Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

December 2, 2013

Three barriers to superb fundraising

Dennis Walsh, CPA

My wife serves on the board of a charity recently in need of a fundraising kick-start. In response, another director sent more than 400 letters to past supporters reminding them of the organization’s important work.

Not familiar with mail-merge, the director filled each salutation individually, personally signed each letter and hand addressed hundreds of envelopes. But the director omitted one question: Will you support us? And the number of gifts received from the mailing? None.

This experience introduces the first of three barriers to superb fundraising.

Barrier #1: Missing the journey

More has been written about the “ask” than perhaps any other aspect of fundraising. In the case of major gifts in particular, much has been said about creative ways to frame the solicitation, timing issues to be considered and blunders to be avoided when popping the all-important question. And as illustrated by the early example, even the best crafted effort is likely to fall flat absent a direct request.

But more than asking for money, fundraising should be viewed as a journey of inspiring passion and becoming part of something truly special. And there’s no better way to start the journey than with personal testimony.

“I recall my first fundraising experience,” says Bob Newton, a seasoned nonprofit leader and past board chair of the Cone Health Foundation in Greensboro, N.C. “The prospect’s response was a simple ‘thank you.’ I was taken aback. He went on to explain that he was flattered to be given the opportunity to participate in the venture, and yes, he would be glad to be a part of it.

“I have tried ever since to keep this in mind. The lesson is that there are lots of good causes, but not as many good stories,” adds Newton.

What is compelling is the stories program constituents tell of how far they have come with just a little help and encouragement and how they in turn have stepped up to help someone else.

Barrier #2: Acting individually

In fundraising, you don’t need any lone rangers. Teamwork is vital. And you need a good system to keep track of who's doing what.

“I recently called a friend to inquire about support for a fundraising dinner, and his first comment was what a wonderful ‘sales force’ we had, since I was about the fifth person who had called,” recounted Newton. “He was light-hearted about it, but for me, it painted a picture of lack of coordination and the probability that we didn't quite know what we were doing,” says Newton.

Record-keeping needs to be robust and up to date, so an organization knows as much as possible about each prospect and can coordinate communication. The development team must demonstrate that it is well managed and thereby inspire confidence in stewardship.

More than ever, people value their privacy. The phrase “constant contact” is conceptually sound, but should not translate as “constant annoyance.” Don’t lose your edge by over-soliciting.

Barrier #3: Terminating the gift

The advertising catchphrase “the gift that keeps on giving” has served well for decades. Applied to a fundraising context, the gift shouldn’t end when the check clears the bank.

Genuine personal gratitude is important. People like to know that their support is appreciated and that it is being put to good use consistent with the solicitation. This is borne out by a recent study of high net-worth individuals conducted by U.S. Trust and The Philanthropic Initiative, which found that concern that a gift won’t be used wisely is the top reason why such individuals don’t give more.

The thank-you should be immediate. Contact from several different sources tells the donor that it is not just someone's job to provide acknowledgment, but that the gift has been widely noticed. And this needs to be followed by timely updates on how the gift is making a difference. The more specific, the better.

Inciting anger, fear and even a dose of guilt over an unmet social need or injustice can be powerful short-term motivators. However, sincere and personally expressed gratitude is more likely to sustain donor affinity and refresh inspiration over time.

Taken together, these principles will help guide you toward realizing superb fundraising result.

Dennis Walsh, CPA is director of The Micah Project in Greensboro, serving as a resource to charitable organizations on financial management, legal compliance and organizational development.

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