While it’s common to hear about non-profits that serve the under-privileged or disadvantaged segments of our society, you don’t hear as much about the organizations that provide services or experiences for those not under any immediate financial stress; in other words, the people with plenty of disposable income.

I have actually worked for two such organizations. Therefore, I know what it’s like to see other non-profits that provide coats for cold kids, soup for hungry people, and shelter for the homeless get nice fat grants, while we got rejection letters. Well, that’s not entirely true, but that’s what it felt like a lot of the time.

I found that it can be difficult to ask people for money when you know that your organization is not VITAL to the lives of your clients/customers.

I know what it’s like to see other non-profits that provide coats for cold kids, soup for hungry people, and shelter for the homeless get nice fat grants, while we got rejection letters.

But, that’s not to say such non-profits don’t play an important role the community. It’s just harder for people to justify giving limited resources to a group whose clients tend to be from higher income brackets.

For instance, I used to be the administrator at a non-profit (private) elementary school. The tuition was $3,500 per year. I knew that some families struggled to make this payment, but if they were ever unable to afford it, there were a handful of public elementary schools in town they could enroll their children in. For free. It wasn’t like their kids would go without an education. So, it kind of put us at the bottom of “worthy causes” in our community.

The same was true when I worked for a non-profit summer camp. The majority of our campers lived over four hours away, and many of them attended private schools. A good number were involved in athletics and were high-achieving young people.

We did, however, give away thousands of dollars each summer in “camperships”, but there was a perception that our camp was one for “rich kids” while other camps had reputations for inner-city ties.

That being said, I witnessed, first-hand, how important both the school and the camp were to the families who sent their children there. In many ways, both organizations provided important life lessons.

It is essential to note that neither group I worked for was operating on a surplus. In both places, we were regularly coping with how to meet payroll and keep the lights on. No one was getting rich working at the school or at the camp.

We couldn’t just raise rates to cover our shortfall. We would start to lose the families who were on the edge of being able to afford us. Without them, we’d be in even worse shape. And the downward spiral would continue.

So we needed to engage in fundraising to survive.

So, how did we do it?

Here are five ways we made our case, despite our so-called advantages. If you have any other suggestions, please share in our comments section. We’d love to learn from your experiences!

1. Tap your alumni. In both organizations, we relied heavily on former participants for financial support. We knew that we had already made our case to them when they were in our programs. They knew our songs, could recite the mission statements, and had tons of family photographs stuffed away at home that chronicled their time with us in their youth.

So, we created alumni publications and held alumni events- all of which were aimed at raising money from them. Basically, we didn’t have to worry about their perceptions of us at all.

2. Focus on our proven outcomes. When we did apply for grants or ask for money in our community, we needed to focus on our quantifiable results. In both cases, we were concerned about the formation of our young people. And in both cases, we had a lot to be proud of. The lessons both the school and the camp provided really made a positive difference in the lives of the kids we served. So, we focused on that and then asked for support to keep on getting results going forward. Don’t let this good work end.

3. Require volunteer service to cut expenses. This is a no-brainer. There is no excuse for not knowing exactly what the people in your community do for a living. If they can afford to pay tuition, they more than likely have some kind of marketable skill that they can “donate” to your organization that will keep you from having to pay for professional services. Go down your budget categories and start matching up names to jobs. Snow plowing, Web design. Writing. Accounting. And so on. These people with skills are money in the bank. You just have to recruit them and manage them.

4. Offer an opt-out fundraising option. If you run traditional fundraisers, like product sales or events such as auctions or golf outings, make sure you let parents know that they are more than welcome to simply write a check to be excused from their fundraising obligation. You are guaranteed to get a number of families who will take advantage of this option, so make sure the amount you suggest is favorable to your group.

5. Look for matching/challenge gifts. When you are out there in the community, shaking the tree for major dollars, don’t be afraid to suggest that people make matching/challenge grants to your organization. This can be a very exciting and energizing experience for a non-profit. It gives you a pressing reason to work the phones, talk to past donors, reach out to your alumni, and chat with current clients without having to worry that you’re bothering them. The matching grant gives you cover to be a fundraising maniac. I can honestly say that the most fun I’ve ever had raising money was when I was approaching the deadline of a big matching grant. I’ve even got on local radio, pleading my case to get those last dollars in on time.

Posted on 24 December 2010

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