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How to Build a Donor Base from Scratch

You know a nonprofit is on the right path when the majority of their volunteers are people who once benefitted from the organization’s support.

Dorothy Day House provides housing and support services for those who find themselves in need. Brit Hotaling, Director of Development and Marketing, says “we’re a community for the people that we serve, by the people that we serve.

In this episode, listen to hear about the initiatives Brit has introduced to help empower those supported by the Dorothy Day House and also spread the mission.

Want to dig in deeper on this week’s takeaways? Check out our blog on how to engage your board in fundraising as well as our Virtual Fundraising Toolkit, a collection of resources that make showing your impact to donors easy.

Key Takeaways:

  • When starting a new position, reach out to those around you. Listen to their ideas
  • You can’t have effective fundraising without effective communication
  • When it comes to digital engagement, show, don’t tell

Episode 4 Transcript

Brittany: We want to give these people their own voice, where we really want to be able to advocate for them and allow them to advocate for themselves.

shouldn’t that be the goal of all nonprofit work to empower those? We serve I’m Kimberly O’Donnell and this is Accidental Fundraiser, a show from network for good, the chairs of radically authentic stories from the trenches.

Kimberly: Dorothy Day House is a volunteer-based nonprofit organization. That for over 30 years has provided meals, shelter, and employment to low-income residents and people who experience homelessness.

Their mission is to provide sustenance shelter and the caring presence to those in need. And to create a stable foundation for individuals to move towards greater self-sufficiency Brit Hotaling, Director of Development and Marketing, first jumped into fundraising when she was only 10 years old, since then she’s used her passion for telling stories at nonprofit organizations across the country.

From hospitals to disaster relief. When our conversation took place, Brit was still in the role of fund development manager for the Dorothy Day House, which was the first fund development position that the organization had. In this episode, she shares the top priorities. She tackled after joining Dorothy Day House and how it laid the foundation for future fundraising efforts.

Let’s start there.

From a foundational perspective, what were, you know, like three key things that you immediately did when you stepped into the role?

Brittany: The first thing I did was perform an audit of their current communications. I then performed an audit of their current database, and then I started implementing the base.

Laying the foundation, making sure thank you letters went out, making sure, you know, we were interacting with our donors, getting a monthly newsletter out and starting to build and cultivate our relationship with our donors. That way. I also wrote a letter to all of our foundation partners as well, introducing myself and asking them to sit down for a phone call.

And I also interviewed every single person on the staff. So I could really understand what their role was in the organization as well. And kind of start off our relationship on the right foot.

Kimberly: What do you think as, as you did, that was the most helpful to you?

Brittany: So the way I approach fundraising and development is through storytelling.

I think that’s probably one of the most important tasks. I felt it was most helpful to get to know all of the boots on the ground leadership with our organization, because they’ve not only created Dorothy Day House, but they received services from Dorothy Day House before we were an incorporated nonprofit in some cases.

So learning about them and their stories helped me kind of piece together our case.

Kimberly: Let’s step backwards for a minute into just your history, because you have had other roles in fundraising. So share a little bit with our audience about first. Why, why fundraise and do you know nonprofit communications?

Some people run, they run far away from wanting to be fundraisers. They find it completely scary. And here you are going, raising your hand going, yes, I want to do this. So how did all that happen?

Brittany: I kind of came into existence, wanting to help people. I’ve always been a person that’s thrived on connections and stories and telling stories and connecting with people through that. And I think my first fundraiser I put together when I was 10 years old. Wow, 10

Kimberly: years old. And what did you do? It

Brittany: was for the world wildlife fund. I think I had seen something on the television about koalas or sea creatures or something. I barely even remember what specifically drove me to that, but I wanted to help and I wanted to make a difference for someone and that kind of stuck with me.

I’ve never really worked for a for-profit organization. My first job was in a non. So I was working with one-on-one with patients assessing their nutritional needs. as I think it used to be called the candy store.

