Old Dog Advice for Really Young Fundraisers
Ah, April—flowers blooming, birds chirping, and mailboxes and inboxes overflowing. But wait, there’s something new—the seasonal arrival of requests to fund a school event, mission trip, service project or a similar extracurricular activity for a Gen Y or Gen Z overachiever.
One of the questions I am asked repeatedly is, “How can my son/daughter raise money for his/her trip to ... ?” So I am deviating a bit in this column and writing some rules for those in their teens or 20s who are seeking funding from Baby Boomers and Matures (yep, a bunch of folks older than 50) for some kind of trip or activity.
1. Realize who you are requesting money from. Sometimes they are relatives, but often they are friends or colleagues of your parents. These people may have little knowledge of who you are, and, frankly, they may not be all that interested. In fact, you probably are writing to them for one reason only: You have reason to believe they have disposable cash. And while that may be the case, your wallet is probably not the No. 1 place where they want to put some of that cash. So start with the assumption that you are going to have to work hard to make a solid case for why you are a worthwhile investment.
Furthermore, the people to whom you are writing might not have had opportunities to travel much further than their state lines when they were your age. There was no gap year; some of us were lucky to get a "gap weekend" after college before we were expected to be working. So there is not necessarily an assumption that every kid deserves an experience like you are writing about. You have to convince them that it’s more than a glorified vacation with a little bit of work tossed in.
2. Don’t talk too much. You practically were born with a Facebook account already set up. You share everything you do on Instagram or whatever other social media is currently in vogue. A lot of us "older folks" aren’t that interested in what you had for dinner last night or that you can’t decide between hummingbird or vampire tattoos. That’s too much information, and it’s outside our comfort zones. Filter what you say in your fundraising letter or email. Don’t share the good, the bad and the ugly—the good with maybe just a vague reference to the bad is quite fine, thank you. You don’t know us well enough to be as transparent as you are with your peers.
3. Ask. When I am asked to review support letters for kids of my friends, I see a common problem in them: There is no ask for money. You know, a clear request to provide some of the financial support they need to raise so they can participate in the project/mission/activity. Never assume that your readers just know you would like them to donate. They probably do, but some of us are just grumpy enough to expect you actually to ask. Come right out and say it: "Will you make a contribution to help me (do whatever it is you want to do)?" Otherwise, don’t be surprised if you never hear from a lot of people. After all, you didn’t ask them to respond with a gift, so why should they?
4. Say "thank you"—and say it fast. The best way to make people glad they made donations on your behalf is to thank them. And I’m sorry to tell you this, but you will get a lot more mileage out of a short, handwritten note (even if your handwriting isn’t great) than you will out of a typed email. Go to the nearest dollar store and buy a box of thank-you notes—and use them. It only takes a few minutes to write short messages of thanks, but it will endear you to the people who give (and they’ll remember that if you come back to them and ask for another gift somewhere down the road). And don’t wait weeks or until you have time before you sent the note; do it the minute you get the donation. Believe me—that’s the best way to invest your time, because saying "thank you" quickly makes a strong and lasting impression.
Another great way to reinforce that you are thankful is to send a postcard to every supporter once during the project/mission/activity. You just need to write something as quick and simple as, "We did this yesterday, and it made such a difference. Thanks for your gift that helped make this possible!" The few minutes it takes you to write that note might just result in another donation at another time.
5. Report on what matters to your donors. These days, it’s easy to find information online, so for the length of your project/mission/activity, you need to set some pretty strong boundaries for yourself on public spaces, like social media. Remember, the people who sent in a donation for you don’t necessarily think you are entitled to this opportunity, and some of them might not even be convinced you deserve it. So present what you are accomplishing in the best possible light. "Mission accomplished! Drove 75 miles last night to the nearest Starbucks for a latte!" may be reality, but that’s not what your supporters expect you to be doing. Neither is, "I’m the Uno champion for the month of March!" Instead, on Facebook, in your email updates and in any other communications that your supporters might see, focus on what you accomplished that related to the "selling points" you put in the first request when you explained why this experience mattered. Send the other stuff to your family and friends in an email or via another private means, but for your donor public at large, stay on message.
I really do hope you are successful in raising money to achieve your dream. But it’s like I tell fundraisers all the time—you are not the target audience. You, most likely, are asking Baby Boomers and Matures for a donation, and we’re different than you. Not better, not worse—just not the same. So follow these few rules, and hopefully your fundraising will be successful and you will be able to send lots of reports on all the great things that are happening as a result.