This Fundraising Season, are you Mining or Gardening?

shovel with dirt

This harvest season, be prepared for the plant that’s still putting down roots, thank all of those who have already provided fruit, and ask what will make your gardening process more life-giving as you go.

The farmer’s daughter in me feels the excitement and anxiety surrounding harvest season in my bones. As crops come in, many nonprofits are likewise busy gearing up for Give to the Max Day, Giving Tuesday, and year-end solicitations. In farming, years of unpredictable weather causes anxiety. Similarly for nonprofits, changes to the tax code, institutions with shifting priorities, and leadership transitions at organizations continue to contribute to the uncertainties in our business models and long-term planning. It can be hard to know where to prioritize your fund development time.

Most nonprofit fundraising plans acknowledge the growing importance of individual donations. There are plenty of stats to back up why. In 2019, individuals gave $292.09 billion, which was 68 percent of total giving; once you factor out giving to religion and education, individual donations totaled $108.85 billion (25.4 percent of total donations), according to Giving USA’s 2019 report. However, the process of cultivating individual supporters versus writing a grant can feel very different. Submitting a grant application can be a satisfying check on your to-do list, whereas the coffee date or birthday card can feel hard to justify.

Since we are not fundraising professionals, we often partner with those who are. Last month, we partnered with GiveMN and their new fundraising coaching initiative, RaiseMN, for our annual Equity Builder Loan Program cohort gathering to talk about fundraising. We know asking for money is one of the most emotional parts of any nonprofit leader’s jobs, doubly so when other funding has gone away. GiveMN helped us release some of the emotional baggage that can be tied to fundraising by providing a useful metaphorical frame: are you approaching fundraising as mining or gardening?

The gardening analogy is a useful one for fundraising. Just as every garden can and will look different, so will your nonprofit’s fundraising strategy. You don’t have to be an “expert” to start gardening, although we know master gardeners are out there. Gardening starts by researching and then planting seeds. It feels life-giving, not extractive, and it’s certainly lower-risk than mining. Approaching fundraising as gardening can help make more space for individual relationships.

People sometimes ask me what my farming family does in the winter once “the work” is done. I laugh and try to explain the work never ends, it just looks different. We ready the ground for winter, clean and repair the equipment, balance the books, and catch up with all the other farmers. The work of building long-term supporters is likewise a process that looks different depending on the season. The GiveMN team talked about the four phases of funder development: acquisition, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship. We discuss these with all board members in our Board Boot Camp trainings, as well. The “ask” – the solicitation phase – can feel stressful when done on its own. However, after getting to know an existing or potential donor or funder personally, letting them know how aligned your work is with their values, and planning how you’ll say thank you and stay in touch, it’s just one season of a longer cycle. A “no” can feel more like a “not right now.”

This harvest season, be prepared for the plant that’s still putting down roots, thank all of those who have already provided fruit, and ask what will make your gardening process more life-giving as you go. If you need to call in fellow gardeners, give our friends at GiveMN/RaiseMN a call: https://www.raisemn.org/.

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