Raising funds for your nonprofit doesn’t have to be stressful. Learn how one California nonprofit proved that, when done thoughtfully and collaboratively, fundraising can be successful and enjoyable.
Create an effective fundraising campaign that spreads joy — for you, your staff, and the community.
See promotional materials examples at end of article.
Those of us who are executive directors of nonprofits may find ourselves reacting to the prospect of fundraising with mixed emotions. Our response to this critical task could include dreading asking for money, feeling anxious that we won’t meet our goals, or experiencing stress because of the many other responsibilities competing for our attention. Wouldn’t it be great, though, if you could create a fundraising campaign that spreads joy — for you, your staff, and the community?
A Pain-Free 50th Anniversary Campaign
As the executive director of the nonprofit Sonoma County Parks Foundation (SCPF), I raise money to enhance more than 60 parks in the county parks system, as well as fund parks programs that benefit our community. When I heard that Spring Lake Regional Park would celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2023, I immediately saw the potential for a fundraising campaign to benefit this beloved local site. With 800,000 visits annually, Spring Lake is among the most popular parks in Sonoma County, California. How could we not have a great time fundraising for this beloved park?
To begin, I set three goals for the Spring Lake Park 50th Anniversary Campaign:
- Raise funds that would address a clear need at Spring Lake Park, as well as meet some of the ongoing fundraising commitments of the SCPF.
- Leverage this milestone anniversary to recruit new SCPF supporters.
- Make the campaign fun for SCPF staff, board, and donors!
SCPF is a relatively small nonprofit, although its budget has grown rapidly in recent years. We now bring in over $1 million in annual funding, and we also have three employees, including myself as full-time executive director and two part-time staff. We’re supported by a strong team of consultants (marketing, finance, accounting) and a volunteer board of 15 directors.
To launch our Spring Lake anniversary campaign, I outlined nine interrelated components that I thought would make the campaign a success. Fundraising is still underway, but the campaign has already exceeded expectations, raising about $60,000, thanks to the exceptional work of the board, sponsorships, and events. I hope that by sharing some of these points, your nonprofit will be able to adapt our strategies for your own fundraising, benefitting from our many years of trial and error!
Nine Principles to Make Fundraising More Fun
In the examples below, you’ll find several common themes that “put the fun in fundraising” for this campaign. We know that there’s power — and good vibes — in numbers, so we generally shared responsibilities and collaborated, as well as tried to insert our various ideas of what constitutes “fun” into our activities. The following are some of the specifics that I think made our campaign a success:
1. Engage the board in the campaign and leverage their community connections.
Many of our new board members bring considerable enthusiasm to their volunteer work. We held early meetings with a board committee to plan the campaign, and board members committed to help with the fundraising by seeking campaign sponsors, volunteering at an event, and helping to promote activities like our photo contest (see principle 6 below).
We also — and perhaps most importantly — planned our fundraising activities around what activity leaders personally found fun. One of our board members, for example, is an avid equestrian, who had been lobbying to organize a fundraising ride for several years. We used the Spring Lake Park 50th anniversary as a compelling occasion to produce this event. Because the number of people who ride horses is limited and we wanted to cast a wider net for event attendees, we expanded the event to allow guests to sign up for either the equestrian ride plus picnic or the picnic alone. That way, more people could buy tickets to the event and bid at the silent auction. With a horse-centric sponsor for the event — also recruited by the board member — 40 riders and a dozen lunch guests, we were able to net over $10,000.
2. Secure a strong slate of sponsors.
I’ve had the good fortune to work with a stellar marketing consultant for the past five years — who also happens to be the daughter-in-law of The Fund Raising School’s founder (what can I say: this family knows fundraising). This consultant created an attractive sponsorship package with playful fonts to evoke the vibe during the park’s creation in the 1970s. The three-page packet included a page describing the history and importance of the park and its year-long celebration, a table showing the benefits sponsors would receive, and a final one-page reply form for sponsors.
Helpful Hints: If your organization wants to engage in a campaign like this but doesn’t have a marketing consultant, find examples of marketing materials that you like and ask to be referred to their designer. We also use Canva to create many of our materials.
After we developed our packet, the board members went to work! Much of the board either recruited their employers or solicited outside businesses to be sponsors. In choosing which businesses to approach, board members considered three factors in particular:
- their existing relationships with businesses (e.g., the auto dealership where they bought a car, their dentist);
- personal relationships (board members’ family member or friend); and
- the businesses’ interest in or relationship with Spring Lake Park (e.g. the retirement community that borders the park).
No one likes to waste their — or another person’s — time trying to get money out of someone who is uninterested, so figuring out an angle before the ask helped things go smoothly.
We also approached businesses that had previously been smaller donors and encouraged them to dig a little deeper to help sponsor our campaign. Essentially, we worked to grow what we already had while building off extant networks.
3. Identify specific, achievable, and popular fundraising goals.
Donors are always more engaged when they understand exactly what their contributions support. Experience has shown us that our donors like campaigns that benefit kids in parks, so we paired our goal of $50,000 for a new, accessible kayak launch at the lake with additional funds to support upgrades at a youth environmental center and “camperships” (scholarships for kids to attend summer camps).
