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Prospecting and Cultivation: A Fundraising Primer

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Growing your major gifts program — or getting one started in the first place — can feel like an overwhelming responsibility. The philanthropic landscape is extremely competitive, and the prospect of identifying and soliciting prospective donors can seem cumbersome and intimidating.

While the non-profit journalism landscape has flourished, opening up new revenue streams and business models to support mission-driven news, many organizations continue to rely on major gifts from foundations, high net-worth individuals, governments and multilateral organizations for the large investments they need to start up, survive and thrive.

The competition for major gifts is intense. The journalism sector has grown robustly in the last several years, which means you are competing with an increasing number of organizations. According to Charities Aid Foundation’s 2017 World Giving Index, there was a global decrease in giving in the past year – though notably, Africa saw an increase in all three giving behaviors tracked by this report. The United States – still the world’s largest and most transparent philanthropic market – saw an unprecedented $400 billion in charitable contributions last year, a 5 percent increase over 2016, according to the annual Giving USA analysis, with increases in nearly every gift source (foundation, individual, corporate, bequest) and to nearly every type of charity.

Of course, the challenges in raising funds will vary significantly from country to country. (See Charities Aid Foundation’s analysis for details about philanthropy in your country.) There are local and regional differences in traditions of giving, the legal environment and the availability of funds. But there is a lot of money out there and a smart, determined effort can have real success.

In launching a fundraising program, it’s important to remember that you and your organization offer an opportunity as well. Entrepreneur and philanthropist John D Rockefeller said, “Never think you need to apologize for asking someone to give to a worthy objective, any more than as though you were giving him an opportunity to participate in high-grade investment.” Philanthropic investment in your work and your mission is an opportunity to make change. Your work produces impact in the world by shining light on stories otherwise ignored— in reaching out to a new prospective donor, you are offering them a chance to be a part of that. No matter who they are or how wealthy they are, that’s something they can’t get anywhere else.

So keep it simple. Remember that people give to people, and people give because they are asked. Be proactive, persistent and polite. Most importantly, get started! Building fruitful fundraising relationships takes time!

Also read Gallagher’s IJAsia18 presentation, distilling it all down to one page: The Three Habits of Highly Effective Pitchers.

Finding Prospects

How do I uncover donors interested in my work?

Work with what you know

Use your skills as a journalist to dig for likely donors. Again, this takes time. Engage in some basic research to narrow the field of prospective donors — institutional, individual, corporate, etc. — with a likely interest in your work. Spend some time surveying your city and region, your country and your peer and competitor organizations with an eye to answering the following questions:

  • Who are your peers or competitors? Who funds them?
  • What other organizations do your existing donors support? Who are their donors?
  • Who is in your network? What connections do your colleagues, supporters, board members, friends have? Have you asked for their support?
Establish an interest

For media nonprofits around the world, there are several groups of likely donors:

  • Large private foundations, such as Open Society, Gates and Omidyar;
  • Government-funded international aid agencies, such as USAID, European Commission bodies and Sweden’s CIDA;
  • Western embassies in developing or transitioning countries (from Northern Europe and North America);
  • Wealthy individuals and family foundations.

For a broad overview of public and private sector donors active in funding independent media around the world, check the funding chapter of Empowering Independent Media by the Center for International Media.

Empowering Independent Media Report by CIMA. Image: Screenshot

You will have to establish standards about what kinds of funding your organization will accept. Some media nonprofits will not accept funding from government agencies. Others are wary of taking money from corporate sponsors or influential business people. As a public interest journalism group, you will be expected to be transparent about who is funding you, so you will need a policy on disclosing your donors.

There are a number of resources that can help you decide how to prioritize these different types of donors in your fundraising plan:

Public Sector Donors

United States is the best portal for information on US government grant-making. You can search by category and agency. The biggest US government donors for international media development are USAID and the State Department. US embassies may also have funds available for journalism fellowships and support of independent media in developing and transitioning countries.

European Union

WelcomeEurope is an independent site that lists hundreds of available grants from programs managed by the European Commission and the EU.

The European Commission Grants Page is the official portal for European Commission grants.

Western European embassies, particularly from northern countries, may have funds available to support independent media in developing and transitioning nations.

Multilateral Institutions

International bodies also make grants, including the World Bank and UN agencies such as the UN Democracy Fund and UNESCO.

Many public sector grantmakers publish requests for proposals (RFPs) and openly announce competitions and award opportunities; they also tend to have highly technical proposal requirements. Resources for learning about RFPs and guidance on how to construct competitive proposals can be found from sites such as FundsforNGOS and Devex.

Private Sector Donors

While the philanthropic community is increasingly global, it’s worth keeping in mind that many philanthropists like to support projects close to home. Think through your personal network and potential connections to philanthropists and entrepreneurs in your community before targeting global givers identified by resources such as The Giving Pledge and the Forbes Billionaires List.

Forbes Billionaires 2018 list. Image: Screenshot.

