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My Worst Fundraising Fail, and What You Can Learn from It


When Jeff suggested this blog topic my immediate reaction was, Um, no, I’ll look silly. Reality is we all make mistakes … and my best fundraising learnings have come from my fails.

So here you go …

In my early fundraising agency career I worked with a wonderful fundraiser, let’s call him Alan. Alan came to me looking for some analysis to understand what was happening with the fundraising program he’d just taken over.

Like many in his position, he discovered an ageing database. Retention was okay, but income was declining as no new supporters had been sought for many years. There were some tactics we could employ to increase income, but not enough to halt the decline.

Investment in acquisition would be required to stablise income and help feed the bequest pipeline.

We looked at the options together and built a business case to get the required investment. Direct Mail single-gift acquisition was the immediate opportunity… great appeals program to go into, strong inbound supporter services and outbound supporter care program, amazing stories of need and impact from the field, and a plan to develop a monthly giving offer that would convert newly recruited donors.

Alan sent me the brief. It included a request to include a monthly giving ask in the acquisition packs and use a new monthly giving product his team had developed.

What? Where did this come from?

On the phone I went and Alan and I chatted … a lot.

A board member, who had a marketing business, had taken it upon herself to develop a monthly giving offer to compete with Child Sponsorship, as the board felt that was where they were missing out. But here’s the important part: They didn’t have child sponsorship.

The monthly giving offer was not great for three reasons:

  1. It was developed in the absence of any insight around donors’ values or motivations for supporting. It was trying to replicate Child Sponsorship without any of the elements that make Child Sponsorship work.
  2. It had an incredibly generic offer.
  3. The whole acquisition strategy was based around recruiting single givers (because in the market at that time that was the best potential return) not monthly givers.

I expressed my concerns about the monthly giving offer and the change to strategy. I used analysis as evidence against the inclusion of a monthly giving offer in the acquisition pack – my experience was, and remains, focus on a single offer and evidence it well, don’t dilute with multiple offers (like a single gift ask and a monthly giving ask).

This was all received and understood by Alan … but his boss and the board member knew better.

I presented a reforecast of expected returns. Lower returns. It fell on deaf ears.

Alan was under pressure to acquire new donors and this is what he had to work with.

So we pushed on, trying to mould what we had to the new request. It wasn’t coming off … the pack wasn’t working for me, it was trying to do too much, messages were confusing and we simply could not implement the key tactics we knew would bring success.

I should have stood firm. I did not, because at this point the boss’s desire to proceed with the board’s blessing overruled my concerns.

The campaign was a massive failure. It did not reach revised targets, let alone the original ones. Alan’s organisation had spent a good chunk of the available acquisition investment on a failure.

In fundraising, we have to take risks to try new things … calculated risks. This was not a calculated risk, this was ego. The evidence was there that the move was wrong. We knew why the campaign failed … and we didn’t even learn anything — we already knew it from the outset.

My learning wasn’t about what the right acquisition strategy was. It was about standing firm when your experience and evidence suggest there is an alternative with a higher chance of success.

I haven’t seen Alan in years, but my LinkedIn stalking tells me he survived, just as I did. He has continued as a professional fundraiser in some fantastic organisations with successful programs. And the organisation … well, they have continued to shrink. After that failure, they deemed all acquisition to be “too risky.” A big mistake that will hurt them for years to come!

Want to know what really works in direct mail fundraising? Take our online course, 7 Steps to Creating Record-Smashing Direct Mail. It’s your hands-on workshop in what works, how to do it, and how to apply these truths to your cause! It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.


  • Fiona McPhee

    Fiona McPhee is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. She has over 20 years of experience developing fundraising programs and helping fundraisers, fundraising leadership and boards as a coach, consultant, and mentor. Fiona shares her extensive knowledge and tips with the Moceanic members and blog readers.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • But that is the trap isn’t it. Had you stood firm and “won” you would have pissed off a board member (a friend just lost a job for less, one in a long line of cohorts who took on board members who “knew” they were right and you were wrong), and no lesson would have been learned– whatever you made they would have said “but we could have done so much more if you’d listened to us.” But w lesson learned, and people exposed/embarrassed will equally upset those in power and set them up to get rid of the person who showed them up. Can’t win for losing.


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