13 Fundraising Horror Stories
It is a beautiful October morning and I am thinking about what to write for this week’s post. I was reading the book “Fundraising for Dummies” by John Mutz and Katherine Murray. I review this book from time to time. I am asked a great deal of basic questions from individuals with no fundraising background.
This book provides many simple thoughts, and parts of the book make me smile. Nonprofit pros have complex jobs that require complex skills. Yet, at the end of the day, human communications need to be direct and simple. This time of year and this book made me think about some of my own fundraising horror stories that highlight the importance of proper communication:
- I was a brand new kid who was responsible for homecoming at a small university. I was standing under a tent sweating as 300 people were patiently waiting for the guest speaker to show. I did not know the speaker was known for being a very late arrival. Finally, 45 minutes after the presentation was to begin, he showed up. Frankly, I did not know what to do except hide.
- The president of the university was speaking at an alumni function that I was directing. Not once, but three times the microphone failed. There were delays, and my boss was getting pretty upset. Finally, I just said the heck with it. The last time it failed, the president kept talking with a dead microphone, not knowing it wasn’t working. I clapped long and hard for him knowing it was the best speech I never heard.
- I was in charge of a 500-person, nonprofit-event dinner at a fancy club. Literally five minutes before the reception was to end and everyone was to come into the dinner room, glass began to explode at each table. The candles were covered by non-tempered glass. I was flying to each table, grabbing the glass centerpieces before they exploded. Luckily only a third of the glasses exploded and, with a slight delay, few people knew what happened.
- At a class reunion dinner, a 72-year-old alumnus was supposed to speak for 30 minutes. This speaker, who loved the sound of his voice, spoke for more than two hours. I had people sleeping at their tables. The funny thing was the speaker didn’t care about the length of his speech.
- More than 600 people signed up and paid to hear a famous head basketball coach at a university that I secured. We were sitting at a head table and I was dying because the coach was a no show. Finally, five minutes before he was due to speak, a low-level assistant coach came in his place and said the head coach had a personal problem. Well, buddy, you just created a problem for me.
- I was sitting in the front row of a media event to dedicate a new cancer facility. The oncologist and others spoke about the new facility. I was sitting with the capital campaign chair who was never introduced. I was embarrassed and, frankly, angry about the oversight.
- I worked at a university and ordered packages of engraved paper clips for a university football game. I ordered 10,000 clips in small bags to be filled with a few clips each. To my great surprise, 100,000 paper clips came to my office the day before the game. The university is probably still using them.
- At another dinner event, the annual reports were placed at each dinner seat. My boss had carefully read and approved the final copy of the report before printing. Before the guests walked into the room, he didn’t like what he approved and made the entire staff tear out one page of the report.
- As I began to speak at a special country club reception, someone had a heart attack and fell into the shrimp and cocktail sauce. I immediately ran downstairs to the golf area and found a doctor who was wearing a green jacket and white shoes. He attended to the person who luckily did not die on my watch. The incident did take the air out of my eventual speech.
- During a presentation at a dinner to honor a physician who was receiving an award, his elderly relative had a stroke and fell under their dinner table. Because the room was shaped in a “V,” only half of the room saw the chaos as ambulance attendants ran in and attended to the patient.
- At a beautiful downtown Indianapolis facility, 650 people were having dinner and didn’t notice the elderly women who fell down the steps near the bar area. While the dinner was taking place, I was outside in the street directing the ambulance attendants to her care. No one besides the family knew what happened as she was taken to a hospital.
- As I began to introduce a celebrity from a well-known television show who was a guest speaker for a hospital-building dedication, the celebrity lost her balance and fell several feet from the riser onto the floor as she approached the podium. She did speak, but eventually was taken to our emergency room after the speech.
- At a hospital dinner, a physician’s wife known for her poor manners started screaming at the guest table because she didn’t want to sit with her assigned couples. She caused a scene with her drama, and everyone on my staff wanted to lock her up.
The moral of fundraising horror stories is to be prepared for the unexpected. Years later I can laugh at these events knowing they caused me to age at the time. You have to deal with staff, volunteers, boards, administration, community leaders, celebrities and many others. Prepare your staff for any potential situations and learn from the experiences. Since it is the time of year for many events, get ready to enjoy the unknown.
By the way, does anyone need a package of blue, engraved, “I Want to Go Back to Butler” paper clips?
Duke has extensive experience as a nonprofit practitioner, author, lecturer and consultant. He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO for the last 11 years. He has been a long-standing member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals where he was previously named the AFP Indiana Chapter Fundraising Executive of the Year and has held the CFRE designation for many years.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in education administration, master's degree from Marshall University with an emphasis in public administration and a bachelor's degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in marketing/management. He has also completed post graduate work at the University of Louisville.
He is currently executive director of development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis, Indiana. Contact Duke at email@example.com or 317-224-1029.