The Victories and Challenges of Small Shop Fundraising

Published by Josh Bowman, CFRE on

keep-calm-and-do-it-yourself-13I 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.heavy_lifting
  • 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!

Josh Bowman, CFRE

Josh is a blogger and development professional who has consulted and worked in Vancouver, Toronto, and New York for over a decade. Josh has raised millions of dollars for theatres, hunger relief organizations, and is the current Fundraising Director for CAPE. Josh writes for the Huffington Post and the Good Men Project, and has been published online at Forbes.com, OpenFile, Gender Focus, and a variety of other blogs. He has been a speaker at the Queen's Media and Journalism Conference (QMJC), and often posts on new media, blogging, and other buzzwords. Josh is currently working on a children's book, because he is a glutton for punishment.


James M Schaffer · February 2, 2015 at 16:45

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Upton Sinclair

Social change comes from the margins of society, those willing to take the risks. The wealthy elite can use the brute force of grants and awards and influence to make things happen, but ultimately social change happens at the granular level; the powers eventually write memoirs for redemption.

One hurtful price of our work in small nonprofits is that our salaries speak to the value the powers/markets place on our work. The greatest wound comes with the realization (often, too late) that we are not able to care for your own families as well as we’d like.

The vast majority of nonprofits are small and working at street level. There are other compensations in life than money. The trick to staying brave is in valuing our own work, staying true to to what we believe to be true north, to taking great risks for something much larger than ourselves (in total obscurity) — and, as you say, working several jobs at once to pay the bills.

You write well, you know about what you write, and you bring a light tone to the subject, which is appreciated. I’ll be following your writing here and on Twitter and HuffPost. Thanks for this post.

Kimberley Mackenzie · February 3, 2015 at 12:57

:-) Wonderful Josh! You captured the small shop experience beautifully. Especially like the recommendation for larger organization to hire the miraculous small shop fundraiser! So glad to have your voice out there! Km

Joe Matassino · February 5, 2015 at 13:40

Josh, I’ve always worked for smaller nonprofit organizations where it’s so easy to focus on the challenges and frustrations. Thank you for reminding everyone of the opportunities to dream big. You are absolutely correct. That is truly the beauty of a small shop.

Denisa Casement · February 6, 2015 at 02:45

Thanks Josh! That was spot on! Less than 3% of charities in the US have budgets over $1 million. So although most of the consultants, agencies & seminars seem to be aimed at large shops, most of us live in the world you describe. And I love it, especially moving like a strategic shark.

Although we suffer from chronically low pay, the fact is, those of us used to working in small shops can feel quite stifled by the silos & specialisation of a big charity.

I am really proud of those days that I both launched a killer DM campaign & unclogged the toilet. I believe much of the best innovation is driven by tough circumstances like limited budgets & bad plumbing.

Viva the little guys!! We change the world everyday in spite of out of date IT & broken office furniture.

Josh Bowman, CFRE · February 6, 2015 at 15:17

Hey y’all! Thanks for your thoughts.

I think there are a lot more small shoppers than gets recognized. And there’s a bit of a brain drain unfortunately, which I believe is sometimes driven by a desire for security and a reasonable salary. Yes, there are more important things than money…but we gotta eat. :)

That said, there are a lot of wonderful aspects to working with a smaller organization, and you certainly come out much more flexible for the experience.

Thanks again for the comments!

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