Fundraising Optimism vs. Stupidity

I have recently been filling in the gaps in my education (or perhaps the gaps in my memory) by listening to history courses from The Teaching Co. as I drive. I am currently tackling “A History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev.”

A few days ago, the course professor shared a quote from Nikolai Bukharin, a prominent leader in the Marxist party who was later executed by Stalin. When reviewing some plans proposed by the party leadership, he said, “There really ought to be a difference between optimism and stupidity.”

Isn’t that true in fundraising, as well? How often have you had to keep a straight face when someone suggested something that was … well, frankly, stupid? Will I ever forget the board member who suggested we stop doing all our fundraising activities except sending out receipts because they had the best return on investment? (I kid you not.) Or the decision that we couldn’t do research on potential major donors because it offended one of our IT staff members? Yep, we couldn’t make these things up if we tried, could we?

Here are a few things I see that (it seems to me) started out as optimism but are now sliding swiftly down the slope toward stupidity. If you identify with any of them, try to throw yourself in their paths and stop the looming disaster before it’s too late.

I’m not sure of our numbers, but we’re clearly doing OK
You probably are doing fine in many things, even great in some. But there’s a high likelihood that something in your fundraising arsenal is not as hard-working as it should be — or could be.

Our job as fundraisers is to come in every morning and figure out where our “leaks” in our programs are. Sometimes they are small pinpricks that, with a little bit of tweaking, we can repair and reap more net income. Others are huge cracks that could explode and drown our nonprofit if we don’t pay attention.

If you aren’t watching your numbers with laser intensity, you won’t be able to respond before a small problem escalates to a huge one. Set aside time at least once a week to look at reports. If the reports you are receiving aren’t useful for making actionable decisions or don’t make sense, work with the appropriate people to get them changed. Ignorance of key performance indicators in fundraising is an invitation to failure at worst and, at best, a sure way to leave money on the table, no matter how successful you are.

We don’t have to keep asking because our donors love us
Yes, I am sure they do. But they are also fickle and even forgetful. Life gets in the way of best intentions. I recently pulled everything together for my annual tax filing, and I was (once again) shocked that there were some nonprofits I love that I hadn’t given a dime to in 2013.

Remind your donors when it’s been a while since they last gave. Tell them what great things have been happening since that last gift and how another gift today will be invested in solutions to ongoing needs.

Don’t just share success stories — although that’s important as I point out below. Even in your newsletter, gently remind donors that there is still more to do, and they can make that possible with their ongoing support.

Don’t blame your donors for forgetting you. Blame yourself if you succumb to this optimistic fallacy.

No one is going to read a two-page letter
I totally agree — assuming those two pages are boring, poorly written, presented in an unappealing way and irrelevant to me. For that matter, no one is going to read three paragraphs that share those characteristics, either.

Test after test shows that it’s not the length of the letter that matters; it’s the content, the presentation, the appropriateness for the audience, etc. This is one of those decisions where it’s vital to say 10 times before making a decision, “I am NOT the target audience.” Is what is written — in two lines or two pages — a relevant message for the recipient?

Our donors just want the facts
Absolutely! They do — but they also want to engage on a heart level with what your nonprofit does. Collecting (and telling) the stories that show the “before” and “after” is not a luxury — it is an absolute necessity.

At nonprofits all over the world, wonderful stories happen every day. But I sometimes wonder if we care because there is so little effort made to capture those stories. Why did theBudweiser Super Bowl commercial, “Puppy Love,” go viral? Because in a matter of a minute, Budweiser told us a story that touched our hearts. Or the ad for mobile phone service from Thailand that told an amazing story stretching over decades? It connected.

Every day there are videos shared on Facebook that tell wonderful stories. Why are so few of them showcasing the wonderful story that was made possible because you donated to a nonprofit that is quietly changing its corner of the world?

Let’s keep the fine line between optimism and stupidity firmly in sight and make sure we never cross it. This old dog sees too many examples of fundraising that seek to offend no one — so it really doesn’t communicate to anyone. Your donors do love you, so honor that commitment by giving them a connection to your organization that goes beyond their heads and truly engages their hearts.

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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