What I Know About Fundraising

02.5.2013 | 3:18 pm

I didn’t expect to become a guy who’s known for raising money for good causes. I just wanted to write stupid jokes about bikes and have a place where I could publicly shame myself into losing some weight whenever my appetite got out of control.

A while back, though, that changed. Now I’m known more for the good I’ve done in the world than I am for my ad teardowns, my startlingly prescient advice to Lance Armstrong for his screenplay, or my epic shaggy dog masterpiece: Fatty’s Inferno.


Since this has happened, I’ve started getting frequent email requests from people who want advice on how to fundraise for their own cause. In fact, the only more common email message is from people who would like me to do their fundraising for them. 

The short answer is, of course, that there’s no real secret to it. What you see me doing on my blog is what I do. All you have to do in order to have the success I’ve had in fundraising is slowly and consistently build a relationship with a growing readership for five years or so, then live a transparent life through a major tragedy, and then spend a big chunk of your life catalyzing your anger into a meaningful legacy.

In other words, it’s not something that you just do during your month-long fundraiser by following some easy steps. It’s something that happened to me, mostly by accident, and now I try to take this power and keep using it for good.

That said, there are some lessons I’ve learned along the way that are probably worth mentioning.

Email Sucks
The laziest form of communication in the whole world is email. It’s radically impersonal. When I get an email solicitation for a donation, I am absolutely perfectly comfortable with ignoring it, because I know exactly how little time went into getting that message to me.

Don’t send an email. Call. Text. Do something outrageous and go see people in person

Or, if you’ve got to use email, add something personal up top to each email address, so it doesn’t seem like a form letter. 

Oh, by the way, the only thing worse than email for asking people to donate is Twitter. When I get a solicitation via Twitter, the first thing I do is check to see what the person’s recent tweets look like. If it’s the same tweet over and over and over, I ignore it, because they weren’t thinking of me.

You may be wondering, “How can a guy who impersonally reaches out using his blog be so grouchy about getting an email? Which is less personal?”

The difference is push vs pull. Push solicitations — anything that comes to you personally (via email or twitter or text or phone call or doorbell) need to be personal. Pull solicitations — when you come to my blog or watch TV or listen to the radio — can’t be, just by their nature, and nobody expects them to be. 

So: if you want your fundraising message to work, think about the kind of communication you’re sending, and how personal what the recipient is going to expect the message to be. And work your hardest to make your message a little more personal than they expect.

Oh, and don’t ask other people who have a fundraising track record  (e.g., me) to do your fundraising for you. I can personally promise I am doing as much as I can already, and almost certainly don’t believe in your cause as much as you do.

Don’t Apologize
When you ask someone to give you money for your cause, don’t start with:

  • “I usually don’t do this kind of thing, but…”
  • “I hate it when people send this kind of email, but…”
  • “I’m sorry, but…”
In fact, don’t apologize anywhere or anytime for what you’re doing, which is trying to make the world a better place. It’s not something you should show any hesitancy or regret over, even if you feel awkward.

Push People Off The Fence
I firmly believe that people want to do good. And people do good things all the time. Most people are, I believe, very nearly altruistic.

I also believe that people are more likely to do good when a smidgen of self-interest is thrown in.

And also, when there is a game involved. Or something funny. Or entertaining.

Something where, in short, their donating money isn’t merely a donation for a good cause, but a doorway to some kind of entertainment. Because sure they might donate anyway, but if you push them off the fence so that their money also gets them entrance into something fun or exciting or silly or odd, then that’s heaping incentive on top of altruism.

Which is maybe an oxymoron, but it works anyway.

Now, some of you might be thinking, “That’s easy for you to say, because you’re able to call companies and ask them for bikes and trips and stuff.”

Which is true. Now.

But it hasn’t always been true.


Way back when this blog was young and I worked for Microsoft and was joining the company team for a ride for MS, I didn’t have any kind of fundraising resume I could pull out and use to get companies to donate awesome swag as an incentive.

But I did have my limbs.

Specifically I put my legs and arms up for “rent” as billboards to anyone who was willing to donate a certain amount. I hit — and blew right by — my fundraising goal.

Or a year ago or so, I wanted to have a contest center around a trip to come to Utah and go riding on my favorite trails. I don’t have an airline sponsor, but I did have some available frequent flyer miles. 

My point is, you’ve got resources. Think about what they are. Then use them to show your commitment to what you’re doing.

Your commitment will be contagious.

Don’t Ask People To Donate In Honor of Your Vacation
It’s possible — OK, probable — that this one’s just a pet peeve, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway.

