General fundraising: October 2007 Archives

October 29, 2007

Fundraising Kudos to: Historic Cemetery Associations

In honor of Halloween, I want to give a shout-out to the many groups that support this Tombstone country's historic cemeteries. These cemeteries aren't just for the morbidly inclined: They provide park and walking space, unusual collections of plants and trees, displays of one-of-a-kind carved headstones, and a window into the past. In some cases the cemeteries themselves are nonprofits, in other cases separate groups have formed to help preserve them.

There must be challenges involved in basically fundraising for dead people -- but the organizations that have made it work provide great examples of figuring out what your fundraising assets are and making the best use of them.

One great example is Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Watertown, Massachusetts. If you haven't been there, be sure to make a stop on your next trip. Founded in 1831, it was the nation's first large-scale designed landscape open to the public, and credited with fostering the movement toward creating public parks!

Mount Auburn cemetery has just received the Trustees' Emeritus Award for Excellence in the Stewardship of Historic Sites from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Trust noted that the cemetery's fundraising activities include hosting 200 tour groups and presenting more than 70 public lectures annually, while also letting the cemetery be used by neighboring schools as an outdoor classroom for lessons in natural history, art, and literature.

TombstoneMy local favorite historic cemetery is Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. It was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted - yes, the same guy who designed New York City's Central Park, among other places. The cemetery brings the community in with walking tours, a tulip festival, a pumpkin festival, and more. You can see San Francisco across the bay as you wander the old headstones - like the ones pictured here.

October 16, 2007

When "Academese" Meets Fundraising Jargon

And now, for the dark side of fundraising's increasing popularity as a subject for college study: Academic articles are being written about the topic. And not just academic, but seriously academic, with incomprehensible language, mile-long sentences, and the bizarre removal of personal pronouns (or anything else personal).

I'm trying to plow through some of these articles right now, and coming across phrases like, "convergence of concentrating wealth," and "ignore proactively pursuing capital." As if the fundraising world itself didn't already have its linguistic trouble zones, with words like "sustainability," "empowerment," and "outcomes" just waiting to be used and overused.

The sad thing is, some of these academic articles contain valuable information for people working in nonprofits - if anyone could understand them using the limited brain capacity that remains after a long day's hard work. It's ironic that, in a field with such real-world, immediate applications, the writers still feel they must prove their ability to write as abstrusely as the next PhD- or tenure-seeker. Lighten up, folks!

And for tips on how you can use the best language (and avoid those pesky linguistic trouble spots), pick up a copy of Every Nonprofit's Guide to Publishing: Creating Newsletters, Magazines & Websites  People Will Read, by Cheryl Woodard & Lucia Hwang (Nolo).

October 15, 2007

Proof That Board Members Can Learn to Love Fundraising

Last night, at dinner with my friend Emily, she happened to mention that she was in the midst of scheduling 15 or so meetings with major donors. This isn't part of her regular, day job -- Emily serves on the board of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the meetings were part of its annual major gift campaign. Of course, my ears perked up. She looked so cheerful about her task, in a world where board members who'll so much as say the word "fundraise" are seriously lacking.

My first among a barrage of questions, were, "Did you volunteer for this? Did you know it would be part of your board duties?" Emily told me that every board member was advised -- or warned -- upfront that they'd be asked to fundraise. In fact, she'd been partially dreading it. But, she said, "I decided to suck it up, for the sake of getting involved with a great organization. And during last year's major donor campaign, I think I ended up raising the most of any board member."

This might have been the polite time to let Emily return to her tortilla soup, but by now I was in full "gotta blog this!" mode. So here, roughly paraphrased, are her top three explanations for having transformed from hesitant to happy fundraiser:

1) "We -- the solicitors for the major gift campaign -- get tons of support from the organization. They held a lovely kickoff brunch, where Kate, the E.D. spoke, and got us all revved up. And we were each given a packet of information, with talking points and answers to likely questions - which I always get plenty of. Donors want to know about recent successes, the percentage of money going to fundraising and overhead, and much more." (Emily later showed me the info packet -- a rich yet concise color-tabbed notebook with key information on the campaign's goals and participants, instructions on logistical details (like how to get reimbursed for lunch if the donor doesn't offer to pay), inspirational articles on asking for gifts, and much more.)

