Fundraising - smashing common misconceptions

Contributor: Weronika Paszewska


“Running a small-donor fundraising program is too difficult to be worth the effort.”

“The field is too crowded for us to raise money.” 

“There is no culture of fundraising in my country and what works elsewhere could never apply here.” 

“We simply aren’t rich enough here to make it worth asking for money for social causes.”

“People don’t like to be asked for money. We’ll turn them off.”

I have heard these arguments countless times, and some years ago I was also making the same arguments. Back in 2014, I launched a progressive organisation called Akcja Demokracja in Poland. Many people were sceptical about the idea of a successful small-donor fundraising program. Back then, I knew there was a possibility for it to not work out, and would require energy convincing both myself and my team, but I thought it was worth giving it a shot. We had the ambition at the time to be fully member-funded in a couple of years - and we almost reached this goal. In 2020, 85% of Akcja was financed through individual donations while having an almost 20-person team and country-wide operations. It was a success.

Let’s try to demystify a few common misconceptions and get closer to the mindset that will back our fundraising programs and not undermine our efforts. We will provide you also with some tips on where to start.


Fundraising or fundraisings

What are we really talking about here? There is no one thing that is fundraising. There are many, various versions of fundraisings. You can have major donors fundraising understood as wealthy individuals, institutional fundraising that relies on grants, or corporate fundraising. Here in this article, I am referring to the individual, small-donor fundraising sometimes called small giving. This kind of fundraising relies on the large number of people who contribute small amounts, both on a one-off basis and in a recurring manner. 


Our GDP is too small

In the fundraising ask, we often ask the donor to think of matching daily expenses, like costs of coffee or pizza, with the donation we are hoping to receive. This was proven successful by many A/B tests on various, international, mailing lists. And it makes sense for us as humans to have this mental anchor - it makes it easier to wrap our minds around. And spending five euros on contributing to saving democracy is not a hard decision to make (of course, only if we have five euro to spare, and many of us do). 

People do not need to be rich to be able to become donors. Actually, the truth is the opposite: the people at the bottom of the income pyramid are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income (it looks like the “Eat the rich” slogan might be the best strategy we need here). What people need is to know what they can do with their solicitude and that their actions will create value and real change. And this is an organisation’s task - to reach people at the right moment (when they have a connection with their cause) and to prove that this 5 euros will be spent wisely. The limitations to this rule, I can see here, are the size of the population of the country (if the organisation operates mostly domestically) and if people (potential supporters) struggle to meet their basic needs.


The culture of philanthropy is not that advanced

Various indices try to measure and operationalise people’s willingness to work toward the common good. Often this is measured by behaviours like volunteering, donating, signing petitions, and participating in protests. I remember back in 2014, I was not sure if the small giving model of a fully member-funded organisation would work out in Central Eastern Europe, in a post-Soviet country. It did. It doesn’t mean it will be the case in every country, but learning from this initiative and a few other similar situations shows us that if something doesn’t exist in your country, it doesn’t mean it cannot. There is this famous quote that fits this situation “Everyone said it cannot be done. Then someone came who didn't know that and did it.” Influencing our surroundings by bringing new payment systems that make donation easier or having a CRM that allows an organisation to send personalised “thank you” messages to the donor on the same day affects these surroundings and also shapes relationships with supporters in a way that includes them in the organisation’s life, and does not just ask for their small change and leave them to be forgotten.  

The US is often our reference point for fundraising technologies and innovations. What if your economy is smaller than the US economy or people are not that used to giving? I found it useful to ground your objectives and plans in real data (not your hopes). The starting point is to make projections of donations for the next year. You can rely on your past data. Maybe you have a friendly organisation that is not the direct competitor that will be willing to share their data with you. Or you can ground yourself in a chapter from a different country. Your country scores lower on the philanthropic index? You can then adjust your projections by the right number. Running successful fundraising requires being consistent and ambitious. Have your projections, track your data, analyse it, and draw learnings. It doesn’t mean just applying a couple of tricks. 

Online fundraising is a field in which constant innovation is required. It requires looking at the champions in this field, learning from them and implementing what is possible into your own work. These are things you should keep in mind. 


We’ll turn them off by asking for money

Money is a sensitive topic in most cultures. And we all soak up this awkwardness that surrounds it. It affects our confidence when we ask for money. One of the really useful exercises you can do within your team to prepare yourselves for successful fundraising operations is to practice asking for money and making convincing arguments. If you are shy and inhibited about it, people will feel it, and it will be hard for them to trust you. To make a convincing argument, you need to be sure that you have added value compared to others in the field and that your ask for money is backed with a convincing theory of change.  

There are two different approaches when it comes to the right moment for asking for money. Some people believe that it is important to build trust and relations before, and then after some time, start asking supporters for money. While it is for sure true for posing recurring/monthly donation asks, from my experience, it doesn’t have applications for one-off donation asks. The best way to check out how it will work out for your organisation is to try and test it. One important note here, be mindful of relying on data, not on episodic stories of one or two persons who told you that asking for money is inappropriate. 

Also, build relationships with your donors. Treat them as you would treat a friend who helped you financially. Thank them in a proper, timely manner. Check with them how they feel, what they think. Ask for feedback and show you care. 


Developing the right mindset

Fundraising is not just a fundraising department job. It needs to be the whole organisation’s work. It needs to be close to your cause and your operations and close to employees and supporters as well. It doesn’t need to be a separate “thing”. Every supporter is your potential donor, and money is just one of many things you can exchange with people, just as you could with their time, talents, attention or opinions. We believe people are ready with their generosity. The experience from our friends at ProgressiveActs proves that crowdfunding for politics can work.

“Communities and grassroots movements are ready to engage and support what they believe in. What is missing is the ability of political organisations to connect digitally with their base and mobilise it. This has to do with how data are collected and leveraged. If there is a cultural aspect to address is not with the ‘public’ but rather with political operators.” - Ilaria Maselli, co-founder ProgressiveActs

Our individual beliefs affect how organisations operate in the fundraising area. It is our responsibility to recognise and understand where we are when it comes to money and to be brave. From my experience, the major barrier in fundraising for organisations that are just making their first steps in this area is limiting themselves and not setting up a level of ambition on the right level.

Do you have reflections after reading this? Please join us at Tectonica Organising Network.