Russell Dennis

  Russell Dennis


Fear of the “ask” will vanish once you can navigate this “Fundraiser’s Murderous Row” of questions. Getting people to write a check, or lend any other type of support, boils down to understanding what is important to the different audiences you talk to about your nonprofit. This requires a process that is simple, but time consuming. I call it the “4 Steps to Building a High-Performance Nonprofit.”

Let’s look at the process and the questions themselves.

1. What is it that you want out of this experience? – It is amazing how many people fumble when asked that question. I certainly did when business strategist Harry Lay asked this question at my first CEOSpace International Business Growth Conference in December 2012. I attended that conference bringing someone else’s vision and passion as a project. It worked out badly.

By three years and over $100,000 later, I was focused on making a good living while making measurable impact in the lives of people most in need in our society. There must be a deep meaning in what we do so that we will be prepared to endure all the challenges and roadblocks (including our own fears) that come when bringing the grand vision to fruition.

2. (Why) Is the work you are doing important?Howard H. Stevenson, author of the book, Getting to Giving, Fundraising the Entrepreneurial Way, listed this question first among four that he believes fundraisers must answer. I led with my own, because there is no answer good enough for this and the others, without understanding why what you are doing means enough to you to do whatever it takes to succeed.

While your work is important to you, it’s not about you. The task at hand, then, is to find out what is most important about your work from three key audiences: your team (board members, trustees, advisors, volunteers, and staff), direct recipients of the services you provide, and those who pay for them.

Your answer to this question must be bold, clear, realistic, and meaningful. It should be stated succinctly and powerfully in terms that resonate with key audiences. You may only have to answer to one of those audiences at any given time, but you’d damn well better have the right answer for all three groups, or else you’re toast!

3. Why are you the ones I should trust to get this done? – People bet on people! Here is where your team comes into play. Investors and donors alike are looking for the skills, knowledge, and track record of success with projects of similar magnitude before making that bet. They also want to see that you have well thought-out plans and systems in place to grow and maintain your operation over the long haul.

They also want to know what is unique about what you are offering, and why it will work to solve problems in ways that services that are currently available can’t.

Transparency is always critical. If there are some kinks to work out, or any potential barriers to your success, these must be clearly articulated, too. Include action plans for how you will deal with any gaps you experience, with realistic estimates of how long it will take and what it will cost to overcome them.

I, like many others, have been overly optimistic about what things could be accomplished, how long it would take, and how much it would cost. Take the number that is in your head and multiply it by three. Life happens. If that number gives you pause, look for ways to test your plans using small pilot projects. Failing fast and cheaply will give you the information you need to press forward.

4. How do we know you are successful? – This goes back to understanding what is important to your three key audiences. To recruit the right people, you must take what is important to them into account. Creating a win-win for the team and the organization involves accomplishing the goals of both. If there is no alignment, you do not bring these people onto your team. They must help you build solutions for the people you serve directly.

One of the earliest steps you need to take when formulating programs is to talk to those you intend to serve. They have a better idea of what changes they want to see take place in their lives, and they are the best potential source of information about what works and does not work for them. They can also point out gaps that hold them back in services available to them. What is it they want and need to know, feel, and do about your offer? What is the difference they want to see in their lives as the result of going through your program?

Finally, what do the people paying for the program want out of the experience of supporting your cause? Different donors, sponsors, and grant-makers have motivations of their own, and you must know their motivations to succeed. What is the most valuable outcome they will see when they support you? What is the value you provide them? They are paying for results when they invest in your cause.

They can support any other cause doing similar work, so you must establish evaluation systems and benchmarks that resonate with them. Relationships and constant connection with these groups are critical to your success. You must have built in systems to continuously improve by being responsive to their needs.

5. What gives you the right to ask me for money? – This is the “Power Question” nonprofits need to answer when asking for money. Tom Ralser, author of the books ROI for Nonprofits: The New Key to Sustainability and Asking Rights: Why Some Nonprofits Get Funded (and Some Don’t), uses it as a basis for his life’s work.

He has served over 500 nonprofit organizations and raised over $1.1 billion employing the principles outlined in these books. Before he works with an organization, they must provide solid answers to 20 questions he poses to see where they currently stand. The questions are intended to show how he approaches fundraising, to determine if the nonprofit is a good fit for his firm, or if they have more work to do before taking on major projects.

Answering all twenty of Mr. Ralser’s questions in the affirmative is not easy, but the results he gets always speak for themselves. Your organization gets funded by being “fundable.” There is strong emphasis on earning trust and cultivating it, from Mr. Ralser’s point of view.

At the end of the day, when you have done the work outlined here, you have an opportunity to raise more funds and attract more support than you may have believed possible.

Keep these five questions in mind for everything you do, and your operations and programs will have high quality while delivering strong impact.

Russell Dennis is CEO of RD Dennis Enterprises, LLC. He is host of the Nonprofit Culture of Success Show and Co-host of Synervision Leadership Foundation’s Nonprofit Exchange Podcast. He creates customized tools that are easy to access, understand, and use to help social profits raise more funds and attract more support for their missions. You can find him at and at user name RmanRussDen on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. Go to to schedule a complimentary consultation.

Join Hugh Ballou and Russell Dennis and their guests on our weekly Tuesday afternoon Nonprofit Exchange at 2 pm Eastern time.
If you already have a nonprofit or are thinking of starting one, this will be very helpful. Put it on your calendar NOW! It’s a session that you don’t want to miss! Discover what’s blocking your success!
The Nonprofit Exchange on Tuesdays at 2 pm ET has been quite beneficial for many participants and we have enjoyed sharing thoughts and tips for moving past the stuck places we all find in leading an organization to achieving its mission.
Learn more and access archives HERE.
As the famous British Composer and Conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams once said, “Music does not reveal all of its secrets to just one person.” If you replace the word “Music” with the word “Leadership” or “Team” or “Strategy” etc., then we all give and receive value from others. That’s the spirit of the Tuesday afternoon Nonprofit Exchange encounters, sponsored by SynerVision Leadership Foundation’sCommunity for Community Builders.”

You can join the conversation on Zoom or watch on Facebook Live Video. It’s your choice. You can comment on Facebook and on the Zoom chat box on any device.

Put this on your calendar NOW! It’s a session that you don’t want to miss! Discover what’s blocking your success!

We’ll “see” YOU on the call. Here’s to your greater success!

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