Too much fundraising contains the self-defeating sub-message: Don’t bother to give. The problem’s too big to solve.
Katya’s Nonprofit Marketing Blog recently reported on a study in Psychological Science that looked at this problem in environmental fundraising: Scaring the wits out of people won’t save the planet:
… the dire, apocalyptic visions painted by many in the environmental field are undermining belief in global warming and discouraging action.
Environmental fundraising isn’t alone in making this fundamental error that drives away donors.
Disease charities that major in how huge their disease is, like the like number of diagnoses per day, are telling donors we simply can’t make any headway.
World poverty and hunger charities using the astounding numbers of hunger-related deaths that happen every day, or similar facts, are telling donors their gift is too small to make a difference.
Domestic poverty charities focus on the discouragingly high incidence of hunger and homelessness here at home are also minimizing their donors’ part.
People don’t give to help solve problems because the problems are huge. They give because the problems are solvable.
You can download the study here (PDF).
The starting point for change is, thankfully, easy to find. It lies in taking the decision to institute an annual appeal for major gifts towards the charity’s core costs. In the US and elsewhere this appeal is called “The Annual Fund Appeal”. It uses major gifts fundraising techniques, but seeks not gifts towards a specific project or capital development, but towards the charity’s general fund – the pot of money needed to keep the charity running. Our colleagues overseas would say “Why scratch around for pennies at huge cost in terms of effort, when a far fewer large gifts from major donors will meet the need.? Isn’t that what wealthier donors are for?”
In strategic terms, it is not unreasonable to aim to raise one third to one half of all unrestricted revenue needs from major donors after five years of developing such an annual appeal programme.
There will be people who, on reading this, will respond negatively. They do not believe that wealthier donors will give at all to such an appeal, or that the donors are simply not out there, or perhaps they tried it once and failed to make any headway with the donor prospects. All of these responses are valid. The UK does not yet have a culture whereby giving comes with the territory of success. Social responsibility has not yet become firmly attached as part and parcel of success. The reason for this, though is simple. Donors need teaching. It doesn’t come naturally to give away your hard won cash, so a process of gradual education is needed about the role which business or professional success has to play in shaping society. Successful people need nurturing so that they understand that theirs is a dual role – one in business and one in society and that both are immensely fruitful.
Who is to do this teaching? The answer again is straightforward. Charity Trustees, Charity Directors and Fundraisers all need to accept this as their responsibility – after all it is they who need the money. From experience, this author can say that the annual appeal for major gifts advocated above is an excellent learning vehicle for all concerned and is strongly recommended as the best way to start the process of long term cultivation of major donors towards a full involvement that, in time, will come to embrace annual major gifts, gifts to special appeals and capital projects and planned gifts of assets including legacies.
An annual appeal by direct mail. Open almost any direct mail appeal you would like to choose and, however it is put together, you will notice one feature which will be common to those sent by literally hundreds of charities – it will feature a specific project, then use clever wording to permit the charity to use the money for general purposes. This is because a belief has grown that direct mail donors will not respond to general appeals, yet the charity needs general, unrestricted money. A more honest approach would be to ask straightforwardly for a donation to the charity’s general purposes in an annual appeal which openly features this as its main intent. Donors in many other English speaking countries are now well accustomed to receiving and responding to Annual Fund appeals from charities and there is no reason to believe that UK donors would react any differently over time. The Charity Commission’s new attention on restricted funds puts greater pressure on UK fundraising to take this course.
Direct debit and standing order donations. As with direct mail giving, there is no reason to think that recruiting direct debit or standing order donations would be less successful than at present if the request was presented in the context of an annual appeal.
Want to know what sucks about fundraising copy?
The more excellent it seems, the less excellent it is.
I’ve seen appeals that read like poetry …
Imagery that would make John Donne gasp.
Layers of connotation that would surprise James Joyce.
But when real donors got the appeal, they didn’t care. All that great stuff added up to almost nothing in terms of response.
The ones that work? They’re usually look a little rough: Dashed out, simplistic, repetitive to the point of boring.
But the professionals know — those winners that look so crappy? They’re just as hard to write as the beauties that impress everyone but don’t quite work. And that’s what separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, in fundraising.
… ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these…’