0 Comments | Apr 23, 2010

Charity Fundraising: The Passe ‘Pretty Please’ Method

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“Just like this, only better” isn’t really an improvement strategy. Some would call it insanity. Yet that’s the resounding message I took away from a recent charity fundraising summit in Phoenix.

Charity demand is up 85% but funding is down 22%. That’s a 107% move in precisely the wrong direction. Unfortunately, fundraising efforts have been glacially slow to adapt.

The conference was mostly nonprofit organizations, a smattering of businesses, and a series of discussions that ultimately ended at the same place: how to ask for donations more effectively. Times are tough. Say “pretty please” instead of just “please.”

“The economy is beyond challenging, and we need to think differently about how we raise funds” was a typical breakout session opening remark. Sounds great. Maybe we’re going to hear some out-of-the-box fundraising partnership ideas. I’m listening.

Unfortunately, panels, speakers, and participants would subsequently launch without fail into their rendition of how to add incremental efficiency or effectiveness improvements to the existing donation request paradigm. “There are too many charity golf tournaments in town. Here’s how to get your organization’s golf tournament noticed.” Or, “if donations are down at your annual event, here’s how to tweak your seating arrangements/invitation process/venue contract for better returns.” Or, “This city is saturated with charity solicitation mailers. Try mailings in different cities.”

It was the same song, and very nearly the same verse. It’s no wonder that a common refrain went something like this: “We’d like to communicate more with our supporters, but it’s getting harder to get them to return our calls.” Really? Shocking.

I left disheartened and disappointed. It’s nice to implement marginal efficiency gains, but only while we’re thinking of a better way to approach the problem altogether. We need a new way of thinking about charity fundraising, and I think it revolves around having something to offer your supporters in the business community – not another evening at a black tie event, or yet another round of golf, and not even the great feeling of benevolence gained by participating in a donation drive.

Charities need to offer something of real business value.

Here’s what I mean. For too long, the heart of the charity donation solicitation process has revolved around looking inward and describing the charity and its beneficiaries in as emotionally appealing a manner as possible, thereby enticing cash-laden businesses and local fat cats to take pity and donate liberally. It was effective, back when businesses were cash laden, and fat cats were actually fat.

That time is not now. Sure, there are still some wealthy people who donate. But current economic realities have impacted private philanthropic donations as well.

For their part, businesses are no less interested in helping charities today than three years ago. They’re just less capable of helping. Donations require discretionary cash. There’s not much floating around these days.

It’s also important to understand that donations aren’t at their lowest during the year of the crash; they often decrease during the subsequent economic recovery as businesses retool and rehabilitate.

So what do we do about it?

Simple. Charities just need to position themselves as part of their donors’ business solution. Seek ways to add value. Seek ways to help donor businesses increase their business. Create win-win-win situations, where your beneficiaries win, their customers win, and you receive donations in the process.

Stop looking at yourselves, and look closely at your business partners instead. Ask how your charity might help them create solutions, facilitate business, engage customers, etc. From that perspective, it’s relatively easy to identify how you can provide real value – without becoming a sales instrument or advocate yourself.

“That sounds an awful lot like cause-related marketing.” I was hoping you would say that. It’s about time. Sure, not many charities can even spell CRM, and some actually prohibit it by charter. But the majority of charities shy away from raising funds through a cause-related marketing program largely because it would require doing something different than charities have traditionally done. That’s hard for human beings to do – until the condition driving the change gets painful enough.

Are we there yet? I submit “yes.”

Two weeks ago, I toured a one-of-a-kind, state-funded (sort of), inpatient child rehabilitation charity. It was absolutely squalid. During a suitably heart-tugging tour, the chief donation solicitor mentioned that they can’t afford socks and shoes for the children they serve. Windows were broken and boarded, plumbing was a mess with old water damage evident everywhere, and facilities were dilapidated and marginally habitable. If the fundraiser’s goal was to paint a picture of dire need, she succeeded in spades.

And then, much to my dismay, came the same old, tired routine: open palm face up, put on sad face, wait until donor writes check. So very 2007.

“Describe your fundraising efforts,” I asked.

“We had a golf tournament last year that raised a few thousand.”


“That’s about it. We rebranded all of our materials and website as well.”

You’re kidding, right?

“Times are tough.”

You don’t say.

I outlined our cause-related marketing program for her (Note – this isn’t a solicitation piece. We screen our charity affiliations very carefully). It clearly isn’t for everyone. Not every charity is a good fit for this kind of thing. But this particular charity, based on the details the business director discussed, looked like it could have been a good fit. Unfortunately, while the program has the potential to generate in a single month what this particular charity raised all of last year, it would have required a slight adjustment in the chief fundraising officer’s message to community business partners: “We have something of value for you in return.” You’d have thought I had one eye and two noses.

I don’t mean to be too tough on the poor lady – she was clearly in over her head to begin with, and while it sounds cliche, change is frightening for all of us. But I think that’s the chief reason many charities are limping along, stuck in a paradigm that worked under a vastly different set of economic circumstances. They’re clearly struggling now that charity service demand is higher while business and government funds are less available.

Despite the gloom, it isn’t all bad news – while relatively few have actually implemented meaningful change, at least more charities are talking about it.

At the end of the day, one of two things will happen: good times will return, and the “pretty please” method will work once again, or, when the pain reaches an intolerable level, charities will finally adapt. But how much good could we be doing right now, in the time of greatest need in recent memory, if we could just wrap our minds around a slightly different approach?

I’d love to find out.