OK, I’ll be honest — a lot of the best practices in fundraising aren’t the stuff that makes for good conversation at a high school reunion. In fact, saying you work in fundraising can lead to the raised eyebrow and "ohhhhh …" said in that skeptical tone of voice. It seems everyone has an opinion about fundraising, and some of those opinions aren’t very favorable.
In any business that involves putting a product out in public, there are critics. When Apple or Starbucks introduces the latest innovation from their research and development teams, the press showers us with commentary, sometimes scathing. Friends and family have opinions, good and bad. Let Facebook make a change, and you’ll read posts about it for days.
It’s no different with our fundraising. Host an event, mail a letter or post a video on YouTube, and you’re going to get comments — good and bad. While some criticism is constructive and we can learn from it, jerking back and forth every time we hear a complaint or suggestion more likely only leads to whiplash. Instead, we need to slow down, evaluate and then proceed carefully.
As a fundraiser, here are some potholes along the way to avoid.
How much is too much?
The age-old question about how often to contact a donor won’t be answered in this column — mainly because there is no one right answer. How often you communicate with your donors should be a decision based on what experience has taught you (i.e., your net income) and how well you can make your message sound fresh time and time again.
The challenge is that donors, board members and staff aren’t shy about stating opinions, and that sometimes leads to overreaction. As I see it, the real problem is that frequently, a nonprofit insists on a less aggressive contact schedule, only to drop in “just one more” on a whim. “Isn’t this cool? We could do this, too …” is not a good reason to communicate with your donors. Instead, do you have something to say that donors need to hear? Keep your schedule flexible enough to make a last-minute change — but make sure it’s really worth doing.
Avoid 'us, too!'
One of the things I remember my dad saying when I was growing up in Chicago is, “Just because everyone else is jumping in Lake Michigan, should you jump in Lake Michigan?” (Sound familiar?!) As a kid, my response (usually unspoken) wasn’t always what my dad was after. But as I’ve grown older (and a bit wiser, I hope), I keep seeing examples of fundraising that seems to be based solely on a desire to “jump in” just because a lot of other nonprofits (usually larger) already have.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.