end of year fundraising

It was the peak of end of year fundraising. I was talking to a scared, frightened fundraiser working at a homeless shelter. She had crafted a well-written appeal she poured hours into writing. There was just one problem.

Her boss said no photos. Specifically, no photos of anyone who looks hungry. Or homeless. Or needy.

I asked, “But isn’t that the problem you are trying to solve?” “Yes,” she answered.

I tried reassuring her that it did not have to be a photo of an actual client, it could be stock photography if they didn’t have a good image on hand or didn’t have a client’s permission. 

“Nope,” she said. “We tried that last year. It created such a commotion we vowed to never do it again.”

I probed deeper. Turns out someone on their email list had complained about a photo of a homeless person in their appeal. They ranted so loudly and voraciously it scared everyone off from using images of people in need.

Was the person a donor? No.

Did the appeal perform well? Extremely well.

And poof, just like that, no more photos in appeals. Because one person didn’t like it.

Classic case of one bad apple spoiling the fundraising. If only this story were an isolated case.

Last month another fundraiser wrote an emergency COVID-19 appeal letter to address a $200,000 shortfall in teacher salaries. The school had to reduce enrollment by half because of COVID safety regulations but, since they were working with young children, still needed the same number of teachers.

The Board President shut down the letter. She said she wanted to “save trees” (Really? You want to save the trees but not your beloved teachers?). She argued that they “ask too often.” The organization only asks twice a year (not nearly enough in my opinion) but the Board president “doesn’t like getting letters” and therefore incorrectly assumes that no one else does either.

You are in the business of raising money. Not spending less.

You are also in the business of writing to please your donors, not yourself (or the Board President).

Never assume that what you like (or don’t like) is also how your donors feel.

I get mad when fundraisers aren’t allowed to fundraise. I know how hard they work and how much is riding on their success (I’m a recovering Executive Director myself). 

I also get mad when people who have no formal training or experience in fundraising start telling the rest of us what to do. I doubt they would be barking instructions to a surgeon.

Fundraising is relentless. We never climb the top of fundraising mountain and shout to the people down below, “Hey! I’m here! I made it!”

So I’m here with a pep talk to help you sail past the haters. Just in case you have any critics peering over your shoulder as you craft your end of year fundraising appeal or messaging strategy.

Fact: You will never make all the people happy all of the time. Accept this. Move on. We need your talents and we don’t have time for you to doubt yourself or your strategy that is setting giving records because one person didn’t like it. In my early days starting my nonprofit someone I deeply admired told me if I wasn’t making some people mad I probably wasn’t doing it right. I have never forgotten that advice.

Fact: One person’s personal preferences should not dictate your fundraising strategy. It does not matter if that person is your Executive Director, Board Chair, a donor, a volunteer, or someone with no connection except that they’re on your list and like to vent from time to time.

Fact: You are not here to play small. (Neither am I. I get nasty zingers from time to time. You know what? I may be too much for some people. That’s okay. Those aren’t my people.)

Fact: Your mission is not to ‘offend as few people as possible.’ You’re here to change lives. You’ve got a big mission and there are people (or animals) whose lives and well-being depend on your services.

Get out there and give it all you’ve got!

Are you being manipulative to use emotion in your end of year fundraising? No! You are being smart, my fundraising friend. It is in fact the one thing, the only thing that ever works.

At the end of the day all fundraising is ultimately a quest for empathy. Andrew Stanton says the greatest story commandment of all time is three words: make me care.

Make. Me. Care.

It is going to take a compelling image to draw me in and a powerful story to make me care. (Ideally, I’m going to be the hero of that story, but that’s another post.)

You won’t get there by playing small.

Someday, dear fundraiser you might even offend a donor. Don’t let this scare you. It shouldn’t. It is a scientific fact that donors who have a complaint or problem that you listen to, even if you cannot resolve it, are more loyal than donors who never had a complaint in the first place. Mind -> blown.

Dust yourself off, get back out there. The world needs you. You do not have time for haters.

Rachel Muir
Rachel Muir, CFRE transforms individuals into confident, successful fundraisers. When she was 26 years old, Rachel Muir launched Girlstart, a non-profit organization to empower girls in math, science, engineering and technology in the living room of her apartment with $500 and a credit card. Several years later she had raised over 10 million dollars and was featured on Oprah, CNN, and the Today show.