It’s a wonderful place to start as well because you really get to know people at times when they may be at their worst and it really helps you understand the magnitude of what small things can matter in a person’s life, particularly when they’re ill or in.

Brittany: It’s an exercise in building empathy. And I think that’s a big part of what we do in fundraising. And, you know, I worked there for six years and I didn’t know where I wanted to go next. I knew I didn’t want to keep working in food service, but I wanted to continue working in a service profession. I was friends with a person who knew about the AmeriCorps program.

So I signed up and I became an AmeriCorps Vista at a disaster relief organization that was near my hometown. And my position was as a special events coordinator. And that was like my first actual development and communications role. So I was handling marketing and I was handling, you know, event organization and getting that together and fundraisers.

So after my contract ran out, I had formed some very strong relationships with some individuals that had helped me put together a music festival. And one of them happened to know the GM of a local radio station. They hired me and then, um, Former local hosts and pretty sir of morning edition in association with MTR wanted to leave because he was finishing a book.

He was writing So I took over for that host and I was still in need of like a full-time position because it was only part-time work. So I ended up becoming the development associate at an environmental, not. And I worked both of those jobs for about two years before I completely, and I wasn’t sure, I think every fundraiser comes to a fork in the road where you can’t decide if you want to stay or if you’re just burned out or, you know, if this is the right field for you.

So I came to that fork and I w and I decided I wanted to take a year off to work in commercial sales. Because I had been told it’s very similar and I was told that I might have a knack for it. So I was like, you know what, why not? And after about a year of working in sales. I realized that I am a cost-based person and I wasn’t fulfilled. And I didn’t, I didn’t feel passionate about what I was doing.

And I think that’s what really makes a great sales person. Right. You have to be motivated by money and I’m just. Wired that way. so I decided to get back into nonprofits, but I knew I specifically wanted to work for a human service organization. So I did a quick Google search and it was like kismet.

Um, my previous organization, I started working for St. Vincent DePaul. And I went in for an interview and I became their development and communications associate. And I had held that job until the Coronavirus hit and then I was laid off. And without any sort of idea of whether or not I would be coming back, I started applying for other human services organizations, and that’s when I came across the job listing for Dorothy Day House.

So it was, it was really kismet. Um, I made up my mind that I wanted to stay in fundraising and particularly with direct human services and along comes. This perfect job. And now I’m sitting here talking to you and I get to do what I love to do every single.

Kimberly: Amazing what an incredible journey you’ve been on.

but I’d really like to kind of dive into this a little bit more. There were a lot of people who lost their jobs last year at nonprofits because of the pandemic, because of the drastic loss and funding that occurred. Can you give us just a personal view of it?

Brittany: Yeah. At first I was really freaked out and. I didn’t know what to do. And I was concerned of course, about like, what, what does unemployment look like? I’ve never been on unemployment. So getting through that first couple of weeks was a little tough for me, but, you know, I consider myself to be a very spiritual person.

So after about three weeks of worrying, I decided to let the universe just take over and to trust that whatever is going to happen is meant for me. And if something doesn’t happen for me, That’s fine. It wasn’t meant for me. and that’s what really got me through. I did end up getting my job back briefly.

So when I came back on it, it was interesting because I had only been back for about a month and I got the offer from Dorothy Day House. But I also, that came with a feeling of guilt.

I felt almost like I had like survivor’s guilt because here I was. Not only with a job, but with a new job offer. And I just saw so much suffering that other people were dealing with. So that took me a while to kind of come to terms with, and to kind of use that as motivation to continue advocating for the individuals who Dorothy Day House helps on a daily basis.

Kimberly: And incredible story and a wonderful way and perspective to look at it.

As you see those positive things and stepped into this new role, What advice would you give people who are either going through something similar now there’s fear of loss of their job, or there’s just conflict over what they should do next. What advice would you give?

