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How to find your first prospective donors: Tips for new nonprofits 

A group of colleagues working together at a table.

Fundraising can be an ongoing challenge for any nonprofit organization, but for newly established ones, it can be a daunting hurdle. An organization that’s just starting out has to compete for funding with nearly two million other U.S. nonprofits while also setting up and launching programs.  

One major obstacle is that foundations are reluctant to award grants to emerging organizations. They’re more comfortable partnering with nonprofits that have a substantial track record of success, which takes time to establish. Given this disadvantage, new nonprofits are typically advised to start with individual donors.  

So, how can a new nonprofit develop a pool of prospective donors when they’re still building their visibility and reputation?    

Start by planning for success

Before asking for money, you need to lay some essential groundwork. First, draw up a budget to determine precisely how much money you need to raise for your programs, including the costs of equipment, physical space, and/or personnel. 

Second, develop a realistic fundraising plan. Make sure it matches your budget and identifies who is responsible for securing which sources of support, and on what timeline.  

Simultaneously, make sure your nonprofit has in place a clearly stated mission, vision, and values, as well as sound infrastructure: a qualified team, internal governance and management systems, technology, and partners. To gain the trust of prospective donors, you need to show how your values align with theirs and how you’ll make a measurable impact. Small, local organizations are more trusted than larger institutions, but you need to win that trust.  

Your first and best prospective donors are people you already know 

The central tenet of fundraising is that it’s about relationships and trust. In an early-stage nonprofit, you’ll usually find the strongest level of trust from people who already know you well: friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and people you’ve gotten to know through networking groups, hobbies, etc.  

A face-to-face meeting is the ideal way to approach prospective donors, so you can tell your story in a heartfelt way, emphasize the urgency of the work, and build rapport with them. If face-to-face is not an option, a phone call is your next best bet. If you opt to make an ask in writing, be authentic and include personal touches that let donors know that the letter or email was written for them and them alone. Highlight your organization’s values and appeal to people who share them and will likely champion your work.  

Remember, the number-one reason why people donate to a nonprofit is that they are asked. To learn how to make a good ask, check out Candid’s Introduction to Individual Giving or The Ask by Laura Fredricks.  

Bring on the board

Your other early-stage prospective donors are your board members. After all, they join your board because they share a passion for the mission. In addition, a major part of their role is fiduciary responsibility, meaning that they act as stewards of the nonprofit’s finances, ensuring that the organization has the resources it needs and manages them responsibly.  

As part of this responsibility, every board member should make an annual contribution. While the amount can vary depending on each individual’s means, a personal contribution is a demonstration of commitment to the nonprofit. If board members—ambassadors of the cause who are entrusted with the organization’s welfare—don’t contribute financially, why would other prospective donors? 

Yet nonprofits new and established often struggle to secure board contributions. The board chair should help get the message through to the rest of the board. When onboarding new members, tell them explicitly that annual contributions are expected. You can learn more in our Get your board fundraising course or find additional guidance at Boardsource

Tap into peer-to-peer fundraising 

Your board members and other supporters each have a network of their own. Your first pool of donors can fundraise on your behalf by reaching out to their friends, family, colleagues, etc.  

To tap into those networks, consider hosting a house party and inviting your donors, board members, and volunteers to bring a friend who might be interested in your mission. Make it an opportunity for you to get to know them and for them to hear about your organization’s work. Encourage your new donors to share on social media why they support your organization.  

Studies have shown that peer-to-peer fundraising increases nonprofit revenue substantially, yet even established organizations don’t do it nearly enough. Learn more about how to get started in peer-to-peer fundraising here.  

Surviving the first two years of your nonprofit’s lifecycle requires a crash course in planning, relationship building, leveraging the board, and networking to raise funds. If you chart your course intentionally in those early days, you can help set your nonprofit up for growth, sustainability, and impact.  

Photo credit: fauxels via pexels


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