3 barriers

It’s Not Just You: 3 Barriers to Success in Fundraising

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Some of the most common reasons fundraising can be difficult are in your own mind. Barriers to success built by you, for you.

But don’t beat yourself up.

It’s not just you. I know this because I do it too. In fact, I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t do this to themselves. We all get tripped up by these things. These things are common because they are the downsides of good habits and smart discipline.

The way we all can overcome these things starts with awareness. Admitting to ourselves that these barriers exist. That’s the good news. The bad news is that no matter how vigilant, experienced, and well-trained you are, these things can sneak back and bite you at any time. I speak from experience of my own mistakes through many years in fundraising.

So when (not if) you find yourself caught in one of these traps, don’t feel too bad. Just do your best and move on. 

Barrier #1: The Curse of Knowledge

This is the big one, and it hits us all. Starting on Day Two of your first fundraising job, you have the Curse of Knowledge. And as your knowledge increases, the Curse just gets stronger. 

Knowledge is not the problem here. Knowledge is good and necessary. The “curse” part is when we misapply knowledge — most often leaving nonexperts (like donors) in the dust, struggling to know what we’re talking about.

Jargon is the most common outcome of the Curse of Knowledge. Everyone knows it’s not good to use “jargon,” but recognizing it can be a challenge. The thing about most jargon is that it’s useful. It’s more precise and efficient than the non-expert ways of talking about things. 

So we talk about things like “food insecurity” instead of “hunger.” It’s accurate and specific, while hunger is a broad word that’s almost irrelevant in the real-world work of fighting hunger. The Curse of Knowledge tells us that the clarity of the jargon is of critical importance, and it is — if you are a professional in the field.

But non-experts, including almost all donors, don’t know what we’re talking about.

Here are three ways to beat the Curse of Knowledge:

  1. Activate your inner non-expert. Look at your fundraising with your knowledge turned way down. Ask yourself, “Would Uncle Maynard understand this?” — that is, someone you know personally who is like your donors, and not at all expert in your field.
  2. Show it to a non-expert, like your Uncle Maynard. Get a sense of whether they understand or not. (Be careful with this. They will likely bend over backward to be helpful by claiming that yes, they do pretty much understand! Read between the lines of their feedback.)
  3. Outsource fundraising writing to a non-expert — that is, an expert in fundraising who is not a professional in your work.

Barrier #2: Boredom

I know you’ve had this thought: “By now, our donors must be sick of hearing about this thing we’re talking about. I feel like a broken record!” I know, because I get the same thought all the time.

Your boredom with your fundraising is no indicator that donors are bored with it. In fact, it’s a pretty good counter-indicator: Just about the time you are getting bored out of your skull with your fundraising is when donors start to notice it.

Remember, you read everything you put out. All the repetitions, every word, paying full attention. Your donors don’t even notice most of your attempts to tell them the message. Email open rates show us that a commanding majority never even see your message. When they do read, most read quickly, with half their mind thinking about other things.

If you have an effective fundraising program, it is going to bore you, eventually. I promise.

Boredom causes us to vary our messages far more often than necessary. The experience for most donors is a confusing kaleidoscope of messages and approaches that they can hardly keep up with.

You should be trying new messages and approaches on a regular basis. But don’t leave behind things that work because you are getting bored with them.

Barrier #3: Your English teachers

Did you think you’d left your English teachers behind when you graduated? 

I’ve got news for you: You didn’t. They’re living in your brain, even decades later. 

I know, because I used to be an English teacher. I can’t begin to estimate how many seminars and meetings I attended that were about how to become a permanent resident in your students’ minds. It’s not (quite) as creepy as it might sound. We expressed it like this: “Most of our students will never take another writing course again in their lives, but they’ll need writing skills throughout their lives. How can we help them?”

The problem is, the thing we wanted to help them with was academic writing. In a few cases, business writing or creative writing. Here are just a few ways fundraising writing would break your English teachers’ hearts:

  • It’s informal — almost to an extreme. Colloquial. Uses contractions. Not afraid of cliches. It addresses the reader directly, again and again.
  • It breaks rules. Sentences fragment. Starting sentences with conjunctions. 
  • It uses short paragraphs that don’t start with a topic sentence and don’t complete the thought. Even one-word paragraphs! 
  • It’s repetitious. Even a short message should have the ask at least three times.

There’s more — a lifetime of study, really. But if you stay in the territory marked out by your English teachers, you will always struggle to raise funds. 

If you find yourself struggling to break free from your English teachers’ influence, don’t feel bad. It’s a common challenge. Just remember: You aren’t doing it to get a good grade in your English course. You’re trying to move donors to give. An entirely different task!

One of the best ways to zero in on powerful fundraising writing is to work with someone who doesn’t live in your head with you. Find your way forward by scheduling a free 25-minute call with one of our Fundraisingologists. They will give you great free advice, and help you identify which Coaching+ program might be right for you. Click here to book your call.

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  • 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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