Successful Fundraising at the Small Development Shop – with Pamela Grow

by Joe Garecht

Pamela Grow

Today, as part of our Learn from an Authority interview series, we’re talking with Pamela Grow about how smaller fundraising shops (one or two person development offices) can raise money successfully.  If you are working as part of a small development shop, you won’t want to miss this interview.

Pam is the author of 5 Days to Foundation Grants: The Secrets to Writing Funded Grant Proposals and Simple Development Systems: Successful Fundraising for the One Person Shop.

1.  Pam, as the author of Simple Development Systems, you’re an expert in helping small one and two person fundraising shops raise money like the big boys.  What are biggest hurdles faced by small development offices?

There are a number of hurdles in the small development office, but I’d have to say that the two major ones are 1) lack of a plan, and 2) being mission-centered rather than donor-centered.

I know that you’ve seen this firsthand yourself, Joe.  You’re meeting with a prospective client and you ask them how much they want to raise, and what their plan is for raising it.  Chances are they’re vague on both.  They want to raise “more money” to grow programming…their board member has a great idea for an event, but they have no specific plan.  Yogi Berra said “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.”  So, yes, you’ve got to have a reasonable plan going forward.  How much do you plan to raise via grants, individuals, earned income, events, etc.?  Set big goals but make them achievable.

Understand what it truly means to be donor-centric.  Own it.   It’s so not about you, or your mission.  It’s about that marvelous opportunity that you’re offering your donor – you’re giving them the chance to make a real difference!  Small shops can really have the advantage here because there are times that they can provide more hands-on donor attention.

2.   Given their lack of resources, how can small development shops overcome these hurdles and raise money successfully?

Being the head of a one-person shop can actually be a great advantage — an opportunity really — it’s all about your perspective.  But you do need to develop a true culture of philanthropy within your organization.  Everyone needs to understand that fundraising isn’t solely the job of the development director (or executive director in really small shops).  Your board members can be:

  • regularly speaking about your organization.  (Check out your local Kiwanis, Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce!)
  • hosting house parties or pot lucks
  • penning handwritten thank you notes or making thank you phone calls

Also, make sure your small shop builds an email list.  You’ve got to start where you are.  For example, when I first began my enews a few years ago, I had a handful of subscribers – and one of them was my cat!  It’s taken time and a very consistent and strategic approach, but I’ve now grown my email list to over 6,000 subscribers.

3.   Small fundraising shops generally don’t have major gift officers and donor liaisons – how should they go about building donor relationships given that the one or two staff members are doing everything from writing grants to holding events?

I’m pretty vociferous on the topic of events in the small shop, Joe.  There’s nothing with a smaller ROI than an event.  Of course there are always “it depends” instances.  If your organization has a strong board and volunteer base that is willing to attend to the minutiae of event-planning, well go for it.  If not, you’re far better off focusing your attention on building individual relationships.

Can you set aside one day a month, every month where your executive director has lunch with a donor or a potential supporter?  Can you make it a habit to get out of the office once a week to visit with donors?  And everyone can implement the habit of spending 30 minutes to an hour on the phone, every day, calling and thanking donors.

That’s how relationships are created!

4.   How important is a monthly giving program for small non-profits?  How do they start building one?

Creating a monthly giving program is the one thing that an organization can do to truly connect with their donors on a deeper level.  It leads to greater bequest giving and it grows your sustainable income — all at the same time.

What’s key is to start where you are.  Offer the option to give monthly online.  Check with your bank to find out how to accept EFT payments from donors.  Then query your database for your most loyal donors and create a marvelous new opportunity for them.  You can start small.  Many organizations begin with either a direct mail launch or by offering the opportunity online.

5.   Let’s say I just took a job as a Development Director for a small non-profit.  I’m the only person in their fundraising shop.  Their fundraising operation is haphazard at best, and I come in on day one to list of fundraising ideas from the board and Executive Director, but not much else.  What should I do on my first week on the job?  Where do I start?

Begin with a thorough assessment of where you’re at in terms of grants and individual giving, including your communications calendar and stewardship.  Who are your donors? Does your organization have any bequest gifts? What are the stories behind those bequests?  Make it a point to create a listing of your top ten to twenty donors. You’ll want to speak with them on the phone or meet with them personally as soon as possible to introduce yourself, learn about their connection with the organization and gather stories. And don’t forget loyal donors.

What does the database look like?  Do your best to familiarize yourself with your organization’s database, their past protocols for data entry and reporting procedures, their vendor contract – and absolutely set aside time for training if necessary.

During your first 30 days you should make every effort to introduce yourself to every member of your board of directors if you haven’t already met. Find out how what motivated them to become involved with your organization (you’re collecting stories again!), what their fundraising goals are, and what kind of communication they’d like to receive from you.

