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How to Fundraise for Social or Human Service Nonprofit Organizations

April 25, 2023 (7 min read)
Donations for human services fundraising

When most people think about nonprofits, they’re thinking about social or human services nonprofits—food banks, shelters, family services and other organizations that help meet basic human needs and build a more equitable society. While some are large and well-funded, many are so consumed by their daily responsibilities that raising awareness and donations becomes a second thought. How can you research donors when there’s a line of people outside, waiting for their breakfast? How do you plan a massive fundraising gala, complete with music performances and a silent auction, when you’re helping a family in crisis?

It can feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to provide essential services to your community and raise funds for the organization. Thankfully we’ve worked with countless social and human services nonprofits over the years, and we pride ourselves in making this essential task easier. We’ve put together our top tips for human services nonprofit fundraising—and how tools like Nexis for Development Professionals can make it easier.

How to fundraise for social or human services nonprofit organizations

If you’re at a human services nonprofit, you’re already doing incredible, selfless work. Fundraising for your cause means understanding your financial needs, building relationships with individual and corporate donors, applying for grants and reinvesting in your community year after year.

Understand your nonprofit's funding needs

Every nonprofit organization is different. Before you can effectively approach prospective donors, you must understand your daily, weekly and yearly expenses. When figuring out your costs, be sure to include personnel, materials, supplies, rent or mortgage payments, events and marketing.

Once you have a strong sense of what it takes to meet your budget, consider your long-term goals. Are you interested in building a community center? Hiring a publicist or director of marketing? If you’re a day shelter, do you want to eventually have overnight housing? Or would you rather expand your reach so you can serve 50+ more people a day?

Understanding your current budget is crucial. But if you want to grow your organization, you’ll have to know the costs of future goals and budget to reach them.

Research individual donors, corporate partners, or grants for social service organizations

When working for a human service nonprofit, consider seeking funding from individuals, corporations and through grants.

If you’re looking for individual donors, using a donor research tool like Nexis® for Development Professionals can help identify prospective donors based on interests, region and biographies, and assess their capacity to give.

For larger asks, finding a corporate partner is often the more strategic route. The good news: corporate social responsibility is on the rise. Matching gifts and volunteer grants are popular ways for companies to engage with their community. But finding a corporate partner might feel like another item on your never-ending to-do list. How will you find the time to research companies passionate about your cause?

Many nonprofits start by tapping their networks. Board members often have connections to decision makers and corporate leaders and can facilitate introductions. But once you’ve networked through the traditional means, strategic cold outreach is sometimes the best way to expand your contacts. You’ll want to personalize your approach, be laser focused with your message and discuss the other brands and companies you’ve successfully partnered with. It’s often best to reach out to leaders in marketing, publicity or corporate responsibility, though for smaller companies the founder or owner might be appropriate.

Grants can provide a reliable source of funding, and foundations are often looking for specific nonprofits to give to. For example, the California Community Foundation is committed to creating systemic change in Los Angeles county and offers competitive grants to nonprofits there. If you need a good starting spot, the US Department of Health and Human Services is the largest grant-making agency in the country, and it is an invaluable resource for finding and applying for grants.

MORE: Top 4 Features Every Donor Research Software Needs

Build strong relationships with donors

It’s more cost effective to maintain relationships with current donors and volunteers than to attract new ones. Nonprofit donor retention rates tend to hover between 40 and 45% year over year, and part of your growth strategy should be focused on improving this number.

Customize the giving ladder on your online donation form to turn one-time donors into recurring donors. Consider smaller recurring donations. For example, if you’re a food bank, you may want to give donors the option of contributing weekly or monthly to cover the cost of a meal (or five). Giving $10 a month for 12 months might feel more manageable to people than a larger one-time donation.

When looking for prospective donors, it’s crucial to find people who are passionate about your mission and values. Partnering with enthusiastic champions of your cause will help with word of mouth and outreach, which will only increase your donor pool.  

MORE: Why nonprofits should treat Gen-Z donors as an investment

Leverage your volunteer community

Volunteers are another essential part of every social or human services nonprofit. They provide invaluable daily support to the organization, can cover work that would otherwise come out of the budget and may be your greatest asset in raising awareness for your cause.

Volunteers feel passionate about the work you do and have already invested a great deal of time and energy supporting the organization. They can tell stories, provide insight into the overall mission and operations, and speak on behalf of the more vulnerable population you’re serving.

Most importantly, look for every opportunity to express your gratitude for both donors and volunteers alike. Write thank you notes, make phone calls and host volunteer appreciation nights. Fundraising is about building and maintaining relationships--expressing your gratitude can go a long way in growing and strengthening your organization for years to come.

Use technology to your advantage

Many people want to help the unhoused, feed the hungry or mentor a child in need, but they don’t know where to start. Sharing your organization’s daily activities on Instagram, Facebook or TikTok is a great way to inspire prospective donors and volunteers alike.

Make a reel of volunteers serving hot meals or post poems from a writing class for incarcerated youth. Whenever possible, sharing personal narratives is the most effective way to show your impact (as long as you have permission). What does a hot meal mean to someone who is unhoused? How did free tutoring help students in underserved communities?

Whether you’re posting on Instagram, Facebook or TikTok, all posts should direct people back to your website, where they can easily donate to your cause. Create a simple, eye-catching online donation form, and be certain it’s prominently displayed in both mobile and desktop formats.

MORE: Top 3 Ways to Improve Donor Engagement and Boost Donations

Host fundraising events for social and human service nonprofits

There’s a reason galas are popular fundraising events: they’re effective. Donors and volunteers love dressing up and spending a night celebrating a shared cause.

In terms of timing, March and October-December are the best months for these events. When considering the program, make sure to showcase the community you serve. For example, during the gala, display artwork created by unhoused youth or have a former inmate speak about the impact your mentoring program had on his life after release. Consider having a performance by a celebrity or musician impacted by this issue. Your mission and values should be top of mind during every stage of the planning process.  

Whether you plan a fancy gala or an early morning 5K run, always follow-up and thank donors for participating. Simply expressing how much it meant to you that they attended, bid on items, or helped with the planning, will go a long way in maintaining these vital relationships.

Measure success and adjust fundraising strategies accordingly

After holding a fundraising event or initiative, always consider your return on investment (ROI), meaning how much it cost against how much it raised. Once you’re certain it was profitable, track your growth rate to see if the ROI is increasing each year.

Other factors you may way to consider are donor retention rate (in this instance, how many donors attend year after year) and return on mission (ROM), meaning if you brought your community together, increased awareness and inspired supporters to deepen their engagement. 

If you aren’t satisfied with the ROI or ROM for your event, it may mean experimenting with different types of fundraisers, maybe one that’s better suited to your network. Your organization’s volunteers could prove an invaluable resource in giving you honest feedback and helping you brainstorm your next event.

MORE: Why your nonprofit needs to be talking about ESG

How to research donors for your nonprofit human service or social service organization

When so much time and energy is dedicated to serving your community, finding the right donors can feel like an insurmountable task. Using an online research tool like Nexis® for Development Professionals will help you identify prospective donors who are aligned with your passion and interests.

We offer a streamlined user experience to bring key information about a donor all into one place. Schedule your free demo today.