How to kill your fundraising…

The article I’m sharing below also appears in the latest issue of Fundraising and Philanthropy magazine, but I wanted to share it with you here too. It’s nice to remind ourselves from time to time, of the things that get in the way of brilliant fundraising!

If I read one more article or hear one more corridor comment at a conference suggesting “the fundraising environment is tough” I may spontaneously combust.

The fundraising environment is the one you create. Not some hideous external monster that we can hide behind.

It’s your team, the decisions you make, the rhetoric you listen to or ignore, the risks you take. It’s within your grasp.

It frustrates the hell out of me when I hear excuses about poor fundraising performance, when many of the contributors killing your fundraising are simply bad (or misinformed) decisions.

Let’s cover a few of them.

Unrealistic growth

There’s two parts to this.

The first part I’m sure many fundraisers can relate to. It’s that feeling of entering a new financial year knowing they’ve been set up to fail.

The last round of budgets came back and your expenditure was cut by $200k, but your income is magically expected to increase from the last version, and from last year. Less to spend but more expected.

That sucks, but is all too common. Often a boards’ attempt to retrofit a budget to their service delivery, but without any real understanding of what’s required to generate the net contribution they need. Prefaced on the ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy.

Rarely ends well. And that’s even though most income growth aspirations are achievable. With the caveat that you need to be prepared to invest, and potentially invest in areas you may not be comfortable with/personally like. Want to grow from $3m to $6m in next 5 years? Sure, spend X, commit to Y, away you go.

But this is conditional, and unfortunately most boards don’t like strings attached.

The second part can be a little more self-inflicted (and controlled). You’ve looked at last year’s appeal, it made $155k, so let’s stick next years in at $200k. Nice little roundup, should be OK, right? Well given your file is stagnating, last year’s appeal case study was an absolute cracker you’re unlikely to repeat and three donors who gave you $50k between them last year can no longer be mailed.

Unless some incredible person leaves a $100k cheque under your door there’s more chance of Elvis being spotted alive than you delivering that year on year growth.

Listening to opinion rather than data

“I wouldn’t respond to that”.

I hate to break it to you, but it isn’t about your personal preferences. It’s about what’s been proven to work, and by extension what you test with your supporters.

I can hear the naysayers now. “We want to be different.. we don’t want to do what everyone else is doing..”

Go for it. Implement some controlled testing and if you can better the incumbent, fair play to you. But throwing out an appeal approach that has worked, or changing the number of times you ask because you don’t like it, is treacherous.

Equally, don’t get sucked into believing everything you hear – without some fact checking.

I once heard someone talking at a conference, espousing how wonderful their face to face retention program was. They’d reduced 12-month attrition by X%, simply by implementing a fancy series of communications telling supporters how lovely they were.

No evidence to provide this had been tested with a control group. No mention of whether the face to face agency they were using had changed. Of the volumes now being recruited versus what they had done previously. No talk of where they were now recruiting or the age makeup of those donors now being acquired.

So many variables and yet one conclusion. Follow this and it will solve all of your retention problems. Not necessarily.

Poor long term decision making

This is easy to do, a little harder to solve.

I get it, we all want to fix the now. Sporting coaches make decisions about the now, because they crave immediate success (and they want to keep their jobs).

The two biggest examples of this that fascinate and infuriate me are bequests and professional development. They’re invariably the first two areas to get the chop when budget cuts are made. “We can do without that conference… we can worry about bequest prospecting next year”..

News flash. While you’re not asking your supporters to consider leaving you a Gift in their Will some other fabulous cause probably is.

On the professional development front. How can you afford not to invest in your people? It’s a disservice to your donors and by extension to your benefactors that you don’t encourage and support the custodians of your organisation to be the best trained fundraisers they can be.

If it’s the right professional development (not just training for the sake of it) it pays off in spades. We hold multiple staff conferences every year and send our team on a raft of training courses, conferences and other development opportunities. The value this brings to our clients is infinitely higher than the cost to train them well.

The third example of poor decision making again links to data. It’s a mistake I’ve made myself. A few years back we were running a successful – on face value – mail acquisition program for a client. We’d done a heap of controlled testing and felt as if we had a good handle on what was driving continued growth.

We’d tested ask amounts in the acquisition pack and asking for a lower gift easily generated more gifts and more immediate income than asking for a little more.

Fast forward a couple of years and we decided to look back to ensure that the strategy we’d employed resulted in more long term income. Turns out it didn’t.

We’d been recruiting a lot of donors who gave once, and never again. The lower ask encouraged giving, but in essence from donors who only intended to ever give once. The upshot of this is we “chased” those donors through the appeals program for the next two years, ultimately at a cost to the organisation.

Whilst we had less of the higher value donors, they were more likely to give a second (and third gift) and paid themselves back much quicker than the previously determined “winning” group. As an unintended consequence, because there were less donors in the higher value group, there were also lower mailing costs that over time also contributed to this cohort of donors delivering more net income.

Getting carried away with shiny stuff

We’ve all done it. Obsessed over the latest fad. A new social platform, giving applications, QR codes, display advertising, digital printing, virtual reality or maybe it’s just a recently released fancy email platform.

Ask yourself this: does it help you reach more people that are likely to support you, or does it make it as easier, more seamless giving experience for your donors?

If the answer to either of the above is positive, go for it. If not, give it a wide berth.

Shiny stuff, which really is new technology, only helps if it has mass adoption. If it doesn’t, sit idle and wait for this to happen. Or watch as it slowly drifts into the ether never to be seen again.


For fear of contradicting myself, let me clarify. Mirroring what you’ve done in the past (if it’s worked) is a good thing. Copying someone else’s idea – and putting your own spin on it, rarely works.

I cringe at the thought of how brainstorming sessions for a new peer to peer event must go in some charities.

“Hey, no-one is doing anything with June and cancer. Let’s create the “The Great June Prune” and ask people to shave their heads for cancer research.

For what it’s worth there’s another P2P event that does this, its name actually tells you what it’s about (tick) and they’ve invested heavily and made it work because it’s a good idea that has a serious challenge attached to it (tick).

Clever rarely works. In DM, in peer to peer, or on the street.

There are always outliers; and I’ve recently worked on a new P2P event that generated almost $600k in its first year. But it did tick all of the boxes; it was unique, it had a significant challenge aspect to it, it was true to what the org does and most importantly, easy to understand. Oh, and they invested properly in it.

Plagiarism is the greatest form of flattery. But it can also be your undoing and the definition of insanity.

Some final thoughts

It’s easy to identify the above as fundraising program killers, but how do you avoid them happening in the first place?

  • Unrealistic growth. Don’t set yourself up for failure. You’d rather a tough conversation now about why those new targets are not realistic than an even tougher conversation after the event trying to justify why those targets weren’t met.
  • Data over opinion. Lead with data driven decision making, follow and challenge with opinion. And don’t believe everything you hear. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Long term decision making. Ensure you have long term measures as part of your KPI’s. Not just in terms of how you’re assessing the health of your program but in your own performance reviews. I.e. Bequest fundraisers should be measured on the growth in those who have told them they have chosen to leave you a bequest, not just on this year’s bequest income.
  • Shiny stuff. Spend most of your time on what works. Spend a small amount of time keeping an eye on stuff that ‘may’ work.
  • Copycatting. Don’t do it unless it’s a bloody good idea that you can improve, and has a point of difference you can exploit.