Easier Said Than Done: Fundraising Urban Legends Debunked
You know about urban legends — those wacko rumors that spread so quickly because they're uniquely compelling. Did you know we have them in the fundraising community?
Recent research done by the Folklore Department at Easier Said Than Done University has uncovered some fascinating urban legends. We've not only gathered them, but we've investigated them to find their essential truth or error.
Next time you hear one of these legends repeated by a wide-eyed fundraising colleague, you can nod sagely — secure that you know the truth (or lack thereof) behind the legend.
Direct mail: dead or alive?
A widely circulated document tells this sordid tale: Late in 2008, direct mail — suffering from a deadly combination of rising costs, falling response rates and insufficient retention — faked its own death by setting up a gruesome situation involving a vat of fugitive glue, a letter press and 600,000 No. 10 window envelopes. Direct mail then stole across the border into Canada, where it's eking out a living selling hearing aids.
Status: Partly true
Direct mail's death was, indeed, faked. The perpetrator of the hoax, however, was not direct mail itself but a group of lazy and incompetent fundraisers who have not been able to succeed at raising funds through the mail. Their purpose has been to cover their failure with the elaborate ruse that direct mail is "dead." In fact, direct mail is only marginally less healthy than it's ever been. It has many good and fruitful years ahead of it.
The curse of the ad agency
There's a rumor that if you hire a major ad agency to do work for your nonprofit, you will win awards and generate a lot of attention on blogs and Twitter. In many cases, it will do this work at no charge. Nevertheless, you will pay dearly. In the end, the agency will destroy your reputation, scare away your donors and bankrupt your organization.
This is a variation of the "deal with the devil" story that is told in every culture and every age. Oddly enough, it's entirely true, and it happens to nonprofits regularly. All the major ad agencies are owned by Beelzebub Holdings, and the work they do for nonprofits is part of a diabolical plot to make the nonprofit community appear to be clinically insane. They do this in hopes that nobody will donate anything ever, either so they can spend more on useless consumer goods or to prevent good deeds from being done. Warn everyone!
Night of the zombie donors
Here's an insidious legend that circulates at fundraising conferences, constantly gaining new believers. It says that the moment after a donor gives, she immediately enters a state of suspended animation for three to six months. Waking a donor from this state — which can happen if you give her an opportunity to give again — will cause her to become a sort of zombie that will murderously pursue you with intent to not donate for the rest of all time, and to the end of the universe.
I'm happy to report that this belief is not at all true. The more recently a donor gave, the more likely she is to give now. Giving leads to giving. Fundraisers who act on this false belief cause severe damage to their organizations, mostly in the form of self-inflicted low retention rates.
The out-of-control trademark lawyers
One fear-mongering story says that the United Way has trademarked the words "please" and "thank you." This would effectively monopolize nearly all forms of fundraising. The rest of us are screwed.
When the United Way's attorneys looked into copywriting key fundraising terms, they discovered the unpleasant truth that Microsoft already owns "please," and Google owns "thank you." The rest of us, including United Way, are screwed.
More cooks, better broth
Many fundraisers swear by the belief that large numbers of people working in committees are the path to excellence. They assemble platoons of reviewers and commenters on their fundraising projects. The more difficult, unusual or innovative the project, the more people they put on the committee. It's estimated that the entire city of Atlanta is composed of people who review fundraising projects.
This unfortunate belief results from bad math: Many fundraisers think that the IQ of a group is the total of the IQs of all its members. In reality, the correct way to calculate the IQ of a group is to take the IQ of the least intelligent member of the group and divide it by the number of people in the group.
So that guy — you know, the one who's not terribly bright, who insists that no sentence should be less than 25 words because "people don't respect simplistic language." Adding him to the committee will not add 87 more points to the committee's IQ. You're far better off without him. And nearly everyone else on the committee, as well.
The part about Atlanta is true.
Who wrote the Bible?
A popular Internet rumor has it that fundraising guru Mal Warwick is the actual author of the Holy Bible, in addition to his other popular books about fundraising.
Status: Unclassifiable veracity
We have not been able to disprove Mr. Warwick's authorship of Holy Scripture. Since he wrote more than one book that could be called "the Bible of Fundraising," how much harder would it have been for him just to write the Bible?
Escape from experience
For several years, a story has been spreading among nonprofit HR circles that if you hire someone from the business world with no nonprofit experience, she automatically brings special, magic "Success Dust" that she can sprinkle everywhere, making everything wonderful.
Status: Mostly false
While some people from other professions bring new perspectives and a breath of fresh air, far too often refugees from the for-profit world fail to bring their listening and learning skills with them. So they spend a lot of time and money reinventing various wheels. And their new wheels are — how do we put it gently? — usually triangular.
And that Success Dust they sprinkle around? Turns out it's just regular, old dust they gathered from the piles of money they used to make at their old jobs.
It's widely believed that FundRaising Success magazine pays its columnists in Gummi Worms.
Status: Unclassifiable veracity
I can't comment on this one. I love Gummi Worms, and I wouldn't want to stir up jealousy and conflict among my fellow columnists.