Big Bold Ideas Create Transformational Change for Nonprofits, Communities and Fundraising

by Richard Tollefson

Nonprofits that put forward a big and bold vision attract aspirational donors looking to change the world. Whether in one’s own backyard or around the globe, a carefully executed process of visionary planning and ambitious priority and goal setting cannot be bound by the constraints of current convention nor perceived restrictions. 

The process must set the stage for transformational change, not only for the organization but the people and communities it serves. Taking bold ideas and sharing them in inspiring ways will excite donors and create philanthropic partnerships. 

A compelling vision, bold fundraising priorities and aspirational goals generate more than philanthropic success. They motivate and coalesce leadership, staff and, ideally, the community. They inspire stakeholders, prospects and donors. And they elevate the profile and reputation of the institution while declaring to the community that the institution is ready to positively impact the future. 

Big, bold ideas must also align with an organization’s mission, values and strategic plan; be aspirational and realistic; and balance long-term priorities with immediate needs.

Formulate a Compelling Vision to Inspire Donors

Fundraising priorities give donors an opportunity to be a part of an exciting and motivating vision, according to Peter Cowhey, immediate past dean of the School of Global Policy and Strategy at U.C. San Diego. “Your fundraising campaign needs to build a vision with those who are going to write the big checks,” he says. To do that, it’s necessary to think more about the end than the means to reach that end.

“Raising money for a building can be difficult,” he says. “But raising money for people, programs and collaborative and innovative environments is much easier and more visionary. When a tech company builds a building, they worry about the HVAC, security, etc., but they sell the innovation, collaboration and stimulation that comes from a well-designed space.” 

That kind of visionary thinking also inspires, motivates and engages staff and institutional leadership, as was the case for San José State University. “Our deans, directors and other leadership got really excited about sharing big ideas,” says Sabra Diridon, executive director of development. “In doing so, they found great synergy with each other’s ideas, which inspired them to collaborate and build even bigger concepts and strategies for change.”

Prioritize Big Ideas to Achieve Audacious Success

A deliberate, step-by-step process for determining the right fundraising priorities helps optimize success.

Step 1: Create a narrative and elevator speech to describe the priority. Answer the questions “Why us?” “Why now?” “Why would a donor care?” “Why should the donor invest?” in a concise, clear and compelling manner. 

Step 2: Evaluate the priorities. An effective way to evaluate priorities is to rate them based on criteria such as relevancy and urgency to the community and key stakeholders, impact on quality of life and social issues, potential to be funded and ability to be articulated in a compelling way. 

Step 3: Develop the narrative. This should include an overview; statement of community need; outcomes to be achieved; timeline; sustainability and scalability; and the impact donors’ investments will have. This narrative can be condensed into an elevator speech or expanded into a case for support.

Step 4: Determine the budget. Organizations should not be constrained by previous budgeting restrictions. A bottom-up budgeting worksheet can be a valuable tool for estimating the needed budget.

Step 5: Identify prospective donors and volunteers. Organizations should identify prospective donors and volunteers who will lead and support the priority, inspiring others to join.

Diridon is a true believer in the priority planning process. “The process can strengthen the culture of philanthropy internally and externally,” she says. “It reminds us of our mission, how philanthropy helps us accomplish it and how important our partnership with our donors is to our community.”

Develop a Case Donors Can’t Resist

When creating a compelling case to support bold fundraising priorities, it’s important to put the donor first, says Sara Stern, executive vice president of philanthropic marketing at Lipman Hearne. “Donors give as an expression of personal values,” she says. “They are giving through your institution to positively impact a cause they value.”

  • To best craft their campaign message to inspire their donors to give generously, organizations should:
  • Use donor-centric messages created from an outsider’s perspective;
  • Remember it’s not about the organization’s need but is about the benefit to the donor who gives and the community who receives;
  • Differentiate the ask to ensure the donor is investing in a cause they care about; and 
  • Remember that people give through an organization to benefit a cause they care about.   

Key Takeaways to Visioning, Priority Planning and Goal Setting 

Organizations should:

  • Align fundraising priorities and goals with the organization’s vision, mission and strategic plan — and the donors’ values and interests.
  • Extend visioning, priority planning and goal setting across the organization.
  • Think big, think bold, beyond current convention or budget.
  • Not cut the process short, but be deliberate from start to finish. 
  • Position priorities and inspire prospective donors with a compelling case for support. 
  • Move donors to investors and partners to reach big, bold fundraising goals.

Richard Tollefson is founder and president of The Phoenix Philanthropy Group, an Arizona-based international consulting firm serving nonprofit organizations as well as institutional and individual philanthropists.

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