Steal Like An Artist

There’s a book all fundraisers should read. It’s called Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon.

Here’s why. Too often small- to medium-sized nonprofits spend their limited fundraising time and budget trying to invent new ways to fundraise.

Instead, here’s what you should do . . .

Steal great fundraising ideas, and make your own version of them

That’s what Steal Like An Artist is about. It talks about the value of looking at what The Masters are doing, studying it, copying it, and then making it your own.

Picasso said, “Know the rules, so you can break them.” But too many nonprofits don’t take time to learn the rules. Some even refuse to believe the rules even exist. (I’m looking at you, Board Members!)

Here’s a list of what I think you should do:

Give $10 to 10 national nonprofits

I’ll put a list at the end of this post, and be absolutely sure to give them your snail mail address.

After you donate, watch what they send you. You’ll get a masters in fundraising for $100. Why? Because what they send you has been tested to work for their donors. You may not like it. You may not give to them again. But what they send to you is the result of millions of dollars of testing. Ignore the tactics they use at your peril. Because you might not like what they ask you to give to, but the way they ask you is something you should steal.

Have a swipe file

Most great fundraisers I know have one. It’s a banker’s box or file folder on your computer where you save fundraising ideas that look like they work. Pay attention to what the big organizations send you when they ask for money. In most (but not all) cases, they have weaponized fundraising tactics. Look at what they do, steal it, and use it for your organization.

Steal from yourself

If you did something last fall that worked really well, try it this spring. In my experience, most small- to medium-sized nonprofits operate under the mistaken belief that if something worked well with their donors they should save it until the same time the next year.


If it worked well, try it again as soon as you can. By taking the thing that works best and doing it multiple times, instead of just once a year, we’ve rapidly increased revenue for multiple organizations. One example that comes to mind; an organization that did one “shipping” appeal per year. They asked their donors to pay for the shipping costs to ship all of the donated gifts-in-kind overseas. I noticed that it worked really well, so I had them do it twice (instead of once) the first year we worked together. Those two appeals were the two best regular appeals of the year. The next year we did it four times. Worked even better!

So if you find something that works, steal from yourself and do it again soon!

Use tactics other nonprofits have success with

Here’s a simple list of tactics and strategies that we use as often as possible. You can too!

  • Matching grants. They work great.
  • Urgent deadlines. Deadlines are magic for increasing fundraising results.
  • Multipliers. Any time you can have a multiplier ($1 provides $4 of math tutoring!) your chances of fundraising success have increased. So look for gifts-in-kind or donated volunteer hours where you can ‘multiply’ the power of a donor’s gift.
  • A clear offer. Instead of just asking for support, distill a portion of your programs/outcomes down into a powerful, understandable part. Then ask your donors to do that. That’s called a fundraising offer, and they are incredibly powerful.

That’s it. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Use the tactics other nonprofits have had success with, and make your own versions of them.

And here’s a list of 10 nonprofits with great fundraising that you can learn from:

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