Sometimes, the best ideas stem from pure frustration.

I vividly remember years ago while speaking at the Festival di Fundraising in Italy (always a treat!), that over 80% of the audience did not have, or did not actively use, a LinkedIn account.

These were professional fundraisers of small and large Italian nonprofits, seeking funding from foreign sources such as American foundations. Long story short: I got a little upset they didn’t see the strategic value of LinkedIn, especially for fundraising. One of the attendees challenged me: “Well, if it’s so important, why don’t you make a presentation out of it to teach others?”

Looking back, I wish I remembered her name, because I really owe her.

In the years after, I developed, adapted and kept fine-tuning my presentation on how to strategically use LinkedIn—the free version—for fundraising purposes. I have now shared this knowledge in several countries, and always with very positive feedback.

Let me give you the basics.

A massive database at your fingertips

First off, LinkedIn has gone through rapid, massive growth. It grew from 37 million users in 2009 to over 706 million users currently. This means your profile—even without adding new contacts—also kept growing in second and third-degree connections.

Taking my own LinkedIn account as an example, and assuming that most people in my own network have an average of at least 250 connections (a rather low estimate), it means that my direct connections (roughly 4,500) lead to 1,125,000 second degree connections alone. In other words, while LinkedIn is primarily a means to showcase your professional profile, it is also an extraordinary global database—one you can actively help grow with very little effort.

Applying LinkedIn to the Fundraising Cycle

For fundraising, LinkedIn is especially powerful when it comes to the first two phases of the Fundraising Cycle: identification and connecting.

For example, within my specialty field of American foundations giving abroad, people in the industry know that the Foundation Center—recently rebranded to Candid—offers a rather expensive but relatively good database, dubbed Foundation Directory Online.

Once you find potential US foundations through this database, cross-check those foundations on LinkedIn. Perhaps some of your connections work(ed) at that foundation. This is the easiest path!

But LinkedIn also offers more advanced search options, such as industry, location and (past) schools. There are many different combinations of searches that will lead you to more valuable discoveries.

Making the connection

Then, it’s time for the connecting phase. Let’s say you’ve found four potential foundations. For every potential foundation, you identify three second-degree connections, who you could reach out to directly. You might think, let’s go!

Please reconsider.

In fundraising—and by the way, often also in job searching—it’s all about creating an introduction in the most informal way. Avoid cold contacting.

Instead of reaching out to the second-degree person directly, try to go through your first-degree connection(s). This is the person, or people, who are between you and the second-degree individual. It has happened to me before that the in-between person used to live in the same apartment building as the second-degree program officer I was trying to connect with. It led to a very warm introduction, as they obviously knew each other on a much more personal basis than through work. LinkedIn is full of surprises.

Even with third-degree connections, it’s often possible to get introduced to them on an informal basis, although it may be more work to get there. Just remember that LinkedIn is a supporting tool, nothing more. Getting connected does not equal getting a grant, but it does mean that at this stage you may have an advantage over your competitors.

Once the connection is made, close LinkedIn! Shut your computer down. Because successful fundraising is all about relationships, it’s now time to enter the human world. Having completed identification and connecting, your next step is to meet that person face-to-face.

Happy fundraising!

Eelco Keij is head of Global Philanthropic’s USA office.