The Victories and Challenges of Small Shop Fundraising

I have worked for a few “small shops” in my career. Each organization had its own quirky, wonderful, and bizarre challenges and victories.

I worked for a theatre in a building so old that the bricks on the outside were literally crumbling onto the street. I consulted for an arts space run by a billionaire. I hand-bombed turkeys and designed direct mail pieces at a hunger relief charity. I’ve seen numerous Executive and Artistic Directors come and go. I’ve worked with Boards as big as 20, as small as 6. I’ve worked in offices so small the desk chairs were back to back, and spaces connected to giant warehouses.

For those folks who haven’t felt the deep joy and incredible challenges inherent in small shop fundraising, allow me to elucidate (note: if you are a small shopper or have been in the past, please feel free to disagree or commiserate in the comments.):

  • Wearing Many Hats: there’s no room for specialists when your staff consists of four people including the accountant. Direct response? Check. Foundations? Check. Corporate? Why not. Planned Giving? We…probably aren’t doing that. Major gifts? $10,000? Woo hoo! Donation processing? Ok, I’ll do it. Tradeshows? Heavy lifting? Booking event space? Food delivery? Driving to a conference? Yep, yep, yep, and yep. And a lot more…
  • Inventing, Because Necessity, Mothers, Etc.: how can we plan an event that costs under $1,000, but is fancy enough to invite our top donors? Can you find ten cases of beer for free? We need to send a direct mail letter to our list of 500 donors, and the ED wants to sign every single letter. Can you co-ordinate that? Sure. I’ll find a way.
  • Knowing Everybody: in a small shop, you know everybody on a first name basis pretty quickly. Your Board members. The staff. Volunteers. Donors. Counsellors. Front-line workers. The Eastern European couple who run the sandwich shop downstairs. So you better learn how to be friendly!
  • Working That Dollar: see above. Yeah, I know. All charities struggle, nobody has money. But with small shops…you REALLY don’t have money. Like, you can’t afford exterminators so you have to just become friends with the rats. Or everybody brings their own tea to work. Or your direct mail piece is black and white, #10 envelope, and you print your own labels. Yeah, you learn how to be frugal.
  • Strategic Thinking: here’s a cool thing: when you are the fundraiser for a small shop, you are often give the opportunity to dream big. You can write the fundraising plan…maybe the first fundraising plan the organization has ever had! You can implement a Planned Giving strategy! You can be the first person to secure a corporate gift! You can plan for five years down the line, which for your organization might seem like a lifetime. It’s exciting!
  • Moving Like a Shark – Quick and Deadly: you can spin on a dime. One meeting and you’ve implemented email fundraising. Need to speak to your Board? Shoot them an email! Need a word with your Executive Director? Spin around in your chair! Stuff can happen quickly, and you can adapt to changes in the industry faster than anybody else.
  • Getting that Second Job: sadly, small shops just can’t pay their employees what they’re worth. When your Development Director is making $40,000 a year but working 80 hours a week, you’re probably going to lose them. Unfortunately, a lot of small shops hire fundraisers part-time, or expect people without a fundraising background to do the heavy lifting on the fundraising side. It’s a fight to get Boards to pay for fundraising costs – especially if they are new to the non-profit world. A lot of people consult for a few different small shops to make ends meet.

This is just a small sample of the joys and trials of small shop fundraising. Please feel free to add your experiences in the comments. And hey, if you work for a big organization, hire a small shopper today. They’ll work their butt off…and probably take out the trash too!

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