How conference bullies victimize fundraisers

I was at a conference recently, where a clever consultant showed off a massive integrated awareness/fundraising campaign they’d done for a client.

It was good-looking and comprehensive. In addition to direct mail and email, there was print, outdoor advertising, transit ads, and a Facebook strategy.

Slide after slide of the slick, attractive creative went by.

Someone behind me gasped. It was a sound of admiration and envy. No doubt they were feeling sadly inadequate at the dull one-dimensionality of their own fundraising.

Funny thing was, I happened to have some inside knowledge about the campaign. Guess what: It didn’t work. The Facebook part of the campaign brought in five small donations. The print ads did a little better: A few dozen gifts, most of them from current donors. There was no measureable response from the billboards or transit advertising. The only part of the campaign that you could call successful, the direct mail, did worse than it does most years.

The campaign was a dismal, crushing failure.

It was killed by a combination of abstract messaging, an unclear call to action, and (most of all) high spending in unproven media.

But it sure looked good on Powerpoint. And it sure made some of the people in that semi-darkened hotel meeting room feel like sorry rubes — which is exactly the purpose of presentations like that.

The intent is to make you feel stupid and overwhelmed. These consultants know if they show enough pretty pictures, some people will be too distracted to ask the obvious questions, such as Did it work?

They also know that if someone does ask that question, they can answer it with vague, qualitative answer like It generated more talk than anything we’ve ever done. Or half-answers like Average gift went way up (which generally means response was terrible). And they get away with it

We’re all afraid of missing something big, something that matters. We’re all prone to getting tired of the same old same-old.

But don’t let that fear and restlessness make you a target for the conference bullies who depend on insecure fundraisers. Ask the hard, quantitative questions. And if you don’t get answers, don’t agree to anything!


Comments

16 responses to “How conference bullies victimize fundraisers”

  1. I love love love this. Time and time again, I’ve seen flashy presentations gloss over core functionality needs when it comes to campaign and appeal structure. Fantastic post.

  2. I love love love this. Time and time again, I’ve seen flashy presentations gloss over core functionality needs when it comes to campaign and appeal structure. Fantastic post.

  3. Oh man, so much gold in here. I have been to those presentations where envy is really the main point being communicated.
    I’d love to see some presentation where the presenter says how they failed and what that taught them. ‘Hey we did this awesome social media integration project and it got us jack squat. Turns out Social Media isn’t that pot at the end of the rainbow.’

  4. Oh man, so much gold in here. I have been to those presentations where envy is really the main point being communicated.
    I’d love to see some presentation where the presenter says how they failed and what that taught them. ‘Hey we did this awesome social media integration project and it got us jack squat. Turns out Social Media isn’t that pot at the end of the rainbow.’

  5. This article actually makes my heart hurt. I can only imagine folks who work for a smaller shop shrinking away in their chairs as someone with a pretty, expensive unless it’s pro-bono)campaign leaves out the most important detail of all.
    It’s not fair/right/just to present failed campaigns as a model for success. In fact, it’s just irresponsible and selfish.

  6. This article actually makes my heart hurt. I can only imagine folks who work for a smaller shop shrinking away in their chairs as someone with a pretty, expensive unless it’s pro-bono)campaign leaves out the most important detail of all.
    It’s not fair/right/just to present failed campaigns as a model for success. In fact, it’s just irresponsible and selfish.

  7. Agree 100% – especially by the big commercial agencies that dazzle charities with all the big words and think getting donations must be easy!
    We also do it ourselves though – SOFII shows a lot of case studies that talk about all the many elements that made up a an integrated campaign, but often fail to talk about the results.

  8. Agree 100% – especially by the big commercial agencies that dazzle charities with all the big words and think getting donations must be easy!
    We also do it ourselves though – SOFII shows a lot of case studies that talk about all the many elements that made up a an integrated campaign, but often fail to talk about the results.

