From 'OK' to 'Wow': A Guide to Better Fundraising
It’s evident from the number of conferences, articles, blogs and everything else, that there are a lot of people who are doing fundraising—out of love, necessity or somewhere in between. We often hear about the fundraisers who use false promises and manipulation to get gifts, but the vast majority are honest, hardworking and passionate about the causes they represent. But, I daresay, a lot of them are kind of stuck at mediocre.
This is generally not a result of laziness or a lack of desire. Rather, fundraising—while not brain surgery—is complex. Some have the luxury of focusing on one area, constantly improving through practice, training and even mentoring. Others are “one-person shops” or share all the fundraising responsibilities between just a few people.
If you want to go from “OK” to “Wow,” no matter how many fundraising hats you wear, here are some tips to keep you moving forward:
You have to genuinely like people. Linus, a “Peanuts” character created by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, once said, “I love mankind ... it's people I can't stand!!” You may share that opinion (at least on certain days). But fundraising is all about matching people to projects that they are—or can get—passionate about. If you don’t truly like the men and women you think of as “donors” and “prospects,” you will struggle to get to know them well enough to understand what they want to hear before they make a donation and how they want to be treated after the gift.
You have to genuinely respect people. Your donors and prospects are far more than a means to an end. They may call, write or email with “silly” questions. They may be two or three times as old as you are. They may ignore your most passionate plea for a donation. But they are also the lifeblood of your organization (and to be crass, important to your career). If you don’t respect people, you will have a hard time relating to them, understanding what makes them choose to give, nurturing them on the donor journey or providing the affirmation they need to remain loyal.
You also have to respect that they most likely give to other causes—some you may not care for. A fundraising student recently wrote that people who give to religion are “getting scammed” or being “taken advantage of.” While a very small percentage of the time this may be true, many others (including myself) give out of gratitude and spiritual beliefs. If you approach donors with any “attitude,” you will have a difficult time respecting them and conveying that to them.
You have to learn to “get inside” another person’s head. You may view a donor as too young, too old, too poor or really rich. He or she may not have those same self-impressions. To many of you, I am “old.” (Hey, I even titled my blog “Old Dog Fundraising”—that has to be proof.) But I do not consider myself old, and woe be to the person who suggests I am. What are your donors or prospects thinking? How can you use that knowledge to tailor your message to them?
For mass communication (direct mail, e-appeals, etc.), you have to be broader in your messaging to be cost-effective. But your donors don’t know as much about your cause as you do and they are often interested in the “people” rather than the “process.” Think about how you can communicate to the majority with storytelling, photos or shorter anecdotes.
You have to think on your feet. When you talk to a donor, you often have an agenda that has something to do with “get a donation.” But you can’t let that goal get in the way of giving the donor what he or she needs to make what we hope will be a positive decision to give. That means listening to the entire question before mentally formulating our answer (hard for many of us, myself included). What is that prospect or donor really asking or telling you? One way to get inside his or her head is to turn the questions around. For example, if the donor asks, “Do you work anywhere other than Smalltown?”, be sure to ask him or her, “Is there a town you hope we would expand to at some point?” or “Is there a town you are particularly interested in?”
Instead of saying “no” or not giving the answer the donor wants, thus potentially turning off the donor, you have given him or her an opportunity to tell you what his or her interest is so you can then respond from that fuller knowledge.
You have to be willing to engage both your head and your heart. I mentioned storytelling earlier, which has become the “cause célèbre” in fundraising. That’s not a bad thing. If I were to ask, by a show of hands, how many of you read “TextBook on Spherical Astronomy,” sixth edition, versus one of the Harry Potter books, I suspect Harry would be the winner. That’s not to say the textbook isn’t worth reading, but many of us love a good story. We feel empathy for some of the main characters and we can’t wait to know how it turns out.
Yes, some donors will read your 990 and audit cover-to-cover. They will ask about your strategic plan and for empirical reports on your project results. But many prospects and donors will be captivated by a good story about how your programs are actually making a difference. Your head and your heart have to go hand-in-hand.
This old dog knows that successful fundraisers bring both competence and passion to work every day. As you are on your journey to “Wow” (or even “Wow-er”), you will encounter a lot of people—some who love your cause, some who don’t. You won’t convince all of them to give, but with passion and competence, you can help grow your cause through greater support.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.