I hate it when people ask me to donate money  because they’re going to be going to Italy and riding the Dolomites for awareness of their special cause. Or riding across America. Or wherever. I just see those kinds of things and think, “Why would I give someone money to go on a massive cycling vacation in the name of some charity or other? Why shouldn’t I save my money and spend it on my own cycling vacation?”

Since I’ve never come up with a satisfactory answer to that question, I’m pretty sure I’ve never donated when someone contacts me, asking for money for their monthlong cycling trip.

Don’t Point People Toward Empty Fundraising Pages
When you launch a fundraiser, the chances are your call to action will be to go to a fundraising page and donate. That’s fine. 

I don’t know how many times I’ve been to fundraising pages, however — they had me! — to find out that the amount that person had raised, so far was . . . $0.00.

Which means that the person was asking me to donate to a cause he didn’t believe in enough to donate his own money toward.

So, before you ask a single person to help you fundraise, make the first donation yourself. And make it an amount close to the top end of what you’d like to see other people donate. People tend to follow the leader, and people like to see personal commitment.

Avoid Any Possible Impropriety
Don’t have people give money to you. Have them donate directly to the cause you’re raising for. It protects you from tax hassles, and it removes any question of whether you’re in this for the money.

Go For Scale
I don’t know or care whether you like Barack Obama. You’ve got to respect his 2008 campaign for presidency for the fundraising engine it was, and for the way the campaign targeted normal people, asking for $20.

That works for more than just raising money for politicking.

Think about the large organizations you belong to — maybe are even a leader or known figure in. (And if you aren’t part of something, get involved, because donating your time counts for more than donating your money.) And ask those people to help you. Just $20. Or $10. Whatever feels to you like your people couldn’t reasonably say no to.

Consider: $20 x 100 = $2,000. 

Yep, really.

Own It

The most important lesson I have for people who are doing fundraising is that you’ve really got to care enough to seriously wring yourself out over it. It’s got to possess you.

Why? Because you have to care about it enough to talk about it instead of talking about something else. You’ve got to care about it enough to ask people for money, and ask unashamedly (people can tell when you’re asking embarrassedly). You’ve got to care about it so much that it pushes your doubts aside and you can no longer even imagine someone not wanting to contribute.

Once you’ve got that mindset, really it’s just a matter of how much you’ll succeed, because when you want to do good that bad, it will infect people and — to some degree or another — you’ll succeed.

You will.


  1. Comment by Jenni | 02.5.2013 | 3:34 pm

    So basically, you’ve just given us all the blueprint for how PRECISELY to manipulate you into doing our fundraising. I’ve taken notes…

  2. Comment by Jeff Bike | 02.5.2013 | 3:52 pm

    Thank you Fatty! You are my hero; well ok a role model for blogging and fund raising. I now have the very advice from you that I was afraid to ask for.
    1. Don’t ask Fatty for money, what little he has is already earmarked for his good causes.
    2. Give first, so others can follow.
    3. Be personal, email blast won’t get you much.
    4. Be original and creative.
    5. Give people a reason to give.
    6. Don’t be self-gratifying; it is about those you are trying to help.
    I willing bow to your fund raising greatness.

    That’s a good encapsulation, but #1’s a little off. It’s OK to ask me for money. (My nephew just got $150 for a fundraising read-a-thon he did.) I don’t say yes to everyone, but I say yes to quite a few people.

    What I’m saying that you shouldn’t ask me to do your fundraiser for you. You’ve got to do the work for your own fundraiser yourself. You’d be amazed at how many emails I get that essentially say, “You’re good at fundraising and I have a good cause and a goal, so I hope you’ll help me by doing my job for me.”

    - FC

  3. Comment by UpTheGrade SR,CA | 02.5.2013 | 4:16 pm

    Excellent article Fatty, real insights.

    I don’t want you to funraise for me. I’d be delighted if you would donate a mere $20 to my college fund, to which I have already donated $25,000 in order to produce a better educated cyclist.

    There is the chance to win a box of donuts!

    I know you love them and judging by your precipitous weight loss, you obviously haven’t been eating, and probably could use one right now – don’t miss this opportunity :-)

    Sorry, I’ve got 1 kid in college of my own, with 2 more starting in 2 years. You’re on your own. – FC

  4. Comment by TK | 02.5.2013 | 5:03 pm

    Did your blog used to be called Phat Syklist? If so, good call on changing it.

    No, the person who rented that leg had me misspell my blog name on purpose. See how his joke on me has reverberated through the years? – FC

  5. Comment by Erik S | 02.5.2013 | 5:21 pm

    Thanks Fatty. Good tips.

