Aggressive Fundraising, Transparency, and the Worst Case Scenario

September 21, 2010

Posted in Fundraising.

This year, our Camp Fire USA council went transparent. We posted our budget and shared financial data that people had never seen. At a public meeting and in a community newspaper, we presented balance sheets and income statements, historical performance trends, and details about the organization’s debt that were not previously shared.

We were hoping to lay it all out there and do two things: demonstrate need and show positive momentum.

It didn’t work.

Marble by

Being Transparent

There were a number of people who appreciated the transparency, understood our plight, and offered assistance. One group volunteered to organize a fundraiser and a number of individuals stepped forward to help in other ways. One of these volunteers gave significant time and expert consulting, and later gave a significant donation.

But many others did not attend the meeting and did not read the frequent updates and articles. Instead, they listened to rumors or hearsay. Others took up the cause and often exaggerated the situation.

Background: In short, the organization has faced deficits every year for 20 years. In that time, it’s also racked up some debt. In the last couple of years, we’ve confronted a lot of our demons and made some hard decisions. And while we have some passionate supporters, the dollars haven’t been there. So we got a little more aggressive, attempting to add urgency to the appeals.

Urgency isn’t Desperation

In order to add urgency, we pointed to the consequences of failure. After all, deficits and debts aren’t indicators of a strong, thriving organization. Unfortunately, many in our community took this as a desperate appeal for a bailout. Many used that term, and not in a favorable way. One of our supporters wrote an article detailing a bleak future where our organization had closed and sold off its camp to a developer to make condos. While this riled people up, it instilled fear.

The result was concern that the organization was on the verge of closing.

I Hate The Rain by

Throwing Good Money After Bad

If you knew a company was going down the tubes, would you pour your money into it? Of course not. So with all of our negative press (even from our supporters who were trying to help) and misunderstood position, I started to have a recurring nightmare conversation with donors that went something like this:

Donor: I would like to give, and we’re ready to, but we want some assurance that the organization won’t close.

Me: We’re not going to close. If we have to incur debt or sell an asset so we can get through another couple of years, we will. But we’re not closing.

Donor: If you don’t raise enough money to hit your goal, what happens to my donation? Does it just go away when you close?

Me: Again, we’re not in a position to close. If you give and we fall short of our goal, what you will have done is helped us reduce the debt and extended our survival. The longer we can survive, the better we can grow out of this situation.

Donor: Ok… but what if you close?

Where Spin Failed, Success Won

After a number of similar conversations, I realized that the message had trumped the cause. We had turned up the consequences and that was all people were hearing. To change it, we needed to change the story and begin to show some success. After all, success begets success.

We needed to inject some optimism. At the height of our campaign, we had a silent auction fundraiser that coincided with a dinner. After the dinner, I had an opportunity to speak.

I told the story of one of our campers who had a tremendous summer the previous year, only to return and outdo himself. He was a great case of confidence-building, momentum, and personal achievement. These are themes we needed to highlight because just as he had overcome his own obstacles and built upon his successes, we were doing the same. The last few years were successful for a number of reasons, but the story was clouded by a negative viewpoint. While things aren’t perfect, it takes time to grow and improve and you can’t expect things to turn around overnight.

The story was well received and the conversations from then on were quite different. We raised more in that one weekend than we had in the entire previous year. The result was that we will be able to finish out the year without incurring additional debt.

Lessons Learned

Donors are investors, right? I use that analogy all the time so I don’t suppose it should be surprising that they would be nervous about investing in us. Companies have to work hard to convince investors that they are a good investment, so why shouldn’t we have to work hard as well? Bad PR can be terribly damaging in this regard.

The other side is that positive PR, optimism, and success are all important motivating factors to a donor. People want to be associated with successful endeavors. In order to be successful, it helps to focus on your successes so that people feel good about giving.

Finally, you have to have a vision and a plan to get there. People asked how we were going to get out of debt, fix our budget, and ensure our survival. The better I could answer those questions, the more likely the donor would give.

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