#103 Jan/Feb 1999

When Fundraising Strategies Wear Out

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 […]

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 are attached, there are few reporting requirements.

Fantasy 2: Someone whom no one in the organization knows dies and leaves the group $1 million. Because no one in the group knew the person, no one is bereft at the loss.

Fantasy 3 (When it is clear the other two aren’t happening): The organization creates a perfect fundraising plan, in which all strategies work well and there are plenty of volunteers to help. Although fundraising takes time, no one resents this because the strategies are lucrative and fun. Every year, the group makes more money with the same plan.

Fantasy 3 has a lot going for it. It is based in some reality. It calls for a plan, recognizes that fundraising takes time, and acknowledges the need to fundraise every year. It only goes wrong when it postulates that one plan can be used successfully year after year.

Wear and Tear

The fact is that fundraising strategies, like anything else, wear out. Like taking care of a car, the trick is to anticipate wear and tear and deal with it before damage is done. Fundraising strategies get stale for a number of reasons. 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 overall effectiveness is decreased. This 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. After the third or fourth or fifth group does one, people get tired of dance-a-thons and look around for something new to do. The same fate can befall almost any strategy. Even major donor campaigns (my personal favorite) are over-used in some communities and have lost some of their 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 these reasons are related to each other. It is hard to keep a feeling of excitement about your appeal letter if you know it will show up next to 20 other worthy appeal letters in a donor’s mailbox. It is hard not to get cynical when the struggle to raise money is never ending and even if you succeed in raising the amount you need for one year, you will have to start over next year.

How to Prevent a Strategy from Wearing Out

Fortunately, you can do a number of things to keep your fundraising strategies fresh.

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, which 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 to help you. Volunteers and board members like writing thank-you notes, and a personal note is infinitely better than a form letter.

Try variations on a theme. Suppose your community has a dozen awards dinners, or 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 people whom you would have invited that they have won an award from your group – 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.

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 decor. I keep going back because I know what they offer and I like it. (This is not to say that I 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. 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.

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’s important to involve many 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 you started needs to change. By keeping focused on the organization’s mission, you will be able to make its fundraising strategies work for you.



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