Probably the most important part about your new job is your organization’s mission and how you relate to it. Your strong passion for the goals and value of your organization will be the key component to how well you are able to raise funds.

Whether you’re working for a museum, an arts organization, a free clinic, a school, a religious organization, etc., you must be thoroughly grounded and have a strong belief in the mission. Make it a point to learn why your organization was founded, who benefits, and why their services are so important to the community.

Whew!  I’ve probably given you more than you wanted to know.  The key is you’re got to hit the ground running and you’ve got to lead.

6. Should small development shops place any focus on grant-writing, or should they spend their time building an individual giving program?  What’s the right mix? 

You can and should be doing both, Joe.  And let’s never forget that your local foundations are comprised of individuals.

Clearly you’ve got to first assess whether your organization is even “grant-ready.”   And, if your organization is grant ready, by all means you should begin a process of identifying prospective foundation funders through regular (I recommend daily to start), systematic research.

I prefer to start a grants program by focusing on a region’s small to mid-sized grant-making foundations.  Their application processes (and reporting processes as well) are often less-cumbersome, meaning that you can create a system of applying for more small grants.

When you’re building your individual giving program, start with your current donors.  Are you surveying them regularly?  Meeting them?  Truly engaging them?

7.  Finally, Pam, you’ve got a great blog at and a fantastic fundraising newsletters chock full of great information… What’s the most interesting project you are working on that you’d like our readers to know about?

I’m so glad that you asked Joe!  I recently completed an interactive eBook, Simple Development Systems: Successful Fundraising for the One-Person Shop.  It’s only 100+ pages but it covers what  the small shop needs to create a balanced, donor-centric plan for long-term funding.  It includes recorded interviews with Harvey McKinnon, Mal Warwick and more, along with a fabulous recorded webinar with Tom Ahern.

The purpose of SDS is to provide the small shop fundraiser with the basic fundamentals for creating a donor-centered development office across the board.  Like Jim Rohn said “Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals.”

Please note that some links in this article are affiliate links.


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Vanessa March 13, 2012 at 12:15 am

Great advice! I’m on the Board of a really small shop, and although I work in Development in my professional life, it’s been very hard to get Board buy-in to fundraising. But I think the idea of getting them out and about in the community as ambassadors, even if they’re not making asks, is a very manageable undertaking.

Joe Garecht March 14, 2012 at 10:36 pm


Thanks for your comment. I agree. While your goal for board members should be to get them comfortable making introductions for you which lead up to asks, simply having them tell the story of your non-profit in an ambassadorial role is a good way to ease them into it!


Pamela Grow May 20, 2012 at 10:10 am

I so agree with you both. There’s a saying that “one-step selling is very difficult.” It’s the expectation that our boards can immediately set forth and make “the ask,” without any advance preparation, that often turns off board members. I’ve often found that beginning with simple tasks such as getting their stories on why they got involved with your organization, writing personalized thank you notes, and getting referrals is the best start!

Barb Chamberlain June 4, 2012 at 11:47 am

Thanks for this piece. I follow Pamela on Twitter, which is how I found this.

A really simple thing that any board member can do: When meeting new people and introducing yourself, in addition to the traditional “where you work” information add “and I’m a member of the board of XYZ organization.” If board members feel strongly about the mission they should feel comfortable making that part of their identity in the community.

That simple statement can lead to a conversation that starts a relationship. I’ve been observing a friend of mine who’s new on the local symphony board doing this at events–so simple yet so effective in finding out who’s a music-lover, who he might invite to join him at a concert, who might be interested in a season ticket.

Pamela, after that first step what would you recommend for follow-up? How would you steward the next step to turn initial contacts into potential prospects?


Pamela Grow June 4, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Thanks for commenting Barb! What an excellent addition to the post. We would all be grateful for a board member with the enthusiasm of your friend.

In answer to your question, I’d have to say “it depends.” It depends upon your friend and his comfort level. Clearly he’s committed. Would he feel comfortable following up with a phone call? An invitation to be his guest at an upcoming concert? Adding his acquaintances’ names/information for the symphony’s next appeal, along with a few hand-written post-it notes?

Seems to me like the symphony’s ED and DD has a great opportunity to draw in a natural born fundraiser. Groom him for success and he’ll be an example to the rest of the board.

PS: I also like to create email signatures for all my board members which include links to the organization’s website.

Barb Chamberlain June 5, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Thanks, Pamela. I love the email signature idea. I did this a while ago for myself at work (higher ed campus communications director) and tracked clickthroughs. I’ve drawn over a thousand clicks to our website (I actually stopped tracking how many because it proved to be so effective I don’t need to monitor).

Instituting that with a change-up of content every so often to keep it fresh is low-key and easy and effective–what a winner!


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