Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during October-1998, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Nearly all organizations have three fundraising fantasies:
Fantasy 1: The Council on Foundations will declare their group, “The group to fund now and forever” and, using one simple proposal photocopied over and over, the organization will apply to several foundations and receive lots of money. Because no strings will be attached to this money, there will be few reporting requirements.
Fantasy 2: Someone whom no one in the organization knows dies and leaves the group $1,000,000 to do with as they see fit. Because no one knew the person, no one in the group is bereft at their loss.
Fantasy 3 (When it is clear the other two aren’t happening): The organization creates a perfect fundraising plan, in which a variety of strategies work well and there are plenty of volunteers to help with the work. No one resents the time fundraising takes because the strategies are lucrative and fun. Every year, the group uses the same plan and makes more money.
Fantasy 3 has a lot going for it. It is based in some reality. It calls for a plan, it recognizes that fundraising takes time, and it acknowledges that you have to fundraise every year. In fact, Fantasy 3 only goes wrong when it postulates that one plan will be created and used successfully year after year.
The fact is, like anything else, fundraising strategies wear out. Like taking care of a car, the trick is to anticipate wear and tear and deal with it before damage is done. There are a number of reasons for fundraising strategies getting stale. Most common is that people in the organization get tired of them and start taking shortcuts. Mail appeals get terse and boring. The newsletter is full of typos and the articles lack passion. Thank-you notes are photocopied, with the donor’s name filled in by a volunteer.
The second most common reason is that a strategy that works well for one or two groups is adopted by many groups and thus its effectiveness is decreased for everyone. This situation is particularly true with special events. One group makes a fortune on a dance-a-thon. They get a lot of publicity and everyone has a great time. So another group does a dance-a-thon. They do well. After the third or fourth or fifth group does one, people get tired of all the dance-a-thons and look around for something new to do. The dance-a-thon as a fundraising strategy starts to be less effective.
The same fate can befall almost any strategy. Even major donor campaigns (my personal favorite) are overused in some communities and have lost some of their original effectiveness.
Finally, there is the problem of market saturation. Direct mail, phone solicitation, and other mass appeal strategies are now alienating donors as fast as they attract them.
All of these reasons are related to each other. It is hard to keep a feeling of excitement about your appeal letter if you know that it will show up next to 20 other worthy appeal letters in a donor’s mailbox. It is hard not to get cynical about all these problems when the struggle to raise enough money is never ending and even if you succeed in raising the amount of money you need for one year, that only means that you will have to start over next year.
Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to keep your fundraising strategies fresh. Here are three approaches and three examples to consider.
1. Let different people in the organization take the lead on fundraising strategies. No one person should write all the mail appeals, for example. Ask board members or volunteers to write a first draft. Get someone who has benefited from your work to write a testimonial. The fundraising staff can then work with these letters, but they will probably be much different letters than what you would have come up with.
Ditto for editing the newsletter. While one person should probably oversee and make final decisions about content, it is deadly for one person to always be in charge of the writing.
Double ditto for thank-you notes. The minute you stop adding personal notes to your thank-you notes, get someone else in there to help you. Volunteers and board members like writing thank-you notes, and a personal note is infinitely better than a form letter.
2. Try variations on a theme. Suppose your community has a dozen awards dinners, or that everyone is invited to a house party every week. If those are common strategies in your area, then send a mail appeal inviting people to stay home. This is called a “phantom event.” Tell the people whom you would have invited that they have won an award from your group—the award is that they can put their feet up and have a nice cup of tea right after they write your group a check. They don’t need to go anywhere or listen to a fundraising pitch—they just send the cash and relax at home.
3. Remember that just because you are tired of a strategy, it doesn’t mean the donor is. I have a favorite Italian restaurant. I don’t care if the people who work there get tired of fixing Italian food. I want Italian food when I go there. I want the same menu and the same decor. The same is true of my favorite vacation spots—I keep going back because I know what they offer and I like it. (Of course, I don’t mind small improvements now and then.) Don’t project onto the donor your own lack of enthusiasm for the strategy.
Even so, strategies do wear out. For example, a phantom event will work for one or two years, or every other year, but eventually it will become “another nonevent appeal” to be thrown in the wastebasket. This is especially true when the same groups that took on and tired out your dance-a-thon idea now use your idea of the phantom event.
A fundraising event takes at least one year to really get going, but often wears itself out after seven or eight years. Similarly, predictable quarterly mail appeals need to be spruced up and varied in terms of timing, theme, design and such, or they will begin to get tossed after a few years.
So, how can you tell if it is you who are tired, or the donor? How do you know if the strategy needs a little remodeling or should be junked altogether? The answer is that often you don’t know. You make your best guess. You can ask other people what they think and take that into account, but they may be reacting from their own tiredness unrelated to your event or campaign.
These three examples show a range of responses to tired or worn out fundraising strategies.
