Raising Money When You Don’t Have Money

Question: I’m the president of an all-volunteer nonprofit board.  All the individuals on our board care a lot about the watershed we protect, but it’s very difficult to have much of an impact when we personally don’t have the time and organizationally don’t have the funds to do the work we want to do.  Someone told me recently, “with nonprofit work, you have to have money to make money.” Unfortunately, we don’t have any money…so my question is, how do we get into the fundraising loop?

Answer: Although it’s a bit fatalistic for my taste, there is some truth to the old adage “you have to have money to make money.”  The reason is, a lot of major donors, foundations, and businesses are more hesitant to donate to groups who don’t have a track record of others donating and supporting the work you do and demonstrating that you spend the money given to you responsibly and with impact.  The real test of how good of an investment a group is can be seen in how they’ve spent money given to them in the past.  Luckily, everybody starts somewhere—and this is how other groups do it!

  • Relationships.  There’s another saying in the nonprofit world: “people don’t give money to organizations, they give money to people.”  Again: not strictly true, but the nugget of truth here is that it’s a lot easier to get a gift from an individual you have a relationship with than a stranger, and easier to get a grant from a foundation where you’ve taken the time to build a relationship with them.  So, start calling foundations that give to organizations that have similar programs to yours, and set up some meetings!  Have lunch with prospective major donors—not to ask for money, but just to build relationships.
  • Organization.  If you can show a prospective funder or foundation that you’re organized, they’re more likely to take a chance on you.  For instance, it’s helpful to have a well-thought-out program plan that lays out what you need funding for. Write down what you want to do, how you plan to do it and what it’s going to cast, and start sharing your dream with others.  Your job then becomes finding funders who will share in, and invest in, your dream with you.
  • Spending other money well.  When you do get funding—through membership, events, grants, etc.—make sure you keep track of where it goes.  This might seem like a no-brainer, but if you can show a prospective donors what you’ve done with the money you’ve made so far—even if it’s just a little bit!—it can help give them confidence in their investment in your organization.

So, don’t let all the nonprofit idioms get you down.  Sure, it’s easier to make money when you have a lot of money, but you have to start somewhere!  The important thing is to be patient and don’t expect to make $100,000 overnight.  You’ll get there!