Is there a Formula for Fundraising Success?

Fundraising isn’t JUST about money. It’s about relationships. How can you start to build a relationship with a donor? Conversation about their values. And questions. And listening. What questions do you ask? What does it look like when you get it wrong?

Here’s a cringeworthy story about a fundraiser getting it wrong.

The other day I had biked to the co-op, and was standing outside in the sun when this guy approached me. He had been staring at me for a few minutes and I was carefully not looking at him. He didn’t have a typical canvasser’s shirt on, but after talking with me for a minute, he got the conversation around to the air pollution caused by the local glassmaking factory a few blocks away. I said I’d heard about it, and he launched into a schpiel about how their nonprofit was working to stop air pollution around the state.

I was annoyed at having my lovely afternoon cut short by a sales pitch for an issue I didn’t care about, and soon realized he was going to ask me for a donation.

He did not ask me if I had a few minutes to talk. He didn’t ask if he could talk with me. He didn’t ask what I cared about. He didn’t elicit a two-way conversation with me. He didn’t pause to ask for my opinion on the various things he was talking about.

After about 10 minutes of this he got to his ask. And I think he knew he’d lost me, because I was already stepping back and saying,

“No thank you.”

My friend told me I should have told him it wasn’t a good time to talk to me. I agreed. But I thought, what can I give you, the fundraiser, to learn from this awkward street interaction?

I thought of this Goethe quote.

“The greater part of all the mischief in the world arises from the fact that men do not sufficiently understand their own aims.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I would rephrase this to, “The greatest part of all mischief comes when we don’t sufficiently understand our donor’s aims.”

Goethe Quote on Fundraising

What can you do to make sure your donor’s interests match your pitch?

Ellen Bristol recently sent me her book, Fundraising the SMART way, as a review copy for this site.

Fundraising the SMART way stands for: “Strategic, Measurable, Donor Action Focused, Realistic and Time Defined” in how you create your fundraising goals.

One of the things I saw right away in this book that can help you is a series of questions that will help you know your potential major or monthly donor better, and not waste time on people who don’t care about your cause.


Here’s the first question. It’s the success question, to elicit the donor’s positive motivators.

Simply put, what does the donor want to see MORE of in the world?

1. Ask: “What do you want to accomplish through your charitable giving?”

2. Ask: “Why is that important to you?”

3. Ask: “What inspires you to give to charity? What missions draw your attention the most? Why?”

4. Ask: “If the nonprofit you support was completely successful, what would that do for you, (the community, the world) Why would that be important to you?”

If they are a current donor, you can ask, “Why do you give your money to us?”

Now that you know what their positive motivation is, here’s the obvious next part.

What does the donor want to see LESS of in the world?

5. Ask: “When you think of charities you have supported, what do you want them to fix or wipe out?”

6. Ask: “What is it about the [issue/problem] that bothers or concerns you so much? How does that affect your charitable decisions?”

7. Ask: “What’s at stake if your preferred charities are not able to achieve their mission?”

8. Ask: “What do you fear might happen if this issue is not resolved?”

9. Ask: “Why is that important to you?

Now, you want to find out how this person decides to give to particular charities.

You can ask,

10. Ask: “How do you choose charities to support?” What would you have to see or hear from a nonprofit in order for you to make a significant commitment?”

11. Ask: “What would a charity need to show you, after you’ve made your gift, to convince you that you had made a wise investment?”

12. Ask: “When selecting a charity, what is uppermost in your mind?”

13. Ask: “Have you ever withdrawn your support of a charity? If so, why?”

14. Ask: “When you think about other charities that you have supported, what did you like best about them? Why was that important to you?”


If that street fundraiser had asked me even ONE of these questions it could have led to a very interesting discussion.

If you are managing street fundraising, these are some questions to get your canvassers to try.

If you are working on getting more donors for your nonprofit right now, these are some questions to ask your prospects, or even people that you might meet at your next event, whether it’s an open house or a gala.

These questions become the first “MOVE” in the Fundraising the SMART Way donor pipeline, which is, I assure you, unlike any other donor pipeline you’ve read about before.

Have you read Fundraising the Smart Way? What did you think of it, if so?

If you haven’t read it, you can learn more about Fundraising the Smart Way at the Bristol Strategy Group’s website.

Would I recommend this book? Definitely.

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