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Fundraising is the lifeblood of any nonprofit. Without funds, programs fail, services wither away, and mission impact is thwarted. Unfortunately, the prospect of fundraising makes most nonprofit leaders as squeamish as the sight of blood. I’m a fundraising consultant, and I chose to make fundraising my life’s work, so naturally I have a very different view. Fundraising is an adventure, a trek we ‘in the biz’ repeatedly embark on with high hopes. We’re optimistic every time that we’ll reach the pinnacle, but we’re also thrilled to stumble on a beautiful view, a gorgeous landscape or a wild animal living its best life. Adventures don’t have guaranteed outcomes, but they offer new environments, new skills, and possibly new achievements. Approaching fundraising as an adventure gives nonprofits a chance to both enjoy the process and to discover new heights of success. Let me share some tips from my own adventures in the wild and in the wilds of fundraising that will inspire and shape your own journey.

Recently, I spent the weekend hiking with a friend in southern Utah and a beautiful, rugged part of Nevada, northeast of Las Vegas. Before heading to the airport, we decided to spend the last few hours of our trip on a trail we’d never tried before. We chose the Charlie Spring Loop Trail, a moderate 6-mile hike in the not-at-all-ominously-named Valley of Fire State Park. The temperature was set to be in the upper 90’s that day but we are both experienced hikers, had plenty of water and had reviewed the trail map the night before.  We set off. We confidently passed ‘trail markers’ that were really just anonymous stumps and cacti. The hike had us spend hours in a sandy wash that was flat but felt a little tougher than moderate after a few miles. Eventually, we climbed a hill that led us to a two-lane road. The trail map we had available seemed to suggest this was part of the hike, however where we emerged was  miles from where we’d parked! We discovered we were no longer in Valley of Fire State Park! After freaking out about needing to hike two hours back to the car and missing our flight, we flagged down a good Samaritan (don’t hitchhike, kids!), who drove us back to the car. The kindness of strangers saved our day and we were lucky. There are lessons here that apply as much to the real world of hikes in ‘127 Hours’ territory as they do to the figurative world of fundraising adventures.

Know Your Endpoint

First, determine what your goal is for the adventure, and keep your endpoint in mind. The path may be unclear, or may be full of distractions, so keep your mind’s eye on what you want to achieve. “I want to raise some money” is a goal, yes, but it’s a nebulous one. Instead, decide you’ll be equally happy with one large donation or ten new monthly donors or a new grant, and watch for opportunities to achieve any of them. Starting with high hopes and lederhosen only worked for the Von Trapp family.

Have a Good Map

Online maps are great for civilization, but cell coverage in the desert can be sparse. Don’t leave home without a map that shows the terrain, the landmarks, and the places you don’t want to go. Know a little about the flora and fauna you can expect to see, too. The research you do on who your potential donors or grantors are is invaluable to reaching your goal. If your map shows you where you can find them, what philanthropy they’re already engaged in, and what skills they could contribute to your cause, then you can navigate your path confidently.

Pack Well

Packing for real-world hikes means bringing the right tools and supplies and wearing the right gear. Hiking shoes, a hat, water, a compass, food, and sunblock are the basics. On a fundraising adventure, you will need your numbers and your wish list. You need to show potential donors or grantors how well you use the money you’ve previously received in support of your programs and services. They want to know the impact you make on your service community with each donation, no matter the size. They also want to know how long you’ve been in service, and how many people your organization reaches. And if you’re lucky, they’ll want to know what’s on your wish list, so they can grant those wishes. These are the tools that fundraisers use to reach their goals.

Success in fundraising comes in many forms. The ‘big check’ is one way to win at fundraising, but there are others just as important. Developing new donors or grantors, strengthening relationships with small-but-passionate donors, and discovering new partners in the community all contribute to a nonprofit’s success. Everyone in the nonprofit should appreciate and support the adventure of fundraising, because the expedition’s failure impacts everyone.

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