Overcoming Your Fear of Fundraising

Holly Million August 10, 2010

I recently delivered a fundraising training workshop for the board of directors of a start-up nonprofit organization called San Francisco Village. I've done plenty of fundraising trainings in the past, so I'm a veteran of how to present this information to those who are not familiar with fundraising.

What I find each time I deliver the workshop is that there is an unmistakable pattern. Each time, everybody in the room starts off grim, tense. Their lips are pressed tightly together, and their shoulders hover somewhere near their ears. I'm talking about fundraising, people! Wouldn't you be tense, too?

But what I find each time is that, although everyone starts out fearful because they are about to enter a world that they do not understand, by the time the workshop is over, they are energized, excited, and raring to go.

So what happens? Well, that's the unmistakable pattern I was talking about. They start off tense. I introduce them to the basic concepts of individual donor fundraising. They stay tense. I start talking about why they are involved in this organization. They seem to open up a crack. And then we go through an exercise where we collect "message points" for why this organization is worth supporting, and then we break into groups and role-play actual fundraising. By the time we are done with this, they are levitating out of their seats and on fire. It happens every time.

So why is this so? Because there are some key things you can do to overcome your fear of fundraising. This is true whether you are volunteering for a nonprofit or raising money for a film.

Connect with your passion.
Why are you involved? Is this story personal? Have you been touched by this issue? Do you know someone who has? Why do you want to do something about it? You are as much a part of the story as the story itself. Passion is what will separate you from the crowd, and passion is what will sustain you when the going gets tough. If you’re not committed to your film project, who will be? Not donors.

Collect your message points.
Create a list of reasons why this cause is worth supporting. How will this work change the world and make it a better place? What makes this organization or this film unique, effective, exciting? Sure, there are probably other films that have been made on this subject. But your film will be a unique expression of the problem and its solution. Explain how that is true.

Practice talking about your passion.
Talk with your friends and colleagues. Role play. Test the messaging and the pitch before you go out and try it on somebody outside your circle. Get good at honing the message, focusing it with laser-like precision. Can you make your case in 15 minutes? 5 minutes? One sentence? Get versatile and fluent at how you express yourself.

Take a risk and see what happens.
What could really go wrong if you ask somebody for support? They might say no? Tragedy! If they say no, you need to find out why, and then work with them to get to a yes. Be patient. It’s a lot like courtship. If you are serious, you will be persistent and loving. Just don’t turn into a scary stalker. At the same time, if you think it's too early to ask, just ask. You might be surprised by a yes. Most people postpone asking indefinitely, meaning they never make any progress to an affirmative answer.

Don't think it ends with the ask.
All fundraising begins with a relationship, and it continues with a relationship. You don't show up and ask a stranger for money and then disappear into the sunset. You stick with that person, through rain or shine, thick or thin, like bosom buddies. If they give you money, your relationship responsibilities have just begun. Inform them. Involve them. Respect them.

If you follow this advice, your fears will shrink, and your success will increase.

Try this at home!

Holly Million is a consultant, author, and filmmaker with nearly two decades’ worth of experience in fundraising. In addition to securing funding for A Story of Healing, which won a 1997 Academy Award, Million has raised money for documentary and dramatic films that have aired on PBS, HBO, and other broadcast outlets. She is the author of Fear-Free Fundraising: How to Ask People for Money, available on Amazon.com. For more information about Holly’s books, films, and classes visit www.goldenpoppy.com.