My Big Mistakes — And What I Learned From Them
The strange thing about mistakes is that you can always find new ones to make. I keep thinking that, at my advanced age, I have made all the mistakes I can and have used up my full lifetime allocation of actual and potential mistakes.
Alas, there is always a new, sneaky one just waiting around the corner. But if you spend your life frightened by the next mistake you might make, you would just stay at home and, maybe, just stay in bed and sleep your life away.
I have a good friend who is a brain surgeon from Germany. One day I asked him, "The rest of us are always saying that it's good to learn from our mistakes and no one is going to die — we're not brain surgeons. So, Jorn, what do you brain surgeons say?"
"Well," he replied, "sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes we learn from our mistakes … and sometimes people die."
That certainly puts my fundraising mistakes into perspective! And it gives me the courage to take a deep breath and share them with you. So to celebrate my six decades, here are six big mistakes and what I learned from them — and believe me, I have plenty more up my sleeve, but there is only so much public shame a girl can take.
I'll start with the years working for the African National Congress (ANC) — a difficult task in the 1980s when none of us thought Nelson Mandela would ever leave prison. Although we had amazing supporters, we had no equipment; no money for anything; and no way to pay designers, consultants or copywriters. Luckily, what we did have were amazing volunteers who wrote and designed newspaper ads and gave us top-class strategic advice.
I own these mistakes, but it's worth remembering that good results take teamwork and bad results are usually teamwork as well — nearly always it's everyone just doing something a little bit wrong, which ends up in a great big mess. But whatever mistakes we made at the ANC, we had one of the best and most compelling cases for support of our lifetime and someone heading the cause who had no opportunity to "contaminate his brand" or spoil his good reputation. There's not a lot of opportunity for scandalous behavior when you are locked up in a prison on a windswept island.
We had a big full-page ad, which was paid for by our supporters and listed their names as contributors. We had too many for the page, and we had to let a few slip off the bottom. How embarrassing then when some while later I went to a job interview at the HIV/AIDS charity the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), only to discover that my future boss and his wife had been two of the names who had been dropped off. Luckily, he gave me the job anyway and later joined my volunteer team at ANC, when we brought together a fundraising team for the first democratic election in South Africa.
What I learned: The devil is in the details! Check, check and check again!
The first event we organized was pretty spectacular at one of the poshest hotels in the U.K., The Dorchester. It was Mandela's first visit to the U.K. after 27 years in prison, and everyone was there — ministers, celebrities, business leaders. There were tears, cheers, excitement, emotion, everything you need for a spectacular fundraising success. The only problem was we never really fully briefed him, so he didn't ask for money. The ANC staff was so overloaded with work that we didn't follow through properly, so this amazing event did not really bring in much money.
What I learned: Never forget the importance of the ask. If you don't ask, you don't get.
Bad data and bad dates
When I went to work at THT in 1990, times were hard. No effective treatments for HIV/AIDS were available, and every day more people became ill and countless died, often slowly and painfully. Many staff and volunteers were also badly affected. We were desperate for funds, and early on I worked to get out a powerful mailing and a follow-up phone campaign.
The problem was that our data was a mess. One of THT's volunteers, who was also caring for his very ill boyfriend, was included in our fundraising program. He was not at all pleased to receive a phone call asking him for money and made sure to tell everyone what happened. It was not a lot of fun to be summoned to a date to meet volunteers who proceeded to tell me in very clear terms what they thought of my treatment of, by then, an angry and distressed volunteer.
What I learned: Dirty data can leave you eating dirt. However, dirty data can also be your friend. Just a little later, through a misunderstanding with our data services team, we ended up mailing a large group of supporters who had requested no contact. Of course, we got some complaints, but we also got our best-ever response and made £15,000 ($23,308), which was a lot of money in those days and badly needed.
We had a successful television telethon called Hysteria, which included a lot of comedians and performers. In 1993 the income had fallen so we decided to do a telephone campaign to those who had donated to Hysteria, explaining that the results were disappointing and how urgent our needs were. Rock star Freddie Mercury had just died of HIV/AIDS, which made our appeal even more poignant. The problem was that one of the supporters we rang with the disappointing results was the producer's father, who told on us. Neither the producer nor the television company that had sponsored the telethon were very impressed with us, and some very grumpy letters were soon whizzing around. Despite this, it was a brilliantly successful appeal and brought in a terrific amount of regular givers.
What I learned: Poor results or disappointing donations can be a platform for very successful appeals if you move quickly and are not afraid of the possible consequences. The value to THT of those thousands of supporters was far higher long term than the bruised egos of a few grumpy television people.
Dealing with donors
One of the biggest foundations in the U.K. is run by a woman whom I had gotten to know quite well because she had come to several of my events. She is a very, very wealthy woman — probably worth the entire gross domestic product of several countries — and she had always been very friendly and courteous to me. One day she phoned me and asked why I had been complaining about her behind her back. She was right. I had talked to a funder I had known for many years, and it got back to her. Not a good idea.
What I learned: You might have a chance to influence funders if you challenge them directly. You are not likely to get a good result from grumbling behind their backs and gossiping. The world of big funders is a small one, and they talk to each other. I apologized and tried to explain that it was difficult to challenge those with power. Weak excuse! However, she had the good grace to suggest going for a cup of coffee with me. I am not sure I deserved even a cup of coffee.
So there you have it. Through it all, the biggest thing I have learned is, as my old dad says, "If you don't make mistakes, you don't make!" FS
This piece originally appeared on the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration website.
Lyndall Stein is an international fundraising and communications consultant.