Raising funds is about so much more than asking for money. It is amplifying the relevance of what you do and bringing people into your vision. But while there may be no doubt that your work will change the world (or at least one person’s life!) you must be able to communicate how you are doing it and why.
These are all questions that funders, donors, and prospects have asked me at some point. Some have wanted to hear a heartwarming success story while others have been more interested in financial metrics. Consider these 25 questions as an invitation to open dialogue and carve a pathway for support.
Grab the worksheet to accompany this article!
Bring them into your vision…
1 | What do you do?
The ubiquitous cue for a concise and passionate overture your work. I have whittled mine down to four words, plus an explanation of why it matters and a few stockpiled stories that exemplify the work and showcase impact.
2 | Why are you passionate about it?
You have a reason for doing this. Connect the dots between your personal story, the big picture, the mission, your motivation and what you want to see as a result of your work.
3 | What brought you to this line of work?
Presumably, you didn’t just show up out of the blue. What aspects of your personal history led you to the work you do now?
4 | How did the work get started and how has it grown?
A history lesson from the inception of your organization to where you are now. Overcoming adversity is always a hit here.
5 | What problem are you solving?
Also known as “why are you doing it?” Take this moment to legitimize your work and elaborate on why it is so important. There could be several issues that your work is addressing. Pick the one that is most aligned with the concerns of the person you are talking with.
6 | What is your theory of change?
Here you have a chance to present a picture that will tie together what you are doing and why it is important with how you will actually do it. Call it a road map for impact where you illustrate how your strategy will be a solution to the problem. In exploring your theory of change, you’ll want to delve into the context of your work, your purpose and mission, what you hope to achieve, the resources you have to work with, the activities you undertake and the outcome of those activities.
7 | What is the biggest obstacle challenging your mission?
Is it accomplishing your mission under the marginalization of systemic oppression? Do you have a team that is stretched too thin and on the verge of burn-out? Is it access to funding or the capacity to go for it? In short, this is what keeps you up at night. While the answer to this question may change every day, I have found that knowing it has the power to spark some very authentic and fruitful dialogue. And it almost always leads to a suggestion or an introduction to someone who can perhaps be a bridge to a solution.
8 | What are your top priorities right now?
What is most vital to your work today? Your priorities, like your challenges, will change from time to time, but an internal check-in of what would most benefit your mission at any given moment is particularly useful when talking with a prospective donor who may be trying to figure out how she can best support you. Knowing your priorities will not only provide clarity for you, but it will also give her guidance as well.
9 | Who is doing work similar to you?
I don’t think this is anyone’s favorite question, particularly in development where there still exists a competitive mindset that is scrambling for every available charitable dollar. If asked, you might take this as a chance to talk about partners who are not doing the same work as you but are ones you would like to work with. Or, if pressed, drop a few names but be sure to highlight how you are unique.
10 | How do you define success?
What would the world look like if you accomplished your mission and called it a day? Draw a picture of this world. A follow-up to this question is nearly always along the lines of, “how will you track it?” Criteria, benchmarks and how you approach the concept of impact will go hand-in-hand with your definition of success.
11 | Where do you want to be in five years?
In a climate that is rapidly shifting, this question usually yields uncertainty if not anxiety. There is always the Google approach where “in the early days at Google we joked about not having a plan, we would say that we have a 6-month roadmap and a 15-year vision – everything in between is somewhat blurry.” But in the world of development, funders banking on you tend to appreciate a little more down-to-earth detail. Determining where you want to be in five years is particularly essential if you are going for multi-year grants.
12 | How are you creating a sustainable organization?
The sustainability question can take on a few different forms beyond cash flow and diversified revenue streams. Sometimes it is another way of saying, “What happens when I stop funding your work?” Or it could mean, “How are you building the capacity of your organization and empowering the people in it?” It can also be asking, “What is your exit strategy if you determine that your work has not had an impact?” And sometimes, all they actually want to know is, “What happens if you lose your founder or other team members who are critical to the success of your mission?” All of these questions are worth some time of exploration.
