I was recently part of a small group offering advice and counsel to a young nonprofit trying to improve its visibility and develop new sources of financial support, as a large grant that has carried them will be expiring.

Here’s a summary of my advice to them:

  • Broaden the population you serve.  That means more stakeholders, and more people motivated to tell your story.
  • Seek media coverage.
  • Create tools top tell your story — articles, white papers, audio podcasts, short videos, etc.
  • Become a thought leader.  Offer authoritative opinions, clear professional advice, quotable quotes that the media can use.
  • Encourage other thought leaders to use and recommend your program.  They will then help tell your story.
  • It will be hard for your program staff to focus on such public relations work at the same time that they are passionately involved in program activity.  Seek earmarked funds to hire a full time (or maybe part time) professional publicist.
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I’d offer these thoughts:

1. Few nonprofits engage in a real conversation with the donor. Ask me to support your group, when my funds feel slim, and I might resist. But ask me which of your programs excites me most, I’d be inclined to think some, perhaps review your web site or reports to see what your group is doing, and give something.

2. Donors need permission to give less. This may seem counter-intuitive, when your group needs more rather than less. But the message is that giving less still makes a difference. Many donors will postpone any donation, rather than give less than they gave last year. Getting them to give something brings in some funds, and keeps donors active.

3. You can present your appeal as a request for funds . . . or as an opportunity to make a difference (by supporting your group). That positive slant may be more effective.

4. Tell it like it is. I’ve NEVER gotten an appeal that said, “We spend $34.25 to get you included in our donor community . . . hope that money will not be spent in vain”. (I’m not sure what the cost per donor is, and the figure you use may reflect cost of getting donors in a particular giving bracket.)

5. You may just not be telling your story in ways that are vivid, compelling, and encouraging. I’ve been running workshops helping nonprofits find and tell their story. If you’re not sharing great stories with your donors, they may not feel motivated to give (even though they may have been loyal supporters for years).

Recently I was asked to comment about how best to engage donors to a nonprofit.

My answer — Ask the right questions.  Decide what conversation you’d like to have, and figure out what QUESTIONS will start that off.  Donors like to be listened to, like to be heard, and like to be treated as important.  Asking the right questions, and then listening carefully will make a huge difference.

Is there a story that you’d like to tell. Don’t just blurt it out. Wait for the question, to which your story is a wonderful answer.

An example: “Why have you been so generous with us . . . with three very significant contributions in just the past year?”  That’s not a question many fundraisers would ask. But prompting the key donor to review his or her satisfaction in supporting your work may be more effective than any words you might provide about why your work matters.

One caveat, however:  You must care about the answer you will receive.  Asking questions just for effect won’t work at all.  The donor or prospect may surprise you, may confirm your understanding or expectations, may challenge you.  But, whatever its effect, the answer will be important.

The importance of the answer – That’s a major part of what makes a great question.

One caveat