  6. Comment by Heidi | 02.5.2013 | 6:34 pm

    People actually ask you to fundraise for them? (blink blink) As my mother would say, What are they THINKING?

    And hey, you’re down 13 pounds – zounds!

  7. Comment by Skye | 02.5.2013 | 7:21 pm

    I can’t believe someone who calls himself “Fat Cyclist” would leave out the Bake Sale as a fundraising option! One of my big fundraisers for MY cause is the weekly bake sale, and I kid you not, people are always disappointed when I stop holding bake sales because my ride is over and done with. (Generally I pick one day a week and do 4 to 5 weeks in advance of my ride.)Figure 2 boxes of cake mix costs about $4, they take maybe an hour to prepare including washing the dishes afterwards, and generally brings in at least $1/cupcake (or slice).

    Also, garage sales can be amazing fundraisers, especially if you can get a couple friends together and combine a couple households worth of stuff. I made $400+ last year in a one-day garage sale, and I GUARANTEE you that people haggle a little less and sometimes leave if you post signs for your cause all around. Its more time-consuming than making cupcakes for sure, but the $$$ makes up for it.

    Sure, there are more direct ways to get money out of people, but for those of us who aren’t great askers, the “sell” method is a great icebreaker and relieves the pressure of asking for something while offering nothing (aside from feel-good feelings and stuff) in return.

  8. Comment by Keith | 02.5.2013 | 9:57 pm

    The “empty fundraising page” issue is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve participated in a few fundraising events that have a minimum required total donation amount for entry. My personal policy is to a) register for the event, then b) donate that minimum required amount myself. At that point, all donations made by other folks are gravy.

    Something else worth mentioning: Many companies have a “matching gifts” policy in place. Encourage your donors to contact their companies and complete any necessary paperwork.

    Thanks for the great article, Fatty!

  9. Comment by Patty | 02.6.2013 | 7:42 am

    I have to disagree with your comment about fundraising for cycling vacations like riding your bike across the country for a charity. I did that in 2011, from San Diego to Virginia Beach, June until August. I guess if you consider a vacation sleeping on church floors every night, eating sandwiches out of a cooler in a van for lunch each day, riding in a 16 passenger van with 15 other sweaty cyclists with all your food and gear when the road on your daily map trails off to nothing, one shower for 15 people at the end of the day or worse, no shower a vacation then you’re right. I guess we have very different ideas of what a vacation is.

    Yep, I guess so. I’d love to have a three-month adventure like that. It would be the vacation of a lifetime. – FC

  10. Comment by Clydesteve | 02.6.2013 | 12:24 pm

    Two, no three other things I would add you your great advise, Fatty –

    1) In addition to making the first donation on your fundraising page, personalize it! Do not settle for the stock photo and the stock verbage, restate your plea – include the name and particularities of the person who you are honoring, if appropriate.
    2)Email is sometimes very effective, but mostly when you write a single personalized letter to one person, and you insert your soul into it. Make it sing! (Fatty really already said this, I am just re-applying his advice to the email medium.)
    3) Ask rich people you know. This probably sounds trite, but it works. But DO NOT send an impersonal mass email to the rich person. Make a personalized plea to them from your heart.

    Here is a story about the last one. I am an engineer in the water purification business. A friend did a short-term mission to Haati recently, and figured out that a lot of people were getting sick drinking contaminated surface water, and there was great water within three miles, up high in the hills. We designed a system that pipes clean water from seven spring boxes in the mountains to three 5000-gallon concrete tanks in three communities serving 120 people with central water. We also got help with a local Doctor who provided design ideas and maintainance manning and organization features to make the project work in the culture. My friend asked a single former employee who made a shrewd invenstment in Google China to fund the project, and set it up to run the funds through the mission agency he works with. Bingo!

    Just like Fatty said, people WANT to do something good! When this guy found out he could help avoid all manner of disease for 120+ people forever for $83/person, he was all over it!

    That is an awesome story. – FC

  11. Comment by Big E | 02.6.2013 | 12:48 pm

    Thanks Elden,

    That’s a well thought out process where honesty and personal drive (Along with a lot of talent.) really make the difference. As it should be…

    But I wanted to bring a point up that’s always bothered me. And hopefully I don’t come across as a heartless jerk. Which certainly isn’t my intention.

    In your post you talked about it always bugged you when people ask you to donate money to their “vacation” of riding a bike in some exotic location or across America for a specific charity…

    But what is the difference in doing that versus a single day ride associated with a charity like Livestrong or an MS ride? It seems like a wierd paradox.

    Isn’t riding our bikes even for a few hours in a way a “vacation” from our worries or problems? Or in your mind is it more of a duration problem?

