What's Wrong With Innovative Fundraising?
This is not a column about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Naturally, every organization wants to discover its own wildly successful viral campaign. But trying to develop a tactical process for replicating that amazing phenomenon is like trying to come up with a formula for a winning lottery number.
Thing is, the Ice Bucket Challenge wasn't even the ALS Association's idea. Someone outside the organization came up with it, and it caught the public's imagination and took off like wildfire. It was like tulip mania or goldfish swallowing, or the Pet Rock, or saying "Wassup."
The rocket trajectory of a craze is fascinating to watch. And many lessons can be learned from its rise and fall. But trying to actually engineer one is an exercise in futility. If creating a fad could be codified, everyone who read "The Tipping Point" would be rich.
The rest of us, toiling day in and day out in real-world fundraising, can't rely on lighting to strike twice. It's not an easy job, asking people to give you money for nothing but a brief feeling of satisfaction. But expert fundraisers have been doing it for a long time. In a very unpredictable industry, they have learned, and continue to learn, what motivates donors and prospects.
That's why I get a little nervous when the cry for "more innovation!" rears its head. Because it can mean very different things to different people.
If we're talking about testing more outside-the-box ideas then, yes, innovate 'til the cows come home. That's how we come up with creative breakthroughs like the paper lunch bag that was introduced a few years ago. Or technological breakthroughs like increasingly sophisticated handwriting personalization techniques.
But too often some board member or person in authority says he's tired of seeing the same old packages and wants something fresh. Something innovative. Then, one of two things happens:
- A non-fundraiser's pet idea gets deployed through the mail or online, and bombs like Reddi Bacon; or
- At the last minute someone gets cold feet. "Yes, we wanted something different," she says, "but this is too different."
Either way, a lot of time and resources get expended for the wrong reasons. It makes as much sense as changing your golf swing because you're tired of keeping your head down.
So if you're being called on to come up with the next Ice Bucket Challenge, go get 'em. It's exciting and fun to come up with cool, new ideas. Just make sure everyone keeps his or her eyes on the fundamentals of good fundraising.
Testing ideas that are outside the box, but still inside the arena, may make you the tortoise of fundraising, but you'll usually win the race.
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.