You Can’t Fake Greatness
Sisyphus was a very clever fundraiser.
He was so good, he could transform a spreadsheet into a tear-jerker of a story. He could extract a stirring call to action from the most bureaucratic mission statement. If an organization’s work was indistinguishable from several others’, Sisyphus still could make it seem unique and compelling.
But over time, his work grew more and more difficult. New organizations started to crop up that were fundamentally different from the ones Sisyphus worked with. Their work was exciting. They did things worth talking about — so people talked about them.
When it came to fundraising, it seemed all they had to do was let people know what they did, and donations poured in.
Back with the lumbering old-line organizations, Sisyphus had to work harder and harder for worse and worse fundraising results. It seemed his magic was no match for a more interesting reality.
Nowadays, Sisyphus is a broken and disheartened man. He’d rather roll a giant rock up a hill than struggle with fundraising. But that’s another story.
Do you feel like Sisyphus? You aren’t alone.
Too many fundraisers are fighting to raise funds for unremarkable organizations. Their work may be effective, but it’s not inspiring. So they rely on superior marketing to raise funds.
Substituting great fundraising for a great “product” used to work. But it’s less effective all the time. The best fundraising in the world can’t beat simply being an authentically remarkable organization. And what’s remarkable?
- If what you do doesn’t make people say “wow!” you aren’t remarkable.
- If there aren’t outstanding heart and head reasons for folks to give to you, you aren’t remarkable.
- If you’re just like other organizations, you aren’t remarkable. (And if only an insider can understand the difference between you and someone else, then you aren’t different.)
- If your fundraisers are working in isolation from your front-line programs, you aren’t remarkable.
It used to be you could get away with being less than remarkable. Donors gave out of a sense of duty, so it was easier motivate them to give. And they had fewer choices for charitable giving than they do today.
These days, donors have easy access to all kinds of amazing causes. And boomers, now entering their donor years in significant numbers, demand greatness. These hard-driving, change-the-world addicts have an attitude like this: Why should I get involved with any cause that’s less than outstanding, exciting and flat-out cool? What they want, you can’t fake.
It’s not about marketing
To meet this challenge, what you say matters less than what you do. You need to create a superior reality, not just superior marketing. And that can only happen when the entire organization — from the board on down — is in complete alignment with the goal of being remarkable.
- It’s everyone’s job to create and run programs that not only accomplish your mission, but also make sense to donors and fill them with a sense of connection and purpose.
- It’s everyone’s job to articulate the mission in a way that donors, prospective donors and third parties (like the press) can understand and love.
- It’s everyone’s job to take part in the conversation that’s forming around your cause — through blogs, wikis and other online (and offline) communities.
- It’s everyone’s job to know, understand and respect donors.
When everyone is pulling in the same direction, you’re on your way to being remarkable. To finish the race, you need to accomplish one or more of the following:
- Do something nobody else does.
- Be demonstrably more effective than other organizations.
- Leverage donors’ giving in amazing ways.
- Connect donors to the cause. Let them see, hear and feel the difference they’re making.
It is about marketing
Money doesn’t usually fall out of the sky, no matter how great you are. You have to market yourself. To put it another way, hiring Sisyphus would be a good idea, even if you “don’t need him.”
Assuming your organization is truly remarkable, here are some things you can do to leverage your excellence into fundraising power:
- Know your donors. Know who they are and what they care about. And remember — they aren’t you.
- Find exciting and concrete ways of describing your work. Connect dollars to action. Make it clear to donors that they are changing the world through you.
- Keep it simple. Even if it’s complicated.
- Find the emotional core of your work — and don’t ever forget it. In the most human and tangible sense, what does your work accomplish?
- Talk to donors. Know their language, their hopes, their dreams. Be one of them.
- Have amazing spokespeople — famous or not, living or dead — who perfectly embody who you are and what you do.
In short, you need to be great and look great. Your fundraising and program functions must be part of the same circle, their excellence feeding and informing one another. Put Sisyphus to work for a remarkable organization. Donors these days demand nothing less.
Jeff Brooks is creative director at Merkle/Domain.