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Fundraising lessons learned

This is a follow-up to my last column about my first fundraising experience for the local Chinese school. In this column I would like to share a few lessons I have learned in the process. I hope my own experience will benefit other people, especially local school PTA volunteers who help with various school fundraising events every year.

• No fear

Most people don't like to ask others for donations. We don't feel comfortable doing that because we dread rejection. So the first step in the fundraising process is to move past our fears of rejection and learn how to ask.

"Ask and you shall receive." If you don't ask, you will never receive anything.

While we should have confidence in asking and hope for positive results, we should also be prepared for rejection. We can't expect success every time. There will be businesses that don't return calls or e-mails. That's to be expected. If we are prepared, then we will not be disappointed.

• Plan early

Doing fundraising is no small feat. It takes a lot of planning, determination and hard work to make it successful.

It takes time to contact businesses, wait for responses, write letters, pick up donations, evaluate results and incorporate the results into the final events. So you should plan and start the process as early as possible.

Big store or chain stores have more rules and procedures in place. They receive a lot of donation requests so they have to follow certain procedures in their decision making process. Some have to go through the headquarters before making decisions.

Some have monthly or quarterly limits to give away. So once they reach the set limits in the month or quarter, you have to wait for the next month or quarter.

Expect two to four weeks of lag time for big businesses.

• Start small

It is easier to do fundraising with smaller or independent businesses or stores than big or chain stores. Because they are not overwhelmed with donation requests, they are more willing to say "yes" if they do get requests.

With smaller businesses, the owners can make decisions on the spot. They don't have to follow any procedures from corporate office.

So when you start small, you are more likely to find success and gain confidence.

• Prepare a letter

Some businesses will ask you to put your request in writing and on your organization's letterhead. Some also ask for your organization's tax ID. In the letter you should state the purpose of the fundraising. Using the five W's -- Who, What, Where, Why, When -- is a good guideline to write a brief letter to the business that asks for it.

• Mutual benefit

Businesses exist to make money and be profitable. When you ask for donations, don't just say what they can do for you, but also tell them what you can do for them. It's nice for the businesses to know that you need and appreciate their support for your worthy cause, but it's more attractive for them if they know that they will benefit from their donations as well.

When I approached Atlantic Buffet for our fundraising event, I asked for something most people probably thought was impossible. Yet I was confident. I went to the meeting with the owner well-prepared.

Without even being asked, I prepared a letter. In the letter I not only stated the benefits this fundraising event would have for the local Chinese School, but more importantly, I listed more benefits this event would have for his business.

After reading my letter, the owner said "fine" without any objections or questions regarding my proposal. It was that simple. Again, "Ask and you shall receive."

I am not sure it would be that simple, had I not prepared the letter to convince him that the event would benefit his business as well.

In my brief phone conversations with other businesses, I didn't have time to say much. I only mentioned that after the event I would write a thank you note and publicly acknowledge their support through Woodbury Bulletin.

• Find a partner

For better results, involve a local business as a partner. In partnership with a local restaurant to host the event, in partnership with a local nursery to sell plants, you attract more people with less work and better results.

• Public recognition

Everyone likes a pat on the back now and then. I think when a business supports the local community and donates to your non-profit organization in the worthy cause, you should at least send a thank you letter.

In addition, a public recognition in the local newspaper is appropriate and very much appreciated. It's a great incentive for the businesses to support local community if they will be publicly acknowledged by the local community for their support.

• My big mistake

I thought I raised enough gift certificates for every family who would attend our event.

We ended up having a little more people come to the event than expected. That wasn't a problem. My mistake was I was so confident in my thinking that every family would get something that I didn't do any "quantity control."

We ended up having some families winning a prize for every family member present while very few, maybe a handful of families didn't win anything. When I found that out at the end, I felt really bad. I wish I had done something to let every family win a prize before they could win multiple prizes. Just to be "fair."

Through my first fundraising experience, I have learned a few lessons. I think I could do better next time.