Brittany: It depends. I mean,

Some people are in different places in their life than others. I know that when I lost my job, I did not have anything to fall back on. So there was no, there was no safety net, um, which is terrible.

And I really sympathize with that. So I guess my advice would be to reach out to the people that you’re closest with and to reach out to those families. You know, a lot of our social service organizations, we talk about, um, how we’re like a family. And I think that’s really important to keep in mind.

Before people would, you know, maybe go to their churches. They would go to their families for help. But at social services organizations, everyone’s a part of our family. So if someone comes to us for help, we’re going to help them. And you don’t have to be afraid or go through it by yourself.

Kimberly: We’ve talked a little bit about how you’ve gotten started. We’ve talked a little bit about your new role. Let’s step in for a couple minutes about how you juggle fundraising and doing communications, because that can be a bit of a ying yang, right? It’s got a push pool because the communications piece is, is all the time. And so is fundraising. How are you managing that dual role, which you’ve had before? And what advice can you give?

Brittany: I think because I’ve been in this dual role as mentioned for so long, I don’t view them as separate from each other. I view them as all the same because you can’t really have an effective fundraising plan without an effective communications plan. They’re deeply intertwined from my perspective.

So the advice that I would give is to kind of look at it like its own art form. There is a lot of time, man. Involved. And it does get a little bit overwhelming at times, but at the end of the day, people give to people and we have to keep that in mind. It’s all about relationships and it’s all. And you know, what’s the cornerstone of a good relationship.

Communication and communicating with each other and making sure that we’re keeping people informed and letting our don’t even our donors know that we’re there for them. One of the initiatives that I’m doing right now is I’m handwriting cards to all of our lapsed donors, just to ask how they’re doing and to see how this past year has been for them to talk about.


Kimberly: like, um, just some practical insight for our listeners around the social side of things. How often are you posting on social and how do you blend in the soft asks or the notice of need among the other things that you are posting about? What does that, strategy

Brittany: like. Dorothy Day House didn’t have a social media presence until it came on.

So, so last

Kimberly: year, all of a sudden, here we go. Right. And are you using, so what platforms are you

Brittany: using? And now we’re on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Those are our big view. I think that would be my first part of practical advice is to just see where most of your audiences, most of the time, for most nonprofits, it’s going to be Facebook and Instagram.

And the way we’ve kind of blended the soft asks versus the hardest tasks is showing and not telling, showing the amount of support that we’re getting through in kind donations and donations of food of clothing, and saying thank you to our donors through our social media posts and telling stories.

Those are. I wouldn’t say they’re hard ass, but sort of media masks to tell the stories of the people that they’re helping by donating to us and making a point to really empower our donors, to learn more about our organization and our financials by talking about our GuideStar platinum badge. And they look for also word of mouth and reviews and they go on Google business and they look at the reviews you’re getting.

So, but initiatives that we’ve recently launched is getting volunteers to share their positive experiences with us. We live in a digital world now, and there’s a lot of information out there and people are really making informed choices about what charities they get involved with and, you know, the best advocates for any non-profit is always going to be your board and your volunteers.

So that’s been a, that’s been a pretty big push for us in these recent months.

Kimberly: And when you say push, is it to have them following you on social or is it providing them with some talking points that they can share with others? What does that engagement and action oriented focus look like

Brittany: So I’m, this is, this is the second year of building another layer of the foundation, right?

So our goal is to get more volunteer engagement overall, by getting them to follow us. And by getting them to share their positive experiences through reviews, which we have, I think every organization has this. We have a level of volunteers that are very, that are like hyper engaged and they already posted all of their reviews for us.

And then we have new volunteers that we’re still cultivating that relationship with and really bonding with them still. And then the next step of course, would be to give them talking points and to empower them in other ways, once they feel comfortable working with.

Kimberly: As you think about the future of fundraising and the next three years, there’s two pieces.

