Maximizing Your Fundraising



With Nike Whitcomb



Editor’s Note:  With the return of Fall benefits and re-emphasis on capital campaigns comes the challenge of meeting and surpassing your fundraising goals.  Learn what it takes from Nike Whitcomb, President of Nike B. Whitcomb, Inc, who sat down with us for this most useful Q and A.



1.  About you:  Where did you grow up; did you have parents with a commitment to giving back and did you observe this at an early age?

I grew up in a suburb just outside St. Louis – Affton, Missouri. My dad was an artist with Ralston Purina and my mom worked for the Episcopal Presbyterian Foundation – and actually ended up as its Executive Director. As was the case in those days, my mom was involved with PTA, and we were regular church-goers – so we were always being encouraged to help others.


2.  How did you get involved in fundraising?  What was its appeal?

My sorority did fundraisers for various charities as part of our outreach during college – and raised money for our school – Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. My main interests at that time were music, writing, and theatre.  I was fortunate to sing with several groups, perform in several musicals, and also edit the weekly student newspaper.  So a very eclectic set of activities.

After graduation, I moved to Springfield, IL, where someone told me that United Cerebral Palsy was looking for an Executive Secretary (the equivalent of an Executive Director nowadays).  I was hired to run their operation and after I was hired was told I had to raise the money to keep the doors open.  Luckily, they had fundraising manuals explaining how to do Door-to-Door campaigns as well as ‘tag days’ on street corners.  I LOVED the excitement of raising money for a good cause – and was delighted that we raised all the money for the annual budget in the first 3 months that I was there!

Since then, I’ve worked with about 500 nonprofits across the entire spectrum of philanthropy – helping them raise half a billion in funds over my 50-year career.


3.  How can a professional or a volunteer best convey the mission of the organization?

First, YOU have to believe in the mission – and it has to be something that you also are willing to support financially.  If that is not how you feel about a cause, it’s the wrong cause for you.

Second, learn everything you can about the cause and what it is doing to change things – cure a disease; provide educational opportunities; feed the hungry, nurture the spirit, save endangered species, support the arts.  You need to be a knowledgeable spokesperson if you are going to talk to others about contributing to a cause.

Third, be a good listener.  The better you are at listening, the easier it is to craft a message to the potential donor that will appeal to them.

Fourth: Say THANK YOU.  I was talking to a friend at church the other day, and he told me how angry it makes him when he is either NOT thanked, or thanked in such a cursory way that he feels his gift was not appreciated.  The EASIEST donors to get to respond are the ones you already have! BUT you have to make an effort to appreciate them or they will find other causes to support! 

Fifth: keep in touch.  In the ‘old days’ before electronic media made constant contact the norm, the general rule was – contact your donors and prospects 12 times a year. Of those 12 times, 9 should be to provide updates and information; 3 should be to ask for support.  In my mind, electronic communications have become so overwhelming that a lot of people simply aren’t looking at them.  That means the personal connections are even more important.

4.  What are stumbling blocks along the way?

First: Too much information and/or inept handling of information about prospects and donors. We were working for an educational institution and were calling alumni about giving.  Within the first hour of our calls, we realized that NOTHING had been entered into the database for several months – no gifts, no updated information. It was no surprise that very few people wanted to give! The data problem had to be fixed first!

Second: When my husband passed away nearly 10 years ago, it was astounding to me how few of the organizations we supported paid any attention to the fact that he was no longer with us. I continued to get appeals from some of Chicago’s top organizations… in fact I STILL get those today.  It makes me angry that they are so careless AND, they are no longer among the groups I support.  I read the obituaries and – if I’ve had a close relationship, I send hand-written personal notes to spouses and families of their loved ones expressing my sympathy.  It isn’t about money at that point, it’s about extending a hand in comfort.  I can’t tell you how many people -women and men- have thanked me for that gesture.

Third: Keep up to date with other family relations – if there’s a divorce, a new child, a new graduate, anything of note, try to pay attention to that and send a note. 


5.  What are 5 tips (more or less) for successful fundraising.

First, know as much as you can about the cause

Then, know as much as you can about the individual, company or foundation that you are approaching. 

If it’s an individual, where does he/she live? Family? Profession? Alma Mater? What

other causes do they support?

If it’s a company, what is their business? Manufacturing, Service? Are they national, regional, local? How many employees do they have? Do they believe in philanthropy? Do they have a corporate giving program? What is the break out of employees as far as what they do?

If it’s a foundation, what are its area(s) of interest? Deadlines? Board members? Track record in terms of giving – And, if they say yes, can you ask for more support in the future?

