Fundraising for startup nonprofits, especially during the first year, can feel like standing at the base of a mountain with no climbing gear.
Where do you even start? How do you get your first foothold?
“What was I thinking, starting a nonprofit?”
Yet, alongside the fear and uncertainty is a rush of excitement.
“I’m doing it! Let’s get this thing launched and make a difference in the world!”
And then reality hits. You realize you need money to fund the work.
During this emotional time, you need a plan to tell you exactly what to do so you don’t get distracted. Fundraising for startup nonprofits is challenging and a plan will keep you on track.
There will be times when you feel discouraged and also times when you feel a thrill when your phone dings, letting you know someone donated through your website. Or when you open your mailbox and find a check!
And with so many tasks vying for your attention, a plan will keep you focused on the things that will move your nonprofit forward.
So, let’s look at what it takes to succeed in fundraising for startups.
The First Three Months of Fundraising for Startup Nonprofits
As soon as you form your nonprofit, it’s time to get organized.
You’re starting a business after all. (You really are – your business just happens to be not-for-profit.)
Here are a few things you’ll want to do in your first 90 days to get your nonprofit off the ground (There are many more, but this will get you started):
- Hold your first Board meeting. Gather your new Board, set your meeting schedule for the year, and elect officers. Ask your Board where they’d like to help out around the nonprofit.
- Adopt bylaws. These are your nonprofit’s operating rules, so make sure they fit and aren’t some cookie-cutter document that make no sense for you.
- Open a bank account. Even if you don’t have money right now, you will as soon as you start fundraising and you’ll need a checkbook very soon to start paying bills.
- Set up an accounting system. Get this one right from the beginning and save yourself some headache later! You can use Quickbooks, Wave, or a similar tool, but get something. If you get an account with TechSoup, you can probably get a discount on your accounting tool (and other things, too!).
- Lay the groundwork for your programs. Start working out the who, what, when, and how much of the programs you plan to operate.
- Draft an operating budget. You may be tempted to skip this one since you’re making everything up as you go, but don’t. You need to have an idea of how much you’ll need to run your programs in the first year, so do yourself a favor and spend the time to create your nonprofit’s first budget.
When you check off these tasks, you’ll be ready for the next, big step!
Build a Basic Website
It’s time to create your online storefront!
Your website exists to tell the world why your organization is important, answer basic questions, and give people a place to learn more or get involved with your nonprofit.
Without a website, it can feel like your organization isn’t legitimate. And if your organization doesn’t appear real, how do you expect people to donate?
Publishing a website announces to the world that you are here and you’re committed to making a difference.
Your website doesn’t have to be expensive or professionally produced. Many founders build their nonprofit’s first website and that’s fine as long as it looks nice and is easy to navigate.
Be sure your first website makes it easy to understand why your organization exists, who you are helping, what you are doing that is different and effective, and what problem you are working to solve.
And, make it super easy to give you money.
Work with one of the popular tools like Wix, Squarespace, or WordPress to create a basic, clean website. You only need five pages to start: home, about, programs, donate, contact. You can add more later as you need them.
Make it Easy for People to Give Money
Giving must be easy.
If a prospective donor encounters an obstacle while trying to donate (like if your donation process is cumbersome or if they can’t find the donate button or if there’s no address for them to mail a check), they may give up.
There are many ways to give and donors have different preferences. Be ready to accommodate as many as you can so the donor can give the way they want to give (remember – fundraising is about the donor’s convenience, not yours).
- Writing a check. You might be surprised how many people will want to write a check and mail it to you! This option isn’t just for older folks. People who give through a donor advised fund will send you a check, as will many of your monthly donors who set up an automatic, monthly check through their bank.Provide an address where donors can mail a check, and make sure this address is easy to find on your website. You can set up a P.O. box at the post office or local shipping store if you don’t yet have an office or a facility.
- Giving on your website. Many donors will want to give on your website using a credit card or PayPal. It’s easy to set this up and you can use PayPal, Stripe, or a similar platform to link your website’s donate page to your bank account so that donations are automatically transferred to you.When a donor asks for the BEST way to donate, this is the answer. Funneling as many donors as possible to your website will streamline the process of accepting and processing donations.PayPal is a good option when you first get started. It’s pretty easy to set up, but later, you’ll want to move to a real merchant account so you can create a better experience for your donor. Paypal limits what you can customize and can reduce the beautiful act of giving to an emotionless transaction (and that’s NOT the experience you want your donors to have!).