There’s one, what you want to accomplish that that’s still, you know, building and growing your new fundraising communications department and role for the organization. And then there’s, what’s just happening in fundraising. And what the future of fundraising looks like. Can you share for us what you envision?

All of that be.

Brittany: We’re on an interesting path because of the COVID crisis. Right. So are we ever going to have, um, just entirely in-person events? Um, again, what does that look like for people that feel safe and what does it look like to have ongoing virtual events? I mean, in theory, that does open us up to have larger events with people that are across the country.

I’ve attended a few galas online in New York and New Jersey. So that’s a very exciting aspect because it is the unknown and it’s something that we’ll be able to navigate pretty well, I think. And I also think that. We’re really energized by seeing this crisis and seeing so much suffering. It inspired them to give back and to get involved and to volunteer and to support organizations that are helping people.

I saw on the news quite a few times in the past year, people starting their own food pantries out of their garages. That’s incredible. That’s inspiring. And that’s, I mean, there’s an incredible amount of hope. I think that is going to kind of boy fundraising through the next few. I

Kimberly: know that there are people listening who would love to learn more about your organization, the Dorothy Day House Berkeley.

And we’d love to know how to connect with you. Can you share your contact information and how they can reach?

Brittany: So I’m happy to receive calls or texts. My phone number is (518) 705-6003. My email is [email protected] and. Dorothy Day House’s website is dorothydayhouseberkeley.org.

Kimberly: Now it’s time for the state of the sector brought to you by network.

For good. The nonprofit sector was shaken by the pandemic in early 2020. And Britt was one of the many unfortunate casualties who unexpectedly lost their jobs. It was a scary experience for many, and according to the Johns Hopkins center for civil society studies prior to the pandemic, non-profits accounted for at least 12 and a half million total jobs in the UK.

During the first three months of the pandemic, March through may 20, 20 nonprofit organizations lost an estimated 1.6 million of those jobs, which was a 13.2% reduction. So many people, families and organizations were affected. You may wonder what’s happening now. The Johns Hopkins center for civil society studies produces a monthly COVID-19 jobs.

So since June, 2020, and now running through September, 2021, non-profits have recovered approximately 66% of the jobs recorded as lost in May, 2020. The center for civil society studies predicts that it will take the sector just over a year to return to its pre pandemic level of impact.

Kimberly: And let’s hope that that happens. Let’s also talk about the sectors that are most effected by these staff reductions. The healthcare sector is for. And then comes educational services, both having lost large numbers and portions of their staff. Third up is social assistance organizations. And then fourth comes the grouping of arts entertainment and recreation organizations.

And then the final group in this. Religious grantmaking, civic and professional organizations, social assistance. And then that grouping of arts entertainment and recreation organizations are actually seeing trends up in hiring. And that’s really encouraging is it’s also encouraging to see nonprofits recovering and that there is hope ahead.

So as you consider what’s next for yourself and for your organization, Do you consider the need to fundraise right now, fundraising helps organizations keep those jobs and be ready for the next thing that’s going to be coming their way, whatever it is,

And our research at network for good has shown that those organizations have kept their foot on the gas at the start of the pandemic, and then actively fundraised ever since. Have really had better fundraising outcomes than those who didn’t being proactive, continuing to make the ask. No matter how tiring it is is essential for that sustainable.

to wrap up this episode, what are the three things that you need to take away from this? Let’s go one. When you are just starting in your position, reach out to those around you and ask. Learn about all of the different stakeholders in your organization and listen to their ideas. And if you’ve been at your organization for awhile, then I ask you, when was the last time you did.

Kimberly: Reach out to your stakeholders and really get a sense of what they think about the organization, what they love about it, what could be changed? It might be time to hear those voices again, too. You can’t have effective fundraising without effective communication. Pure. And three, when it comes to digital engagement show, don’t tell yes.

Yes you can. I’m Kimberly. See you next time on accidental fundraiser and be sure to follow along wherever you get your audio.

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