Starting an individual donor campaign for grassroots organizations

For small organizations, starting a donor based fundraising program can seem daunting. Remy Attig breaks down how he did it at one of Montreal’s beloved organizations for queer youth.

In 2013, I had been hired at P10, an organization supporting queer and trans youth in Montreal. When I took my first look at the books, I realized that over 80% of our revenue came from a single government source, and that amount hadn’t substantially increased in over a decade. At the same time, the organization had set some new, and exciting, long-term objectives, and there was no way we could meet those goals– ones that would allow us to better serve our users and close gaps in service– unless we increased our budget. It was clear we needed more, and especially more diverse, funding sources– a strategy that would reduce the risk to our organization (if that one funder had made a cut, what would have happened to the organization?), and would allow us to grow into our big dreams. Any of that sound familiar? 

When I started trying to fix this problem, I went where many people go first: grants. However, I quickly realized that grants require large initial investments of time, and are an “all-or-nothing” kind of game. As a smaller organization (we had a budget of less than $100 000) we had limited staff hours for that kind of endeavour, and applying for grants didn’t seem like it would give us great economic returns. That’s when I began researching how to start an individual donor program.

In the lead-up to starting our donor program I read Kim Klein’s ideas in Fundraising for Social Change, and chatted with others who were running similar programs at other organizations in town. That allowed me to figure out the first few steps we needed to take.

1. Invest a tiny bit in set-up

Individual donor campaigns don’t have to be expensive, especially on a small scale and with staff and volunteers to help, but there are a few basics that you should have ready before you mail that first letter.

  • A case for support – Why do you need money?  That’s important.  If you don’t know and can’t articulate it well, your potential donors may have a hard time connecting with your ask.  Write a short case for support and get feedback from others, this will form the backbone of your ask.
  • Donor tracking system – How are you going to track your donors?  One of the keys to a successful long-term individual donor campaign is thanking donors and asking them again.  There are great tools for this. At my organization, we chose Nationbuilder, because it was very affordable and would process one-time or recurring donations for us and enabled our community to help us raise money.  Check out your options, and the $30 or so dollars a month will save you a lot of time over trying to cram all of this into a manageable excel document.
  • Thank you notes – Everyone wants to feel appreciated, so have some thank you notes ready to go before you even get started.

2. Run a mini-campaign first to work out the kinks

We started with a tiny campaign, in which we wrote letters to former donors, service providers, and others who had engaged with us in a professional capacity.  This helped us work out the kinks, and brought in a bit of money too.

3. Run larger campaign

We knew that our network was big, but we didn’t have many past donors to speak of. In running a larger scale campaign, we reached out to volunteers, board members, service users, and other community members and asked them to help us raise money.  We told them why we needed it, and signed them up to raise money with us (through our Nationbuilder site).  They reached out to their friends and family, and our office tracked the donations and sent out thank you notes (never more than a few days after the donation was received).  This isn’t the only way to run a first big campaign, but it worked for us because the cost was low and we weren’t sure how much we would bring in, so we wanted to minimize our risk.

4. Wash, Rinse, and Repeat

Following the success of this campaign, we started planning for our next campaign, which was targeted at turning one-time donors into monthly donors, or at least repeat donors.

By implementing an individual donor campaign, P10 went from around $200 per year in private donations to $15 000 per year in less than two years (remember, the budget was less than $100 000)!!! In addition to engaging with our supporters in a more tangible way, we also created a solid foundation of recurring funding that is far less subject to economic fluctuations or governmental whims than grants are. Provided we thank these donors and keep asking, this money is here to stay.  Asking people for money was scary at first, but starting with a letter-writing campaign and later a peer-to-peer campaign made it easier.  As Kim Klein would say, if no one is saying “no” then you aren’t asking enough people.  

Remy’s a queer nerd who makes a living managing money and operations for the David Suzuki Foundation and helping small community orgs streamline their operations and administration.  Aside from environmental advocacy, he’s been involved in a variety of causes including food justice, organizational health, LGBTQ+ issues, and accessibility.  In his free time Remy is completing a PhD in Spanish Literature from the University of Ottawa and a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from Kellogg School of Management.