Some individual donors may give “family” foundation or donor-advised funds that publish guidance about their priorities and application processes. Most institutional donors also maintain a fairly public presence that can provide guidance on how to approach a prospect. Examine foundation websites with the following questions in mind:

  • Do they list their current grantees?
  • Do they list the size of their grants?
  • Do they support research or focus more on direct service?
  • Do they provide application deadlines?
  • Do they say that they accept unsolicited inquiries?
  • Do they have connections to your board members or staff?

Read up on their background and their work — there are many resources that report on and analyze the philanthropy industry. A few include:

What if they have no website or public profile?

In some cases, depending on where the foundation is located, there is some level of disclosure requirements that will allow you to learn something about the foundation’s activities and interests:

  • In the United States, foundations are required to file an annual Form 990 with tax authorities. These are available electronically for free from sites like the Foundation Center or and usually detail a foundation’s net assets, liabilities, grants awarded, some contact information (though often minimal) and names of directors/trustees and key staff.
  • In the UK, the Charities Commission provides a free searchable database that offers basic information about a foundation’s assets, governance and activities.
  • The Foundation Directory Online is a subscription-based service (though it can be accessed for free at some libraries and collaborates with the European Foundation Center) which provides basic information about American foundations and United States government funding opportunities, and more limited information about European and Asian foundations.
  • The European Foundation Center also offers links to a variety of other lists and directories of foundations and donors, sorted by geography and/or thematic interest.

Now What?

You’ve identified a few prospective donors who seem like they might have an interest in supporting your work. Now what?

Resist the urge to email a long proposal or letter requesting support. Use all the homework you’ve done in your research phase and all you’ve learned about your prospective donor to cultivate a relationship with the donor/decision-maker. Get to know them and help them get to know you, and help them understand how they benefit from embarking on a philanthropic relationship with your organization. Remember: people give to people.


The most common mistake most organizations make when they’ve finally secured that first meeting with a prospective donor is that they walk in and talk all about themselves. Engage in a conversation with your prospective donor — ask questions that draw them out. Who else are they supporting? What are their goals/strategies? Who else do they think is doing good work in this field? What do they think is missing?

Tell your story

Ideally, their answers to your questions will give you some clues as to what aspects of your work and plans are most likely to resonate, and what you should emphasize. But whether you’re having an initial meeting or writing a concept note or proposal, your story, in succinct, straightforward, jargon-free language should answer:

  • Why this?
    • What are your activities/scope of work? What are the products? Who is involved?
    • Who is your target audience?
    • How will you reach them?
  • Why now?
    • Impact – what does this project do? What does it change?
    • What makes this project unique?
  • Why you?
    • What are your credentials as an organization/leader? Why should the donor trust you? What have you done in the past that suggests why you will succeed in doing what you propose?

You may have to educate donors about why they should fund independent media, which is a relatively new field for charitable giving. Cite examples of how media projects have produced reform or stopped abuses of power. You can find case studies from around the world in Global Investigative Journalism: Strategies for Support, but local examples may be best. Also, find out if contributions to nonprofits are tax-deductible in your country. Many governments offer donors a tax break for giving money to an NGO or an educational organization. This can be an important incentive, particularly for individual donors.

Follow up” is your friend

Whatever the outcome of your first meeting or conversation, stay in touch. Make donors and prospects part of your work; stay in touch with them; make them a part of your success so that they see your organization’s momentum and impact. Good subjects for follow-up include:

      • Updates on achievements, awards, new projects
      • Invitations to events, activities or briefings
      • Can we re-apply in another cycle?
      • Who else should we talk to about this project?
Know what you need, and don’t be afraid to ask for it

Before you approach a donor, define the projects/opportunities for which you are seeking funding and their budget amounts. You may or may not talk about specific needs in your first meeting or two — focus on getting your prospects emotionally invested first, and taking the time to build a relationship. But knowing from the outset what types of gifts are most useful will help prioritize your donor research and outreach to begin with, and allow you to answer confidently when “the ask” comes up.

The Gift Isn’t the End; It’s the Beginning

Say thank you early and often

In the best of all possible worlds, when research, persistence and cultivation have paid off, don’t assume you are done after the donor writes a check. The likeliest donor is the one who’s already given, so continue to nurture your relationships with current donors, stay in regular touch with them, and engage them in making new introductions and helping you grow your supporter network. Say thank you when you get a gift, and at every opportunity thereafter.

Good luck!

Bridget Gallagher is the founder and principal of New York City-based Gallagher Group, LLC. With more than 20 years of fundraising experience, and more than a decade of that spent spent working with journalism and media organizations, Bridget works closely with organizations throughout the world to help make their major gifts efforts more efficient and effective. She specializes in working with mission-driven news organizations to help them define a fundraising plan, identify top prospects, and put in place the processes and routines that allow organizations to tell their stories and build fruitful relationships with their donors. Connect with her on Twitter, LinkedIn or via e-mail.

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