General fundraising: July 2010 Archives

July 30, 2010

Fundraising for Charity Bores Young People?

I'm all for celebrities trying to shine their spotlight on various charitable causes, so I was happy to read reports about actor Edward Norton having started the website "Crowdrise." The site lets people post a personal page inviting friends to sponsor or support them in raising money for their favorite cause.

But check out the quote from actor/comedian Seth Rogen, who's reportedly using the site to raise money for the Alzheimer's Association: 'I'm all for anything that makes the idea of charity not lame and boring and very serious. Because I feel that that's what keeps a lot of young people away."

Huh. Do most young people find the idea of charity lame and boring? With so many of them providing voices of sanity, telling adults to stop trashing the world they'll inherit, and in many cases starting their own nonprofits, this comment stopped me short.

There's a difference, however, between starting their own nonprofits and getting on board with others. Where I'll bet Rogen is right is that young people could easily perceive the communications coming from established nonprofits as boring -- a sentiment not limited to young people, in fact.

 Here's how Ken Burnett, author of The Zen of Fundraising, pithily sums it up (in an article on SOFII):

The problem with most nonprofit communications is that they are dull. Given the abundance of colorful, dramatic, human interest material with which nonprofits are blessed, this is a shocking admission. Yet sadly it's true. Fundraisers are prolific producers of printed and electronic communications, but the bulk of it is either tedious, vacuous, fit only for the rubbish bin, or all three. Common weaknesses include too many words, limited skills in designing for readability and over emphasis on what the organization wants to say, rather than on what the reader wants to read. If you think this a little harsh, send off for the newsletters or annual reports of, say, 20 other prominent nonprofits and see if I'm wrong.

Given Mr. Burnett's bio, I believe it's appropriate to read this to yourself in a Scottish accent, in which case it sounds even better.

Accent aside, he's basically hit the nail on the head. And rather than take up more space with suggestions on how to write, I'll offer a complementary tip: Start paying attention to the work of excellent journalists writing for top newspapers and magazines. Notice what they do that draws you in, and makes even the dullest content interesting. Get those mirror neurons firing, and the task won't be as hard as it might sound.


July 12, 2010

Fundraising Blind Spots: What Are Yours?

I recently saw a fascinating play, "In the Wake," by Lisa Kron, at Berkeley Repertory Theater. It centers on a group of friends living in New York, post 9/11. One of the major themes is the characters' struggle to discover what assumptions are so ingrained in them that they can't even see how these affect their personal lives and political opinions.

For example, one character, July, who does international humanitarian work, shocks another (and the audience) by explaining that she never votes in U.S. elections. Her rationale turns out to be one of the most thought-provoking moments in the play: It's because she didn't grow up with the level of economic privilege that gives her friends a blind faith in their ability to effect societal progress. From her and her family's perspective, she has truly never seen voting make a difference.

The other blind spots explored by the play didn't seem as clear-cut or satisfying, at least after a single viewing (I haven't read the script). But the play has left me "seeing blind spots" everywhere I turn. And where better to ferret these out than in one's fundraising plan?

An example turned up in a book I read recently, called Effective Church Finances: Fund-Raising and Budgeting for Church Leaders, by Kennon L. Callahan (Jossey-Bass). Callahan says that many U.S. churches conduct their primary drive for member pledges in October -- despite the fact that, statistically speaking, October has been shown to be one of the most difficult months in which to raise money, as people pay off their summer vacation expenditures and parents cope with the expenses of the new school year.

Why October? It dates back to when our economy was based on agriculture, and farmers would have just brought in the autumn harvest. By now, probably few church fundraisers remember that fact -- while the need for an October pledge drive has become their particular blind spot.

Does your organization have its own blind spots? Asking questions like, "Why do we always do things this way?" is a good way to start finding out. Another way is to think of ways you can test your assumptions about what works. For example, let's say you've always sent four-page letters in your direct mail appeals to potential new donors. You can test the effectiveness of this strategy by dividing the mailing group in half and sending a two-page letter to some and a four-page letter to others. Then compare the results. If you're surprised, congratulations -- your vision just got closer to 20/20.

July 5, 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."