13 | How can I learn more about your work?
It is always good to have a few points of direction for people who would like to learn more. It could be your website of course. It could also be an invitation to meet your team or the people that your work serves. In any case, you may want to offer to send more information that is particularly relevant to their interests.
Know a few key financial details…
14 | What is your operating budget?
Your operating budget is a number, and you should know it. How much will it cost to do your work this year? Not sure? Get started with this article: Build an Annual Budget with Ease. Often budgets are understandably shrouded in confusion. So much depends on whether funding comes through. You may have several irons in the fire, and all have fluctuating expenses. Or you may just possess an acute financial phobia. But not knowing the answer to this question, if asked, will only do two things: make you look like you don’t know what you are doing and, more importantly, make it difficult to ask for money. If you don’t know what you need, how can you know what to ask for? Once you’ve figured it out, use it as a bargaining chip to fundraise.
15 | How is your operating budget allocated?
This question usually arises from the antiquated nonprofit mentality of “invest it all in programs.” It comes from the idea that most of the money you raise should go directly to programs and you should spend as little as possible on overhead (and spend even less on fundraising). I like to couple my answer to this question with an explanation of why unrestricted funding is critical to sustainability.
16 | Do you have cash reserves?
In all honesty, I rarely have anyone ask this question or its sister query, “do you have an endowment?” The answer is that you either do, or you don’t, but it’s also a little tricky. You want to show financial stability, but you also want to justify that you need funding. Which leads us to …
Our favorite topic, funding…
17 | How will my donation be used?
First, clarify whether the donation is unrestricted or whether your donor would like to earmark it for a particular component of your work. Either way, your answer should justify why such a gift is vital to your mission’s success.
18 | How will my donation have an impact on your work?
Everyone wants to feel good about giving. Validate this with a meaningful story.
19 | Is my donation tax-deductible?
Simply put, are you a 501(c)3 or do you have a fiscal sponsor? If not, then no.
10 | Why did you reach out to me?
When a donor prospect asks you this question, it is an excellent opportunity to nurture the relationship and discover alignment. How did you hear about this person? Was it through an introduction or a colleague in common? After ascertaining who the two of you know in common, shift the conversation to an aspect of your work that you think will be most of interest.
21 | How can I donate?
This question is a matter of basic logistics, however, be sure that you have the details. Mail a check? Here is our address. Online? yourwebsite.com/donate (and be sure your web page to accept donations has a simple URL that is easy to remember).
22 | How will I be treated after I make a donation?
Consider two things here: Gratitude and Engagement. How will you show your appreciation to your donor? And how will you continue to build your relationship with her? Dive into some ideas for a Donor Welcome Kit.
23 | If I donate, will you do [fill in the blank] for me?
It happens. The donor may not explicitly request anything out loud, but a donation can occasionally be contingent on a particular result that the donor wants. Know your boundaries, consider your Gift Acceptance Principles and have an elegant exit strategy such as, “That sounds intriguing. Let me give the idea some consideration and follow-up with you.”
24 | How can I contribute to your work outside of a financial donation?
Suppose you have someone wholeheartedly enthusiastic about your mission but is not ready to donate for some reason. How can someone otherwise support your mission? Perhaps it will be volunteering to help you out, spreading the word about your good work or introducing you to the right people.
25 | How are you currently funded?
This question may be out of curiosity, but it is often a subtle way for a potential donor to find alignment with your current philanthropic community. If you work is funded by like-minded individuals or institutions, it can also be a building block to establish trust.
• • •
It is important to keep in mind that with many of these questions, there is no right answer nor canned script to memorize. I recently had a meeting that brought together members of leadership, programs, and development to gather around the table with one of our funders to touch base and talk about the future. During the conversation, the funder bluntly asked our team, “what is your why?” Interestingly, each of us had a different answer, yet all were mission-aligned, deeply personal and inspirational. The conversation then transitioned to a discussion of new, expanded funding.
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