    I guess that’s why rides that are always associated with a charity that want you to fund raise make me feel a little strange. “Please donate money to this cause because I love to ride my bicycle!”

    Again, I don’t want to come across like as a$$. I have given to many charities in the name of a good bike ride. As well as having participated in many of your contests through out the years (Thank you for those by the way.)

    I don’t know… I guess I’m just thinking out loud.


    Big E

    I’ve thought the same thing, puzzled over it quite a bit in fact. Here’s my take. When you’re fundraising for something like the LiveStrong Challenge, the ride is really nothing more than a reward / celebration / moment of community. I’m not raising money for the ride, I’m raising money for the charity. The date of the ride gives me a target to focus on as I strive to hit a fundraising goal. Once I get to the event, it’s a symbol that I’ve done a good job and deserve the reward of spending a day doing something fun with like-minded people.

    For some people, of course, the target of the ride is different. There are riders out there who are survivors, and by being out on the course, they’re showing defiance and strength. There are other people who are expressing loss or solidarity. Whatever the reason, the ride is a symbolic finish line. You’re doing it in celebration of the fundraising you’ve done. You’re not fundraising in order to do it.

    That said, I think that’s a hard-to-see distinction, and I can see why it would appear to many people that the purpose of the fundraising is to go to the event.

    And now that I think about it, perhaps Patty above would have a similar philosophy for what’s behind a giant ride across America or what-have-you. I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. – FC

  12. Comment by Joe | 02.6.2013 | 9:23 pm

    Great article as I begin my fundraising journey. I rode for We Promise (children’s charity) last year did poorly in the funds. I then raised funds for the Police Unity Tour (in May) where I went to lawyers for donations and served donuts in my police uniform to the public and achieved my goal of $2000. I’m now raising funds for the MS 150 (in June) but trying not to go to all the same people again.

    I enjoy your blog and thanks for the advice.

    Raising money by selling donuts while in a police uniform = pure brilliance. Congrats on hitting your goal for the Police Unity Tour, and good luck for the MS 150. – FC

  13. Comment by Daddy style | 02.7.2013 | 9:17 am

    All I know is you have to believe in the cause and commit to the effort 110%. That equals alot of hard work. I have learnt we can not support or push all causes so we pick and choose where we place our energy. [closer to the heart/home the better] If not you burn out mentally and pysically

    Absolutely true. I’ve learned that the hard way. Like, every year. – FC

  14. Comment by Tom in Albany | 02.7.2013 | 10:13 am


    You’ve given away your secret formula! Now EVERYONE will be able to raise money to help make the world a better place. I can’t… ohhhh… You sly dog, you…


    Great post!

  15. Comment by davidh-marin,ca | 02.7.2013 | 10:18 am


    Your response to BigE is pure Fatty! To read his comment, to reflect on it, and to generate a response so complete, that’s why we follow you. I hope you’ll let the rest of us use that reasoning, should we be asked, and I hope to see many of our Fatty Friends in Davis. I hope BigE can make it too.

    Thanks Elden.

  16. Comment by Marsupial Matt (formerly known as MattC) | 02.7.2013 | 12:35 pm

    Agree w/ davidh…and your thought process on LIVESTRONG/fundraising. Even if for some reason it turns out I can’t go up to Davis, I’ll still continue my fundraising ALL YEAR for LIVESTRONG (like I have for the last FOUR YEARS). Can you BELIEVE this is now the FIFTH YEAR for Team Fatty? Gosh how time flys!

  17. Comment by Diane | 02.7.2013 | 1:20 pm

    Every freshman at my daughter’s high school is required to complete a semester-long project called “Power of One.” They each have to research a local, national or international issue and then come up with a plan to address the issue (through raising awareness, doing volunteer work, fundraising, etc). We were brainstorming ideas for her project at dinner last week and I happened to mention the work that World Bicycle Relief does (which I only learned about because of you). Well. She has read every word on their website and is ALL fired up about the cause. She has committed to raising enough money for 10 bikes for her project. She would really like to volunteer for them, but we don’t live close enough to any of their offices. Now that she is in fundraising-mode, I will definitely have her read this as it contains a lot of great advice.

    Thank you Elden, for entertaining us, for sharing lessons learned and for being a great example of what the Power of One can do.

  18. Comment by Jeffy | 02.7.2013 | 2:00 pm

    Fatty, one of the best how-tos I’ve seen on fundraising. I’m going to share it with many…Jeffy

  19. Comment by Big E | 02.7.2013 | 2:16 pm

    Thank you for the well thought out response Elden. I appreciate it greatly.

