What Fishing Can Teach Us About Fundraising

Maybe this wasn’t a good place for fishing?
We spend too much time thinking about the right way to ask people for donations, yet not enough time thinking about who the right people are to ask.  It’s like buying a perfect fishing rod and reel, learning how to cast, and then casting off into empty waters. It takes more than toiling, more than tackle, and more than time. If you are fishing in the wrong place none of that matters. 
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a volunteer or staff member in an organization say “Why don’t we get So-and-so to give?” I’d be a wealthy woman.  Because usually, within a given community, everyone is targeting the same So-and-so.  And here’s why that won’t work.

So-and-so has:

NO LINK to your organization: No hook
·      No organizational connection – never attended an event, participated in a program, used/referred your services, or obtained any benefit from you.
·      No human connection – doesn’t know anyone affiliated with your organization.
NO INTEREST in what you do: No appetite for your bait.
·      Not what they care about.  Why? Because they really don’t have a clue what you do.  Maybe they’ve heard something vague, but not much.
·      Not a value they’ll ever share.  Why? Whales just aren’t their thing.  In fact, animals aren’t their thing.  Their big thing is feeding poor people.   They’re always going to give their extra dollar to help save human lives. Period.
NO ABILITY to give: Too small to feed you.
·      No resources; barely getting by.
·      No liquidity; overly committed elsewhere.
HAD A BAD EXPERIENCE: Had a run-in with you; learned avoidance.
·      Got poor service from a program (or knew someone who did).
·      Got poor service from development: weren’t thanked promptly and personally… weren’t kept informed… weren’t recognized… name was misspelled…
·      Didn’t like the position your organization took on an issue… a rumor they heard…  a run-in they had with a board member…

If you’re contemplating prospect cultivation and/or solicitation, go through this checklist. You can remember each element by using the acronym B A I L(though I’ve listed them in the order of what I believe to be of greatest importance). If you’re able to put a check next to any of these, you’ve got some work ahead of you before you’ll be ready to ask.  In some cases, you’ll never be ready to ask.  It’s best to bail sooner rather than later.
The world is filled with people with a wide range of values and purposes.  Not everyone will share the values your organization enacts.  Don’t fish in those ponds.  Why waste your valuable and limited time? There are still plenty of other fish in the sea.  You can lead a prospect to water, but you can’t make ‘em bite.
What common mistakes do organizations make that cause them to fish in the wrong ponds, and how do you avoid making these errors?


Now that we’ve talked about prospecting, we’re going to need to talk about soliciting.  Watch for my free webinar, in collaboration with the folks at NonprofitWebinars.com, a service of Good Done Great, taking place Wednesday, October 3, 2012, at noon PST: How to Overcome Your Board’s Fear of Fundraising, Once and for All.
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About Claire

I’m Claire and I want to help you raise more money, reach more people and build long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Take a look in the archives.


  1. This is great advice, Claire – and I think the combination of needing both a Link and Interest is so critically important. I sometimes hear board members say things like "We should get movie stars on the board" (to help with fundraising), or "We should get Silicon Valley VCs to donate." All of which would be more realistic if they actually had the LINKS to people with those characteristics – which they would need to be able to explore whether there is an INTEREST. Nice simply check list – to sometimes keep us in check!

  2. Thanks Julia! And you're so right — which is why I put "LINKS" at the top of the list. Cold calling is not unheard of, but it's really a shot in the dark. And that's not the most effective way to run a business (although the Vegas casinos love it when you operate that way).

  3. When use filtering systems to identify who we should followup on. One of the first things we do is call thank as many donors as possible for their gifts. These conversations are geared toward their enthusiasm. We thank and try to educate donors on the impact their gift is making. We also look for opportunities to meet with the donor to find out more about them. As we do these activities, we eventually find those people that would welcome more information about major gift opportunities. It takes time, diligence and patience. If you are in a hurry, you run the risk of offending donors. Great reminder to do the work of building relationships. Thanks!

  4. Thanks David. Relationships is the key. It's what it's all about, really.

  5. Great tips – I learned these lessons the hard way working in sales for a long time. To close a sale you have to make sure you're lining up the right person for the right reasons that way it is win-win every time!

  6. This is great, Claire. I have a client right now that I can't seem to get out of the mentality you describe. I've been struggling with how to explain eloquently – you do so nicely here. Thanks!

  7. Wonderful thoughts, Claire. Why waste our time on a bad fit?

    What do you think about nonprofits who don't want to solicit current or former clients? My vote is that clients can be carefully asked for money because (we hope) they have benefited from the services the nonprofit provides. But many nonprofit staff members are quick to determine that people who have used their services have no money and won't be able to donate. I'd love your opinion on this matter…

  8. I see nothing wrong with asking former clients to give. It's not our job to say "no" on behalf of others. We're not taxing them or forcing them to be philanthropic. If they say no, they do. But why not offer them the opportunity to give? I've found that even current clients will give, and they feel really good being able to contribute to an organization that is helping them. Just because they can't pay the full cost of care does not mean they don't want to contribute. And we all know that as a % of total income, those with lower incomes give more than those with higher incomes. The drive to give back is strong. As fundraisers, our job is to facilitate this and enable folks to experience the joy of giving.

  9. In fact i was looking some useful tips regarding pond maintenance but i found your also useful for me i have got some important points from your post.

  10. That's internet search for you. 😉

  11. I really like your acronym: BAIL. And I love the analogy to fishing. Very clever: wish I'd thought of it!

    I think the tendency you speak about is present in absolutely every nonprofit in the U.S. I've yet to work for, consult with, or volunteer for an organization that didn't do this to some extent.

    Drives. Me. Crazy.

    And unless you implement a process of board and donor development, you'll never get past it.

  12. Thanks Clay. It's definitely a common problem. Once folks understand what they're looking for, however, it's pretty easy to get around it.

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