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Debunking the “Willie Sutton Theory”: How to Find Businesses That Will Support Your Nonprofit

Resource Center - Foundation

Linda Lysakowski, ACFRE, is one of just over 100 professionals worldwide to hold the Advanced Certified Fund Raising Executive designation. As a graduate of AFP’s Faculty Training Academy, she is an AFP Master Teacher. Linda is an author on more than ten publications, ranging from Recruiting and Training Fundraising Volunteers to The Development Plan and Fundraising as a Career: What, Are You Crazy? In her newest workbook, Raise More Money from Your Business Community—The Workbook, Linda helps you pinpoint the businesses in your community that you should be spending your effort to partner with, and ignore those that have nothing to do with your organization and mission.

I’m sure many of you are too young to remember Willie Sutton, but you may have read about him. Willie was an infamous bank robber who robbed hundreds of banks back during a forty-year “career” beginning in the 1930s. Willie is reported to have had a smart answer when someone asked him, “Willie, why do you rob banks?” Although it is reportedly an urban legend, his now-famous answer was, “Because that’s where the money is.”

Even if you never heard of Willie Sutton, at some point in time, you’ve probably been told this by your board or CEO: “Gosh, there are all these big banks (or hi-tech companies, or casinos, or whatever the ‘big guys in town’ are) in our community. Write to them and ask them for a contribution!”

Dollars to doughnuts (no pun on Willie or the police who nabbed him), if you listened to this advice, you struck out. You might have sent a letter to hundreds of businesses and received one donation (if you’re lucky).

Yes, there are a lot of businesses in your community. It doesn't matter if you’re in Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, or a small rural town in Wyoming—there are businesses there! But how do you narrow down the field to which ones will support your cause?

Don’t always think of the big companies in your community. There are lots of entrepreneurs, small companies, and mid-sized companies that are often far more generous that the larger companies and might not be on everyone else’s radar screen. So, let's get rid of the Willie Sutton theory and start thinking about the companies that are likely to support your organization.

The Ideal Business Donor Profile

First, you need to figure out which of these businesses (whether there are dozens or thousands of them in your community) would be likely to support your organization. Let’s build an ideal business donor profile for your organization. Here are some things you might include in your “Ideal Profile:”

  • This business gives to charities similar to ours.
  • We have a connection to a top manager/executive within this company.
  • This business is “in our neighborhood.”
  • We’ve done business with this company.
  • This business has given to us previously.
  • This business has a natural connection to our mission (i.e., a crayon, toy, or kids' clothing manufacturer giving to a child care center).
  • This company has an interest in supporting the community.
  • This company has an employee volunteer program.
  • This company shares our values.

What other criteria would you add for your organization? You should be able to sit down with your staff, development committee or board and develop this ideal business donor profile in a matter of minutes—an hour at most.

Click here for a printable of: Our Ideal Business Donor Profile 

Okay, so you’ve developed your ideal business donor profile. Now let’s get started developing your list of prospects.

Our Prospect List

Now you’re ready to review your profile and match up the companies in your community to see which ones are your best prospects. So let’s start with a list of “suspects,” companies that might become donors.

Click here for a printable of: Vendors of Our Organization

Click here for a printable of: Companies With Which Our Board Members Have Connections

Click here for a printable of: Companies With Which Our Staff Has Connections

Click here for a printable of: Companies With Which Our Volunteers Have Connections (Starting with the Development Committee)

Hint: To help you develop these lists, use the brainstorming form attached here and have board members, staff and volunteers develop a preliminary list of people they have contacts with. Be sure to tell them that you are not going to contact these businesses yet but that you are trying to develop a list of prospective donors.

Click here for a printable of: Companies in Our Neighborhood

Click here for a printable of: Companies That Belong to Our Local Chamber(s) of Commerce

You should be able to develop a huge list within one month by following these steps:

  • Meet with your CFO and get the list of vendors.
  • Drive around your neighborhood in an afternoon—take someone along to make note of the companies and businesses in the neighborhood.
  • Hold a brainstorming session, using the form, with your board at the next board meeting. This should take about 15 minutes.
  • Hold a brainstorming session with your departmental staff at the next staff meeting(s). This should also take about 15 minutes at each staff meeting.
  • Hold a brainstorming session at your next development committee meeting (another 20 minutes) and any other volunteer meetings you have.
  • Spend an afternoon visiting your local chambers of commerce and see if you can get a list (you may have to be a member, so join now). Remember that there might be several chambers in your area. My community, for example, has a major metropolitan chamber, three or four suburban chambers, a women’s chamber, an Asian chamber, a Hispanic chamber and an African-American chamber.

Narrowing the Field

Okay, you might have a list of hundred, even thousands if you’ve done your homework. And it took you only a few weeks! Now let’s narrow the field and fit these “suspects” into your ideal donor profile so they become “prospects."

Suspect: A company that might be interested in supporting your cause.

Prospect: A company, after being compared with your ideal business donor profile, that you believe would support your cause.

Expect: A company, after cultivation (more about that later), that you believe will make a donation to support your cause.

So let’s develop a list of prospects now. Using the grid below, match up the “suspects” to your ideal donor profile.

Click here for a printable of: Companies that Meet Our Ideal Donor Profile

Click here for a an example of how this might look once you’ve completed the profile

Let’s get started developing your list.

  • Start your business appeal by creating an ideal business donor profile.
  • Develop a list of suspects—all the businesses you can think of that might support your organization.
  • Narrow down your list by comparing it with your donor profile, and then develop a list of prospects—companies that you believe, with proper cultivation and a good case, would support your organization.

Now go out there out and get them!

You can purchase your copy of Raise More Money from Your Business Community—The Workbook, here! Additionally, you can dive deeper into the full practical guide, here. Don’t forget: AFP Members login to receive your discount!

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