Jul 05, 2010

Fundraising Lessons From Monty Python

And now, for something completely different -- especially, but not exclusively, for fundraisers who happen to be Monty Python fans. If your brain is stocked with phrases like "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition" and "Nudge nudge, wink wink," and you occasionally experience an inexplicable craving for Wensleydale cheese, that means you.

Now, as part of your holiday weekend activities, I recommend turning on the telly -- well okay, YouTube -- for a review of the Merchant Banker/Charity sketch. In this lesser-known sketch, a somewhat hapless fundraiser (played by Terry Jones) who's collecting money for an orphans' fund, enters the office of a rich merchant banker (played by John Cleese). In fact, the merchant banker is not only rich, but describes himself as owning "the most startling quantifies of cash," and explains, " I'm very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very rich."

The fundraiser asks for a one-pound contribution. Cleese expresses multiple types of disbelief and confusion and . . . well, take a look, and then come back for the lessons to be learned from this sketch.

Lesson 1: Ask for an appropriate amount. The banker wasn't exactly showing signs of being a willing contributor, but even so, asking for a mere pound in this setting made the fundraiser and his cause appear insignificant. Beneath notice, even.

Lesson 2: Talk to the donor in language he or she can understand. As a businessman, this banker was all about quid pro quo. Even though the "quo" wasn't going to involve direct benefit (other than the little flag offered by the fundraiser, to which Cleese said, "It's a bit small for a share certificate isn't it? Look, I think I'd better run this over to our legal department"), the fundraiser should have been prepared to explain how the banker would benefit. He could have, for example, pointed out the the banker benefits personally from improving his own community, from the increased prestige of being known as a contributor, or whatever else.   

Lesson 3: Know a bit about the tax law. When Cleese, trying to understand the purpose of giving a pound, says, "A tax dodge," the fundraiser says, "No, no, no." I don't know about British tax law, but in this country, the answer would be, "Yes, because we're a 501(c)(3) organization, your gift will be fully deductible to the extent allowed by the law." Why the qualifiers at the end? Because you don't want to put yourself in the position of offering actual tax advice, the law in this area is complex, and whether the donor will reap tax benefits depends in part on his or her personal situation, for example on whether he or she itemizes deductions. For more information on this, see Nolo's free article, "Tax Deductions for Charitable Giving: The Nonprofit's Responsibilities."  

Lesson 4: A return gift won't seal the deal. The banker couldn't even tell what the little flag that the fundraiser offered was. And donors are becoming increasingly aware that a return gift from a charity diminishes the value of their contribution and, if it's worth more than a token amount, of their tax deduction. 

Lesson 5: Revel in the fact that you don't actually have to sell something. Toward the end of the sketch, after the fundraiser has assured Cleese that, "lots of people give me money," Cleese says, "What, just like that?" As the light dawns, Cleese exclaims, "Good lord! That's the most exciting new idea I've heard in years! It's so simple it's brilliant!" And indeed it is. Your nonprofit is in the enviable position of  offering an intangible good that will never break or be cast aside, but allow donors to themselves become part of a greater good. Use that to your advantage! Or, to use a final Monty Python quote, "Always look on the bright side of life."