03/11/2013 09:27 am ET Updated May 11, 2013

Nonprofit ABFs: Always Be Fundraising

Listening, rather than always talking online can yield some great results and introductions. Our communications team prides itself on getting the word out and how often our information is retweeted and liked. Then, there was the time we watched and listened to a comment made by a member about our Chinatown Y pool. She had a large following and the team started doing their homework. As it turns out she is a well-known, influential leader in the technology field.

From homework we moved to requesting the chance to meet. We did, and now she is becoming a Y member connected to our greater mission and a strong advocate for our work in communities throughout New York.

What's the broader lesson here for nonprofits? The transformation from tweeter to good friend was and is my fundamental fundraising philosophy: every interaction can lead to a potential contribution and/or more introductions. More than that, every individual whose life has been positively touched by an organization has a story to tell and a potential personal connection to one person, program, or service. Our job as fundraisers is to watch, listen, and identify those stories. In my role at the Y, I strive to help people create the change they want to see in their communities, and we do that by listening.

In today's fundraising landscape, social media is the new frontier for listening to our members and identifying those individual ties. Similar to social media, fundraising never sleeps. It's an ongoing effort and an art to be practiced and nurtured throughout all levels of an organization, not just the fundraising department. Asking someone to give time or money to an organization is, first and foremost, personal, so the ability to root out a member's individual connection to the organization is paramount.

Successful fundraising is rarely about the mechanics of a given program. Again, it's about the human interest stories that illustrate a program's impact and touch us on an emotional level. This can be brought about by sharing stories like that of Joey from the Bronx, who earned a swimming scholarship from his college because he had access to swim lessons at the Y as a kid. As fundraisers, it's our job as ambassadors to identify a potential donor and to find the story that resonates with his/her own experience.

So what are the steps that help transform a tweeter to a patron? (1) identify a potential donor, (2) get to know what makes him/her tick, and (3) tell the story the donor cares to hear. But as important as good listening is, it's not enough on its own. The final key ingredient is all about building connections with donors and potential donors with a focus on the durability of those relationships.

We say that even the smallest contribution counts, but it's not just about pennies adding up. Every donation starts with a donor, and at the end of the day it's that network of ambassadors that really gives momentum to a campaign. People don't give to brochures--they give to a person. And the more people we inspire to live our organization's brand promise, the more powerful our fundraising efforts -- and, in the end, our programs -- can be.

So, if you're in the philanthropic or nonprofit world, remember your "ABFs" (or, "always be fundraising"). If you're attentive, every interaction is a lead: if you're always listening, you'll always be fundraising.

-- Gary Laermer is Senior Vice President & Chief Development Officer of the YMCA of Greater New York