Our focus on these three fundraising goals, however, didn’t come out of nowhere. Sonoma County Regional Park managers have been striving to increase accessibility in the parks, so the accessible kayak launch was a priority. And through years of sending donors our online newsletter, we know that stories about kids in parks generate the most donor support. As such, we chose to fundraise for environmental center upgrades and kid camperships because we expect these topics to appeal to funders — and because we have ongoing commitments to provide funding in these areas.
4. Create fun, attractive swag.
Personally, I’m not into swag, so I was surprised a couple of years ago when our marketing consultant suggested offering donors a cap for their contribution. Yet the significant increase in donations from that effort might have converted me.
But our swag isn’t just any old swag: we offer swag relevant to parks, like fanny packs, reusable water bottles, and coasters with beautiful park images. This time, we had an art team design a bandana with a playful river otter along with a flyer that advises donors to “Donate $50 for the 50th!”
5. Launch a challenge grant if possible.
One board member arranged for me to meet with her family members and discuss the importance to our community of Spring Lake Regional Park. Linking together a business sponsorship, a donation from a family foundation, and personal contributions from family members, we created a challenge grant to incentivize campaign gifts. Essentially, the challenge grant will match gifts by our donors, dollar-for-dollar, up to a total amount of $20,000.
Of course, we’re not the only nonprofit that’s seen how successful a challenge grant can be — although how you mechanize it will depend upon your donor base. For social media savvy nonprofits, a video chain might be a good way to generate widespread attention. In our case, we have an older, local donor base, so we promoted the challenge grant by mail and through our online newsletter.
6. Initiate a photo contest to engage a wider audience.
For this campaign, we launched our first-ever online photography contest. We chose a platform, and then an attorney on our board set up all the rules, terms, and conditions (by far the most difficult part). Essentially, the photos submitted to this contest had to focus on Spring Lake Park: nature and wildlife images. We prohibited photos of people because we didn’t want the hassle of handling photo release forms, especially through the online platform.
The contest offered cash prizes, and youth entries received an additional incentive, with the top 10 finalists earning a one-month free membership to the new local climbing gym (which donated the memberships and became one of our sponsors). Participants in the photo contest paid $10 to enter, and the community voted on their favorite photos, with votes costing $1 per vote. In the first two months, we’ve received more than 100 entries and have raised nearly $3,000.
When we first went with this platform, we noticed that it was unusual for it to host a nature-related contest. Most nonprofits that use it seem to be animal rescue organizations that encourage people to submit pets’ photos. But we think the possibilities for this are endless: maybe you work with kids/young adults and want to encourage them to take the photos. Maybe you restore old buildings and can offer an architectural photo contest. Maybe you want people to use their imaginations — get them out in the community to capture the uncaptured. There are ways to spin this contest idea for a lot of different nonprofits — the question is how you make it work for you.
7. Produce a mailing to send to likely prospects.
Spring Lake Park benefits from its location, where it is surrounded by neighborhoods that give many visitors easy walking and biking access to the park. Neighbors often choose to buy their home because of its proximity to this park. Knowing this, we purchased a mailing list of neighborhoods adjacent to the park and sent an enticing letter. The envelope continued the “fun” theme, featuring an inviting photo of the iconic lake at the park, along with a teaser: “Help celebrate the 50th anniversary of Spring Lake Regional Park *and win some great prizes while you’re at it!”
We’re monitoring the results of this mailing, which continues to generate responses. So far we’ve received more than 160 donations. We’re particularly pleased that 35% of the gifts are from new donors, as this campaign represents a great opportunity for us to expand our donor database.
Even if you have a tried-and-true donor base you have pulled from, it can be good to expand and see who’s in your neighborhood. You might be surprised at the results!
8. Keep emphasizing the fun factor!
In addition to the fundraising campaign, we created a family-friendly scavenger hunt, in English and Spanish, that members of the community can enjoy for free. The scavenger hunt provided a list of questions related to items that could be found in the park and invited participants to seek out the answers.. Even though it was free, we offered an opportunity for people to donate when they submitted their answers.
This activity has not proven to generate much money towards our fundraising goals, so we might need to re-assess it in the future. On the other hand, it gave us an additional platform to recognize our sponsors, and it got people out into — and enjoying — the park in a new way. Not all wins are monetary, after all, even in fundraising.
9. Spread the word!
Part of our strategy has just been to keep talking about this campaign. We have a website dedicated to it, newsletter articles, sponsor cross-promotions, flyers, social media posts, paid advertising, mailings, press releases, and more still to come. We’ve even cajoled our board members to volunteer at a park table during the summer to pass out information about the photo contest and scavenger hunt (as well as encouraging visitors to donate, of course).
Especially if your nonprofit doesn’t have years of trial-and-error experience, it can be good to throw some spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. The more you talk about your strategies, the easier it will be to tell which excite people the most. Which strategies do they talk about? Which ones get people engaged? These might be where you should concentrate your energy.
Bring the fun and the money will come.
Of course, our mission at SCPF is to raise funds for our parks, so fundraising is by necessity the focus of our efforts. But just because this is our job doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun.
Think about the programs your nonprofit offers that people enjoy. What aspects of your mission bring people pleasure? If you can answer this question, you might be able to create a fundraising campaign that gets to the heart of your community.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.