Fundraising: What Does Mark Twain Say?

[Author’s note: Yesterday, as I was contemplating if I was going to get out of my warm bed, I justified my slovenly behavior by thinking about my message for this article. After I had it outlined in my head (and etched deeply enough that I would remember it once my feet hit the cold floor), I walked into my office, stopping only to poke the thermostat up a few degrees. Opening my email, there was Today in Fundraising and Marc Pitman’s article, “3 Myths of Email Fundraising.” A perfect lead-in for what I had conjured up from under the warmth of my comforter — so here’s part 2, so to speak.]

Let’s face it — “shiny” is appealing. Whether it’s the new car we covet or the sparkly bauble that is being advertised (again and again) as the perfect gift for Valentine’s Day, “new” catches our eye. And that’s so true in fundraising, too!

After all, we’ve been doing the “same old, same old” since … well, almost forever, it seems. (In realty, the first appeal letter was written in 1843 and the first fund drive took place that same year, according to the history of giving compiled by theNational Philanthropic Trust. Despite rumors to the contrary, this old dog did not write that first appeal.)

A few weeks ago, I praised direct mail. Lest I left some of you thinking I was stuck in the past, let me assure you that I am totally “in love” with new methods of fundraising. The more tools we have that work, the better it is for our causes. And, having a low threshold of boredom, I really like variety and being able to work on multiple kinds of projects.

But what I don’t like is fundraising programs that don’t raise funds and the attitude that it has to be “either/or” when it comes to things like email and direct mail or social media and newsletters. I much prefer “both/and.” So in that spirit, I once again turn to my old friend, Mark Twain, for advice on achieving the best results in our fundraising efforts.

“You can’t reach old age by another man’s road.” —Mark Twain: Conversely, you can’t achieve fundraising success simply by copying what another nonprofit is doing. If I had a dollar for every time I have been asked to “make us look likecharity: water, I would be much closer to retiring. The reality is there is only one charity: water — and there is only one “you.”

Don’t copy. Innovate. Try new fundraising tools along with older ones. Spiff up the older ones, and see if the new twists help. Someday, email may bring in more money than direct mail, but that’s not today. Keep doing both (or start doing the one you aren’t), and strive to make every single tool you use the most cost-effective one in your arsenal. After all, it really doesn’t matter if X is more successful than Y; what matters is that, overall, your fundraising program is successfully funding your good mission.

“Even Noah got no salary for the first six months — partly on account of the weather and partly because he was learning navigation.” —Mark Twain: In my experience, something as simple as changing the masthead of your newsletter can depress income for a few issues before giving returns or exceeds pre-change levels. Turning back too soon can deprive you of the best part of the journey: stellar improvement.

When you launch a new fundraising tool, avoid the “one shot” approach. Have a plan that allows a fair test (but doesn’t continue so long that you go broke). In other words, give it time, but don’t give it forever. Establish benchmarks for success and for shutting it down. Never trying anything new probably means you’re leaving money on the table. But that’s no excuse to waste money by continuing to invest in a fundraising program long after it has proved unprofitable.

It’s a fine line between quitting too soon and sticking with it too long. There’s no simple formula to establish that line. But make a plan, and stick to it. You can always refine and relaunch at a later date if you haven’t squandered all your equity (personal and budget-wise) by not knowing when to retreat.
“Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she had laid an asteroid.” —Mark Twain:Always, always wear your “skeptical spectacles” when you read about, hear about or watch a video about the latest fundraising tool that you just have to try. It may be the greatest program your organization will ever launch. Or it may be devastating (for the nonprofit and for you).

Fear of failure is not an excuse for lethargy. But it should be a huge motivator for moving cautiously into “new.” Notice I didn’t say “moving slowly.” Being cautious does not mean you have to be the last to act and thus look like a loser. But it does mean you approach a new fundraising program by asking all the questions and looking at it from every angle. Your donors have entrusted their money to you, and they have every right to expect that you’re investing it wisely. Don’t let them down by jumping at every shiny new thing that comes along.

But this old dog reminds you to also not let your donors down by refusing to try something new (or tweak something that is old). You won’t know if something works if you don’t study it and even try it on a small, controlled scale. After all, to sum up with another quote from Mr. Twain, “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.”

(Thanks to for making it easy to find words of wisdom from Mr. Mark Twain.)

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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