    Rubber side down,

    Big E

  20. Comment by Stan Oahu | 02.7.2013 | 2:57 pm

    I appreciate the advice. Would love to have you join us on our ride: https://www.roadid.com/Sponsorship/EventCalendarSearchResults.aspx?EventID=186501

    In just 4 short years since we’ve started this ride for my friend who succumbed to suicide, we had NAMIBikes call me and invite us to join with them in the fight. Cool, huh?

    I think you would really enjoy this event. The routes are exceptionally safe and fun. Besides, it would be an honor to meet you. Mike Colledge speaks very highly of you and sent me your link.

    Keep up the great and cool work you do! As for me, I’m just trying to raise awareness and fight the stigma of mental illness through cycling!

    All the best,
    Event Director
    NAMIBIkes Utah, The GLMR

  21. Comment by John Klemme | 02.8.2013 | 12:30 pm

    Good morning, Fatty:

    Thank you for your advice and inspiration. I have taken the example you set and accepted a nomination for this year’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Man of the Year Campaign here in Wisconsin. Officially, it starts Feb 23rd, but I’ve been working on plans for a few weeks, so your post today was timely and a huge help.

    After my friend lost her son to Leukemia a few years ago, I’ve been trying to find a way to help and LLS has given me that opportunity.

    I would love to be able to give away some of your tshirts or jerseys as donor gifts during my campaign. If that is a way you could help me, let me know. I have introduced a lot of friends to your blog and many of them would be thrilled to have a chance to get your gear in addition to helping me and this cause.

    Thanks again,

  22. Comment by Bicycle Bill | 02.8.2013 | 2:26 pm

    One other thing — keep a list of your donors, and don’t let it out of your sight if at all possible.  Many people these days are afraid of ending up on the mailing list of every non-profit organization from AARP to Zonta.  It shouldn’t have to be said, but don’t trade or sell your list of donors to anybody else for any reason.

    Secondly, don’t be the guy who shows up at the bike shop or the coffee shop or hits up all his/her co-workers every other week for some cause.  Pick one, or maybe two, and let it be known to all and sundry that if they support you and donate to your chosen event (in my case it was an ACS fundraiser in the Lake Geneva WI area) that they won’t have to worry about seeing you back in another week for the Ride for Breath, and the month after that for the XYZ 150, and again in the fall for Larry’s Kids.  If you can do this, many of your same contributors will be there for you year after year.  Worked for me.


  23. Comment by Maureen | 02.12.2013 | 5:20 am

    One more, very important: THANK YOUR DONORS. The auto-email that gets sent from the organization doesn’t count. My biggest pet peeve is when I donate to friend’s causes – and they never acknowledge that I’ve done so. Fool me once…

  24. Comment by AKChick55 | 02.12.2013 | 8:51 pm

    Not sure if anyone will see this but a huge difference between a Livestrong or MS150 ride is that YOU pay for lodging and some of your food. I’ve done both types (raised money to go to Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to run a marathon in Hawaii). When people donate to events where you get to travel somewhere and the charity picks up the cost, your donors are paying for your hotel and airfare. I MUCH prefer the Livestrong or MS profile where I pick up my travel costs and the charity pays for a meal or two. That’s my two cents worth of explanation. I’m not judging those who prefer the LLS method. I just prefer to have all donations go towards the charity and not
    My travel costs. Charities that do this (LLS does this very well) work very hard to keep costs low so they don’t spend $$$ on that which is why the fundraising amounts are so high)

  25. Comment by Kiwi | 02.18.2013 | 1:43 am

    Thanks for the keen tips.

    This is perfect timing as I signed up for the Tour de Cure in Roseville, CA (Diabetes Ride) and also just signed up for a certain team whose battle cry is about craving a baked good after riding in the LiveSTRONG Challenge…

    Would you (or anyone else) be interested in donating to either of these causes in my name?


    Hey, it’s worth asking :)

    @Maureen, you bring up a good point, when I was fundraising for LiveSTRONG last year I verbally thanked the people I could, the others got nice fb or email thanks.

    Something I tried to do was send out a monthly 1 page email newsletter about how I was training for the ride. I threw in humorous posts about my bro while he was battling cancer and also some cycling tips. Not only did I want people to help, I wanted to get people out on the road too!

  26. Comment by Cycling Dad | 02.25.2013 | 1:18 pm

    Hi Elden,

    You’re a big inspiration for us, just having launched our startup blog http://cyclingparents.com over here in Europe. We’ll try to raise EUR 5500 for the SOS Children’s Village in Hinterbruehl, Austria. One Euro for every meter in altitude gain on the legendary Oetztaler Cycle Marathon. Do you think that’s achievable?

    Keep up the good work. Love your family. Love your bike.


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