7 bad habits of fundraisers

7 Bad Habits of Ineffective Fundraisers


Ineffective fundraising is often the result of the mental habits of fundraisers. Lack of resources, poor planning, bad economic times, even stupidity does less harm than these bad habits. Conquer these habits, and you’ll raise a lot more money.

Bad Habit #1: Being ashamed of fundraising

Many professional fundraisers have a destructive belief that asking people for money annoys them. Or sometimes that it debases and embarrasses the one who asks.

This puts fundraisers in confusing territory: They need their donors to fund vital programs — but they don’t want to say so clearly. That bends their fundraising messages into pretzel shapes that look something like this:

“Maybe you’d be interested in giving. It’s OK if you don’t give. We’re a very well-run organization, and we have many other sources of funding. You’re a small fish anyway, to be honest. But, you know, if you think of it, a gift would be a nice gesture.”

I know that’s an exaggeration, but it’s how shame-based fundraising operates. Besides its basic dishonesty, this type of fundraising fails to respect the reality of donors and their gifts. And it doesn’t work very well.

If you’re burdened with an attitude that asking for money somehow gets in the way of a real relationship with donors, you’re missing an important fact: For nearly all of your donors, giving is the whole enchilada. You exist so they can give to you. Giving is the medium through which they connect with your cause. Their gifts are the way they translate their values into action.

Donors want to be wanted. They need to be needed. They desire to make the world a better place. Coming to the rescue makes them feel happy and proud. So if you need your donors, go ahead and tell them. Let them know the urgency and the stakes. Be direct. Don’t hide your need behind a mousy veil of pseudo-politeness.

Bad Habit #2: Talking to yourself, not your donors

This is a tough habit to break because it requires you to think outside yourself. You just aren’t like them: Your thoughts, your experience, your education, your relationship with the cause, and (most likely) your demographic and psychographic profiles are very different from your donors’. The moment you do something in fundraising because you believe it would appeal (or not appeal) to you, you are on shaky ground. Actually, you’re not on any ground at all. You are floating in imaginary clouds because what appeals to you is almost guaranteed not to connect with real-life donors.

Don’t create messages that would motivate you. Study your donors and their behavior, and create messages for them. In fact, if something feels slam-dunk persuasive to you, take that as a warning sign that you’re missing your donors.

Bad Habit #3: Making decisions on instinct, not facts

Sometimes instinct serves you well. Like when it warns you not to walk down the wrong street in a neighborhood you don’t know. Not always though. Instinct can be flat-out wrong. Here are some common instinctive beliefs that may feel true:

  • Don’t ask someone who recently gave. Donors need to “rest” between gifts.
  • Don’t call the donors; everybody hates telemarketing.
  • Nobody reads long letters anymore.

All three of these statements are dramatically wrong and will result in weaker fundraising results.

When your instinct tells you something, use that as a starting point. Call it a hypothesis (that’s all it is) until you can verify the facts. You could end up shocked at how wrong your instincts were. That happens all the time. But armed with the facts, you’ll make much better decisions in the future.

Bad Habit #4: Over-thinking

Bad things happen. And when they do, we often kick ourselves for failing to anticipate them. That’s why many people and organizations put prodigious energy into anticipating problems.

This leads to over-thinking, which might be even worse than under-thinking. I’ve had an over-thinker tell me that using a slightly smaller-than-standard sheet of paper for a direct mail letter could cause donors to think we’re disrespecting them by skimping on paper — and, presumably, cause those donors not to give.

Trouble is, we seldom anticipate the actual problems that happen. What really happened with the smaller-than-standard paper was this: It had too much space to move around in the envelope, so it shifted the address that was supposed to show through the window. A high percentage of the pieces mailed were undeliverable as a result. Missing that was classic under-thinking. The bit about disrespected donors was over-thinking.

When you over-think, you end up building walls that are better at keeping innovation out than keeping you safe. Decisions made in fear do far more harm than the things you’re afraid of. Cast out your fear!

Bad Habit #5: Thinking fundraising is about transactions, not relationships

Most donors are a net liability for the first 12+ months after you bring them on board. That is, it cost you more to find them and get the right message to them than they gave you. It’s their subsequent generosity that moves them into the financial asset column. And the longer they stay with you and keep on giving, the more profitable they are.

