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Trend Spotter: Raising money for your nonprofit organization

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Respondents say special events prove effective in reaching fundraising goals

Richard M. Clerkin and Joanne G. Carman

Richard M. Clerkin and Joanne G. Carman

Joanne G. Carman and Richard M. Clerkin

It comes as little surprise that most nonprofit organizations in North Carolina say it has been hard to raise enough money to keep their programs afloat over the last two years. But they also report that, consistent with national trends, creative fundraisers are helping to attract needed dollars. Direct appeals with established donors also remain effective.

In the second survey of Trend Spotter, a special project of the Institute for Nonprofits at NC State University, 100 respondents from small North Carolina nonprofits with budgets under $600,000 described what it was like to raise money for their nonprofit organization over the last two years. Eighty percent of participating nonprofit organizations reported that it became more difficult to raise money during this period.

However, in an effort to inject new enthusiasm in annual campaigns, many nonprofits added special events to their schedules. Indeed, more than half of respondents said special events became their most successful fundraising activities. These ranged from dinners, receptions and auctions to fishing tournaments, golf tournaments and road races. The descriptions of other events suggest that nonprofits are trying to be more creative and entertaining with their activities, hosting wine and beer tastings, fashion shows, art sales, raffles and pub crawls.

Their efforts are being rewarded. For example, one respondent described how their organization changed from hosting a black-tie auction to a more casual event with a less expensive ticket, and they were able to double the number of people who attended the event.  Another respondent stated that a farm-to-table dinner, with produce donated by local farmers and food prepared by local chefs, netted nearly $6,000 in revenues.

A third respondent reported, “We celebrated our 20th anniversary at a local restaurant. The restaurant donated part of its profit for the night to us, and we also received individual and civic club donations.”

Other respondents indicated that direct appeals for individual donations continued to be their most effective approach. Said one respondent of an annual appeal to previous donors: “Letters went out in September, returns have been strong.” Others described sending letters with testimonials, making individual appeals to major donors, and targeting corporate contributions. Several reported securing new foundation grants.

Survey respondents were asked to describe the biggest challenges that they faced in trying to raise money to support the mission of their organization.  Lack of time, lack of capacity, and the need to expand their existing donor base were among the qualms the respondents identified most frequently. For some organizations, the issue was the lack of participation by the board, with multiple respondents noting, “Our board does not help!” Others cited the lack of staff and volunteers.

Yet, some of the challenges were more about developing the expertise, with respondents looking to develop sustainable and productive fundraising models and expressing an interest in learning how to be more effective with their fundraising efforts. Also pervasive were concerns about donor fatigue, with respondents reporting that it is hard to attract new and/or wealthier donors, particularly in small communities: “Living in a small, rural community, the philanthropic dollars available are limited and the needs are great.  It is becoming more and more competitive for fewer and fewer available dollars for many very worthy organizations.”

These challenges are exacerbated by continuing economic challenges, with some respondents noting high unemployment rates and donors giving less. As one respondent put it, “People give what they can, they just don’t have much.”

Findings from this Trend Spotter survey echo the themes in a September article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, 9 Innovations That Are Helping Charities Thrive in the Downturn,” where Holly Hall describes how “the tough environment is leading many fundraisers to innovate” (Hall, 2012, p. 33). Not only are organizations needing to get creative in order to reach new donors, they are relying on social media in order to appeal to younger donors. They also have to plan more carefully for events and be more flexible about the ways in which they structure giving opportunities.

Responses to this Trend Spotter survey also were consistent with a recent report by Blackbaud about individual giving. It found that the three most important factors that affect a donor’s decision to give included: improvements in personal financial situations, having passion about an organization’s mission, and having access to information about the impact of their contributions.


Joanne G. Carman is an Associate Professor in the Political Science and Public Administration Department at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Her teaching and research focuses on program evaluation and nonprofit management, and she is the coordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

Richard M. Clerkin is an Associate Professor in the Public Administration Department at NC State University. His teaching and research focuses on philanthropy and management and he is the director of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

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