Gimmicks, Gadgets and Get Rich Quick Schemes

A heavily quoted 2003 survey says that 81 percent of Americans feel that they have a book in them, yet the same survey supposedly says 80 percent of Americans did not buy or read a book last year.   So…  there’s apparently a number of people out there who will never deign to pick up the actual book they think they can write.

If you’ve been in fundraising for any length of time, you might be familiar with this phenomenon.  Everyone has ideas about how they would do your job were they you.  And there are tons of stories about how someone else did it with no more effort than it takes to fall off a log.

– “My friend’s church raised $25,000 in one day at a rummage sale. We should do a rummage sale.”
– “A golf tournament should make us good money.  No, I don’t know anything about golf, but they’re all the rage.”
– “If you need to raise a million dollars, simple, you just need to secure four corporate donors to give $250,000 each.  That’s how the XYZ Performance Center was built.”
– “The Obama Campaign and the American Red Cross raised millions in a matter of days with texting campaigns, so can we.”

These are all statements in one form or another that I’ve fielded from well meaning board members, volunteers, staff, even my executive director, in my tenure as a fund development officer for various small to medium sized nonprofits.  By the time I entered the consulting business full time six years ago, I had perfected a perma-grin for these situations and a semi-dismissive response.  One doesn’t want to be the designated wet blanket, but it’s hard to generate enthusiasm when the implication could be “it looks so easy for everyone else.  We must be doing something wrong.”

Some of the best tools in your kit for coping with well-meaning and enthusiastic, but short-sighted and uninformed, ideas about fundraising that threaten to diffuse your limited resources might include:

– A yearly plan of work. Your fundraising strategy should be tied into the funding needs — near and long term — of the organization, responsive to your donors, making the best use of current organizational resources, consistent over time, written down and shared with the board and staff.  I’m amazed at the number of organizations that don’t work from long-term strategic goals.  Their fundraising effort gets pulled in all different directions and ends up spinning its wheels.

– An organizational resources calendar. What are the natural opportunities afforded by the programmatic work you do every year, and how can you gain the most enthusiasm and visibility for your mission by utilizing this natural ebb and flow of activity?  I was working for a performing arts organization at one point that was in the process of raising capital funds for a new outdoor amphitheater.  We invited prospective donors, who were planning on attending that night’s show anyway, to join us on a short bus ride to the new site prior to the performance.  Each night we were able to generate an audience of several dozen enthusiastic patrons to learn about our new project, understand the scope of what we were doing and begin to think about their own gifts.  We asked at the outset that they give us permission to follow up with each of them within the next few days after the show.  If you’ve ever tried to get a small group of people to attend a free, no obligation, presentation about your organization, you KNOW how hard this is.  People don’t want to give up their time, even for organizations they truly care about.  Think of opportunities to get your project in front of them that doesn’t intrude on their time, and you’ll be one step closer to getting them to agree to participate in your efforts to cultivate support.

Not every organization has the draw of a theatrical performance at their disposal, I know.  But think about what you’re currently engaged in as an organization. How could you bring your mission and your fundraising efforts closer together?  Conservation groups host hikes in the foothills.  Youth service organizations host events featuring young people engaged in the activities of the organization. Cultivating donors is a long term proposition and one cannot assume that donors who are currently giving are as engaged as they could be.  Wrap your programmatic calendar around your donor cultivation efforts and you’ll find that not only are you more fully engaging your donors, you’re also endearing the rest of the staff to the fundraising process. A double victory.

A firm grasp of the facts. You should be orienting your board to the fundraising process on a regular basis.  Make sure that new board members understand their fundraising roles and responsibilities on the board and allow them to plug in where they feel comfortable (and help them finding ways to stretch themselves to find new levels of comfort each year – I use BoardSource’s list of roles and responsibilities).  You should also share information on fundraising trends and the annual Giving USA report (released in June: with your board, staff and fundraising volunteers every year.  Wrap into this presentation a conversation about fundraising return on investment.  This is a concept that most business oriented volunteers can relate to, and yet rarely apply to fundraising.  Knowing how different types of fundraising efforts can be expected to perform, and how much they cost relative to each other, can help you put into context for a volunteer the various ideas she has for you, and help her understand your planning process.

Ultimately educating your volunteers and board is an ongoing process and one that is as necessary as the rest of the work you do.  Rather than saying “no” to most ideas that come your way, consider drawing volunteers in to your strategy for long-term, sustainable fundraising.  In talking through each of these points, perhaps you’ll find a way to incorporate their idea into a future plan, or redirect them to something that is a better use of their time and your resources for a better fundraising result.

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