You’ve joined the Board of an organization you care deeply about that is addressing an issue, problem, or opportunity in a way that you think is absolutely vital. If only the development director wasn’t pestering you all the time to fundraise from your friends.

You find all sorts of reasons why you can’t do it: your friends will think you’ve crossed a line by talking about money. Or you worry your friends either aren’t interested in or able to donate their money. Or you’ll be burdening them with a request. Often these fears lead you to rationalize that you bring other skills to the Board and fundraising should be done by others, who are surely much better at this than you. The inner dialogue keeps you from filling your table at the luncheon or inviting friends to a house party or sitting down with someone to discuss supporting your organization’s work. And you probably feel a healthy dose of guilt and fatigue from the whole cycle.

The bind you find yourself in is not unique – I hear it all the time from both new and veteran Board members. And if I’m being honest, I’ve felt that way myself, too. But over the past few decades of fundraising from friends (and by friends, I’m also including relatives, neighbors, acquaintances, business associates, and colleagues), I’ve come to look at the opportunity and challenge differently and it’s helped me overcome the obstacles.

First, let’s admit fundraising from your friends is hard

As a consultant that advises on fundraising, I have fallen into the trap of telling intimidated or reluctant board members that fundraising doesn’t have to be hard. “It’s joyful! It’s as easy as being in a friendship! We all know how to do that, don’t we? So, go forth and fundraise from your friends!” I recently had an experienced friend-fundraiser (who also happens to be my husband) tell me the following and it resonated: 

Stop saying fundraising isn’t hard. It IS hard. It can be uncomfortable. You might get turned down. But investing in societal change is important, and you can do uncomfortable things if they are important. We do them all the time.

If you do friend-fundraising for any length of time, even with the greatest of friends, even when you’ve done everything right, a friend will say “no, thanks”. And that is hard. The fear of the “no, thanks” is a powerful deterrent to even trying. The reality of the “no, thanks” can invoke feelings of failure and rejection. Those are undeniably hard feelings to have.

I find it comforting to acknowledge that friend-fundraising can be hard and then I remind myself that I can do hard things. We ought to be able to do all sorts of hard things over the course of a lifetime. In the outdoor adventure world, they even have a term for that: Type 2 Fun. While Type 1 Fun is just, well, plain old fun: enjoyable in the moment and afterward when you look back on it. Type 2 Fun is different: it is fun that is actually hard in the moment but in retrospect you’re really glad you did it because it was meaningful and rewarding, like when I climbed Mt Rainier when I wasn’t in shape and spent the last half of the descent in tears. So, perhaps that’s how we should think about fundraising from our friends – as Type 2 Fun.

Tips for Type 2 Friend-Fundraising!

First, remember that you are not asking your friends for money. Yes, that is part of it, but the way I think about fundraising is that I’m not JUST asking them for money. And this is not JUST a rationalization. At a deep level, I believe that I am inviting them to learn more about a societal issue that I care about (and that I either know or suspect they care about too) and asking them to join me in investing in a solution. I am offering them information, access to expertise, and a path to a better society. Let’s take the achievement gap for example. It’s a big problem. In fact, Seattle has one of the biggest achievement gaps in the country. That’s especially crazy when you think of the economic strength of our region. If you’re on the Board of a literacy program for elementary students, and you are convinced that one of the most important ways to bridge the opportunity gap is to increase literacy in struggling readers, then sharing this information with your friends is a favor to them, not a burden. 

Second, don’t underestimate your friends. Whether you have friends who can make gifts of $100 or $10,000, chances are your friends are at least a little like you. If you care about societal change, if you have invested your own time and money, if you find your own engagement in societal change of great value to yourself, then why assume your friends wouldn’t be interested, too? What’s so different about them that they wouldn’t find it just as valuable as you find it? One thing that can be helpful is thinking back to how you got involved in the organization yourself. Chances are you heard about it from a friend. Aren’t you glad you did?

When your friends learn more about a pressing issue and hear about what the organization you’re representing is doing to address the issue, and they walk away believing in the approach just like you do, then you can invite them to invest in it, just like you have.

