Developing a fundraising culture in your think tank

15 August 2017

[This article is part of a series of reflections from trainers of several capacity building activities within the OTT Consulting project: Strengthening the sustainability of ILAIPP and its members.]

Running a think tank – just like running any other organization – costs money. In the beginning you might be able to do your work with a core funding commitment or a generous grant which helps you focus on your expertise and services. After a while your think tank’s funding needs might grow, and you might not be able to cover all costs by selling services or by renewing existing funding commitments. At this point, the first voices may be heard in your think tank saying that someone should engage in fundraising to cover these growing costs, but nobody really knows where and how to start. Furthermore, asking for money has a negative connotation in many cultures and is often seen as something that has to be avoided by all means, because a think tank doesn’t want to be associated with having a beggar’s mentality.

A think tank’s perception of fundraising or, in other words, its “fundraising readiness” is what drives or blocks its ability to raise funds. And because a think tank is made up of individuals, the attitude of the board as well as of each staff member towards raising funds has an effect on the way a think tank deals with this issue. Before being able to effectively start a fundraising strategy in your think tank you have to develop a fundraising culture. As a fundraiser, I have gone through several processes to help organizations, their board, and staff develop a positive attitude towards fundraising. From my experience, I have found that the following steps can help you develop a positive fundraising culture within your organization:

1. Know that you have something unique to offer

Every think tank exists for a particular reason. It is essential that every board and staff member knows why your think tank exists, what its strengths are, and what it delivers that no one else can deliver. Try to describe what makes your think tank so special in a mission statement you can recite to anyone in 60 seconds. In this time, your audience should understand what you do and be enticed to learn more about your work. It’s not only about sharing facts – it’s also about sharing emotions. Why does the world, or your country, need the outcomes of your think tank’s work? You can also ask this the other way around: what would your country or your beneficiaries lose if your think tank ceased to exist?

2. Be proud of what you do

I assume that everyone has met people who are not convinced of their job and the company they are working for. Do you remember your first reaction to this? You were probably not motivated to do business with this person or with this company. On the other hand, you might have heard the anecdote of a cleaner at NASA who, when asked by president John F. Kennedy what his job was, responded “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” Your think tank may not be exploring new planets, but if every staff and board member is convinced of their work and proud to be working for your organization, this will surely have a positive effect on this planet and the people you deal with in your daily work.

3. See yourself as partner

Knowing that your think tank has something unique to offer and that you are proud of what you do will help shift your mindset when approaching potential funders. Do not see yourself as a poor organization in desperate need of funds. You also shouldn’t see yourself as a demanding organization convinced that the “rich guys” have to support your cause and you just have to force them to give you money. Rather, see yourself as a partner who can approach potential funders on the same level because you are convinced that you have something interesting to offer them.

4. Do not be afraid to ask

I am aware that asking for funding is the scariest step for most people, but it is something that you can learn. I would not recommend starting with a cold call to a potential funder. An easier way to learn how to ask for funds is within existing relationships with companies and individuals. These relationships don’t have to be of a financial nature. It might be that one of your Board members has a business contact he can introduce you to. If you have the opportunity to meet a potential funder don’t talk about money, but rather share your vision. After sharing this vision, ask the potential funder if they would like to be part of the next phase to achieve this vision (remember: you have something unique to offer). If you get a yes, then you can start talking about money. Don’t be afraid to get a no either, because this will happen in most cases. Don’t feel rejected, just try again!

5. Everyone is a fundraiser

Once you have developed a positive attitude towards fundraising in your think tank you will realize that fundraising will not only be the task of the person in charge of fundraising. To a certain extent, everyone in your think tank is a fundraiser. This does not mean that everyone will actively approach potential donors with a funding proposal. However, with a positive fundraising culture, everybody will realize that they might have contacts to potential funders who can be contacted by the organization.

In summary, developing a fundraising culture is a process which takes time. Once you have overcome the reservations within your think tank and say YES to fundraising you will realize that fundraising can also be fun!