Next, based on what you’ve learned about the potential donor and his/her/their interests, what are the one or two most likely things about your cause that will interest them?  For example, supporting a community outreach program; underwriting (a) performance (s), subsidizing the cost of instruction/ scholarship/ equipment?

Then, how do you make contact with the prospect?  IF you know them, then the direct approach is usually best; but, if not, can you approach through support staff, a family member, a mutual friend, some other connection?

Once you have set up time to be with the prospect, what will you take with you?  A statement about the cause/need; an annual report; a list of board members; a budget for the program you hope to fund;

Knowing where the meeting will happen is also helpful.  With Covid, a lot of face-to-face meetings were delayed and/or done by Zoom.  It took awhile for people to get comfortable again, but now that Covid has eased, lunches, brunches, tea all are on the table again.  I prefer to go to the place the potential donor is most comfortable. I also like to find a space that is somewhat private and quiet so that conversation is easier. AND, if you are going to be at a restaurant, try to arrange to take care of the check beforehand so there is no awkwardness at the end of your time with the prospect.

Don’t just jump right in to an ‘ask’. Instead have some opening conversation about life, work, favorite things to do, etc. so that everyone gets comfortable.  Be prepared for a ‘meandering’ conversation, but also listen for cues as to when to start talking about the cause.

AND, as I’ve already suggested, say THANK YOU!  That is such an easy thing to do, but it gets forgotten way too many times.


6.  Why are people so scared of fundraising? 

I think it’s because none of us likes to be told ‘no.’  And that’s what many people assume will happen if they ask someone else to make a contribution to a cause. BUT, if the person/entity says yes to a meeting, there is at least enough interest to expect a reasonable chance to get a positive response. 


7.  What are the skill sets or motivation that one needs to be a good fundraiser?

Wanting to change things is a prime motivator for me. Whether that means teaching young children how to play an instrument; providing more opportunity for disadvantaged young people to attend college; helping women who are victims of domestic violence to get away and start over; funding a new theatrical presentation; finding a cure for a disease; or something else, you have to want to make that change.

I also think you have to be a good listener.  I am amazed how much information people share with me.  Part of that is because I am ‘leaning in’ to hear what they have to say; another part of that is that I have reputation for keeping people’s confidences safe.


8.  What are some stories that you might share of your successful work and places or people where you see that you made a difference?

I was interviewing a man on behalf of my university – Millikin.  He had photos on the wall of some farm equipment. I asked him about the photos and he explained that he had invented that equipment -fertilizer spreaders – that virtually transformed agriculture.  Once he started reminiscing, he shared his love of music and gave me a mini ‘concert’ on his electric organ.  Three months later he and his wife gave $9 million to fund a major expansion of the music department.


Millikin University


Perkinson School of Music

A couple I know were regular supporters of causes that impacted children – especially with the arts.  I invited them to attend a concert given by students at VanderCook College of Music.  While we were at the concert, board members came by to say hello and share more conversation about the music programs for outreach in the surrounding neighborhoods.  That led to more visits, and now this couple are regular supporters of outreach programs at the school.


The One City Program at VanderCook

A young girl learning the violin at VanderCook

Visceral Dance in Chicago was looking for a new home,

and found it – on North Rockwell.  We helped them raise about $2 Million for the new facility, including the Ann Barzel performance space, named after a long-time dance critic in Chicago.


9.  What are trends and changes in fundraising today?

A lot of people thought that giving would decline significantly during Covid, but it did not.  It grew at a slower pace, but it still grew.  In fact, in 2020, the most recent year for which we have statistics, more than $471 BILLION was given away in this country, up 5.1% over the previous year (3.8% with inflation adjustment). The stock market’s growth in recent years and rebound at the end of 2020 meant that foundations and wealthy individuals were well-positioned to respond to the challenges of 2020. It remains to be seen how market fluctuations this year will impact giving, but early indications are positive.

The early indicators for 2022 are positive.  Contributions ARE being made. But it is more important than ever to be in touch with donors and prospects to share your organization’s success and the need for continuing support.


10.  What are your predictions for fundraising in the future?

People in our country continue to respond positively to charitable bequests. There is a significant transfer of wealth taking place as the parents of those who are currently in their 60’s and 70’s pass away. Given the excellent example set by those people, it is not only my hope but my conviction that this will continue.

Another key to the future is the way philanthropy has evolved to an area where women are taking the lead.  When I began my career, the statistics were 90% of fundraisers were men, 10% were women. That has switched to about 90% female and 10% male.  There are also many, many more people of other races and ethnicities engaged in philanthropy today – an indication of how our world has evolved.  And a predictor of more positive change to come!