By Eric F. Rolfson, President, The Rolfson Group, Inc.

It Ain’t About the Money

When engaging prospective donors for annual, capital, or comprehensive campaigns, successful fundraisers seek short- and long-term investments in the future of their organizations. Experience shows that donors are rarely motivated by talk about “money” during these preliminary conversations. Instead, they are enthused by what the money will accomplish. They want to value your organization’s mission, perceive its vision for the future, and grasp how it aligns with their personal world views. Thus, the first step in planning a successful fundraising campaign is to help craft a vision for the future—one that is clear, exciting, and compelling.

Begin with Strategic Planning

An organization’s vision for the future is typically realized through strategic planning. This critical exercise involves confirming (or revising) one’s mission; developing a clear sense of where you want to be in the next three to five years; fully exploring, visualizing, and embracing that destination; and clearly expressing how and why your organization will be better off when the vision is realized. An effective strategic plan calls for tangible goals, measurable objectives, and an inspiring outcome representing sustainable change. Further, you need to consider organizations with similar missions and define the elements and circumstances that make your vision and plan distinctive–whether location, history, opportunity, creativity, champions, or the people you serve.

This is the hard work that Boards must do, carefully managed by staff, and often aided by facilitators. The process itself is important, and transparency, inclusivity, creativity, and flexibility all play a role in helping a not-for-profit develop a strategic plan that is ambitious, stimulating, distinctive, and in alignment with its mission.

NB: When doing the planning, also consider ways to involve others who could have a transformational impact on your organization, whether or not they currently serve on the Board. This can happen in many ways, including committee participation, informal one-on-one meetings over coffee, or in conversations with small groups of interested parties. Ultimately, these stakeholders will be more likely to invest in a vision they share than in one you simply present.

Then What?

Once your destination is clear, the next step is to determine the strategies your organization will deploy to get there. These might include hiring additional personnel, expanding geographically, launching a digital marketing plan, exploring a merger, or enhancing your programs or services. Once these several strategies are well defined and vetted, both internally and externally, each should be quantified in terms of what it will cost to implement. Thoughtful consideration also should be given to how much of the implementation will be funded through philanthropy. For the elements that will depend, even in part, upon donor investments, it is useful to quantify the resulting strategies in terms of the three areas for which fundraisers generally seek support: people, programs, and facilities (whether new construction, renovation, or equipment.)

Now You’re Talking Substance!

Almost magically, the conversation with prospective investors is now about how your organization will look and feel once the strategic vision is realized and why that is attractive. And when, eventually, it is time to talk about money, you are able to share dollar goals that are meaningful beyond their numeric value, since each solicited dollar can be directly associated with an implementation strategy that leads to a well-defined destination. Not only does this offer staff and volunteers more conversational fodder with which to engage their prospects, it also is clearly preferable to presenting dollar goals that are arbitrary or derived because that is how much we think can be raised. Additionally, no matter the size of a donor’s eventual gift, she now will feel part of something more meaningful than a dollar figure alone. She is no longer just buying a brick; she is helping build a cathedral.

Wrap it in a Story—Then Wrap it in Your Story!

Once you have meaningful dollar goals for a campaign, you can develop the organizational story, or case for support, in an evocative and compelling way, so that those hearing and telling it will be enthused, motivated, and clear as to why they should care and, importantly, invest.

But don’t stop there! As a volunteer or staff member, you have your own valuable perspective regarding your organization’s mission and vision. Write it out, focusing upon why you, personally, continue to be inspired to give your time and resources to ensure the effective delivery of your organization’s mission. With today’s very real competition for the philanthropic dollar, taking this exercise seriously will help distinguish your organization from others and will help clarify what is truly meaningful to you and, presumably, to those you seek to engage.

Vision Without Execution is Hallucination!

Surely, those we ask to consider investing in the future of our organizations want to see, hear, and feel a destination that appeals to both the mind and the heart. They want to be confident that there is a strategic plan to get there, and that the plan is feasible. Finally, they want to know there is a strong chance the vision will be realized in the presented timeframe. So, do the hard work, get it right, and embark upon pre-campaign engagement activities well in advance of asking people for financial support. The fundraiser’s maxim is to spend 90% of one’s time on engagement (whether cultivation or stewardship) and only 10% on solicitation.

Being able to articulate an inspiring, ambitious, and realistic vision for the future will help you and your champions communicate the essence of your organization with confidence, insight, and passion—the most contagious and valuable ally in one’s fundraising toolkit.

Eric F. Rolfson ( is President of the Rolfson Group, Inc. Before founding the Group, Eric spent more than 30 years raising money for nonprofit institutions and held leadership positions in $10 million, $35 million and $150 million comprehensive fundraising campaigns. He founded the Rolfson Group to help organizations make a difference in the world by effectively identifying and engaging like-minded constituents in their futures.