- Giving through a payment app. There are several payment apps that make giving money convenient. What’s inconvenient is that there are so darn many of them: Venmo, Google Pay, Apple Pay, and Zelle are the ones that come to mind, but by the time you read this another one may have emerged.You can decide which ones you want to use and stick to them. You don’t necessarily have to accept donations through every single one. The more accounts you have, the more you have to keep track of and reconcile each month, so keep that in mind.
- Using other payment methods. Dipjar is a device donors insert their credit card into and is great for events, restaurants, and festivals.
The Infrastructure Your Startup Needs
Systems and processes will save you time and money, especially as your nonprofit grows.
And you may as well put them in place from the beginning so you can develop good habits now and so that the nonprofit runs the way you want it to down the road.
Once you start asking people for money, you need processes to manage that money and to manage your donors, so they will be inclined to keep donating.
Here are some key pieces you need in place:
- Set up an email address: You can set up an email for yourself and any other team members through your website platform. Use firstname.lastname@example.org as a general address and email@example.com for personalized communication.It’s tempting to keep using your personal email (like a gmail account), but you will make a more professional impression by using an email address with your nonprofit’s name in the domain. Keeping personal and nonprofit communication separate will help you stay organized in the long run.
- Set up a donor management system. Use a platform such as Little Green Light or Bloomerang to store and manage your donor information. Some startups start with a spreadsheet, and that’s fine, but the spreadsheet quickly becomes unwieldy.A donor management tool can process acknowledgments, which are so important for making sure donors keep donating, and provide the data you need to understand donor trends.This is another one to get in place before you get too far down the road so you can get it right from the start.
- Set up an email marketing system. You need a way to manage emails that you send to your volunteers, donors, and other supporters. Mailchimp is a market leader, with a free option to get started, but there are many other email marketing tools out there. Your donor management system may offer email marketing as part of the system.Choose a platform and set up an account, so you can communicate with your donors regularly. If you don’t communicate with your donors, you will lose them!
- Set up social media accounts: Get established on Facebook and Instagram at a minimum. Beyond that, you only need to be on the social media platforms where your audience is. Once you have your accounts set up, link to them from your website and start posting! Introduce yourself and your organization then make a schedule for what you’ll share and when so you can consistently show up on social media.
Beyond that, start working out systems for how you’ll handle cash and checks that are donated. Who will enter them into the system? Who will take them to the bank? Who will crank out thank-you letters?
It might be just you in the beginning, but develop your processes with the idea that you will hand these off one day soon. It won’t always be just you!
It takes money to fund your new startup and it’s time to get started.
Your best source for donations when you’re new is friends and family.
After all, they’re the people who are most likely to trust you and believe in your vision.
Now, I get it. The thought of asking friends and family for money may seem overwhelming or repulsive.
And believe me, I’ve heard every excuse under the sun about why founders can’t ask for money.
But it’s the natural first step in fundraising for startup nonprofits. It’s your best shot at success, so take it!
Make a list of friends and family members who might want to give. Then reach out to each person in the way that makes sense. You know your contacts, so you know which approach will be most likely to work:
- Face-to-face meeting: This is the best way to ask. Invite your contact for coffee, tell them about your organization, and invite them to get involved by making a donation. Work up a simple script and practice it. Make your story concise and powerful.Don’t go on and on. Just let the donor know how you became interested in the cause and what you plan to do to change lives. Then direct them to your website. You could also give them a card with a QR code that goes straight to your donate page.
- Phone call: This is another great way to ask. You can script out what you want to say and it’s easy to refer to your script, because you can have it right in front of you!Remind yourself to listen as well as talk. Ask your contact if they have any questions, and give them thoughtful answers. Have a conversation.
- Text: If texting is how you usually communicate with a contact, it’s a great place to start. But instead of asking for a donation via a text, use the text to request a phone call or face-to-face meeting.It sounds easy and efficient to just ask your contact to go to your website and provide a link, but this is a passive approach that is easy to ignore.
