How to Fund a Large-Scale Project

Peter and the sign he painted

Here's a column Boneshaker wrote up to pass on some lessons we learned (sometimes the hard way) in our fundraising process. It was published in Profane Existence and the Zinefest group zine. Enjoy!

So you have a bigger-scale DIY project idea and you know it will be awesome. But you need to raise a bunch of cash in a fucked up economy that is making people less likely to donate to cool things.

1. Write a plan. Even if your project isn't a traditional business, it's worth taking a look at the free templates online for writing a business plan. They can be adapted as needed. SCORE, a free small business mentoring program, has good ones that include spreadsheets for making precise budgets and projections. Banks often like to glance at these before they even bother reading all your grandiose plans!

Once you have something written, have people read it. The grandfather of one of our collective members (Maggie) was a SCORE mentor, so he gave us a lot of advice on shaping our wording to language bank people can understand. We also got some "real talk" from another business development counselor (who was not the only advisor to think our plan odd ... "You are all volunteer? It's a 7-person collective? You don't plan on making money?"). It was a bitter pill to swallow, but he was the first person to tell us that we would need to revise our original plan. But he did appreciate that we made a very CONSERVATIVE budget. Don't overestimate how much you will make, and don't underestimate how much you need to raise and/or borrow.

2. Make a list of what you need to make your project a success. What are you willing to compromise on? What won't you compromise on? Know how much money you absolutely need to retain your vision -- and don't try to start if you haven't met your goal. It's a path to failure. (Obviously, keep records of who has donated what so you can refund or partially refund their money if the project never comes to fruition. You don't need to mention this possibility to the donors, though.)

3. Think about how talk to potential donors. This is a big one. It's easy to email or Facebook your friends a general plea. Try to talk in person or on the phone with potential donors.

When you talk to these potential donors, assume support. Thank them in advance for whatever they are able to do, but if you sense hesitation, don't push. Be real; if you are, your passion will show through, and people will want to help make it happen. Just make sure to ASK. Even if you throw out a ridiculously large suggested donation at first, just to test the waters. You never know!

Prepare for these conversations in advance: anticipate questions, tailor your discussion points to what you think might be most appealing to them, and PRACTICE, even if it makes you feel like a loser. Also, figure out how to summarize your project in one or two sentences. Be able to explain it quickly and clearly.

4. Turn supporters into participants. People are more likely to give if they have a personal investment in it. Think of ways your donors can become participants, have a lasting impact on the project. If it is membership, what does that mean? At Boneshaker, we created a program called the "Skeleton Crew," for those who donated over $250. They get to choose a book that they love and we promise to forever stock the book on our shelves. They literally make up the skeleton of our store.

5. Try different tactics - when you've tapped your audience out on one fundraiser, try a new method. If you need to raise $10,000, try dividing it into smaller chunks and use different methods for each chunk. Think of your different audiences and what would appeal to them. Be creative with your fundraising ideas; clever fundraisers can help raise awareness for your project as well, so don't forget to alert the media. When we had tapped our friends and family, we started a Kickstarter project. With a new tool that created a hard deadline, it gave a new push. We started getting donors who none of us actually knew!

When standard fundraising wasn't enough, we had a big event with a silent auction, a catered dinner, beer tasting and silent auction. It was a fun night, and we raised quite a bit of money -- but remember to balance the stress of organizing a large event with how much it will benefit you. Keep it simple, and make sure it will be worth your while.

6. Some projects may require loans in addition to donations. Instead of wasting time (and money) at the bank, go back to your more generous donors, and offer them an opportunity to invest. We offered lenders a decent return on their loan, and could guarantee they could get their money back out if everything went south. In the end, it felt really good that our project was funded almost entirely by community members.

Another option to consider is microlending; this may require an individual to present their credit score and put their name on the line. Similarly, credit cards are also an option, though the interest rates are not desirable. They are one of the easiest ways to get cash flow for a new business, but as with any loan situation, have a plan for how you will pay it off.

Don't lose site of your goal, and always remember to thank your donors often!