How to fundraise for your social enterprise, charity or not-for profit.

CFI's Executive Director, Jeff Schnurr, shares some hard lessons learned.

6 Fundraising Myths

We started Community Forests International from scratch. We saw a problem and wanted to be a part of the solution. For the first few years we limped along - volunteering our time, working out of public libraries and around our kitchen tables. I recently posted about how to start a social enterprise, so you know how to get started, but what do you do when you realize your good idea needs funding? We learned the hard way and now we’re looking to share our hard lessons with the next generation of social entrepreneurs. Here are 6 fundraising myths we busted along the way.


Myth #1 – If you build it they will come…

That phrase came from a fictional movie about ghosts playing baseball - it’s not true. No one has to care about your cause and no one has to make donations. Building an organization and putting together a team still doesn’t mean that anyone will support you. When we first got our charitable status we thought we were finally going to raise some real money. We put together a newsletter and sent out an update to over 1000 individuals stating that we could now issue tax receipts - Community Forests International was open for business.

We didn’t get a single donation.

It was a big shock. We had a great project in Pemba, Tanzania. We were working with local communities to grow and plant trees. Climate change is a global issue that affects everyone so why weren’t people jumping at the chance to support our cause?


Myth #2 – People can relate to your work

So here’s the thing - it’s your work, your cause. When we started we worked almost exclusively on a small island in the Indian Ocean called Pemba. Very few people could relate. No one had even heard of the place, so why would they want to support our efforts? Even though we were doing good work it was our project and no one else’s.

Although you can never expect anyone but yourself and the group you work with to have the same degree of ownership over your cause, you have to find a way to share that sense of ownership. Our first wave of donations came from Canadian tree-planters – our peers here in Canada that could understand the act of planting trees. Supporters need to feel like the cause is their own, and that’s a good thing because your cause is going to need all the energy you can harness. Look for ways that people can contribute beyond just giving money. Ask for advice, share ideas, find a mentor. Even ask potential supporters how they would raise money. Relate specific projects to real people. In order to garner support you need to connect.


Myth #3 – There are mystery donors out there with tons of money for your cause

There is no mystery philanthropist out there waiting to support your cause. In the very, very, very, rarest of circumstances you’ll receive an unsolicited donation, but unless you’re a part of a huge charitable machine you’re going to know each and every one of your supporters. And if you don’t know them already you’re going to have to get out there and meet them. At first your support will come from friends and family. We depended heavily on our friends and family when we started. We borrowed their cars and tools, scrounged meals with them, and secured part-time, flexible work with them in order to pay the bills. Our closest network funded our early work and we will be forever thankful to all those that put up with us in the early years.


Myth #4 Your supporters are ATMs

We don’t really have “donors”. I mean technically we do, but just as our early donors were mostly friends, most of our later donors became friends too. Your supporters are not ATM machines. They are real people that decide to spend their money on your cause and they require something in return. Several of our supporters have become very good friends and have formed personal relationships with our team here at CFI. In fact, they are our team. We call on our donors for advice and moral support and if they don’t like or understand what we’re working on then we rethink our course of action. If someone supports our work, I want to know why and will reach out. Often people want to be involved and/or have a personal connection to what you’re working on. If you’re working to serve community, you’ve got to know and listen to the community around you.


Myth #5 – You know how to talk about your work.

You don’t. Consider these descriptions about a garden project we currently run near our HQ in Sackville, NB:

  • CFI’s Food Forest harnesses perennial polyculture plant systems in order to provide nutrients.
  • CFI’s Food Forest showcases 7 years of permaculture gardening.
  • CFI’s Food Forest garden shows new ways to grow fresh and healthy produce.
  • CFI’s Food Forest could change how we grow and produce food.
  • Never go to the grocery store again

All of these phrases talk about the project differently and all of the statements are true. Some of them you may understand, others not. I don’t know how to talk about our work until I know how you want to talk about it. Stay away from buzzwords and jargon and only use them if you hear them from your audience. This is especially true with proposal writing. When we write proposals here at CFI we try to forget our own language altogether and learn a new way of speaking from our potential donors. If you want to connect with supporters, language is key.


Myth #6 – People know that you need their support.

If you don’t ask, people don’t know that you need their help. The people around you have to know what you’re working on in order to support it. Asking for advice or insight is a great way to share what you’re working on while providing ownership to potential donors. I hate asking for money, so I rarely do. Instead I ask the community around us to help us build our mission, help us create solutions to some of our most pressing environmental challenges, and when it comes time to fund the work we all pitch in to raise the funds together.

Hope this helps in your own fundraising efforts. It’s been a long and hard journey, but well worth the blood, sweat and tears. If you’re thinking about starting your own social enterprise, do it. The world needs you! Feel free to contact me @pembatrees or through the comment section below if you’d like to keep the conversation going.

- Jeff Schnurr

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