What LEGO-Building Has Taught Me About Fundraising

I was building Legos with my preschooler yesterday. Usually we build without looking at the instructions, but this time we knew we had all of the pieces to build a miniature typewriter that had been modeled on the box. Huzzah! Or did we have all the pieces? A few minutes of looking through the box for one particular piece, I began to think that some of the pieces had been misplaced, and that we were not going to find them. One failure to find the right piece began to color my feelings of finding other pieces. I spent a good five minutes looking for two very small pieces, searching with the unintended attitude that I would not find what I was looking to find. News flash - I didn't find it.

After a moment, I stopped what I was doing and reconsidered - what if I took a moment and decided I would find the missing pieces? I began to focus more on my task. I developed a strategy of dividing the container into quadrants and searching each with a more thorough eye. Quickly, I found one of the pieces! The typewriter was almost finished...just one more piece to go! Did I find it? No! But that typewriter is now unique because it has one blue key that replaced the would-be grey key that is still missing.

...And how does this relate to fundraising and nonprofits?

Sometimes finding funding for a nonprofit feels like searching for a tiny Lego piece in a box of tiny Lego pieces. It's easy to feel that it will be impossible to find a good fit, especially for projects that aren't currently related to the latest funding trends. I've worked with several organizations that have likened their funding attractiveness to that of tax preparers or waste management services - necessary, but not sexy. But sometimes we forget that fundraising is like Lego-building. We have to start somewhere, and there will be a piece that fits.

1. Start out with the mindset that you will find success

Nonprofits often need money to support unattractive projects. We may initially hear a project and think, "No one will fund that!" Maybe they will and maybe they won't, but I find that sometimes how someone talks about a project is the largest barrier to the project's success. It's important to step back and think about 'What will those funds do to support the mission?" "How can they impact the population served?" "If the organization secured these funds, what more could they do?" Look at the problem from multiple perspectives, ask good questions, and keep in mind that there are many people in the world with all kinds of interests.

2. Make a realistic plan and have a good idea of where to look

Realistic may mean looking at who has funded projects similar to yours in the area and identifying how your organization may fit within pre-existing community resources and already-identified community needs. I find that talking to prospective funders about their giving priorities, communicating your organization's goals, and asking for recommendations for other funders to meet with is a great place to start.

3. Recognize that the same fundraising strategy will not work for every project

It's easy to feel defeated when you've done your due diligence and the feedback you get from prospective funders is: "We're not interested" or "We've already donated to a similar organization." Recognize that sometimes you have to use Lego pieces from other projects or do some rebuilding. Can you collaborate with a similar organization? What can you bring to the project that another organization may need? Is this a project that is important enough for you to secure funding through a more entrepreneurial or transaction-based fundraising initiative?

It's easy to say, "No, that won't work!" and then lament not having funders. Sometimes we have to try, explore and gain a better perspective for the work ahead. We may find the missing Lego exactly where we expected - or perhaps we'll step on it three days later in our barefeet. Happy building!

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