The Rollercoaster Ride: Fundraising in the Impact World

Date : Sep 2 , 2021 | Alumni

Sarika Bhattacharyya, ILSS Fundraising Program Alumna & Director – Development at Plaksha University, shares the most essential strategies for fundraising in the social sector.

I thought transitioning from an investment banking career to a social entrepreneur was tough enough. But the stakes changed drastically when I decided to join the impact world after running a social enterprise for more than a decade. I was excited to be part of an inspiring mission, and took up the challenge to lead the fundraising efforts for one of the largest collective philanthropic efforts in the country.

But I must admit, fundraising for a nonprofit has been the toughest job I have ever done. As a banker, I would ask clients to part with their money with the promise of great returns. But in the nonprofit world, it can be intimidating to ask people to part with their hard-earned cash. Building and maintaining relationships during a pandemic can be challenging, but with the right strategies, we can create long-lasting bonds.

1. Research, Research, and then… do more Research.

Recently, I gifted one of my donors a painting by an acclaimed folk artist. Knowing he had a keen interest in the History of Art, I bought the painting from a NGO that was supporting this particular diminishing folk tradition. When I shared the NGO’s story with him, he immediately wanted to support their work as well. Doing research and understanding your donors is the first step to build a meaningful relationship. Fortunately, today we have more access to information about our donors than ever.

You need to be able to answer these questions if you want to get to a donor’s heart:

In other words, understand your donor so well, it’s like you have read their mind.

2. Keep the Ask Simple.

As a rookie banking professional, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given by one of my mentors was: Keep the ask simple. Always link what you want to ask for with a specific goal that can be quantified and shared. And this is not just important for fundraising; it’s about setting specific goals for your organization. And the only way to do it well is practicing your ask with these simple outcomes/goals in mind. For example, building a ‘Gift Tree’, showing how their gift could make an impact is a very effective method. 

3. Build Strong Relationships. Listen and Respond.

My journey as a fundraising professional started early last year. Due to the COVID crisis I could not have any in-person meetings. Suddenly the world of fundraising, which thrived on face-to-face meetings, moved into a virtual space. At this juncture, decades of experience of building strong relationships came to my rescue. I studied what my donors are interested in, and communicated with them regularly. I sent them articles according to their interests and wrote personal notes. As an organization, we would engage them in various activities as advisors, mentors, and advocates.
One of the personal learnings in this exercise has been to listen more. Listening carefully can be a very underrated part of communication skills, especially when it comes to responding to the nuances of donor needs. 

4. Perseverance is Key.

Every fundraising professional has been rejected by donors. I was dejected after hearing a “No” from a CSR Board after months of hard work. But being able to put it aside and not become disillusioned or demotivated was the only way I could move forward. Major gifts require a lot of hard work, tenacity, and determination to pull off. Since it often requires an organization to build a long-term relationships, perseverance is a crucial quality for a fundraising professional.

5. Continue to Show Gratitude.

At our organization, we don’t just thank donors at the time of giving. We find opportunities to show our continuing gratitude. We celebrate their “donorversary” by sending personalized thank you notes. We thank them with a story of how exactly their gift has created an impact, leaving a lasting impression and an emotional connect. One of our donors even shared such a story with his friends, who in turn were motivated to get involved with the cause.

6. Create a Process-Driven Approach.

Having a strategic process goes a long way. It is essential to capture all the information and data in one place, like in an Excel spreadsheet, in CRMs, etc. This has helped us gain insights on prospective donors, communications, and donor engagement strategy. With additional contributions and referrals from donors, this approach has multiplied our returns. On top of it all, a process-driven structure helps to leverage the diverse skillset of a team, maximizing performance.

7. Make it a Collective Effort.

In a nonprofit world, fundraising is a collective effort. Everyone who is connected to the cause, including founders, advisors, and extended team members, can majorly contribute to the fundraising effort. They open doors for you, extend their support, and champion the cause. Aligning their strengths, networks, and passion to the cause is the key to build a strong group of fundraising champions.

8. Commit to the Cause.

After a fundraising pitch, the donor committed his contribution saying, “I can see your passion, and that’s why I feel energized to contribute to the cause.” This was one of the biggest highs for us in the team. When a fundraiser is truly passionate about the organization, it shines through in their work. We don’t convince donors. We help them realize that they already care, and then connect their passion to the cause. Once donors believe that your cause truly matters, giving almost becomes an afterthought. Of course they’ll give!

9. Invest in Yourself.

Even though I had the experience of fundraising in my earlier corporate avatar, the world of the nonprofit was very different. I decided to invest in my learning and signed up for the ILSS Fundraising Program – one of the best decisions I made. It not only helped me to understand the nuances of philanthropic fundraising, but also build my network with some amazing nonprofit leaders who are now close friends and mentors.

Fundraising is a roller coaster ride with its ups and downs (sometimes the downs are more than the ups)! But the everlasting impact it can have on your cause makes it all worthwhile.

Sarika is passionate about building inclusive businesses creating a positive social impact. She has over 20 years of experience having worked with firms such as Merrill Lynch & ICICI Bank. In 2011, Sarika decided to follow her passion in social innovation and successfully built BeyonDiversity, which is now recognized as one of the Global Top 10 Diversity Consulting firms. Currently, Sarika is pursuing her next passion as part of the leadership team at Plaksha University. She is responsible for fundraising & donor stewardship for one of the largest collective philanthropic efforts.

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