Software Freedom Conservancy

Fundraising Remotely: Increasing your Chances of Success

by Deb Nicholson on April 2, 2020

Controlling the technology we use is especially important during "lockdown" because non-digital work and communication options may no longer be available or safe. Some free software projects are serving exponentially more users during this pandemic than they've ever previously seen. Meanwhile, people are depending more heavily on their remote gigs, so it's essential that we keep paying the developers who maintain and improve the software we're all using. Conservancy wants to make sure that freedom-respecting, community-driven software projects can keep up with demand and continue their important work.

Many of us in tech are lucky that we can work remotely, without too much being very different on the work side. However, many projects will need to adjust their fundraising. This year's season of casual, in-person at-a-conference funding asks just won't be happening. We'll be doing all of our corporate and large donor fundraising via phone, video call or email for at least the next several months.

One of the things about in-person conversations is that you get plenty of instant feedback. How excited is the donor? Are they glad that they've made time to talk to you? Does the person you're talking to feel personally invested in your software project or is this purely a business decision? (Hint: it's often a bit of both.) Without the rapport that's easy to establish in-person, you'll want to take a minute to carefully craft your email communications. It's a good idea to get on the phone or do a video call if you can, but people may be reluctant to commit their time to be asked for money. We've written up some tips to help community-driven free software projects with their remote fundraising.

Be mindful of the circumstances of the person you are contacting. Don't start your fundraising conversation as if everything were normal right now. You can't copy and paste last year's ask and expect it to be successful. Most people's lives have been profoundly affected by the pandemic and people could be dealing with sick relatives or friends, immuno-compromised co-workers who are worried about groceries or vague, but pervasive anticipatory grief. More than ever, you'll need to be courteous with people's time, be gracious about rescheduling and be prepared to hear, "Please, just put it into an email." You'll want to make your fundraising requests efficient and answer the questions your donors have -- before they have to ask them. You'll want to acknowledge that we're all going through a difficult time before you talk about anything else.

What is the donor getting out of donating?

Imagine yourself in their shoes. If you don't know the answer to this, you'll need to find out. Perhaps another person associated with your project knows your contact or used to work at the company you're approaching. Take a look at what else the company or donor has funded and how they talk about their recent donations. Maybe they've even told you themselves when they donated to your project last, saying something like, "We're always happy to help keep Linux secure. Keep up the good work!"

Is it very clear how your project will be spending its income this year?

A financial plan that is tightly coupled with your technical roadmap makes things much clearer for potential donors. If you had to explain two or three things that you are prioritizing in the coming year at say, a virtual high school reunion, how would you phrase it? You wouldn't list the libraries and discuss all the things you don't like about your API. You'd say something like, "This year we're increasing interoperability and working to better support folks running smaller instances of Foo." Then tell the donor that you're going to be paying developers to work on those two big picture goals.

Is there something you're working on that is very timely?

For example, Etherpad's collaborative editing tools now include video, so Etherpad hosts may need more tools to help them support the increased bandwidth for their all-remote teams. Is increased capacity or internationalization illuminating the need for different security measures or more translating? Whenever something very timely is part of your roadmap, be sure to mention it to your potential donors so they can choose to donate now, when their support is likely to be the most impactful.

What if some of your use cases and upcoming plans are really cool, but extremely detailed?

Make a blog post about the exciting, but wonkier, bits of what you're doing. You can easily link to these posts for donors that do want more detail. You might even find that these public posts help you find some modest donors or contributors who are interested in helping with some really specific aspects of your work. Documenting your technical challenges could help another free software project down the road with a similar conundrum. Pay it forward!

The short version is that you want to think about your work from a potential donor's perspective when you are asking for money. Be respectful of people's time and mindful of the things they may be dealing with that aren't your request. Make your case clearly and succinctly so that folks can quickly see how your work fits in with their goals. Don't make folks have to circle back with a bunch of follow-up questions, because they just might not get around to it. When you write your email, make sure you word things in a way that makes it easy for the person you are writing to simply forward the email to their boss or to someone else in the company who may have access to additional budget. Make sure there's enough brief context included so that someone else who doesn't know you or the details of the project could understand what you're talking about. Stay safe and good luck with your fundraising!


We'll be talking about this post in our online chat later today. Join us in #conservancy on freenode.net or if you don't already use an IRC client, you can come in through your browser. Just visit this page, and choose a nick (or nickname) and you'll be "in channel." Conservancy member projects are also welcome to contact our Director of Community Operations, Deb Nicholson, for project-specific help with their fundraising plans.

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