7 Things Successful Fundraisers Need to Know
7 Things Successful Fundraisers Need to Know

If there’s one thing every successful fundraiser must know, it’s this: The job is about much more than asking for money.

“Fundraising is aligning people’s vision of what they want to see in the world with the organizations and communities that do the work,” says B. Michelle Johnson, director of Ultimate Rainbow Consulting, a Seattle-area fundraising consultancy. “It’s about getting to know folks and bringing people together.”

With about 1.8 million nonprofit organizations in the United States today, there’s a world of opportunity for people prepared to help advance a worthy cause. If you’re interested in a nonprofit career, consider these 7 things successful fundraisers need to know.

1. How to Build Relationships

Fundraisers build relationships with people who share an organization’s vision and work to empower supporters to give what they can to help make an impact. In fact, most nonprofits rely on a range of philanthropic gifts, including:

  • Time and talents, such as volunteer hours or pro bono professional expertise
  • Treasure, typically donations of cash, financial support or other valuable assets
  • Advocacy, such as networking and sharing personal stories to educate others about the cause

“Money is important, but voices are often more important,” says Johnson, an instructor for the UW Certificate in Fundraising Management and the UW Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

To build the kind of rapport that inspires people to volunteer or make a gift, Johnson says the most successful fundraisers have high emotional intelligence (EQ), including soft skills in empathy, active listening and verbal communication.

2. How to Inspire Supporters With a Compelling Story

Johnson says whether you’re writing annual reports, crafting social media content, preparing presentations, or hosting a podcast about challenges in the community, you need to know how to tell a story in a way that gets people to buy in to your nonprofit’s vision. And keep it light on the facts and figures.

“Go for both hearts and minds,” Johnson says. “Statistics are important, but people give because they hear how your work changed somebody’s life.”

3. How to Write Effectively

No matter your job title, if you’re in fundraising or development, you’re also a writer. For example, annual fund managers might craft campaign emails or direct-mail letters. People in data entry might write thank-you notes or gift acknowledgments.

If you’re a communications specialist, you might create annual reports, which require an artful combo of storytelling plus math. And, if you’re a major gifts officer, you often collaborate to write case statements, which answer: Why give to us, and why now?

In every instance, Johnson says, fundraisers need to deliver a clear, compelling message that speaks to the audience.

“If you’re writing to a bunch of doctors, maybe your letter is full of technical terms,” Michelle says, “But you still want it to be accessible.”

4. Why Grant Writing is a Unique Skill

Grant writing is a distinct — and in-demand — discipline within fundraising. Grant writers need specialized skills to build a competitive case for support from specific funders.

For example, in the UW Specialization in Grant Writing & Management Strategies, grant writers learn how to conduct research, how to build case statements, and how to report back to donors or government funders. Grant writers also need to know how to work with a nonprofit’s program and finance staff to define budgets and deliverables.

“Grant writers get program people to articulate what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it and how they’re going to measure it,” Johnson says. “It’s an exceptional skill.”

5. How to Talk About Money

Not every conversation is about money. But fundraisers still have to directly ask for financial support — even if they fear being told no.

“Fundraisers have to get over that fear, because the answer is always no until you ask,” Johnson says.

Students in the UW Certificate in Fundraising Management learn how to build scripts and design an approach to conversations with donors. Johnson says becoming comfortable asking for resources starts with remembering that the request isn’t about you — it’s about meeting your organization’s mission.

6. How to Manage Up

Part of your job as a fundraiser might be managing other people — maybe even your boss.

Nonprofit executives, board members or other community leaders often go out to ask for support. As a fundraiser, it might be your job to prepare directors with research or public information about prospects or donors, or to write scripts executives can follow while asking for a gift of resources.

“If your leaders are prepared to make an ask, donors will be more likely to respond with a yes,” Johnson says.

7. How to Be Everything Everywhere All At Once

Nonprofits are often small organizations with lean operating budgets. Among U.S. nonprofits, 92% spend less than $1 million annually and 88% spend less than $500,000.

Because many nonprofits operate with few staff members, Johnson says successful fundraisers must always be at the ready with a wide range of skills and knowledge.

“At smaller organizations, you’re the development director and the major gifts officer, who also helps with events,” Johnson says. “We need to be flexible and expect different challenges.”


Discover how UW Professional & Continuing Education can help you prepare for a future in nonprofits and fundraising. Check out these certificates and specializations:

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Author Kate Dixon

Kate Dixon

Kate Dixon is a web content manager at UW Continuum College, where she’s proud to support innovation, excellence and access to world-class public education. An alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kate earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism and master’s degree in strategic communications.

Kate enjoys showcasing diverse stories of learning momentum, student success and the power of education to inspire positive change and brighter communities.

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