A community center in a small town did a movie benefit every year, showing an old popular film. Before showing the movie, the group put on a short play that was a satire adapting the storyline of the movie to their town. For several years, this event got more and more popular. The plays were as well-received as the movie and often really hilarious. Modifying movies like “Singing in the Rain,” “Casablanca” or “The Ten Commandments” to take place in their community was fun for the writers and actors, so it wasn’t difficult to get people to participate.
But over time a number of problems with this event developed. First, to keep it available to the whole community, the group kept the ticket prices low. As a result, it was difficult to generate a lot of money; even with sales of popcorn and soda, the profit was not great. Second, the plays were sometimes too long and the jokes were sometimes too obscure for the audience. Third, after five or six years it got hard to find a movie that could be made into an entertaining play, and the novelty of the event began to wear off. Attendance fell after the fourth year and was reduced to pretty much the same people who also supported the group by mail.
When the development director called everyone together to begin the planning process for the seventh annual show, she hoped she could stimulate some excitement if she provoked her volunteers into defending the event. So she started by saying, “Let’s not do this event again. It’s getting boring.” Much to her surprise, several volunteers agreed with her.“Let’s quit while we are ahead,” said one. “I agree,” said another. “Let’s stop now and wait for people to beg us to do this event again.” “Much better than having them beg us not to do it,” said a third. Others disagreed, but only half-heartedly. “It’s not that hard to do,” said one. “What else are we going to do?” Since they didn’t have an idea of what to replace the movie event with, they hired me to help them figure out where to go from there.
We worked together in one long meeting. They had made the most important move, which was to admit there was a problem. The first question I asked was, “Whose problem is it? Are the organizers worn out, but the audience happy? Or is everyone pretty much out of steam on this one?” Their answer came fairly easily: both organizers and audience were tired of this event.
Before deciding what to do about it, they reviewed their goals for holding an event. They enumerated three:
1. Bring the whole community together for a fun time. This means the event has to be affordable and children need to be welcome and entertained.
2. Bring in people who have not come to the community center before. Two types of people are particularly targeted—newcomers as the rural town expands, and the people who work on the surrounding farms who generally don’t come to events.
3. Make more money than the film/play event had brought in. The group agreed that in their efforts to be affordable, they had “given away the store.” They would have to create some income generation methods as part of any event to boost revenues.
All three of these goals are appropriate to special events. In this instance, making more money from the event may have to give way to bringing the whole community together, or vice versa, since an event that is affordable for a range of people is not going to be a major money maker. A compromise on those goals might need to be made.
After more discussion, this is how they decided to salvage their event:
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1. Discard the old movie idea. They had gone through the most popular old movies and they didn’t seem to be a draw any more.
2. Since what attracted the most people was creating the play, turn the event into a talent show. Each act would be given a time limit and people wanting to be in the show would apply by describing their talent and paying a nominal fee to participate.
3. Add another money-making dimension. Merchants, craftspeople and restaurants would be encouraged to have booths in the lobby of the community center where people could shop and eat before the performance. Fees for the booths would be competitive with those at other fairs and events, and would generate the additional money the group wants to raise.
4. Create a small adbook to distribute containing the program for the talent show. The many self-employed people in this community could advertise their plumbing, contracting, massage, art therapy, tarot reading and other talents for enough money to cover the cost of the adbook itself and generate a little profit.
5. See this talent show idea as one that will last about three or four years and will then need to evolve into something else. It has the seeds of a number of other events: crafts show, bringing in outside professional talent, food fair, and so on.
The first talent show was held on a Saturday afternoon. People from the outlying farms who came into town for supplies stayed for the event or browsed at the booths. The event had a lot more foot traffic because people could come into the booths without attending the talent show or they could just stay for part of the show. Admission to the show was only $2 for adults and was free for children.
The community turned out a lot of talent, and it was clear that the talent show idea will work for quite a while. Some people were disappointed that there was no movie, so next year they may add a movie as an evening entertainment to finish off the day.
At its most successful, the old movie/play event brought 200 people in the audience and netted about $2,000. With the income from the booths, the adbook and the entry fees for the talent show, the new event netted $5,000 from about 300 people in its first year.
The event is still a lot of work, but the income and the new audience and participants have created a new event that will serve the community center for some time.
An environmental group has done a phone-a-thon every year. They call all their members to ask them to renew their membership and to take some action on an issue, such as writing a letter or calling a legislator. Callers are also available to answer any questions about the group’s work.
The group started using this strategy five years ago when they had about 200 members and were working on a high-profile and fairly complicated worker health and safety issue. They have now grown to 1,000 members and have a number of different programs, which they discuss in detail in their newsletter.
Calling all 1,000 donors has made the phone-a-thon onerous. It now extends over several nights and, while there are some people who enjoy making the calls, it is hard to get enough volunteers to cover all the members. Because many of the members are enthusiastic about the group’s work, they ask a lot of questions about what is happening and what the group thinks about this and that environmental issue. This takes a lot of time and training of the volunteer callers.
