Skip to main content

Don’t Make My Fundraising Mistakes, Make New Ones

In 1988 I was deliriously happy to have been hired to work on a U.S. Senate campaign.

It was my first “real” fundraising gig and I was greener than a lily pad. But I didn’t care. I was honored to be working for and with a group of passionate men and woman who were willing to work long hours to make our state and our country a better place.


We held rallies, house parties, sent out mailing after mailing, and made phone calls all to raise money and get commitments for votes supporting our candidate. (This was WELL before online giving was even possible.)

I don’t remember why, but I got chosen to be the staff member who sat with our candidate to make fundraising phone calls a few mornings a week.

Each afternoon I would drive around the Twin Cities to pick up checks from the “big dogs” as we affectionately called them. These were the major donors who always contributed to political campaigns.

What I noticed was that our candidate did ANYTHING he could to get out of making the calls. I was young and didn’t realize how difficult it was for him. I was often frustrated and sometimes complained to others about his attitude.

Does this sound like you? Complaints made about the board because they don’t do what they SHOULD be doing? Or complaints about your program staff because they don’t help you identify warm, compelling stories for you?

I made the mistake of not realizing that my “candidate” was my customer too.

Here’s what I wish I could go back and tell that young, green, energetic, and passionate fundraiser:
Treat your volunteer major gift askers like your very best customers or donors.

1. Thank your volunteers before, during and after the calls/meetings with notes, thank you calls, and supportive actions.

2. Make sure they feel great about what they “signed-up” for and stick to ONLY what they signed up for. If it’s soliciting one person – don’t make them feel bad for not doing more.

3. Make it FUN to do whatever it is you are asking them to do. Does lunch need to be included? Or a meeting at a fun coffee place to prepare and role play the ask?

4. Ensure your volunteer is ready to make their calls or visits by recognizing their uncertainty or fears and allow them to talk about it ahead of time.

Making fundraising phone calls or making one-on-one visits does NOT have to be drudgery. If there is a relationship between the asker and the potential donor the outcome is much more likely to be positive.

5. Schedule regular times for updates and committee meetings. Now, when I work with an organization I ask that we have a 15-minute check-in update call at 7:30 or 8 am every week, in between our regularly scheduled committee meetings.

On the campaign we were always rushed to make our fundraising calls. I had 15 to 20 minutes to sit alongside the candidate to make those very important fundraising “ask” calls. When I took some of that precious time to talk through who we were phoning and prepared the candidate for the conversations he was about to have we ALWAYS got a YES.

6. Assign to another volunteer leader the role of holding your volunteer solicitors accountable for exactly what they agreed to do.

It’s much better if Jerry, the major gifts or fundraising chair says: “Melanie, how can I or this committee support you in making those three calls you agreed to make before April 21?”


7. Celebrate EVERYTHING! First ask. First yes. First gift in the door. Cumulative gifts. Number of asks by individuals and the group. Find ways to draw attention to the work you want them to be doing and make it so fun they want to do more.

If you’ve been to one of my live in-person training sessions you know I use happy face and star stickers when someone shares something powerful or has an awesome answer.

People often chuckle when I first start this practice but partway through the session I start to hear comments like: ”Hey, Lori, you forgot MY sticker!” It’s fun. We laugh and we generate more and more engagement.

The bottom line that I wish I knew when I was younger, is if I’m counting on people, especially volunteers (and anyone who is NOT a fundraising professional is a volunteer!) to support my work in ANY way. . . I need to treat them like my favorite and most special donors or customers.

Leave a Reply