Don’t Let “Moby Dick” Destroy Your Fundraising

Years ago, I read “Moby Dick” as part of a high school English class. Its opening line, “Call me Ismael,” is considered by many as one of the best opening lines of a book. I confess that’s about all I remember about the book, except that for hundreds of pages, Captain Ahab was in search of a giant whale named Moby Dick.

Unfortunately, too many fundraisers and board members are also in search of their own version of Moby Dick — the single donor who is going to fund the programs, provide seed money for a new vision, or even bail out a nonprofit that is barely clinging to life. Many of us have been in the meeting where someone bravely asked, “Does anyone know Bill or Melinda Gates?” or “Could we get a proposal to Warren Buffet?”

Instead of focusing on who we know and who knows us, we search the vast ocean of humanity looking for the nearly-impossible “catch.”


The reality is, many nonprofits are growing and succeeding without a single Moby Dick on their donor roles. They have a lot of smaller fish — donors who give monthly; others who respond to direct mail; many who go online to give after receiving an email; event participants; middle-level donors who respond to a mailing that invites them to help fund a new program; major donors, foundations and corporations who are carefully cultivated over time; unexpected bequests that always seem to arrive at the best time; and many more “species” of donors.

That’s not to say that an unexpected (or even expected) super-major gift isn’t something every fundraiser dreams about. But most of us will never have the privilege of “closing” that gift for our organization. I’ve been on the same plane once or twice with a famous (and wealthy) person and I’ve even shaken a few hands, but the truth is I’ve mostly spent my career in smaller ponds instead of chasing Moby Dick across the ocean. Can you relate?

To Make Reality Worse . . .

In recent weeks, articles have been published with these titles:

It’s discouraging just to read those titles.  Donor attrition . . . loss of confidence in charity . . . not feeling connected beyond sending in a gift. . . .

But a fourth article, “Four Questions Fundraisers Must Be Prepared To Answer” by Julia Hanna, provides if not a cure at least a place to begin to address these issues. The questions, according to this article published by Forbes (the same group that told us that Warren Buffet was the most philanthropic American in 2014, followed by Bill and Melinda Gates), are:

  • Does the organization do important work?
  • Is the organization well managed?
  • Will my gift make a difference?
  • Will the experience be satisfying to me?

Finding your own “Moby Dick”

The really-big-gift-that-solves-all-our-problems may never materialize. But we all have an opportunity to invest our time in things that can make a really big difference. We can begin by making sure we can answer those four questions—not using organizational vocabulary, but instead words that paint pictures and pictures that make words even more powerful.

When we are really talking to our donors and prospects—and listening to them, in return—we have an opportunity to engage their hearts and their heads in our mission. While these all may be “little fish” compared to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet (and aren’t most of us?!), if they are the kind of people who feel good when they give and believe in what your organization does, you have the opportunity to “land” a donation from them.

In fundraising, I don’t believe either who you know (and who knows us) or what you know is the most important. Instead, success comes when you combine both of these and cultivate a prospect and then present a compelling offer that gives them a chance to do something they love to do—give a donation to a cause they are passionate about.

Originally published in npENGAGE.

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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