Why is Fundraising a Dirty Word?

April 18, 2012

Posted in Fundraising.

Last year, I went with some friends to see a presentation that shared some great fundraising research on why people donate. Afterwards, we talked about the session and I was astonished by my friends’ cynicism.

It was clear they didn’t see things the same way I did. One even said he felt dirty, knowing how fundraisers might use this information to manipulate so many people into donating.

Aired on March 30, 2012, episode #461 of This American Life was about political fundraising and throughout the episode everyone – hosts, producers, interviewers, politicians, lobbyists – imply that fundraising is a dirty fact of life. At best, it’s considered a necessary evil. And while the political system admittedly has flaws, it seems few are willing to defend it.

So why is fundraising such a dirty word?

Different Kinds of Fundraising

For the first few years I tried to do any kind of fundraising, I felt it was mysterious. I asked experienced fundraisers to tell me how they make an ask. I looked for concrete examples of how to conduct a fundraising visit. (Now I realize it’s not as simple or clear as that, though it’s not nearly as difficult as you may think.) I put fundraising into buckets like:

  • dinners/events/auctions
  • direct mail
  • sales (e.g., Girl Scout Cookies)
  • grants
  • corporate giving
  • in-kind donations
  • individual appeals

Do you notice something about this list? Except for the last one, all of these are quick, yet indirect fundraising. They are fairly impersonal, just making a phone call or writing a letter or organizing some dinner where a solicitation is never more than implied. As we’ve seen before, donations come mostly from individuals.

The Story We Tell Ourselves

For non-fundraisers or those new to the task, what we think of as fundraising is essentially like banging the tin cup and begging for spare change. We imagine how awful it would be – how offensive, how outrageous – if someone simply came up and asked us for a bunch of money for their cause. And what if twenty people from twenty causes came and asked you for a bunch of money?

And frankly, I’ve made that mistake and failed miserably. Which is great, because I won’t do that again.

What really happens in fundraising

Here’s what I needed someone to explain to me when I first started trying to fundraise:

Fundraising starts and ends with the relationships you build. People have to trust you, the fundraiser. They have to believe in what you’re trying to accomplish. They have to care. And they have to have the means to do something.

Here’s an example of how to engage, cultivate, and solicit a donation from an individual donor:

  1. Don’t ask for money, ask them for a chance to visit and get to know them.
  2. Don’t ask for money, ask them for an opportunity to tell them your story (e.g., why you personally do what you do and why it matters).
  3. Don’t ask for money, ask them to learn more, visit your program, volunteer for a day, or something to form a bond with your cause.
  4. Don’t ask for money, ask them to articulate why your cause is important and listen for what gets them going.
  5. Don’t ask for money, ask them if you can talk with them about a project where they can help, based on what they have said they care about.
  6. Ask them to make a difference through the project you present.
  7. No matter what they say, if they’ve let you get to this point then ask to continue the conversation.
  8. Above all, thank them every step along the way (ahem, stewardship is the beginning of the next cultivation).

It’s not dirty, it’s pure

If you believe in the cause you’re raising money for (and if you don’t, then what are you doing?!) then it’s not dirty at all. Each visit is simply a chance to touch hearts and minds, to find people who already care about your cause, and to provide opportunities to do something about it. If they don’t want to give, they won’t. When they write a check, they will feel GREAT about it. Making a donation is not dirty, it’s one of the most positive and invigorating things you can do. So if you’ve done your job as a fundraiser, your donors will feel wonderful.

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