When Fundraisers Lose Control
While I am grateful that I am not experiencing the cold and snowy weather that is affecting so much of the U.S. these days, every news report I see or hear reminds me that weather is one of the totally uncontrollable factors of our lives. And for fundraisers, it can be a disaster in more ways than one as weather can cancel an event, delay a mailing, interfere with a key meeting with a major donor — in short, wreak havoc with our carefully made plans.
But weather isn't alone. Natural disasters, sporting events, terrorist threats, elections, labor strikes, unexpected illness — all these and more can prevent success when it comes to fundraising.
A few years back, I was at an afternoon event that was a major fundraiser for a nonprofit. The emcee thanked everyone for coming — especially when there was a football game between two area rivals taking place at that very moment. Of course, that led to many attendees surreptitiously pulling out their smartphones so scores could be checked. Just like that, a well-intentioned remark hijacked the attention of the potential funders.
When things are out of our control, when no amount of planning and tenacious attention to a schedule can keep them from happening, fundraising activities can be hijacked. People miss events when a traffic jam makes the roads impassable. Mail languishes on a dock when bad weather gets in the way of the post office's unofficial motto that "neither snow nor rain …" While no one can plan around every potential problem noted above because by their very nature these problems are unpredictable, there are ways to help ensure that funds continue to flow even when everything else seems to have shut down.
Never rely on one source of income. By now, you've hopefully gotten the message: Multichannel is king. But when planning for a big event (for example) consumes all your energy, it's tempting to postpone other fundraising activities. Make sure you are still talking to your donors, building relationships, providing response mechanisms, placing current information in front of your market — in short, keeping your multichannel program smoothly operating.
Don't rely on a single person. When all else fails, at least you still have your website, right? But what if you need to make a quick change, or you want to tweak your donation page to mention current needs given a weather-related situation, for example? If only one person can make that change, you better hope he or she is immune to every disease, hates time off and can work remotely from anywhere. Far better than relying on this super-employee, know everyone who can make the updates, how to reach them and who to call next if one isn't available. Your online presence is too important to not insist on cross-training.
Schedule your acquisition activities carefully. While you can't guarantee that nothing will go wrong, mailing your one acquisition appeal a year during the snowiest month in your region may be a gamble. An event that is designed to attract new donors that happens on the same day as the "big game" may not be exciting enough to overcome the halftime show. While some things are hard to plan around, other events that drain people's attention are scheduled well in advance. Pay attention to what is going on around you, and try to limit the competition for people's attention when you are hoping to show them why your organization is worthy of their support.
Monitor delivery of mail. Make sure every mailing you send out is "seeded" with names and addresses of people who will report to you when it is delivered. There are also services like U.S. Monitor that you can contract with to provide seed names and monitor delivery to these decoys. Knowing when your mailing was received — not just mailed — can prevent a lot of stress when income seems to be coming in more slowly than anticipated and can tell you if another form of communication would be wise. For example, if a mailing is delayed to one region, can you quickly send an email?
While looking for fundraising videos to share in a class I am teaching, I found one from a small zoo somewhere in the Midwest. It wasn't fancy, but the message was clear: We've had a massive snowstorm, you can't get out to visit us but our animals still need food, so please go online and make a donation. I don't know if it worked, but I salute that nonprofit for not ceding control to the weather gremlins. This old dog knows that there is much we can't control — but having "Plan B" in place can save the day, or at least make it less devastating for our fundraising.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.