2) "The donor receives a letter before we have lunch, saying exactly what amount of money I'll be asking for. Most of them have given before - except my parents, who I added to my list -- so this isn't coming out of the blue. And that takes the pressure off me, since the donors know what I'm aiming at. Only a few have flat out turned us down after receiving the letter."

3) "I realize that, because I'm so excited about the work this organization does, it's easy to talk about it! I don't have to study my talking points before each lunch; I've internalized them. And the donors can't help but respond to this, and feel grateful to have found an organization that's truly making a difference in the world."

For more great tips on how to get your board members excited about their duties as fundraisers, check out my book Effective Fundrasing for Nonprofits: Real-World Strategies That Work (Nolo).

October 9, 2007

Appeal Letters' Opening Lines All Sound Alike!

Lately I've been seeing a lot of donor appeal letters whose opening sounds like it came out of a can: You know, something like, "When Mary came to our office, she didn't know what to do. A terrible industrial accident had severed all her limbs, she couldn't work, her husband had left her, her children were hungry . . . . "

It's not that any one letter writer is doing something terribly wrong. They're trying to follow the standard - even solid - advice saying you should start with a hook, ideally drawing the reader in with a personal story.

The problem is that we've heard so many of these stories, they all sound alike. We can predict what's coming before getting five words into the letter. And we all know that the letter will have a moderately happy ending - the nonprofit can help Mary, or others like her, if the reader just sends a check, preferably today. All of this adds up to a good excuse to toss the letter into the recycle bin and go make dinner.Shredded letter

Unfortunately, there's no one perfect solution - and if there were, everyone's letters would start to sound alike all over again. The best advice I can give is to be aware of the problem and on the lookout for ways to vary your letters' openers, even in some small way. Also try to avoid the dirge-like rhythm that I created in my mock opening, above!

To stir up your brain cells, I suggest laying out your organization's most recent appeal letters on a table and comparing their opening lines. Be prepared to find that they're turning into a parody of themselves. Then, before sitting down to write the next letter, ask yourself what's different this time - perhaps a new law that's made your work more difficult, a matching grant deadline that adds particular urgency, or a new societal trend that has your donors worried, too. Once you find that angle, work it into your opener, and you'll have an easier time catching the readers' attention.

For more great tips on how to use the most effective language for your organization, check out Every Nonprofit's Guide to Publishing: Creating Newsletters, Magazines & Websites People Will Read, by Cheryl Woodard & Lucia Hwang (Nolo).

October 3, 2007

Fundraising Kudos to Environment California, for Its Rubber Ducky Campaign

Every group is always looking for an ingenious new way to capture the public's attention -- and, directly or indirectly, boost its donor support. And Environment California sure caught my attention, with its recent campaign around a bill before California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that would ban potentially dangerous, hormone-twisting chemicals called phthalates from children's toys.

In order to pressure the governor to sign the bill, the group says, "For just $12, we'll send a toxic-free rubber ducky with your name on it to Gov. Schwarzenegger!"

Who can resist? Rubber duckies are cute, the price tag is reasonable, and the image of thousands of the little yellow creatures landing on the governor's doorstep is priceless. If they'd sent me a boring-sounding email titled "Ban Phthalates," I probably would have deleted it. Instead, one of those duckies is now winging its way toward Sacramento with my name on it. (And, come to think of it, I'd never before worried about -- or knew how to spell -- phthalates.)

For more tips on how write more effectively, and get those donations for your nonprofit and its latest campaigns, be sure to grab a copy of Every Nonprofit's Guide to Publishing: Creating Newsletters, Magazines & Websites People Will Read, by Cheryl Woodard & Lucia Hwang (Nolo).