“Fundraising for Non-Profits: An Insider’s Perspective”

Lisa Schlarbaum, Director of Development

When I transitioned from the for-profit to the non-profit sector as the Director of Development for Hope House of Colorado, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. That’s probably a good thing because I might not have made the change if I had really known what was ahead!

Before I joined the executive team full-time at Hope House, I spent a couple of years on the Board of Directors. I made the professional switch because I loved Hope House and believed that helping teen moms become personally and economically self-sufficient was a great mission that I could get behind.

The goal of growing the number of moms Hope House serves and being responsible for the income needed to make that happen was a challenge that appealed to me. It didn’t hurt that as a board member, I made a trip to New Hampshire to visit an organization called The Care Center that was several steps ahead of us in this mission.

I believe to this day that God cast a vision for me during this three-day meeting that was sponsored by a mutual donor to three teen mom agencies. The chance to impact two generations of children and build a resource center where teen moms could build a better future for themselves was enough to make me leave the corporate sales arena I knew so well.

What I didn’t know was how hard the fundraising was really going to be and how much I needed to learn. I am told that roughly 96% of the non-profits in the U.S. raise less than a $1 million annually. I learned it’s really hard for a non-profit to get over the humps at $500,000, $1 million, and $2 million. Each hurdle requires its own growth plan.

Every non-profit is different and has its own set of challenges. Below I listed the questions we asked ourselves as we grew from $700,000 to $1.3 million over five years. I believe the same strategies will get us to $2 million before 2020 and help us triple the number of teen moms and children we serve.

1. Why do our donors (or champions as we call them at Hope House) give to our organization? We asked ourselves why they love our mission, success rate, teen moms, little ones, and programs. We worked to find out why were they loyal to us.

2. Do we have a robust Development Plan that focuses on this year, the past and the future by income stream? To get there, we asked ourselves the following questions:  Do we have a plan around each income stream this year? Which ones are still growing, which ones have we maxed out, where will we spend our limited resources. How much is each costing the organization? When do you pull the plug on one?

The most important thing we did five years ago was to code every gift that came into Hope House. You have to know what a gift is for so that you can decide if it’s going to be given again by that specific donor or another donor– and how a new donor found out about you. You want to know when these gifts might stop. If you don’t know why people give or don’t keep your income sorted this way, then you can’t build plans to grow these income streams. In 2011, half of our income was not coded! Today less than 4% is not coded. We now build 1 and 5 year plans around our income streams.

3. Are you in relationship with your champions? Yes–  because they are the lifeline of our organization. Ask yourself if you say Thank You when you get a gift. Do your donors take your calls and answer your texts? Even better, do they provide counsel? In order to grow, you have to cultivate your champions and grow new ones. Are you providing the right opportunities to make this happen?

4. Are you relevant? More important questions to ask yourself:  What’s your marketing look like? Are you constantly striving to get to the next level? Do you know what that the next level looks like for your organization? I think our team is focused on this vision and the next steps, and we celebrate our accomplishments quarterly. I also read different fundraising blogs every week for new ideas. The Agitator and Future Fundraising Now are two that I recommend.

5. Do you have the right people on your team? You have to have the right expertise, experience and strengths on a team in order to scale and grow. Ask yourself if your team loves your mission. Are they utility players? Who pinch hits on your team when someone is on vacation or leave? Do they have the right attitude? I also have a mentor thru the Colorado AFP chapter who was helpful to me during our Capital Campaign. It’s great if you can have a couple of people like this around you.

6. Is there a magic bullet, unicorn, or secret sauce for fundraising? I personally don’t think so, and I’ve been looking for this for over five years. It’s hard work! You need to keep on top of changes in the industry and keep learning! Don’t be afraid to try new things or experiment.

At the end of every year I feel blessed to have contributed to the success of our teen moms. Recently I had coffee with one of our teen moms and was so inspired by her story. She was juggling school, work and her two children while trying to make ends meet. Her life is far from perfect, but she and her children are thriving! That’s enough to keep me doing my part here at Hope House!