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Adapting to Turbulent Times

As an associate professor of public administration, every semester I come across a couple of students in my Nonprofit Budgeting class who either were thinking of starting a small nonprofit or had already started their own nonprofit. When I have been asked for advice about running a well-managed and successful organization, here’s what I say:

First, although there are over 1.5 million 501 (c) 3 organizations in the United States and the sector may feel crowded at times, there is room for all of us to thrive. My advice is always to find your own unique space or niche. How are you different from all the other similar nonprofit organizations out there?

Many students ask about donor cultivation and this is what I say: Ask and you shall receive, Andreoni (2006)calls this the iron law of fundraising. Numerous studies have shown that people are more likely to contribute to a charity when asked to (Yörük, 2009; Andreoni, 2006; Andreoni & Payne, 2003) so don’t be afraid to ask. In addition, be careful about making assumptions about who is likely to give. In my personal experience running a small charity, the people that I expected to donate did not and the people that I was hesitant to approach were the ones who were very supportive and eager to give. In addition, don’t assume that wealthier donors will be more generous.

Due to the size of the nonprofit sector, organizations are always competing with each other for scarce resources and wealthier donors tend to suffer from what I call ask exhaustion. I often remind my students about former President Barack Obama’s fundraising campaign which focused heavily on small donors instead of relying heavily on the mega-rich and huge super PACs. By February 2008, his campaign “had brought in $28 million online, with 90 percent of those transactions coming from people who donated $100 or less, and 40 percent from donors who gave $25 or less, suggesting that these contributors could be tapped for more” (New York Times, 2008). Try expanding your donor base an inch deep and a mile wide. The point is, do not discount the individual who can only donate $5. There are two ways to look at that situation. First, if you can find 1000 people to give $5 each you could raise $5000. Second, you can always tap that individual later for another $5 donation.


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