I must have raised millions of dollars for successful brands like the Make-a-Wish Foundation and Habitat for Humanity during my career in nonprofit. What I learned the hard way was what works and what doesn’t. To my complete surprise I found what works the best is what I learned at Indiana University’s Fundraising School from a book anyone can follow.

In fact, I will go even further and say, the best advice I could give a new nonprofit is this: take advantage of your “newness.” You have an opportunity to set up your new nonprofit the right way.

T​hree years ago I began consulting to earn a little extra to spend on my grandkids. I was also excited to share with new nonprofits what the Fundraising School and experience had taught me. What I found was…almost no one wanted to hear what I had to say. I was shocked. Why would a nonprofit not want to listen to the advice they were paying for? Could it be they wanted someone to agree with them, even though I knew their way was not going to result in a financially healthy organization?

I am convinced that the reason people sometimes choose to work for a nonprofit is they believe nonprofits don’t require any work, or that they are less complicated to fund than a for-profit company. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I have identified five untruths that should my clients choose not to listen to me, or anyone else trained in the art of raising money, their mistakes could prove fatal for their organizations.

Mistake #1: You Think You Know More Than I Do!

You don’t…and, if you want to succeed in helping those who need you, it’s necessary to listen to someone like me. Most new nonprofits do not understand that using public donations to operate brings with it specific responsibilities to the community that is supporting you. A nonprofit reports its revenue and expense utilizing specific criteria outlined by the IRS. Not even Bill Gates will donate unless he is assured his gift won’t be misused.

New nonprofits think all that is needed is to write grants and the money they need to operate will roll in. They believe that a professional fundraiser has a magic potion or a spell that will make a check appear out of thin air. Not true.

Stanford University studied nonprofit success indicators and determined that having a written plan is at the top of the list. So, if your nonprofit doesn’t have a “business” plan, it needs one. In every case, the nonprofits that were the most successful took the time to create a written plan; they included major stakeholders. A plan eliminates the need to react to funding opportunities as they arise. A consultant should be part of your plan, but not your entire strategy.

Mistake #2: You don’t treat it like a business.

Too many people start a non-profit and treat it like they were starting a club or association. If you don’t treat it like a business in the planning stages, it won’t work as a business later. There’s virtually no difference between a non-profit and a for-profit, in the planning process. You still need a business plan, advisers, funding, grants — everything you’d need if you were trying to make money.

Market research is also essential, and you can even go about it in traditional ways, with surveys and phone calls to neighbors. However, there is no substitute for identifying your competition or determining there are other organizations doing what you do and even doing it better.

Mistake #3: You don’t understand or cannot articulate your mission.

The mission should be strong and understandable, because it is the backbone of a nonprofit‍. It states what you believe is true, what you’re going to do, and how you’re going to do it. A good mission statement answers the following questions:

  • What is a mission statement and why do you need one?
  • What services will you provide, and what do you expect to change?
  • Who is qualified to deliver these services?
  • W​ho is your audience and what is your message to them?
  • H​ow will your services be delivered

Mistake #4: Not creating a great Board of Directors

Here’s the best kept secret in fundraising — you are only as successful as the board members you recruit are qualified. Board members have a fiduciary responsibility to the organization. They need to have access to high net worth individuals and be willing to develop their interest in your organization. Board members should be willing to give first.

Most nonprofit leaders are uncomfortable giving a prospective board member a job description that includes giving their own gift and asking others to give as well. Consequently, new members join the board without knowing the actual extent of their responsibilities, and no one is happy. Is it any wonder that nonprofit executives constantly complain about board members who do not do their jobs? Fundraising for a nonprofit is a group effort. A thrown together board isn’t going to get you funded, or even half-way there.

Mistake #5: You don’t have a case statement that successfully sells your organization.

A case statement is an exactly worded way of selling yourself and your services. You’re competing with hundreds of other organizations for funding, so you need to act like it.

When you’re appealing to investors, funding sources and writing grants, you must passionately believe in your mission and what you’re doing. If you don’t, it’ll show through and no one will give you money and you’re wasting your time.

If you’ve thought it through and you’re passionate about the cause, your enthusiasm should sell the idea by itself. Include graphs of your population, prove that this area is under-served. Cite other organizations with similar demographics that are doing something and can prove positive change.

Remember to treat your nonprofit like a business, take planning seriously, and ask for help from consultants that specialize in operations or marketing, or even grant-writing — and then listen to what they tell you is needed.

Child of the 60's, Boomer Sooner & Semi-Sweet Chocolate