Unfortunately, when all this started, no one thought to ask, “At what point can a good fundraising idea become so successful and so widely adopted that it turns back on itself and destroys the organizations that use it?”
I was serving as development director for Our Children’s Hearts in Our Hands, a Denver-based social service agency with a budget of $1.3 million. The program was started in 1982 as a faith-based organization to provide enrichment for children of incarcerated felons convicted of drug offenses with sentences of more than 25 years.
It was strange to be in this position—and it’s frightening to remember how quickly the situation deteriorated after I learned about the Raising More Moola® fundraising method.
It had a lot going for it. It wasn’t just a dreamy idea—this was a proven model, and it had worked wonders for hundreds of nonprofits just like ours. In some ways, the More Moola method simply applies a formula to what many of us already know as good fundraising practices. Given the success stories, I don’t think anyone could have anticipated where all this would head.
High Hopes at the Bottom of it All
There were nine of us in the van on the road trip from Denver to Ypsilanti—a crazy, 20-hour drive to the Raising More Moola training session. We were colleagues who had become friends, meeting for lunch every month in our Development Director Leadership Circle. Our organizations ran the gamut from health and human services to a theatre and a hospital. This trip was designed to take our organizations to the next level, and have a good time doing it. Our cohort was perfect for this training, and I think Mary Jacobs said it best when she commented, “Our strength as a Development Leadership Circle is that we are supportive—not competitive. The nine of us want each other’s organizations to succeed, and we help each other do that.”
Mary’s organization, Range Regional Health Services, was probably the most ready for the Raising More Moola model—so we agreed that rrhs would be the first of our groups to hold their big “ask” event.
More Moola involved two solid days of rigorous, professional classroom training in Ypsilanti, and was worth every penny of the $8400 price tag. The founder of Raising More Moola, Sandy Speiler, was a persuasive and evangelical fundraising genius. The other organizations at the training, mostly from Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio, were also enthusiastic and encouraging.
With excellent step-by-step instructions, interactive exercises, sample scripts, and wheedling tips, the six-point More Moola curriculum was drilled into our brains:
Step 1. Set in concrete a date nine months out for the Primary Assimilation Event, with a beguiling title, where 250 people will be induced to make multi-year pledges totaling over $250,000 to your organization.
Step 2. Propagate a candidate list that will be pared down to a final 25 hardworking table marshals, who will persuade or beguile nine of their friends, employees, relatives, and former lovers into attending the Primary Assimilation Event.
Step 3. Repeatedly and persistently, telephone the 25 table marshals to reinforce their discipline to deliver on the table participation and populate the More Moola database with their invitees.
Step 4. Choreograph a program of emotionally charged video (with three distinct evocative vignettes of parents expressing pain or suffering, swelling music, etc.), and well-scripted and compelling presentations, with a strong “ask” to plead and seal the case.
Step 5. Hold the Primary Assimilation Event at an upscale hotel or conference facility, have the table marshals distribute the envelopes to their nine friends, professional colleagues, or people who have hit them up in the past for contributions.
Step 6. Telephone or e-mail every person who attended the event, and repeatedly solicit them in perpetuity as part of the new system of lifelong (and beyond) relationships.
Even though it seemed a bit formulaic, after the training we were all excited and all nine of our organizations were ready to go. The next 10 months would sorely test our skills, our relationships, and our organizations.
January. As agreed, Range Regional Health Services set their date and started recruiting as the first of our groups to hold its Primary Assimilation Event. I helped behind the scenes, and was assigned to a table with the rest of our development directors’ support group.
rrhs’s event was a brunch at the Denver Sheraton, where 260 guests responded overwhelmingly to a touching program about the Denver agency, which serves at-risk two- to six-year-olds and those with developmental, education, or poignant tribulations. The emotional high point of the program was the video (just as prescribed by the More Moola formula), which opened up our tear ducts and our wallets. The rrhs brunch raised $249,000.
Mary Jacobs and her executive director spent the next three days phoning and e-mailing all the contributors, saying thanks, drawing out their sensitivities and particular responses to the video and the program, and entering the replies into the More Moola database for pledge fulfillment and upgrading.
February. Next up was Episcopal Community Services, with a breakfast event and 220 business leaders, past donors, and ministers. The video presentation was great, though the “ask” script seemed a little too canned after hearing it for the second time in a month. Attendees pledged $205,000—the biggest-ever event for ecs.
For various reasons, Our Children’s Hearts in Our Hands’ event had to be scheduled for December—months after all the other organizations would have launched their campaigns.
March. Two events in one month—perhaps one too many? The Brightside Theatre’s event was the week before Denver Seeds of Hope’s event—and somehow many of the same people were asked and, unsurprisingly, saw a great deal of similarity between the two fundraisers.
Mayor Chavez, the podium speaker introducing the Brightside video, went off script badly when he adlibbed, “I hear six more of these events are already lined up, so budget accordingly.” Brightside did well, with $320,000 in pledges, but the next week Seeds of Hope only got $127,000—and they were sorely disappointed.
April. The halfway point among our nine organizations—Community Solutions Project worked very hard and was lucky to get $175,000 in pledges—and more talk of over-fishing and the special-event death spiral. I was more than a little bit aggravated that eight of csp’s table marshals were people I told csp’s development director were influential people I was planning to invite to Our Children’s Hearts in Our Hands’ event—bad form for non-competitive colleagues.
Lots of second-guessing at my office, because it was clear that out of the nine Denver organizations in our support group, the organizations whose events came later would have a tougher time of it. Not surprisingly, our Development Leadership Circle meetings ground to a halt.
May. Denver Extremity Hospital held its “Healthy Hands and Feet” dinner at City Hall, and despite a massive publicity push (or because of it) only got 110 people to show up. Many of the invited participants were reported to have given an immediate deferral with a subsequent offer of a $100 contribution, expressing their regrets: $85,000 net.
July. Colorado Nature Center held what may have been the most creative event: “A Walk in a Child’s Woods”—with amazing design and videography, and a $60,000 net. A feature article in the Denver Post on the More Moola method reported that members of the public were growing fearful of the “ask”—with reciprocity and social pressure between table marshals run amok. A grid listed all nine organizations, the dates and names of the events, the names of the event chairs and table marshals, and the net amount raised for all the events so far.
September. There was a sense that we were near the end of a cycle of some sort. People were used to the videos with the three compelling moments, and several people had been seen mouthing along with the script in the “ask” at the end of the program.
Was it a good formula? Yes. Was it well conceived? Absolutely. Did over-adoption and conformity ruin its effectiveness? The answer to that question is all too clear.
Please join us on December 15th for Our Children’s Hearts in Our Hands’ “Every Kid Ought to Have a Caring Breakfast” (and, seriously, bring nine others that have obligations of one sort or another to you).
Phil Anthrop is a consultant to foundations in G-8 countries.