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10 Big fundraising Mistakes

The 20 Biggest Fundraising Mistakes, Part I

Excerpt from The Relentlessly Practical Guide to Raising Serious Money

Call them what you will—gaffes, blunders, oversights, or errors—mistakes creep into everyone’s professional life. But in fundraising—unlike other fields—where thousands if not millions of dollars are often at stake, mistakes can be especially hazardous.

Who hasn’t forfeited a significant gift, or received but a token one, due to some serious miscalculation?

While there may be hundreds of them, 20 potentially costly fundraising mistakes stand out. They can’t really be ranked, since circumstances alter their impact. But here they are in an effort to ward you away from them.

1. Thinking Your Organization Will Attract Support Simply Because It’s a
Good Cause

Just because you have a good cause—one of thousands, really—doesn’t mean money will wend its way to you.

Organizations must attract support the old-fashioned way—earn it.

Giving away money is something we all do reluctantly, and it’s hardly an instinctive act. Nonetheless, people will support you if you present them with a challenging project that is consistent with their interests.

To succeed, you must explain exactly why you seek the funding, why your project is compelling, who will benefit, and why the money is needed now.

In other words, your needs—presented as opportunities—must be specific, people-oriented, and have a sense of urgency.

Keep in mind, always, that people give in order to get. They don’t simply want to give away their money; they want to feel they’re investing it and getting something in return.

2. Thinking That Others Can Raise the Money

Successful fundraising abides by the “rock in the pond” principle. That is, you can’t expect others to contribute until those closest to the center of your organization do so. The farther from the center, the weaker the interest.

In short, solicitation starts with your inner “family”—most notably the board. Only when these individuals have made proportionately generous contributions do you reach out to your external constituency.

Why this principle? Because it only makes sense that if a board approves a program involving significant outlays, with the understanding that money has to be raised, then these same trustees must commit themselves to giving and getting.

If your governing body won’t do so, who will?

3. Believing That Because People Are Wealthy They Will Contribute to You

Simply because someone is wealthy, or thought to be wealthy, is no reason to assume that he or she will want to give to your project. This is the thinking of neophytes.

People make gifts, substantial gifts, that is, only after you’ve reached out, informed them of your work, and meaningfully involved them in your organization.

It is then that the prospective donor understands your goals, recognizes their importance, and welcomes the opportunity to have an impact.

Solicitation rightfully becomes the final step in the fundraising process, not the first one.

4. Thinking You Can Whisk Wealthy Prospects In at the Last Minute

Individuals, if they are to be committed to your organization, must have the opportunity to be involved in your work—and not at the 11th hour.

Intensively courting prospects just prior to your fundraising drive is an insulting ploy, and most are smart enough to know what you’re up to.

Much more advisable is to continuously involve prospects, for just as the best trustees are those who are meaningfully involved, the best contributors—and best solicitors, too—are involved in your drive from conception to victory.

Dollars, as Jerold Panas notes, follow commitment. And commitment follows involvement.

5. Failing to Research and Evaluate Prospects

Rarely do meaningful gifts come from strangers. Most major donors are either associated with an organization or have logical reasons to give.

It is the role of prospect research to reveal these logical reasons by focusing on three elements, namely, linkage, ability, and interest.

Is there any link between the prospective donor and your organization? If so, then this link—and it must be legitimate—makes an appointment with the prospect possible.

Next is the person’s ability to give. Does the prospect have enough discretionary income to justify your soliciting him or her for a major gift? Research will tell you the answer.

Finally, what is the prospect’s interest in your organization? If he or she has little interest or limited knowledge about you, then you will likely receive a small gift if any at all.

6. Failing to Ask

Very often, when campaigns fail, it’s not because people didn’t give, it’s because they weren’t asked. In fundraising, asking is the name of the game.

The problem is, only for the rarest person is asking for a gift easy. For most of us, the discomfort is so strong we’ll invent 100 excuses to procrastinate.

Despite any training, despite any inspirational send-off, asking will always be the biggest challenge.

What can temper the fear to some degree is keeping in mind that prospects, who are usually more sensitive than we expect, respond favorably to solicitors who are dedicated and genuinely enthusiastic about the causes they represent.

7. Thinking That Publicity Will Raise Money

Publicity, despite our best wishes, doesn’t raise money.

If you have solicitors and prospects, a strong case, and a campaign plan, you won’t need any publicity.

Those who do insist on a big splash are, more often than not, people who don’t want to face the rigors of a campaign. When the publicity push fails to create a stir, they use it as an excuse for not working.

As for campaign materials, most serious donors see them as nonessential. They much prefer a persuasive verbal presentation, underscored by simple documentation.

So long as you treat your press releases, brochures, drawings, or photographs as aids and not as solicitation devices, they will be useful, but they will never take the place of direct asking.

8. Failing to Recruit the Right Trustees

Of all the groups important to an organization, none is more vital than the board of directors.

There are exceptions, to be sure, but in 99 out of 100 cases, an organization that consistently attracts the funding it needs has a board that accepts fundraising as a major responsibility, despite any other governing duties.

Put another way, an organization’s ability to raise money is almost always in direct proportion to the quality and dedication of its leadership.

As Hank Rosso, founder of the Fund Raising School puts it, “People who have the fire of leadership burning within their souls, and who have that deep commitment to the organization’s mission, will drive any program through to success.”

9. Believing You Can Raise Money by the Multiplication Table

People new to fundraising often get it in their heads that all you have to do is divide your goal by the number of likely donors, then ask everyone to give an equal amount.

But you can’t raise money adequately by the multiplication table—trying, for instance, to get 1,000 persons to give $1,000.

There are several inherent problems here. First, not everyone will give (which throws a wrench into the whole approach). Second, we all tend to give in relation to others. If someone, five times wealthier than you, pledges $1,000, are you likely to feel a $1,000 pledge from you is fair? Third, seeking $1,000 from each donor in effect sets a ceiling on what an unusually generous person might wish to pledge.

10. Failing to Have Deadlines

By nature most of us are procrastinators, and whatever we have plenty of time to do, well, we seldom get it done.

For many if not most volunteers, the thought of asking someone for a contribution leads to procrastination.

To counter this, you must press for specific accomplishments within prescribed deadlines. In other words, to force action you need a campaign schedule with target dates understood by all.

Everyone will then know the rules of the game and, despite the pressure, will be grateful for the deadline.

Next month: “The 20 Biggest Fundraising Mistakes, Part II””

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David Lansdowne
© 2007. Excerpted from The Relentlessly Practical Guide to Raising Serious Money. Emerson & Church, Publishers. All rights reserved.

David Lansdowne has spent much of his professional life in the nonprofit sector, serving in development and administrative positions for educational, cultural, and health organizations throughout America. The book from which this excerpt is taken, The Relentlessly Practical Guide to Raising Serious Money, was chosen by AmeriCorps Vista as the premier work on the subject. He is also the author of Fund Raising Realities Every Board Member Must Face.

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  1. […] Do people stop listening before you stop talking? Want to attract support or other involvement? Then first take a deep breath and ask yourself this powerful Four-Part Question. As you get clear and specific about all four parts you and your message will be credible and compelling for the people you want to reach: […]

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