Asking people to donate money is never an easy task. In tough economic times, it’s even more difficult. If people are struggling to pay their mortgage and utilities, how can they find any extra for your organization? I, like many of you in the non-profit sector, have had to exist in this challenging reality for a number of years now. Here are a few ideas that have helped me make ends meet when our donor base is struggling.

1. Appeal to Your Donor’s Sense of Creativity

I once had a conversation with a man (who had done very well in business) about the state of non-profit fundraising. He was being approached constantly by groups to make sizable donations. While he often did his best to honor these requests, he did admit that there was a certain “sameness” to modern fundraising. He wished there could be a little more creativity and excitement involved.

After some talking, brainstorming, and researching, we came up with two ideas that really sparked his imagination. The first one is called the Red Paperclip Project and the other is called the Kingdom Assignment.

Both of these methods are almost exclusively based on the creativity and ingenuity of the individual donor. Each requires a person to be willing to talk to their friends, to make unexpected connections between people and ideas, and to be courageous for the cause.

What particularly struck this donor was the excitement that might be generated, as the competitive nature of wealthier donors were aroused. For instance, the Kingdom Assignment starts with each person (or team) having $100. The object is to turn that $100 into as much money as possible and then give all the money back to the cause. (This is a Christian concept, based on the parable of the Talents, so the method of multiplying the money needs to fall within these theological bounds.)

This competition wouldn’t be anything official from the non-profit, but when you issued a challenge of this kind to a group of wealthy donors that required them to utilize all the skills that made them wealthy in the first place, human nature would invariably take over and competition would arise naturally. Of course, this only benefits the non-profit.

The man with whom I was chatting could easily imagine a group of big donors, who had become bored with the “same old, same old” of non-profit fundraising getting really jazzed about this kind of a deal.

When times are difficult, a non-profit must utilize every advantage it can find that will motivate, encourage, and promote giving.

2. One Man’s Trash is Your Non-Profit’s Treasure

When family budgets are stretched, one of the first items to be cut is charitable giving. If folks don’t have the money, how can they give it?

Well, one answer may be to ask families not to donate cash, but instead to donate used goods from their homes that you can put into a large community garage sale. While I might not be able to write you a check for $100 right now, I can certainly get rid of that couch in my basement, a couple of lamps, a dresser, and a television set.

When you combine all these items from the people in your community, you could rack up a really nice profit from such a sale. Families still get the sense that they are helping out, and they can still protect their personal financial situation, which maybe a bit uncertain. Plus, they get to clean out the basement a bit and get a tax deduction. What a great deal for everybody!

Another approach is the online auction. When I worked for the summer camp, a big box retailer near our office was going out of business, and the manager there donated ten double ovens that had slight dents and scratches to our non-profit. Brand new, in perfect condition, these ovens sold for over $1,000 each. Because we had a contact at the store, they were given to us for free.

So, we stored them in a garage, took pictures of them, and put them up for sale on eBay. I thought that there would be no way to sell high-end ovens online, but we sold them all in a matter of a couple of weeks and made a great profit.

Besides eBay, cMarket is also a great online auction house that has a lot of experience working with non-profits.

3. Double the Power of a Dollar with Matching Grants

One of the first things a person learns about money is that it would be nice if it went farther. If you can get $50 worth of merchandise for $25, you’ve made a great steal.

In hard economic times, we should approach our fundraising efforts like this. Why accept a $100 donation, when it could be turned into $200 with a matching grant. Makes sense, right?

In the past, I have had great success in asking donors on the higher end of the giving scale to make matching grants. Matching grants can be set up in many different ways, but the general idea is that for every dollar the group raises, the matching donor will give $2 or whatever amount he decides upon ahead of time. Many donors will set a threshold figure that the group must raise before the matching gift will start. For instance, the donor may require that the non-profit raise $10,000 and after that, there will be a two for one match. I’ve also seen donors put a cap on the gifts, such as “up to a maximum of $50,000”. This is not uncommon.

Having a matching gift on the table is a powerful tool for a non-profit. First, it’s a great enthusiasm builder. Those working on the campaign can see visible progress- a real goal. This is an extra incentive for them to give the campaign their best effort. Also, a matching gift sends a message to other donors that their contribution of $100 could actually mean $200 for the group. Or $500 turns into $1,000. People can see how this can add up very quickly.

For the original donor, there is a certain level of protection as well. If the non-profit can’t meet the threshold, it tells him that the group potentially has problems that a single gift couldn’t fix anyway.


In the end, I think that the greatest piece of advice in fundraising is the need to be understanding of where your donors are coming from. Ask yourself what each donor’s reality is. Tailor a strategy for each demographic group, so that you can demonstrate to the entire community that you realize one size does not fit all. If you try to put yourself in their position and think about the most respectful and practical way to approach each person, you will find success even in tough economic times.

This article is part of the Fundraising in Challenging Economic Times series.

Here’s a list of each of the articles in this series:

  1. Recession Proof Fundraising by Anisha Robinson Keeys
  2. 3 Suggestions for Raising Money in Tough Economic Times by Jim Berigan
  3. When Foundations Say “No” by Aaron Atwood
  4. Succeed at Fundraising Despite a Recession by Marc Pitman

Posted on 17 June 2008

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