- Email: Draft a personalized, heartfelt, concise email to contacts you think would respond best to a written communication. Include a link to your website and an address for sending a check.Make sure your email doesn’t sound like a form letter you sent to everyone. Use your contact’s name, and ask how they are doing. Offer to meet face-to-face if they are available or via a phone call or Zoom. Make it as warm and personal as possible to increase your chances of getting a donation.
- Letter: A personalized letter might be best for some far-flung family members. Just make it heartfelt.Let them know what has been going on with you, including the exciting news that you have started a nonprofit. Invite them to join you in addressing an urgent need by making a donation. Provide your website address as well as a self-addressed envelope for sending a check.
Now that you have asked your network, it’s time to expand the circle.
Ask Your Board Members to Help
Your Board members said yes when you asked them to help launch your nonprofit. They won’t be surprised or offended when you tell them it’s time to raise some money.
It’s their job to help raise money and when you give them some easy ways to participate, you’ll get the engagement you’re looking for.
Ask Board members to contact their networks to ask for support. Share your script, your email, and your letter and encourage them to adapt your messages for their own voice.
Enlist Those With Enthusiasm
Do you have some friends who donated when asked and asked a lot of questions and seemed really excited?
Invite these friends to take the next step by helping you find donors and raise money.
“Hey, I am still blown away by your generosity in making a donation to my new nonprofit. Would you like to help me raise even more money?”
Chances are good that they’ll be happy to get more involved with your new venture.
Branch Out With Low-Maintenance Fundraisers
When planning fundraisers, think about what would be the best fit for your interests and your nonprofit’s brand.
Shoot for ways to raise at least $1,000 so that it’s worth the time and effort you put into it. I don’t want you going down the path of nickel-and-dime fundraising.
Here are some of my team’s favorite fundraisers:
- Facebook fundraiser: Launch a Facebook fundraiser, inviting supporters to chip in to help solve a small problem. You probably haven’t had time to build up support on your organization’s fledgling Facebook page, so use your personal page and ask your Board members to do the same.You can also raise money on Instagram. With a coordinated effort, you can cast a big net.
- House gatherings: Ask Board members and friends to host gatherings in their home. They invite their friends, and you make a brief presentation about your organization. The host makes an Ask.Make it super easy to give with a basket for checks placed prominently by the door or the food and a QR code where people can give online.
- Brewery event: Breweries have sprung up everywhere over the last few years, and they have a fun vibe that is perfect for introducing a new nonprofit. Invite friends, co-workers, and anyone else you can think of to an evening at a local brewery with appetizers, beer, and a brief presentation about a wonderful new organization.I have seen organizations give away gift baskets and build small silent auctions into their brewery events. At a minimum, it’s a great way to meet some new people and raise awareness about your new nonprofit.
- Wine and cheese event: Invite Board members, friends, and friends of Board members to a wine and cheese event at the home of a supporter or a local wine store. I love wine and cheese, and most of my friends also love wine and cheese, making this a perfect event for my network.
There are so many things you can do, the possibilities are endless. Just focus on what you and your friends enjoy doing and do that!
The important thing is to build your donor base so you have as many people as possible supporting your work. You may need to try lots of different things to find the few that work really well to bring in new donors.
But once you have a group of supporters, you can send fundraising letters and run online fundraising campaigns. You can ask them to give for Giving Tuesday or holiday fund drives.
Your donor list is KEY to the success of your nonprofit, so be ready to give it the time and attention it deserves.
A Word About Grants
Are you waiting for me to tell you how to get grant funding for your startup?
If so, you’ll be waiting a long time, because foundations and corporations that provide grant funding generally do not fund startups.
Most like to see an organization getting solid results for at least three years before giving them a grant. This can be disappointing for startup nonprofit founders, but it makes sense for the foundation. They’re not going to give money to someone they don’t know with no track record.
This gives the startup nonprofit time to build up a large donor base,
which is more important for long-term success, as grant funding can dry up at any time.
The Bottom Line
There’s a lot to do when you start a nonprofit. By staying focused and building a solid foundation, you give your new nonprofit the best shot at surviving the first year and thriving in the future.
The two most important things you can do when wading into fundraising for your startup are learning how to talk about your organization in a way that inspires people to give and getting comfortable asking people for money.
If you can do these two things, you will be on your way to building a robust donor base that will fund your programs so you can change lives. And that’s what it’s all about!