Fundraising From Yourself
It's lurking. It's close. And it's deadly. It forces hundreds of nonprofit organizations out of business every year. It robs even more organizations of their resources and leaves them foundering, unable to fully accomplish their missions. It destroys the careers of hundreds of hardworking and idealistic people.
You may think I'm talking about some kind of toxin- slobbering gorgon, or at least a new postal regulation. Nope. The terrible thing I'm talking about is a common mental error made by people in nonprofits: fundraising from yourself. (Cue scary organ music.)
I hope I can persuade you to react to the idea of fundraising from yourself with the same cold-blooded adrenaline rush you feel when you notice a zombie staring at you through your kitchen window. Because the danger is similar: A zombie might eat your brain, but fundraising from yourself will leave you nearly as brainless.
Correct fundraising starts with facts: solid knowledge about who the donors are, what they respond to, what has failed and what has worked. When you're fundraising from yourself, your assumption is this: If it moves me, it's good fundraising. From there you carefully craft the message you think you'd give to.
You can tell fundraising from yourself is happening when you say (or hear) comments like: "I like that." "I hate that." "I don't like the way that feels." "I'd respond to that." "I'd be ashamed to show this to my friends."
Almost any judgment with "I" in it will send you in the wrong direction. Those comments do not throw light onto the most important question: Will donors respond? You, a professional in fundraising, are radically unlike your donors. Let's look at the ways you differ:
Age. You are younger than your donors. Probably decades younger. If you don't think generational differences are significant, you haven't talked to your grandparents lately.
Education. Donors in general have above-average levels of education, but you are likely more educated than they are. That has an important impact both on what we know and how we think.
Context. You think about your cause all day, every day. Your donors give it a cursory glance now and then. What's obvious to you may be confusing to them. What they need to know in order to care might seem boring and fluffy to you.
Donors are also more likely to be female and often more religious than people in general. If you aren't one or both of those, that's more opportunity to misunderstand the way they think.
But all those things hardly matter at all compared to the different ways you and your donors approach and perceive the message. You always pay close attention to every word (I hope you do, anyway). You're being paid to read it and think hard about it. This magnifies everything. It can cause clarity to seem like oversimplification and emotion to seem like over-the-top sob stories.
Furthermore, you see all the materials you produce. That can give you the sensation that your messages are numbingly repetitive. This causes many fundraisers to frequently and confusingly vary their messages.
But here's the wild part: Conscious opinions about fundraising are automatically wrong. Even your donors, the ones who make the actual giving decisions, have no clue what's good. Really. If you've ever observed donor focus groups where they are shown direct mail to react to — everyone hates the stuff that works best. It happens every time. They say they'd never respond to the pieces that they most often respond to. They aren't lying. They're giving you an honest accounting of their conscious beliefs. It's just that their opinions and their actions don't line up.
You are in the same boat. The stuff you like, that makes your heart sing, that makes you feel proud and happy … if it showed up in your mailbox I can almost guarantee you would not respond to it. The stuff you love clearly tickles a certain part of your brain. It's just not that part that prompts you to give.
Think of it this way: "I love that" really means "People aren't going to respond to that."
And it doesn't help to go to your spouse, your co-workers or your friends and ask if they'd respond — you're still fundraising from yourself. Asking their opinions is like asking your canary, "Does this cat food taste good?"
Here are some of the destructive effects of fundraising from yourself:
Almost every time I've seen a nonprofit embark on the adventure of "creating a brand," it has made its fundraising demonstrably and measurably weaker. That's because the way nonprofits go about branding is a form of fundraising from yourself: They get all the "stakeholders" involved (and donors are never considered stakeholders) and hash out how everyone would like the organization to express itself.
They work until they can all say, "Yes, this really captures who we are." This makes us feel good.
And guess what? All that stuff that makes the insiders happy — it doesn't mean anything to donors. Why would it? But now, enshrined as the "brand," it becomes the foundation of all the messaging. Fundraising swirls down the drain.
Worse yet is what happens with the graphic part of the brand. Created by and for the tastes and needs of hip, young marketing professionals, it is nearly always cool, faddish and devilishly hard to read. Exactly the wrong thing for fundraising, which is a form of elder marketing.
Lack of emotion
You had your transforming emotional moment about your cause a long time ago. (Either that or you're a mercenary type who doesn't need an emotional connection.) Since then — well, the honeymoon is over. You've settled in to make the relationship stable and prosperous.
There's nothing wrong with that (though if something doesn't rekindle your passion now and then, you're probably in trouble). But fundraising that speaks to the everyday, make-it-work mind-set is too flat, rational and antiseptic to work.
Lack of donor focus
You are properly proud of your work and your organization. In your eyes, the facts about your organization's excellence, your superior methodology and your glorious history are all utterly compelling. It just isn't compelling for donors. Remember, donors don't give because of who you are; they give because of who they are. That's why effective fundraising is all about donors, not us.
The working world demands a certain level of dignity and decorum. We comport ourselves as calm, polite, unflappable professionals. Our documents are clean, clear and totally straightforward. We get good at that. We value it.
But fundraising isn't part of the business world. It belongs to a messier, more passionate world that includes love letters, ransom notes, pleas for mercy and outbreaks of religious fervor. The standards of professionalism are just a roadblock in that context.
It takes a real self-abnegation to do fundraising right. It takes discipline and focus to put aside your own preferences instead of donors'. Fundraising from yourself is the easy, feel-good path.
But it won't feel so good when the zombies of failure start gnawing on your revenue. FS