In addition, it’s through relationships that you find and encourage donors to become monthly donors, major donors, or planned giving donors — where the real money comes from.

If your mental model of fundraising is that we’re just trying to get people to give, you’ll spend your money all wrong. You’ll fail at thanking and reporting back. And your mental model will come true: You’ll get little more than those one-time gifts from donors who find no reason to continue a relationship.

Bad Habit #6: Being addicted to change

I know it’s boring to hear this, but most of the success in fundraising comes from plodding along with proven programs and making changes in incremental and measured ways. It means saying the same thing over and over, even though you’re getting out-of-your-mind tired of it.

Many a nonprofit has set aside lifeblood fundraising programs because it got tired of them — and suffered crippling revenue losses as a result. Don’t let that happen to you. Stay disciplined.

Bad Habit #7: Being allergic to change

Discipline is an important part of success, but it’s not everything. We’re standing at the edge of a new era for nonprofits. Our old donors are quickly passing away. They’re being replaced by Boomers (and younger) whose motivations for giving are different from their elders’. The way we talk to them has to be different.

At the same time, giving via the Internet is growing rapidly and interacting in strange new ways with direct mail, print, broadcast and other media. Digital techniques and tactics are different in some surprising ways. And they change quickly.

The electric combination of a new type of donor and a new medium puts us in a scary position: Change or die. Some are going to die.

Yes, change is risky. New ventures fail more often than they succeed. But change is our only viable long-term strategy. Embrace change and you have a long and hopeful future ahead of you.

The good news about all these bad habits: They are merely mental — less constraining than cobwebs. They can be changed in the twinkling of an eye. The bad news: Mental chains can be the hardest to break.

If you want to produce record-breaking fundraising communications – and avoid all of these bad habits – check out these two online courses; 7 Steps to Creating Record-Smashing Direct Mail and Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits. You can get access to both of these courses when you join The Fundraisingology Lab.


  • 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.

    View all posts
Previous Post
My Biggest Fundraising Disaster: The Sad Tale of the Cynical Humanitarians
Next Post
VIDEO: Adrian Sargeant Reveals How Fundraising Meets Human Needs

Related Posts

No results found.

3 Comments. Leave new

  • Excellent points. Thanks for this well-written summary.

  • I want to push back on the “resting” between gifts. I know what the data says. However, I am curious to know if this has been parsed out by generation/age. Is it mostly older donors? I recently had to move my 80 year old mother off multiple mailing lists and/or request once per year solicitations. She would make a first gift and then a second and then a third. Not necessarily because she believed that strongly in the cause (though she may have) but because she didn’t remember giving a couple months before! This made me very curious about the demographics (and ethics) of this particular fundraising staple.

    • Jeff Brooks
      June 22, 2018 3:12 am

      Hi Maria. I can sympathize with the situation with your mother. I had something similar with my mother in her later years. She’s fortunate to have you looking out for her and removing her from mailing lists when her memory makes it hard for her to make the right choices about giving.

      The recency stat cuts across all ages, so I don’t think we can say it’s a function of memory loss in elderly donors. If fundraisers were to hold back on contacting donors above a certain age on the possibility that those donors might be giving unwisely, they’d be doing more harm than good, depriving many deeply committed donors from the connecting with the passion they legitimately feel for causes they care about. That would be like telling car makers to stop selling cars because there are bad drivers out there causing accidents. That’s true, but it misses the bigger fact that for every bad driver there are hundreds or thousands who are good and gaining a lot of benefit from their cars.

      I know some organizations will flag certain giving patterns — especially super-frequent, low-amount giving — and look into the donor’s situation to see if memory issues are at play. That’s the right thing to do, as not all older donors have a caregiver like you who’s paying attention and looking out for them.

      There is a type of fundraising that I find morally deficient, and that is using fake, trumped-up non-issues (like fear of immigrants) to scare donors into donating. It’s not a problem exclusively for elderly donors, but it does tend to be aimed there. But I’m pretty sure those fundraisers don’t read this blog!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.