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The Secret Formula for Effective Fundraising: 12141

The secret formula for effective fundraising is 12141
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The secret formula for effective fundraising is 12141

Has anyone ever asked you, “I just don’t get it. What’s the formula for effective fundraising?” 

Well, here it is: 12141.

Say this out loud: One Two One, Four One.

Or another way: One to One, for One.

Sounds good, but what does it mean?

This is the “formula” for just about all effective fundraising strategies. Sure, it’s a bit gimmicky, but it works.

Why is this fundraising formula important?

A lot of people shy away from fundraising. In fact, most people would rather make a public speech than ask for money, and public speaking is ranked higher on the fear scale than talking about death! 

Much of this is because asking for money is fraught with power imbalances. 

The person asking feels that they are somehow in a diminished social position from the person being asked. This is often demonstrated in the classroom by standing the tallest person on a chair and having the shortest person ask for something. Almost always, the short person takes a physical stance that shows submission—like kneeling down and putting their hands together like they are praying, for example. 

It makes for a good laugh because everyone can feel their emotional pain.

Then, reverse the roles. With the chair aiding the short person, the tall person is typically at eye level with the other. In that position, the tall person didn’t express nearly the submissive position as the short person had before. 

It got even more interesting when they sat down next to each other. No submission on either party’s part. They’re equals.

What does this mean? Balancing the power—or at least lessening the power differential—between the solicitor and the solicited makes for better fundraising

That’s very difficult for a lot of nonprofit fundraisers and leaders. Often they assume that they need the money more than the donor needs to give it. But this idea is wrong.

Why do people give?

From the publication of Prince and File’s Seven Faces of Philanthropy in 1994 and onward, study after study shows that the primary reason people give is not because they’re motivated by the tax deduction or other monetary incentives. It’s because they care about the nonprofit’s mission. Or really, they care about the people the nonprofit serves. 

Want a more common example? When speaking with Millennials, Gen X, and Gen Z people about direct mail, you often hear, “I just throw that out.” But when asked if they got a letter from a charity that they really cared about? “Oh, yes! I’d give.” (Although they’ll often go to their computer and do it—which is a discussion for another day about the power of multi-channel marketing.) The point is that caring about your mission motivates giving. 

You, as a representative of the nonprofit, bring to the table the ability for your donor to make a major difference to a cause that they care about. You bring something that is every bit as valuable as their money. In other words, you are on equal footing.

So, what’s all of this have to do with “one-to-one-for-one” (12141)? Let’s break it down.

One to One

When you solicit a donor for money for your mission, it’s two people sitting down as equals—both of you caring for a cause. You have the mechanics to solve the problem, and they have the money to make it happen. It’s a “one-to-one” conversation that can make a significant impact on the constituents that you each care about.

For One

Now, what about that “for one” part? 

Let’s talk about being human. 

Computers are human creations. How can you tell? At their most basic is a code that is made up of two numbers—one and zero. That’s incredibly human because humans don’t deal well with anything bigger than one of anything.

Even our fundraising shows it. Let’s go back to direct mail fundraising, for example. 

One of the hallmarks of effective direct mail is that having a story focused on one person’s plight will get more money than saying “you can help thousands.” Humans can only handle one thing at a time. Yes, even multi-tasking is a myth. (It’s really the ability to quickly flip back and forth… one-zero-one-zero, like a computer?) 

When crafting your donation request, make sure to focus on the one person who will be impacted by the gift.

What does this mean for your solicitation? 

While you could ask for gifts to support your program or your organization, you’re much more likely to collect if you ask, “Can you help someone like Bob with his problem?” 

Personalize your ask. Use Bob as your example out of all the other Bob’s and Bobbi’s out there who need help. The donor cares about who you serve. Therefore, the closer you can connect the donor with a person they can help, the more likely you are to get the gift.

In other words, when you meet “one-to-one” with a donor, you’re meeting in partnership “for one” person.


This concept applies to a lot of fundraising—from small and mid-sized contributions to major gifts. Plus, it’s pretty easy to remember once you get the concept. 

Time and again, the secret formula for fundraising takes the fear out of asking and increases the number of gifts collected. Because with 12141 in mind, fundraisers don’t feel like they’re begging. 

After all, begging would follow a different formula: 1214Me. Begging feels like you’re asking for yourself. Fundraising isn’t begging because you should always have an example of a person your mission serves in your mind. 

Be proud of the opportunity you’re giving your donor to meet their goals by giving money so you can help the one you both care about by following the formula for 12141.

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  • Dennis Fischman

    Brilliant way to remember one of the most important things about fundraising!
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