The board and staff of the organization resist going to an entirely mail-based membership renewal system for two reasons. First, some find the phone-a-thon effective and enjoyable in renewing the relationships they have established with many of these donors over the years. Second, they feel that phoning is a more environmental strategy than sending out mail appeals.
However, the development director is having a hard time finding enough people to make all the calls, and getting phone numbers for each member as they join is getting harder. Furthermore, it takes two to three calls to reach most people. Overall, she feels the amount of time the process takes is not justified by the returns.
When the group revisits its goals it finds that the original goal of the phone-a-thon—to build a strong membership base with people who could be counted on to be politically active on the issues as well as give money—is no longer valid. While 200 people might still be counted on for political actions, to keep 1,000 people mobilized takes much more staff than this group has. The group clarifies that raising money from the members is the primary goal of this strategy; knowing this, they are able to solve their problem.
They decide to segment their donors into three categories:
1. People who give less than $100, who have responded well in the past to being called, and/or whom the board and volunteers who will be doing the phone-a-thon know personally. These are the people who will be called during the phone-a-thon.
2. People who have given $100 or more for more than three years in a row. These people will be moved into a major gifts campaign. Instead of being called during the phone-a-thon, they will be called at another time by someone from a major gifts committee and offered the opportunity to meet personally with someone from the group. At that meeting they will be solicited for an increased donation.
3. Everyone else on the list. This group—by far the largest—will be sent a renewal letter. Just in case some of these people really did look forward to their annual phone contact, the letter will say, “If you would like to talk to one of our volunteers, do not send back your membership dues now. Just wait for our call. If you would rather not be disturbed, or you are not going to be in on the nights of our phone-a-thon, please send in your membership today.” Of those who do not send back their renewals, those who are not home when called will be sent a second letter (which is their third reminder) asking them to renew. If they do not respond, they will be put into a lapsed file.
Sorting the names, getting volunteers to go through the names, and then getting a letter out takes the same amount of work as organizing the phone-a-thon used to. However, the organization is now doing a mail appeal, a personalized phone appeal to the most likely responders, and they are ready for their major gifts campaign. They are now using the phone-a-thon properly and working with the donors properly.
The final example looks at a group that has made even more radical changes to their strategy. This organization publishes a magazine that goes to about 6,000 subscribers. The income from the subscriptions does not cover the cost of the magazine, so a few years ago the group decided to institute a “sustainer” program, asking people to give money over and above their subscription fee.
They hired someone with a strong marketing background to develop the program and, over two years, this person put in place an elaborate tiered sustainer system. The basic magazine subscription is $15. For $35, you also got a T-shirt. For $100, you got the T-shirt and a poster. For $250, you got the T-shirt, poster, and a book written by an author the magazine features. For $500 or more you got all the aforementioned plus an invitation to a reception for a celebrity.
For three years the group raised a lot of money with this program. Even factoring in the staff time needed to send all the benefits, they showed a handsome profit. But after three years, their retention rate started to fall. Many people who had given $35 dropped back to $15. Also it took work to have a new T-shirt designed every year and to find a new book. Staff began to grouse about the time the fulfillment took and the marketing person, feeling unappreciated, left.
In response, the executive director and board changed the marketing job description to a development position and hired someone who has both marketing and fundraising experience. This person made a small change at first. In the reply device, she added a box for the sustainer to check if they do not want the benefit for their gift, or if they would like it sent to someone else.
When more than half of the sustainers check that they do not want the benefit and about one-third of the others either have their benefit sent to someone else or just say, “Send it to someone who wants it,” the development director had the answer to what to do about this cumbersome program. She got rid of it altogether, all at once.
Loud cries were heard from staff (those who were grousing previously) that “You can’t just cut things off like that,” but not a peep was heard from the sustainers. At the end of two more years, her sustainer renewal rate is slightly lower than her predecessor’s, but without the cost of the benefits and the time fulfilling them, the income is much higher. People are simply asked to give $35, $50, $100 or whatever they can afford. Those who give $100 or more are called and, if they are willing, are visited and asked for an even higher gift.
Through this process, the development director has more than doubled the number of people giving $500- 1,000 from 10 to 25, and the number giving $250-499 from 30 to 100. From time to time, when a book is published by someone who writes for the magazine, she plans to make it available to sustainers for a fraction of its retail price.
In this way, the organization has gotten rid of those donors who were actually shoppers disguised as donors and built a strong base of people loyal to the magazine, not the benefits.
Fundraising strategies should be examined every year to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do in terms of your overall fundraising plan. Your strategies will have to be modified, revamped and sometimes scrapped to meet the needs of a growing organization. It is important to involve a lot of people in fundraising to avoid that feeling of being on a treadmill. Just because something has worked in the past doesn’t mean it will always work.
On the other hand, just because something isn’t working up to par doesn’t mean it can’t be made to work with a few adjustments.
Keep your eyes on the overall goal. Be detached from the details, and don’t take it personally if something that you started needs to change. By keeping focused on the mission of the organization, you will be able to make its fundraising strategies work for you.