Doubling Down—and Still Expecting Success
What’s the aphorism—"Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity?" That may apply in this case.
Efforts to raise charitable funds are some of the most enjoyable undertakings that a well-motivated individual can participate in. Properly executed, a fundraising program for a worthy project gives everyone a sense of incredible accomplishment while making a material difference in the lives of others.
But when it’s not done well, even with the purest of motives, everyone suffers—the organization that organizes the effort, those who participate and, of course, the community. Although we don’t yet know the outcome, consider the case of United Way of Mercer County, Pa., as recently reported in the local press, the Sharon Herald.
This organization recently announced its new, annual 2016-2017 drive to raise $1 million in 144 days. The program these funds will support is admirable. It’s an effort to raise families out of poverty while using hard metrics to demonstrate progress.
It’s the fundraising program that promises to disappoint, however. First, the organization’s leadership says that the goal will “be a breeze” if every worker in the county gave $1 per week. A quick look at the organization’s own gift history would show the fallacy of such an approach.
The Pareto Principle is alive and well—even in Mercer County, Pa. The idea of everyone contributing an equal—or near equal—modest amount sounds so good. It just never works. Take a look at any organization that seeks gifts and you’ll see a similar pattern. It will be some variation on 80/20—80 percent of what’s raised will come from 20 percent of the sources.
Principle 6 of The Eight Principles is Divide & Grow. Put simply, that means you treat different donors differently. Charitable investors come to you with different financial capacities, different motivations, different life situations. To approach all of your investors in the same way, for the same gift, flies in the face of these realities.
Announcing a goal and proclaiming it can be reached through small, equal giving is worse than wrong. It sets up both the organization and the community for failure. It becomes a self-defeating cycle. Do it long enough, and you’ll be circling the drain.
Following the inevitable failure, we can expect the recriminations that United Way folks didn’t execute well and/or the community just isn’t generous enough to step up.
If this wasn’t bad enough, then there’s the recent fundraising history of the organization, which is reported later in the article. It seems its goal last year was $800,000. A 25 percent hike in an annual goal from one year to the next would be challenge for even the most productive charities.
But this well-meaning group is starting with a double whammy. It fell short of the $800,000 goal last year by 15 percent, raising only $680,000. The logic must either be, “Well, we didn’t make last year’s goal so we have to make it up,” or “Let’s just raise the goal and see how much we can raise over last year’s total.”
The first statement is the classic “program driven” response. We “need” a certain amount to fund our program so, naturally, that determines our goal. Fundraising goals, which are achievable, thus motivating donors to give, are set using the known capacity of your fundraising program with some consideration of your giving history.
Simply choosing a goal based on need only sets your organization up for failure—the double failure of not reaching your monetary objective combined with the failure created by demoralizing those who support you.
The second statement says that goals are “ceilings” to which we will always strive but never quite achieve.
Try that logic with your high school daughter or son who never quite makes the bar you’ve set for them. It might work once—or even twice. But once they’ve figured out that what you’ve given them is an unreachable objective, they will simply stop striving. Or they'll get fed up and go elsewhere for their achievement.
Successful fundraising campaigns are achieved, in part, by generating a sense of accomplishment among those who give. When you ask them to give to a goal that isn’t reached, the question, “What good is it?” comes into the mind of the investor. It isn’t your passion that’s generating the energy, it’s the donors’. Remember Principle 1 of The Eight Principles, Donors are the Drivers.
Fundraising goals that are effective—at raising more money year in and year out and in motivating donors to give and give again—are “floors." They are set carefully, so that even if they're not a walk in the park, they're achievable with the right focus and determination.
When this happens, this is the time to raise the goal for next year. Judiciously, that is.
I wish United Way of Mercer County well. And although it was the example I used, it is by no means unique in its thinking. Far too many other well-meaning organizations make these same misjudgments.
Even with the best of intentions, just remember where the road of good intentions eventually leads.
Success is waiting. Go out and achieve it.
Larry believes in the power of relationships and the power of philanthropy to create a better place and transform lives.
Larry is the founder of The Eight Principles. His mission is to give nonprofits and philanthropists alike the opportunity to achieve their shared visions. With more than 25 years of experience in charitable fundraising and philanthropy, Larry knows that financial sustainability and scalability is possible for any nonprofit organization or charitable cause and is dependent on neither size nor resources but instead with the commitment to create a shared vision.
Larry is the author of the award-wining book, "The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising." He is the Association of Fundraising Professionals' 2010 Outstanding Development Executive and has ranked in the Top 15 Fundraising Consultants in the United States by the Wall Street Business Network.
Larry is the creator of the revolutionary online fundraising training platform, The Oracle League.
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