Solution Fundraising: The Cure for What Ails Your Nonprofit


“The ¼” drill bit is the number one selling drill bit in hardware stores across the US. Who can tell me why?” This question was posed to my classmates and me by our marketing professor in college many years ago. The answer seemed so obvious that many students quickly raised their hands. The first answer was, “Because it’s the most frequently needed drill bit, and people don’t want to buy a whole set.”

“Wrong!” the professor said with a sly grin.

Another student offered, “Because it’s the most commonly used drill bit, so it’s the one that’s most likely to break or go dull first and need to be replaced.”

“Try again,” the professor replied.

This went on for a few minutes, with variations on the theme that it was the most common size. Eventually, the professor explained that the reason why the ¼” drill bit was the number one selling drill bit was not because so many people needed a ¼” drill bit–it was because they needed a ¼” hole!

While his big reveal elicited a few muttered exclamations from the class, he was introducing us to an important concept: “solution selling.” In other words, working with your customer to understand their need or pain, then designing a solution that solves their problem.

Solution selling differs considerably from the classic approach often associated with sales, which finds the salesperson indiscriminately asking people if they want to buy something, until someone says “yes”.

The underlying problem with the classic approach is that the salesperson is focused on their own need to sell their product, and not on the needs of the buyer. Beyond the obvious drawback of not being very efficient, this approach creates other problems, from alienating would-be customers to fostering the frustration that can stem from frequent rejection. These problems tend to compound, making it increasingly difficult to maintain sales over time and contributing to extremely high rates of turnover in businesses where a more classic sales approach prevails.

So what does this have to do with fundraising? So glad you asked!

Whose perspective is it, anyway?

Fundraising and sales share many similarities. One unfortunate similarity is the tendency of many to approach fundraising from the perspective of their organization rather than that of the donor. In other words, focusing on their own need to receive a donation rather than the needs of the person they’re asking for money.

As with sales, this infraction is often unintentional. Most fundraisers are simply doing the best they can to convince people to support their cause–often with very limited resources. But the long-term effects of this approach can make it very difficult to sustain a consistent, much less growing, level of contributed income. Many of the same problems crop up that are seen in the sales industry, from disengaged donors to high turnover.

At its core, fundraising is about relationships, but our actions often convey a very different message to donors. Take for example the language we see in fundraising letters, case statements, web pages, and asks. Very often, fundraisers ask donors to:

  • Support their organization
  • Help them reach their annual budget, or capital campaign target
  • Enable them to do more valuable work
  • Or in some other way, think highly of the work that the organization is doing

Donors don’t need any of these things.

What they need is something more specific. Depending on who they are, they might need:

  • A cure for a particular disease
  • Equality for marginalized members of their community
  • Shelter for victims of violence or abuse
  • Or to believe that they are personally having an impact on whatever the cause may be (this is especially true of those who have previously given)

When you partner with donors to identify their specific needs and present them with a solution that addresses those needs, you will generate more–and more meaningful–gifts for your organization. This is solution fundraising.

Putting Solution Fundraising to Work for Your Nonprofit

Solution fundraising doesn’t mean working with each individual donor to identify their needs–no nonprofit has the time for that. But it does mean thoughtfully identifying and appealing to the general needs and interests of your donors or subsets of your donors.

The exception to this, of course, is with large requests of major donors and funders. These appeals should always be custom tailored to the unique needs of the donor. This involves spending time with them one-on-one, getting to know them personally, and trying to understand what motivates their giving.

For everyone else, start by removing ALL references to “us”, “we”, “our organization”, etc from your solicitations, and replace them with “you”. Then begin testing different likely solutions and optimizing your approach based on how people respond.

Find likely solutions by identifying what the possible interests are for your donors. Often these will have been identified for you by your major donors and any institutional funders who award grants in your area of specialty.

For example:

  • “Meet Harrold. He never learned how to create a resume or interview for a job. Donate today, so Harrold and many others like him will learn the skills necessary to land and keep a steady job.”
  • “Thanks to the generous donations of you and others in our community, 357 animals were saved from euthanasia last year. Ensure that this legacy continues. Donate today!”

Each of these examples puts the perceived power of impact into the hands of the donor, rather than the organization. Don’t worry about reinforcing your organization's name or the work you do. When you empower donors to make a difference in areas that they care about, they will never forget who did that for them or where to find you.

Image Credit: Hannah

FundraisingLance Leasure