For the perfect cup, you have to work year-round.
By Erin Weldon
1. There’s a lot more than meets the eye. Most people don’t understand that the process is complex, let alone have an idea of the steps.
If you’re like 83% of Americans, you enjoy a cup of coffee most mornings. And though you probably don’t think about it much, you assume that you know where that coffee comes from. But, did you know that a crucial step of your Starbucks latte is a 3-day fermentation? Or that it takes 8 pounds of raw coffee beans to make one pound of coffee? How about that each of those coffee beans was picked by hand (or should have been)?
Similarly, most people assume they have a general understanding of fundraising—it’s asking people for money, right? But in truth, the process is much more complex and detailed then most of us believe.
2. The process starts earlier than you think—cultivation starts long before you reap the rewards
It takes five years for a coffee tree to produce fruit. Similarly, you need to spend time cultivating donors long before you ask them for money. Whether you’re growing coffee or developing a relationship with a donor, realize that you are going to have to put it a lot of hours before you see the pay-off.
Coffee cherry ripens sporadically—on any given branch, individual beans can ripen over a period of 3-4 months. On the branch below, you can see unripe (green) cherry, perfectly ripe (red) cherry, and overripe (shriveled, dark) cherry. To get the best cup of coffee, you want to pick only the red beans. And to make sure you harvest red beans, you need to check back regularly—up to once a week in peak season. That means looking at every branch, on every tree, every week, to see who is ready.
Similarly, to get the most donors, you need to approach them at the best time. And you need to stay in touch with them, checking to see if they are ready to give. Sometimes this means asking. Sometimes this means just giving them a phone call, to provide an update and feel out if they’re ready. Also, if they say no right now—you can ask them again later. “When might be a better time for you and your family?” “Can I send you an update on the project in six months and see if you are interested?”
4. The more time you spend tending the crop, the more and bigger beans you get.
Sure, you can ignore your trees year round and just head out when the beans start to turn red. You’ll get some coffee. But your trees may be dried out, or undernourished. They could be taken over by vines, or a pesky bug may have eaten all the coffee before you got there. A few trees will have died, and a few more will be sick enough to die next year.
Similarly, you can ignore your donors year round, and send them an annual appeal letter at Christmas. Some of them will still give. You’ll get some money. But you won’t get as many gifts, or as big of gifts. Your donor pool—your coffee orchard—won’t be as healthy. Another organization might have flown in and asked while you weren't paying attention. You’ll lose a few this year, and a few more next year, until you’re scratching your head wondering why you have to have tea for breakfast.
On the other hand, fertilizing your trees can increase yield by an amazing amount. Similarly, you need to fertilize your donors. Send them a thank you. Email them a personal invitation to an event. Mail them updates on your programs. And when you send that appeal come December, you’ll have a whole orchard of healthy donors.
As tempting as it is, the message here isn't that coffee and fundraising are intrinsically linked. However, both are complex processes that require substantial time, energy, and attention for success. If you’re new to fundraising, approach it like any new skill—don’t assume that you understand all the steps, layers, and complexities. Take time to really consider the whole process, from beginning to end, and you’ll end up with a perfect cup. (A cup full of donations, that is!)