Fresh fundraising ideas

We all know that fundraising can bring great rewards but also be drudgery and relentless pressure. When you’ve had some success, it’s hard to avoid getting stuck in the same routine and tactics, year after year. Here are some fresh ideas from our colleagues throughout the sector that just might give your plans and fundraising calendar some new energy.

1. Go lowbrow. This is a fun alternative that turns the usual gala on its head. Tell your supporters that this year is such an important time for your organization, you want to spend the money you are raising (and all that staff time) on your mission instead of producing your usual event. Instead of holding that fashionable cocktail party or dinner at a high-end hotel, hold a hot dogs and beer event at a local brewpub or cafe. This works if you still charge the full amount (whatever you used to charge for the fancy event), can get the costs sponsored, or are willing to get a little campy with the theme. Perhaps you could alternate years—one fancy, one lowbrow—and people will look forward to their preferred party!

2. Catchy and humorous themes for a campaign. The Decibels Foundation n Boston provides services to children with hearing loss and to their families. Their signature fundraiser, “Stink Week,” has a central idea: hearing loss stinks! Embracing that concept in its most literal sense, the Stink Week campaign invited participants to create a fundraising page, set a personal goal, and then…well, stink. The rules vary depending upon your level of commitment to smelling bad (and perhaps the willingness of those around you to tolerate the smell). At the mild end of the spectrum are the “Cheddar Rules.” In this version you have to wear your official stink week tee shirt all week, but you can wash it and bathe. On the other end of the spectrum are the “Muenster Rules.” Those willing to go all the way to raise funds for hearing loss commit to not bathing and not washing their stink week tee shirts for the whole week. After a successful launch two years ago, Stink Week was destined to be an annual tradition.

3. Pay not to play. Instead of selling tickets as with a traditional raffle, every guest at your event is given one free ticket (or five) when they come in the door. Instead of winning a prize, however, the person whose ticket is drawn will win a “gag” prize with some level of light embarrassment, like having to dance with the band or sing karaoke. Throughout the event, people can “sell” their ticket back to the organization in return for a donation (so they won’t have to be part of the drawing). To keep things lively, people can sell their tickets back on a sliding scale: the first ten will be taken back for a $10 donation, the next ten for $20, the next ten for $40, and so on.

4. Pay to work. Many people like to roll up their sleeves and get to work—and they like to feel more involved in your nonprofit than simply writing a check.  If it makes sense for your organization, hold a “pay to work” event that combines fundraising and volunteerism. With this idea, you ask people to make a donation in return for a position as part of your volunteer day. For example, let’s say you are painting a school. You could find 30 volunteers who are willing to pay a “reverse salary” of $50 each in order to be on the paint team. You might even be able to find someone to donate $500 to be the “foreman.” 

5. Non-event. Clever copywriting in an invitation might just be the ticket (or, in this case, the non-ticket). If your community is inundated with fundraising events, offer to sit this one out. With classy script, your invite might read, “You are cordially invited to spend an evening of your choosing exactly as you please with loved ones and friends,” and you are simply asking for a donation in lieu of a party. This idea could work especially well if your mission involves basic services and/or serving a low-income audience, since sometimes yet another gala feels incongruous.

6. Micro-giving is certainly growing and the best thing about it is you can continuously be receiving small donations even while you are doing your other fundraising initiatives. The tie to professional sports is a natural. People can commit to donating $1 every time your home team scores a run or wins a game, and even though the individual gift is small, the more people you get to pledge the better. Find out whether the team would provide a signed jersey or box seat tickets for a future game; perhaps a star player would speak at your awards ceremony.

7. Take a cue from elementary schools. School principals will often run this type of fundraiser by promising that he will shave his head, or she’ll wear a chicken costume for a day, or run ten laps around the school singing show tunes, but only if the students raise $10,000 for new school computers or library books. This kind of fun might just work for your nonprofit. In order to work, of course, it’s got to be good. It can be a great media story, too—just make sure that communicating your mission isn’t lost in the spectacle.

8. A structure that has worked well with capital campaigns borrows the model from multi-level marketing. Set up a small fundraising committee and task it with a dollar goal. If you need to raise $10,000 and recruit five members for the committee, each of them is responsible for raising $2,000. Each of these members goes out and recruits people to raise money toward that goal. Suppose one of your group members finds three additional people to help. With four people raising the $2,000 (the original member plus the three new recruits), each person in that “downline” only needs to raise $500. The goal is to have lots of people out raising a small amount of money each, which adds up to a big win for your nonprofit and less work for you—since each member of your fundraising committee is responsible for motivating and tracking their own downline. Make sure you have well-branded collateral (web and print), and capture all participants in your database.

9. Tap into existing affinity groups. Affinity fundraising groups are when you can motivate an existing network of people who will support your organization and raise money on your behalf. For example, you could have a lawyers group, a young professionals group, or a nurses group. Start with your board—an attorney could consider hosting a “Lawyers for (insert your nonprofit here)” mixer or gathering where people pay to attend. Affinity fundraising group members already share something in common, and usually welcome another opportunity to network.

10. A creative campaign idea comes from the Somaly Mam Foundation’s “18-for-18” approach. The group works to end human trafficking and sexual slavery, with a particular focus on Southeast Asia. Two years ago they asked donors to commit to taking the highest skydive in North America (18,000 feet!) to help raise $18,000. When you commit to doing something intriguing and bold, people will naturally be more interested in getting involved, and the clever name gives people an easy and memorable hook to talk about with their friends. An idea like this works well when you imagine what your donor audience (in this example, adventurous outdoors enthusiasts) would enjoy doing.

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