What Can You Learn From Leading Fundraisers’ Biggest Aha Moments?
We’ve all had them—aha moments. Those instances when a light bulb suddenly turns on and causes you to rethink your way of doing things.
Early in my career, when I was working for a grant-making foundation, I remember the time we received a thank-you letter—not from an organization that had received a grant, but from an organization that had been declined. The organization thanked us for our review of its proposal. Our vice president of programs remarked, “Isn’t this lovely? I don’t think we’ve ever received a ‘thank you’ for a declination.”
As you might imagine, when that organization reapplied the following year, it was funded.
That was one of my many aha moments in the past 20-plus years. When I moved from the grant-making side to grant-seeking, you better believe I always sent a thank-you letter.
I asked some of the leading fundraisers to share their biggest aha moments with you. Listening. Straightforward bluntness. Asking more. Creating a genuine connection. Learning to lead instead of follow. You’ll have an aha moment or two yourself. Here they are, in no particular order.
Jeff Schreifels, senior partner, Veritus Group
My aha moment really is not just a moment. My aha moment in fundraising has happened over and over again as time goes by. It’s simply this: Fundraising is about creating meaningful relationships with people (donors). Fundraising also is hard work. It takes discipline, focus and accountability to be successful.
Over the course of my career, I’ve seen efforts to depersonalize fundraising and take shortcuts. It doesn’t work.
Remember how the Internet was going to take over fundraising? Nope. Another one was how “big data” was going to save the day and make you more efficient and cost-effective. Nope. (OK, maybe for 0.0001 percent of nonprofits, but the jury is still out.) How about spending a bunch of money on social media to reach Millennials? Waste of money.
It’s funny to watch people jump on these bandwagons as the things that somehow will save the day in fundraising for their organizations. All those things I mentioned might help. But what I’ve learned over the years, over and over, is that it’s really about relationships. Relationships take work. Those folks and organizations that embrace and invest in relationships succeed. Those that want to go out and find the shiny thing that makes it easy, falter and eventually lose.
It’s about people.
Erica Waasdorp, president, A Direct Solution
Wow, this is a tough question as I continue to have little aha moments every month.
My biggest aha moment came when I did a survey amongst our monthly donors and asked them how often they wanted to hear from us. Now, you should know that this was a big animal welfare organization, and we mailed to our donors typically 12 times a year (if not more for special projects).
The survey asked a number of questions, like which type of animal(s) the donors had, but the most important question was: “How often would you like to hear from us?”
Donors had five potential options for answers: not at all, once a year, twice a year, four times a year, 12 times a year.
When the surveys came back, I fully expected everybody to tick the box for once a year, but I was very far from the truth. Many ticked the boxes for either four times a year or 12 times a year!
That was my big aha moment where I really saw how committed these monthly donors are, and how they want to continue to hear from us even though they already are giving a monthly donation—not to mention the fact that they did make additional donations when asked. It’s important to tell you, too, that we did recognize the monthly donors every month in the appeal as special, and they appreciated that.
Of course, we marked these donors in the database the way they wanted to be communicated with.
Rory Green, Fundraiser Grrl
One day, when I was a young, eager, brand new fundraiser, my phone rang.
On the other end of the line was a vegetable farmer. Let’s call him Joe. Joe was interested in doing a cause-related marketing campaign—donating 10 percent of all sales of potatoes in October—with a charity partner, and we were the charity he wanted to support. For us Canadians, October is Thanksgiving month, and Joe explained that the donation could be up to $150,000! Joe called me to request a written document about the Canadian Cancer Society and where his donation would go.
As Joe talked, my mind was racing. The Canadian Cancer Society did lots of work with the BC Produce Marketing Association, promoting health and wellness and encouraging Canadians to eat more vegetables. As we chatted, I began designing a case for support all around cancer prevention. There was return on investment for the company, values alignment—all the good stuff I’d been told to look for in a corporate partnership. I got off the phone as soon as I could, and had a proposal to Joe within the hour. It was one of the best cancer prevention proposals I have ever done.
And it got declined.
Joe ended up giving the money to a local children’s hospice. Why? Because he was passionate about helping sick kids. And I would have known that—if I’d thought to ask. The Canadian Cancer Society had amazing programs aimed at helping sick kids, and I could have made Joe a proposal around those programs, but I didn’t. Because I didn’t listen.
That was my aha moment. Listen as much as you can. Ask questions. Never assume. Your donors will tell you all about their interests, passions and goals; they will give you the information you need to build the perfect proposal—but you have to listen to them for that to happen.
Tom Ahern, Ahern Donor Communications
I’ve had hundreds of aha moments. No lie. Here’s a favorite.
This aha moment happened as I watched Mark Phillips, head of Bluefrog (U.K.), make a presentation at IFC in Amsterdam in 2011. Phillips had rummaged through the archives and showed the original advertising that built charities, like Oxfam, from small bunches of pissed-off people into powerhouses.
Oxfam’s advertisements were revelatory. I suddenly realized: We used to do this so much better. Oxfam showed, without mercy, up-close photos of starving kids and said, “Will you do something about this?” (or words to that effect). The advertisement was a call to action that challenged your very decency as a human being—and the money poured in. The ads were ugly, direct and couldn’t care less about branding and other nonsense. I’ve tried in my own copywriting to live up to Oxfam’s blunt standard.
Leah Eustace, ACFRE, principal and managing partner, GoodWorks
About 15 years ago, I was the director of development at a national charity focused on protecting the environment. I was a one-person shop, and was absolutely thrilled one day to receive a $50,000 transfer of shares from a longtime donor.
Putting on my donor-recognition hat, I let the executive director and board chair know, and we came up with a plan to visit the donor in his hometown and take him out for a very nice lunch to thank him. I called the donor up to say “thank you,” and excitedly told him how thrilled we’d be to take him out for lunch. He thanked me profusely and said, “I don’t really need that, and would rather you spend your money on wilderness protection. But, you know those really great posters of the Nahanni River that you have available? I’d really love to have one of those.”
Wow, what an aha moment for me. Never ever assume that you know what the donor wants or needs.
Using that lesson on a different donor, I secured a $1 million bequest for the same charity a few years later. I’m pretty sure the clinchers for that gift were the homemade Christmas stocking we dropped off one day and the afternoon we spent listening to the donor recite some of his poetry. That’s what he wanted and needed.
Pamela Grow is the publisher of The Grow Report, the author of Simple Development Systems and the founder of Simple Development Systems: The Membership Program and Basics & More fundraising fundamentals e-courses. She has been helping small nonprofits raise dramatically more money for over 15 years, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Fundraisers by Civil Society magazine, and one of the 40 Most Effective Fundraising Consultants by The Michael Chatman Giving Show.