Remember that you don’t have to ask every friend about every issue, even if they have a lot of capacity. Think about who is genuinely interested in what, and be explicit about why you thought of them. For example, your outdoorsy friends might be more interested in environmental issues and your new parent friends about early learning. Obviously, this isn’t always the case, and you don’t want to underestimate your outdoorsy friend’s interest in early learning, but it can help to think about each friend uniquely to what you think they are most interested in, and extend a personal, genuine, and heartfelt invitation to learn more. And if you don’t know what they are most interested in, you could always ask!

Sometimes, when I get to the point of actually asking for a gift, and I’m feeling particularly uncomfortable or nervous, I own my discomfort. I might say something like this:

I really care about you and our friendship, so asking you this is hard for me, but I’m doing it because I think this is really important, and I think you might too.

Third, be sure to make your own gift first. When you fundraise from anyone, especially friends, I believe it’s important that you have also made your own financial gift to the organization. Why would anyone trust your investment advice if you aren’t following it yourself? You have to walk the talk. This is standard practice for a lot of nonprofit Boards, but may not always be the case, so it’s worth saying. One exception to this is if you are still in the phase of learning about an issue and haven’t decided where to make your own investment. Maybe you’re hosting an issue briefing in your home and you’ve asked a nonprofit focused on the issue to come and present to you and a group of friends and colleagues. The important thing here is to be clear about the purpose of the gathering and where you are in your own process of supporting the cause. Which brings me to my next point…

Fourth, don’t bait and switch. This isn’t that common, but it has happened that I’ve been asked to meet up with a friend thinking we’re catching up on our lives only to find out when I arrive that it’s actually a fundraising meeting that ends in a request for a donation. Don’t do this. Just. Don’t. Hopefully, for obvious reasons, it is disingenuous and disrespectful. Let your friend know in advance that you want to meet about a possible gift and ask permission, don’t just casually bring it up over lunch. That’s not to say you can’t mix business and pleasure, but be super clear with yourself AND with your friends about it. If you haven’t seen your friend for a while, of course, you’ll want to catch up with her, but let her know you want to spend some amount of time talking about what you’re doing and why, so she can decide if she’s interested in that, too. It doesn’t have to be formal and stilted, just clear and transparent.

Hey Erin, I’d love to get together to catch up – it’s been too long! Also, I wanted to talk to you about something. I’m getting more and more involved in supporting literacy strategies aimed at closing the achievement gap in Seattle and remembered that you used to help kids learn to read before you started grad school. I’m wondering if you’d like to learn more about an organization that I’ve joined the Board of that is doing amazing work in this issue space. Would that be of interest to you?

Fifth and finally, be society-focused, not organization-focused. There are a million reasons why a friend may choose not to invest in an organization you have asked them to, some of them having nothing to do with you, the issue, or the organization, like when I was turned down because my friend had just started a new business so was tight on cash. But sometimes they have prioritized another issue or cause, or they walked away not particularly compelled by the theory of change.

Because I plan to friend-fundraise for the rest of my life, I like to give friends a graceful way to decline my invitation to make a gift or get more involved. I may say something like:

I know you’re generous and give to lots of things, and I’d love for you to consider this, but if you have other giving priorities I’ll certainly understand and I hope it goes without saying I would never take that personally or let it impact our friendship. . .

While I’ve heard professional fundraisers warn against saying something like this – presumably because it gives a donor an ‘easy out’ – I usually find they don’t do much friend-fundraising themselves. Of course, you have to really be OK with them saying no! Your friend will feel weird and awkward about saying no if you are weird and awkward about it, and saying you are not taking it personally if you really are.

I avoid this by genuinely wanting to support my friends in connecting with the issues and causes most meaningful to them. I think this resonates with people, and is appreciated. I remind myself that if we’re going to have a chance of successfully addressing any of the myriad societal issues that plague our times: climate change, health equity, food security, violence prevention, and so on – we need lots of people investing in lots of solutions across lots of issue areas. So, if they do end up supporting the organizations I care most about, that’s great. But if not, I honor their reasons, and am grateful for and delight in knowing they are investing their resources into making the world a better place in ways that work for them, and ultimately benefit me and the rest of our world.