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Relationships matter: The World's Best and Worst Fundraising Advice

When you’re trying to make your nonprofit function, there is nothing more frustrating than getting useless advice. Some advice is just plain wrong, and that sucks too. However, in the fundraising world, there is an unexplainable obsession with giving people information that is not helpful. So today, I want to share my favorite piece of useless fundraising advice.

Relationships matter.

I’ve witnessed too many successful founders use this to explain why they’ve been able to raise funds (and imply why others haven’t). To be fair, this is an accurate statement, but it’s not helpful to the underdog entrepreneur hustling to get funding.

Let’s unpack what this really means.

It is true if you have a relationship with a funder your chances of getting funding increases. However, there are different types of relationships that matter. I’ve seen 3 levels of relationships that lead to funding. And because my favorite fundraising comparison is about dating, let’s go there.

Ride or die: Here, the funder and leader most likely have a preexisting relationship and both parties will go to great lengths to ensure the other’s success. In my experience, this is the most common type. Unfortunately, it’s this kind of nepotism that makes it difficult for truly innovative organizations to catch a break. This is also the most frustrating because it’s often predicated upon something you have no control over. Often, people will use terms to code this like successful track record, credibility, pattern recognition. When they actually mean, this organization/leader is promising by virtue of being in my inner circle. Gross.

How it can play out: You find out a national foundation funds a brand new organization that has nothing to do with their core strategy. Everyone’s confused. A quick search on LinkedIn reveals the lead program officer and CEO were colleagues 13 years ago.  

Arranged marriage: This is where one of two parties in a ride or die relationship facilitate a connection between an organization and a funder. This is generally a good deal. You would think that the potential funder and CEO have common interests and can help each other. In theory, this works. However, in practice, it can fail because trigger-happy connectors often overwhelm potential funders and garner a reputation as inconsiderate time-wasters.

How it can play out: Your mentor introduces you to his good friend at the Big Time Foundation. The foundation cares about low-income schools, so you’re excited to have the conversation. You find out your mentor’s friend doesn’t work on the education team. He reluctantly introduces to the lead of the education team, if you’re lucky. You build rapport and get funded or not.

Compatible partnership: This one is the best, and it’s what we should strive for. Here, both parties have shared values, priorities, and goals. There is no shadiness, awkwardness, or obligation involved. Just a funder and organization who were already looking for each other, but the universe wasn’t aligned. Sometimes these meetings are coordinated by an introduction, but often the meetings are by chance and can happen at networking events, because of the press, or an interesting piece of content from the organization.

How it can play out: Your organization gets a chance to speak at SXSW. You give a talk about moving the UN to sub-Saharan Africa and it’s a huge hit. There’s a line of folks interested in chatting with you about your thoughts. The third person in line is a program officer at the Important Person Foundation. She asks you if you’d be willing to have a conversation about their new initiative. You build a rapport. You get funded or not, but you begin a meaningful and mutually beneficial partnership.

Knowing this, it’s hard to feel like you can be proactive. But you can. Here’s how.

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All of these relationships are built on some form of trust. So start earning trust as soon as possible.

There is a two-pronged approach here. Bring as much value as possible. First, continue to provide value to the beneficiaries of your program. So, if you run a school, then make sure the program is making a real difference in the lives of students. Do this in parallel with educating the broader community about your efforts and the impact of your program. The more your work is highlighted, the more likely you are to come in contact with others who believe what you do. And those folks will be willing to help.