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9 Truths about Fundraising I Wish I Had Figured Out Sooner

One of the more disturbing things about spending decades in a career is looking back and remembering how incredibly wrong you used to be!

So I’m going to give you a quick tour of some ways I used to be seriously wrong but have since grown a little more right….

1. Fundraising should be “ready, aim, fire” — in that order

Some people call fundraising without planning ahead a “bias for action.” I used to think that. I thought ready, fire, aim was cooler and more exciting.

Then I noticed something. Just about every time you fire before you aim, you miss your target. You have to keep trying, over and over, until by dumb luck you hit it — and by that time you’re so tired and demoralized from repeated failure that your work is bad. As often as not, you just run out of ammunition and end up never getting the job done at all.

You think you’re saving time by skipping the nettlesome planning stage. But you’re eating up all that saved time — several times over — by re-doing everything all the time. And you succeed a lot less often.

So here’s what I’ve learned: For every project you do, make the first step planning. Really figure it out. Then put it in writing, and get everyone with a voice in the project to agree to the plan — before work starts.

This thinking ahead isn’t easy, because it requires concentration and some abstract thinking. But “ready, fire, aim” fundraising — also known as “I’ll know it when I see it” fundraising — is a sloppy way to work. It sucks the life, energy and effectiveness out of a project. And it takes a lot longer.

2. Focus groups can make you make bad decisions

I love observing focus groups. Sitting in that room behind the big one-way window, eating snacks, trying not to laugh too loud. It’s great fun. And I love the things people say in focus groups. It can be very enlightening.

There’s just one big problem with focus groups. You find out what people say, not what they do in real life. You hear their opinions, spoken out loud in a social setting.

That’s not an accurate predictor of how they (or anyone) is going to respond in the marketplace. So if your focus groups loved your new brand or your exciting marketing concept, that doesn’t mean it’s going to do well in direct mail, e-mail, or anywhere else. In fact, the focus groups loved it is usually a strong sign that it’s not going to work in real life! Likewise, focus groups always absolutely hate the stuff that actually works.

If you make major decisions solely on the input from focus groups, you are making serious mistakes that are likely to cost you big. It’s the same with survey research. Use focus groups to generate ideas and get a sense for the ways people talk about your issues. If you want information you can really count on, test your ideas in real-life response situations.

3. Insider insights can mess you up

My first job in the nonprofit sector was as the in-house copywriter for an organization that fought poverty, hunger, and disease in the developing world. I worked hard to make those things vivid for donors.

Then the organization sent me to India to see the work first-hand. I was bowled over. I understood the cause like never before. I learned that helping the poor is a complicated process if you want to do it right and do it in a way that empowers them.

And that’s where things started to go wrong. It became important to me to share my insight with our donors. I wanted to bring them along on my voyage of discovery. I figured if they could get it the way I now got it, they’d be better donors. They’d give more, obviously!

So my fundraising messages got a lot more involved and complicated. I tried to make the complexity clear and spelled-out. My colleagues at the nonprofit said it was the best copy ever: so complete, not simplistic like it used to be.

You can probably guess how it went. As we rolled out my “improved” message, our fundraising results dropped. Then dropped some more. Then crashed.

Sadly, we couldn’t see the correlation between the change in my writing and the change in our results. After all, how could “better” writing get worse results?

In fact, I never really understood that I was causing the problem until I moved to the agency side, where I was held accountable for getting results. Our job wasn’t to improve donors but to move them to action.

It took a while (an embarrassingly long time, to be frank) but it finally dawned on me: Trying to replicate insider insights about the cause is not the fundraiser’s job. It is directly at odds with motivating people to give. The more you try to educate donors, the less money you’ll raise. That’s one of the most dependable truths there is in fundraising.

4. My preferences are a poor guide

I love complex metaphors that conceal multiple layers of meaning. They’re so rich, challenging and beautiful — like some kind of 3-D impressionist Encyclopedia Britannica on a tropical island.

I’m sad to say that most people don’t share my preference for those metaphors. In fact, most folks hate having to figure out what something means, even when it’s really cool. They don’t like the sense that something’s being hidden from them. They have no intention whatsoever of solving a puzzle as they read. They want clarity, simplicity and easy reading.

I don’t get it. I love those things!

We all have personal preferences for the way we like communication to be. Most of the time, our preferences will lead us to weak fundraising. If you want to reach people, you have to cater to their preferences, not your own.

5. Don’t try to bang it out in one sitting

You have lots to do and not enough time. But when it comes to writing fundraising messages, break the task into pieces. Time spent not writing is a critical part of the writing process.

Another way to say that is “Write drunk, edit sober.” And I don’t mean literally write drunk (bad idea!), but have two phases to your writing: The part where you put a bunch of stuff down on paper, and a part where you craft and improve that stuff.

6. Simpler is better

I’ve been so proud of carefully explaining a complex process. That’s not easy, you know. But it’s not the right solution.

When something is complex, the fundraiser’s job is to make it simple for donors.

If you can’t say your fundraising offer in one sentence, you’re in trouble.

7. Donors aren’t paying as much attention as you want them to

This one can really bruise your ego. To most of your donors, those amazing messages you create are noise! It’s junk mail, inbox-clogging stuff, messages they don’t think they need, and they didn’t ask for.

At best, your donors lightly skim your well-crafted fundraising message. That’s not to say you shouldn’t strive to make every word right and sweat the details. Just make sure you sweat the big picture even more. Whether to use a comma or a dash matters — a little. Whether you have a topic that’s going to move people to action, whether you’re talking to the right people, whether the call to action makes sense — those things matter a lot. Spend your time there.

8. If the writing is weak, design won’t fix it

I hate to think about the number to times I’ve struggled to get copy right but just couldn’t quite do it — then ended up saying, “It’s not quite there, but we’ll make it work with great images, brilliant type treatment, and flawless layout.” That doesn’t work. Good design matters. But it can’t make bad copy good. In fact, good design probably makes bad writing even worse by amplifying what’s wrong with it!

Garbage in, garbage out!

9. Enthusiasm is good, but experience is better

I remember years ago studying direct-mail response rates. They averaged around 5% for mail sent to previous donors. We considered that decent. Not great, not terrible.

Suddenly it struck me: A 5% response rate is a 95% failure rate! I was off like a thoroughbred, campaigning against these huge failure rates. I had a hunch if we could just write better, we could drive response rates up to somewhere around 50%.

Turns out trying to supercharge response by improving the writing is like trying to speed up a race car by installing better seat cushions. I spent lots of time on my crusade for better response. Experience has taught me there are much better ways to improve fundraising. They aren’t as exciting, but they actually have impact. You can get that 5% average up to 7% or even more. And that adds up to a lot of revenue over time. (The most dependable way to meaningfully improve response comes from high-level donor targeting, not better copy.)

There’s more leverage in experience than in enthusiasm. On the other hand, experience without enthusiasm can be a curse. It devolves into cynicism and becomes a force against innovation.

Related post: Where Good Fundraising Ideas Are Born

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