to outright ask for what you want. So, why is it that if you want people who believe in your mission enough to support you financially, you have to start by not asking them for one red cent?

Facing the Fundraising Frustration
At TriNet, Jim works with more than 13,000 clients and over 324,000 worksite employees across the U.S.[1] Many of his clients run small to midsize not-for-profit organizations. At Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF), Muhammed’s team has become a national leader in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Both are constantly confronted with the same question from not-for-profit presidents and board members struggling to grow their organizations: “Why don’t people just get it? Isn’t what I’m doing providing a crucial service?”

In other words, America’s not-for-profit leaders are frustrated about their need to constantly sell, fundraise, grant-write and communicate about a cause they see as both vital and self-explanatory. The frustration grows when not-for-profit leaders pitch their services to donors who have a vested interest in their cause and get little to no response. The not-for-profit organizations that don’t make it are those that let these frustrations fester to the point of disillusionment. This is especially true when they see others gain the influence and access to the funding they so desperately need.

Rethinking Fundraising
The world has changed, people have changed and how we communicate and connect has changed.However, regardless of all the changes happening around us, the fundamental core of not-for-profit work remains the same. The proven model of success for not-for-profits is to appeal not to money or material accomplishments but to something much more profound: our hearts, values and our pursuit for making a significant impact in the world.

This should make sense. No one quits a seven-figure income to take a fraction of that at a not-for-profit organization. People do so because they believe in that organization’s mission and purpose. They want to dedicate their careers to doing something they can be passionate about. The funders and partners you want supporting your not-for-profit are the funders who share your mission and purpose.

Finding Funders Who Fit
This is where the adage about asking for advice comes into play. Asking for advice, not money, has to be your mindset if you want to be relevant to potential supporters in the long term. That’s because by asking for advice, you engage your advisor and invite them to put themselves in your shoes. It gives them an opportunity to connect emotionally with you and your cause. It makes them valued and allow them to contribute their experience and insight, rather than only a check. When an organization gets donors to give more than just money, it helps the donor get more connected and makes them want to give larger gifts. Stop asking for money—ask for advice and get money twice. Once you’re ready to shift your thinking to seeking advice instead of gathering funds, you can start by applying what we call the “Three I’s Model.”

The Three “I’s” in Advice: Integrity, Intent and Influence
First, have integrity when seeking advice from thought leaders. Don’t just ask for advice for the sake of getting a donor to contribute. Ask for the sake of understanding what it is they are trying to teach you. One of the biggest mistakes not-for-profit leaders make is seeking out advice and then not valuing that advice. This approach can severely harm the relationship. Put another way, if they can’t trust you as an executive enough to implement the advice they give you, why should they trust you with their currency? Seek advice with integrity and reap the benefits of that integrity.

Next, be intentional in your approach. When you solicit help for your cause, lead by example and be ready to go the distance. As a not-for-profit leader, asking others to do what you don’t intend to do yourself will cause certain failure. Seeking help from other leaders cannot be a tactic—it must be an integral part of your strategy. The people you want to attract to your cause must see you as committed, genuine and passionate about the mission you want to advance. Gathering supporters must be your lifestyle; not a weekend hobby. When you are intentional in your strategy, you attract support from those who see your vision. Your sincerity in intention inspires them to help you cross the financial finish line.

Finally, recognize the impact and influence of breaking that next major barrier—that “big audacious goal” you have in mind for your organization. As a not-for-profit leader, you must drive toward an outcome and strive to achieve something of real significance. Otherwise, why bother? This requires you to study your potential donors and to truly understand what matters to them, how they donate, when they donate and to whom they donate.

For instance, in creating the HR solutions for TriNet’s not-for-profit clients, Jim goes out and studies the very market he wants to help. He networks within the vast not-for-profit community and gathers the right expertise. He then incorporates the advice he receives into delivering the most relevant services to help not-for-profits succeed. He builds a relationship with the not-for-profit world by letting them teach him what they know and then incorporating this knowledge back into the not-for-profit cause.

Meanwhile, Muhammed analyzes volumes of data and works with hundreds of teachers to empower students with ground-breaking educational tools. The fact that both are successful in their quest demonstrates that there’s no single silver bullet to successful fundraising in the not-for-profit arena. Both of their approaches separately are valid and a combination would also be possible. It’s a matter of personal preferences, of understanding your audience and what will yield results quickly. Moreover, their successes aren’t incidental - they’re intentional and influential and rooted in personal integrity. They ask for advice and get money twice—once in the form of advice and once more in the form of funds when their funders see them advance with integrity, intentionality and influence.

If you can lead your industry on advice-gathering with integrity and intent, few will match your influence on the small network of potential donors in your industry. And that’s when a not-for-profit president or board member who masters the art of implementing advice finds that people will finally “get it.”

[1] As of March 31, 2016. Data is sourced from full-time and salaried employees of TriNet clients, whom we refer to as worksite employees.

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.

The opinions and views expressed by guest authors of the TriNet blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of TriNet or any of its affiliates or partners.  

By Muhammed Chaudhry

Muhammed Chaudhry is president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF). Under his stewardship, SVEF has become the leading education not-for-profit resource preparing students for college and careers in Silicon Valley.

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