5 Kinds of Fundraising Failure and How to Emerge from Them Victorious

5 Kinds of Fundraising Failure and How to Emerge from Them Victorious

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Failure is inevitable in fundraising. Show me an organization that never fails, and I’ll show you one that’s not prepared for the future. Even the very near future.

Here are five categories of fundraising failure — and how you can survive them and make the best of it:

  • Abject Failure. Flat-out, unambiguous, it-didn’t-even-come-close failure. You tried, but you just missed. This most often happens because what you were selling, they weren’t buying. Maybe you had no clear call to action. Or your offer and your audience were not aligned. Or your audience wasn’t really donors. When you experience Abject Failure, at least you know one thing not to do again!
  • Hidden Failure. Sometimes failure is mistakenly considered a success. It happens when the fundraiser doesn’t pay attention to all the things they should be measuring. The most common version of this is looking at gross revenue but ignoring net revenue. It’s not hard to improve gross revenue on a fundraising project when you aren’t thinking about the net. Always watch all the metrics of fundraising, especially net revenue, and you’ll avoid these hidden failures that masquerade as success.
  • Good-Enough Failure. A lot of fundraising activity is in this zone. It does just well enough not to cause anyone pain or to prompt the soul-searching and idea-seeking it takes to change a bad situation. It’s especially hard when the organization doesn’t have any workable alternatives. They come to view just barely good-enough results as okay. Don’t let this happen to you! Always work on improving your fundraising results. Even if they’re already great — but especially if they’re marginal.
  • Bull-Headed Failure. This is caused by organizational insiders who refuse to pay attention to the fundamentals. They often have beliefs about how donors and fundraising ought to be and they refuse to learn what they really are. Organizations trapped in Bull-Headed Failure often find themselves in financial death spirals. Let your fundraising be based on facts and known best practices. Not someone’s ideology.
  • Good Failure. Any failure can be good — when it gives you information. That takes an open mind and a flexible approach. The best kind of Good Failure is when you set up scientific testing: You have a hypothesis you can test with clearly defined expectations. But even the worst kind of failure can retroactively become Good Failure if you look closely at it

Please share your thoughts by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience. 


  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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