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How To Free Your Fundraising From The Destructive Power Of Committees


Raise your hand if you’ve seen the damage committees can do to fundraising.

Keep that hand up if you’re on such a committee.

Thought so. Committees are ubiquitous in our industry. And deadly.

The committee that really screws things up in fundraising is the one that reviews fundraising messages. We’d probably be better off if our messages were attacked by howling mobs of marauders than the stern group sitting around a conference table with their opinions.

Committees are meant to bring together expertise. Instead, what they do is pool and concentrate incompetence. In the looking-glass world of committees, each member’s incompetence gets full hearing:

  • There’s always an efficiency expert who says, “Too much copy. No one has time to read it.”
  • There’s always an intellectual who says, “Too emotional. People won’t respond. Make it more intellectual.”
  • Then there’s an educated person who says, “You’re talking down to the donors. They’ll be insulted.”
  • There’s at least one “formalizer.” You know the type: short words like “gift” become long words like “donation,” and colloquial words like “kids” become formal words like “children.” And you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction. Or use sentence fragments. Ever.
  • There’s usually a brand cop with a straitjacket interpretation of brand standards — which mandate bragging like a tin-pot businessman who somehow got elected president.
  • Then there’s someone who’s afraid of change.
  • And someone else who’s allergic to anything that’s been done before.
  • Have I mentioned lawyers? If you have one of those on the committee — well, let’s just start singing your project’s requiem right now.

If all that weren’t enough, there’s a group dynamic in many committees: To prove you’re intelligent, relevant or on top of things, you have to have opinions. Lots of them. And “significant” ones.

In an atmosphere where personal opinion pulls as much weight as facts or expertise, more opinions are a very bad thing.

We all have a blind spot or two. And nobody’s an expert on everything. But the fundraising review committee mixes everyone’s ignorance and poorly supported opinions into a toxic cocktail that can kill your chances for fundraising success.

And if it’s hard on quality, it’s death to innovation. The less familiar something is, the more a committee attacks. Fear of the unknown grows into Lord of the Flies groupthink. You can kiss innovation goodbye.

The weird thing is, nearly everyone knows that a committee is a terrible way to produce good work. Yet they live on, doing their damage every day.

How can we make it better?

Fundraising is harder than ever. Donors are more demanding. There’s more competition. New channels to learn and evaluate. We urgently need exceptional work and box-busting innovation.

Things committees eliminate with pin-point accuracy.

If you have the power to do so, ban the fundraising review committee. Replace it with two or three people who have specific and relevant expertise. Limit the authority of each person to their areas of competence. And make sure these same people are held responsible for fundraising results. That will keep them focused and realistic.

They won’t be a committee.  They’ll be what a committee is supposed to be in the first place: experts applying their expertise in a useful way.

If you don’t have the power to ban the committee … if you are yourself just another face on the committee, you can make things better.

You could resign from the committee. On a raw numbers basis, that might be good. But I have a feeling your committee would be even worse off without you.

Instead of giving up, try these three things:

  1. Limit your comments. Hold your tongue and suggest changes only when you are squarely within your expertise and you have facts to back you up.
  2. Work to enlighten fellow committee members. Bring in documentation from the experts about what really works in fundraising. Build the case for fact-based judgment over opinion-based judgment.
  3. Advocate restraint. You might be able to impact your committee’s culture and make it less destructive. Your fellow members may be open to becoming a different kind of group for the good of your organization.

I know: That’s all much easier said than done. As long as the committee exists, it will behave as a committee. But the fundraising world needs better, stronger, knowledge-based work as we face the challenges ahead. The committee as we know it isn’t going to give us that.

Please share your experience with committees and what you’ve done to overcome them by leaving your reply below. We’d love to learn from your experience.

Want to position yourself to outsmart your committees?  Check out our Moceanic courses that are available for all members of The Fundraisingology Lab!

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • Gina Kellogg
    June 27, 2017 9:12 am

    At the nonprofit where I worked, this was definitely the norm. And when trying to back up the creative efforts those of us developing the content and messaging were trying to achieve, and doing our best to explain why by citing “best practices,” we were told we A) weren’t being innovative enough or B) weren’t following the directions of those making the decisions. Honestly, we couldn’t win for losing. We had an amazing cause, but when the people in charge of decision-making don’t have the background or expertise to understand or recognize your suggestions, it’s a losing battle. Not just for you, but for the whole organization and its long-term efforts.

    • I think the number-one challenge we face in our industry is poor leadership, and this issue of the rule of committees is just one face of that. There’s hope: We are professionalizing, and we will crowd out the amateurs eventually. It’s up to those who get it to speak and not be silent on doing stuff right — even when you constantly lose the battles!

  • Oh, how I relate to that! You don’t need a committee for all the above – just a school principal! And what about the P.S.? “You don’t need a P.S. if you have constructed the letter properly!!”


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