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  • Writer's pictureAnne-Marie Grey

Fear of Fundraising – and how to drop it

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

A leadership and personal growth approach.

What keeps CEOs of non-profits awake at night? Fundraising - or rather, the fear of fundraising. Leading a non-profit is hard work. Leading a small non-profit when you don’t know where or when the funds will come from is even harder. As a non-profit leadership coach and consultant working with a wide range of organizations, I am struck over and over again by the number of times I hear fundraising as the biggest fear of nonprofit leaders.

For example, a client of mine founded a non-profit with four employees, none of whom are experienced fundraisers. While she is a successful leader and her organization is highly regarded in the humanitarian response sector, she feels she is inadequate because she has lacks direct fundraising experience. “I am a failure as a leader,” she told me in her first coaching session. Another client runs a small non-profit and feels completely overwhelmed by fundraising. “It's my job as the head of this organization but I don’t have the budget to pay for a fundraiser.”

Both are highly accomplished leaders. And both feel inadequate because they don’t know how to do fundraising, and they are uncomfortable asking for money. Worse still, they feel they aren’t a real leader. Fundraising has become their biggest barrier to their personal success, and the success of their organization.

So, why is fundraising such an emotional topic, and why is it threatening to derail so many leaders in the sector?

I once had exactly the same problem. As a newly appointed CEO of a non-profit working to support refugees, my self-confidence flagged when I was confronted with the task of asking private individuals for contributions. I hated asking for money. The thought made me queasy. I was fine pitching to a corporation – and if they said ‘no,’ I didn’t take it personally. But asking individuals to donate felt too personal. The fear of rejection was too much.

Yet, I have successfully led a team of staff and my board through transformational growth in just seven years. From February to April 2022 alone, we raised $90M dollars for Ukraine refugees. How did I do this? I learned that fundraising is as much about your mindset as it is about the techniques of asking for money.

Here are five crucial steps will transform your fear of fundraising into growth – for yourself, and your organization:

Step 1: Adopt an abundance mindset

Do you operate from a scarcity mindset and focus on what your organization lacks in order to succeed? Are you thinking, “My organization can’t do x because we don’t have the resources”? With this mindset, resources become finite. You almost think you need to take the resources from someone else.

In contrast, an abundance mindset trusts that there are enough resources for everyone. An abundance mindset looks for win-win situations. It’s about opportunities. This is the mindset you need in fundraising.

You can train your mindset in the way you communicate. For example, with an abundance mindset, you invite donors to share in your successes and experiences. In contrast, with a scarcity mindset, you tell them everything that can’t be done because you lack the resources. Do you see the difference in energy, vision, and drive that will come across? Donors may not want to fill a gap; but they will love being part of a vision presented by someone who believes in growth and opportunity.

Step 2: It’s not about you, it’s about the donor

Fundraising all about the donor. You are simply providing donors with an opportunity to connect with a cause bigger than themselves. You are offering your donors a chance to engage and realize their personal ambitions. Do they want to change the world? Do they want to do good? Do they want compassion, community, and commitment in their lives? Rather than focusing on how you feel about asking for money, do your research and listen. When donors engage with your organization – either by giving money or their time – they can realize their ambitions. Focus on providing opportunities for donors to feel good about themselves.

Let them see how they can change their own life by joining your journey. How will the world be different because of the donations and grants they make? How will your donors be different when they get deeply invested in a cause close to their heart?

As soon as you focus on the donor, your fears will fade into the background.

Step 3: It’s not a solo game

You don't need to fundraise on your own. Lean into your staff, board, networks, and existing donors and supporters. Hire expertise to lead your fundraising efforts if you can. If not, everyone in your organization could be a fundraiser, whether they are frontline fundraisers, program staff, finance experts, or volunteers. Your job as a leader of the organization is to ensure you have the right people with the relevant skills in the correct positions.

A client of mine working in Europe felt inadequate in his role as he didn't have fundraising experience that he could leverage. He didn't know private sector funders and was only experienced in raising grants from governments. "I shouldn't be in this role," he told me. "I know nothing about getting grants or asking people for funds."

"Well, who could help you with that?" was my reply. We went through each person in his team, and reviewed their potential to fundraise. Soon enough, we identified a handful of program team members with the skills, aptitude, and networks that could be leveraged. We then widened the net, and looked at the volunteers, program participants, and board members. With this strategy, and by investing in development of existing staff, my client birthed a private sector fundraising campaign that raised two grants of over $300,000 in four months.

Don’t ask “how can I do this?”, but “who can help me with this?”

Step 4: The ask isn't always about money

What donors really want is to engage with you and your cause. Focus on creating relationships to facilitate this desire. For example, consider creative ways in which they can engage with your organization. Do you offer volunteer opportunities? Can they participate in focus groups or provide feedback on a newsletter? People love to contribute, even if they can't donate money.

For example, two years ago, we created a new newsletter for our organization and invited a dozen donors to look at the advance mock-ups and stories, and provide feedback on what resonated with them. They loved to be asked.

Think about creating such opportunitis with donor surveys, focus groups, and donor feedback programs. This helps your donors share their reasons for engaging in your cause. And you show that you see great value in their feedback and input.

Step 5: Create a culture of philanthropy within your organization

As a new CEO, I established a culture where fundraising could thrive within my organization. After many years of success, I find this to be mission-critical for any nonprofit CEO leader.

For example, I communicated to our team and board that fundraising was about transformative relationship building – no matter the donation size. In short: No more just asking for gifts! Instead, our motto became ‘engagement.’ Today, our culture means that we view our donors as partners deeply committed to our cause. We consistently ask our supports how we can create the best possible donor experiences.

Successful nonprofit leaders embrace a culture of philanthropy, and nurture this culture in their organization.

Do your board members know their role as an ambassador for philanthropy? Is everyone aligned with your vision and fully able to articulate that vision? Does your team understand their role in creating supporters' best possible engagement experience? Does everyone embrace a culture that places clients' and donors' needs at the center?

A culture of philanthropy is a mindset and a way of being. Unless everyone in your organization is engaged and understands the vital role that they play in fundraising, you will keep feeling that pressure of having to ‘ask for money.’

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