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How to Master and Share the “Weird Stuff” of Fundraising

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I’m going to give you a quick lesson on how to play the string bass, the instrument I play. I realize you probably haven’t thought about becoming a bassist (more’s the pity). There’s a fundraising connection. Really. 

If you’ve ever watched someone play the bass, you’ve seen that they hold down the strings with the fingers of their left hand on the neck of the instrument. The thumb is on the back of the neck, right behind the fingers. That’s why you might think they’re squeezing, using the hand like a C-clamp to hold the string down. 

That’s not what they’re doing.

One of the first things you learn when you get training to play the bass is: DON’T SQUEEZE! If you squeeze, you’ll lose most of your mobility, and only be able to play slowly as you clamp and unclamp your hand. You also can’t vibrate your hand, which adds a lot of warmth and beauty to your sound. Worse yet, you’ll likely injure your hand if you do it that way.

The way to do it is to hold down the string with the weight of your arm. Your thumb is barely touching the back of the neck of the instrument. Despite how it looks, and despite how counterintuitive that may be. DON’T SQUEEZE is what works. 

I’m telling you this because every human endeavor that requires expertise — everything from archery to zookeeping — has hidden counterintuitive features. Things you only find out about when you dig into learning about it. Things you’d never guess otherwise.

And that includes fundraising.

So many of the foundational approaches to successful fundraising are nothing like what an untrained non-fundraiser would guess. Here are some of those things that some people find hard to believe:

  • Emotional storytelling is far more effective than fact-sharing. It turns out the statistics-based fundraising actively turns people away from giving.
  • “Dated” looking design raises a lot more money than slick, modern design that most of us would prefer to see. Same with all those “messy” underlines. Ignore that, and watch your results crumble!
  • Direct mail and telephone are still extremely effective at motivating people to give. These old-line channels are still our bread and butter, despite the growing importance of digital channels.
  • You can (and should) be in touch with donors more often than might seem right. “Resting” donors for a few weeks or months after they give is one of the most revenue-crushing tactics possible. And nobody has ever found evidence of “donor burnout.”
  • And maybe controversial of all: Long messages work better than short ones, almost all the time. Strange but true.

These are some of the more difficult truths, the ones untrained fundraisers find most difficult to believe.

And honestly, I can’t blame them. The counterintuitive realities are not only strange, but they seem more difficult at first.

New bassists encounter something similar. The DON’T SQUEEZE technique is almost impossible to accomplish until you’ve learned and practiced … while the HAND AS C-CLAMP technique is pretty easy at first. But you’ll sound terrible, you’ll never progress beyond a certain point, and you’ll end your career quickly with a painful, repetitive stress injury.

There’s a major difference between bass-playing and fundraising that makes my analogy a bit silly, and you’re probably already thinking about: It’s rare for someone to be handed a bass and told, “Just start playing and making great music. Good luck!”  

But that happens every day in nonprofit organizations. Good people who want to make the world a better place are thrown into the deep end of fundraising. No training. Nothing to go on but their guesses and intuition. Good luck with that!

Ouch! It makes my left hand ache with sympathetic pain!

The fact that you’re reading a fundraising blog right now tells me that you already grasp the way fundraising works, and you are at least starting to get comfortable with the counterintuitive — if not already a professional.  So what can you do when you are thrown in with someone who doesn’t (yet) get it?

  • Be helpful. Share what you know. Remember, it’s probably a complete surprise to them. The discussion can be frustrating, but keep in mind that they simply haven’t had the opportunity to learn what you now know. Schools don’t teach this stuff!
  • Acknowledge the oddness of it. It’s almost funny how strange some of these things are. We get used to it, but it’s new to them.
  • Share your own struggles with the counterintuitive stuff. Nobody gets it at first. 
  • Do your best to be an ally, not an adversary. You may be in different places about what works in fundraising, but you are on the same page about the ways you are working together to improve the world. Always start (and finish) there. 

Some people choose to stay in that “green” state, not aware of what works. But most people are happy to learn. After all, they also want to succeed. Be part of that transformation!

Do you want help with the strange realities of fundraising? Schedule a free 25-minute call with one of our expert Fundraisingologists. They will give you great free advice, and help you identify which Coaching+ program might be right for you.

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    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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