  9. Lisa-Nicole Avatar
    Lisa-Nicole

    Great post… I agree it’s important to stick to the knitting as well as think outside the box but sometimes we do need creativity to stand out in these increasingly tough times, and integration sometimes to simply raise awareness and put ourselves on the radar of new audiences. So I completely agree that we need to be cautious of shiny attractive fancy things- unless – we are clear what they will deliver, we track, measure, test and report on everything and learn from mistakes.

  10. Lisa-Nicole Avatar
    Lisa-Nicole

    Great post… I agree it’s important to stick to the knitting as well as think outside the box but sometimes we do need creativity to stand out in these increasingly tough times, and integration sometimes to simply raise awareness and put ourselves on the radar of new audiences. So I completely agree that we need to be cautious of shiny attractive fancy things- unless – we are clear what they will deliver, we track, measure, test and report on everything and learn from mistakes.

  11. I agree. Any campaign can only be judged on its success, and I often see award winning campaigns and think, slick but how much did it raise? If that question isn´t answered (or better still clearly stated as part of the presentation) may not be a model to follow. Also have to think about the bigger picture – sometimes campaigns don´t raise huge amounts of $$ initially but do raise the organisation/mission profile which brings benefits further down the line.

  12. I agree. Any campaign can only be judged on its success, and I often see award winning campaigns and think, slick but how much did it raise? If that question isn´t answered (or better still clearly stated as part of the presentation) may not be a model to follow. Also have to think about the bigger picture – sometimes campaigns don´t raise huge amounts of $$ initially but do raise the organisation/mission profile which brings benefits further down the line.

  13. Bill Jacobs Avatar
    Bill Jacobs

    As our friend Brian Miller might say: “That’s not entirely correct.”
    I have seen integrated campaigns succeed (and I have the data to prove it). I have also seen them fail.
    As with most things in fundraising, it depends. In this case the variables are the nonprofit’s market, the offer, media mix, frequency, reach and budget.
    In an industry that really needs some innovation, I think we need to test and refine these ideas. We cannot afford to do it just once and say: “That didn’t work.”

  14. Bill Jacobs Avatar
    Bill Jacobs

    As our friend Brian Miller might say: “That’s not entirely correct.”
    I have seen integrated campaigns succeed (and I have the data to prove it). I have also seen them fail.
    As with most things in fundraising, it depends. In this case the variables are the nonprofit’s market, the offer, media mix, frequency, reach and budget.
    In an industry that really needs some innovation, I think we need to test and refine these ideas. We cannot afford to do it just once and say: “That didn’t work.”

  15. Amen. One great thing about direct fundraising performance (unlike other media, marketing and advertising disciplines) is its practical measurability. Let’s set aside arguments about the real fundraising value of “mission awareness” for a moment. If raising the mission profile does in fact bring benefits further down the line, let’s document them, eh? Presumably metrics like retention, lifetime value, return on investment, gift frequency — those “down the line” gains — can be documented once known, out there for everyone to see. Until those metrics are known, the campaign needs to be presented with qualifiers that set expectations and perceptions correctly. Positioning the campaign as a best practice (without those qualifiers stated), which by inference is done at sessions such as the one Jeff cites, is irresponsible. I guess the larger question is: Why should an expectation of measurability be suspended in the name of innovation? Campaigns can’t be innovative AND measurable?

  16. Amen. One great thing about direct fundraising performance (unlike other media, marketing and advertising disciplines) is its practical measurability. Let’s set aside arguments about the real fundraising value of “mission awareness” for a moment. If raising the mission profile does in fact bring benefits further down the line, let’s document them, eh? Presumably metrics like retention, lifetime value, return on investment, gift frequency — those “down the line” gains — can be documented once known, out there for everyone to see. Until those metrics are known, the campaign needs to be presented with qualifiers that set expectations and perceptions correctly. Positioning the campaign as a best practice (without those qualifiers stated), which by inference is done at sessions such as the one Jeff cites, is irresponsible. I guess the larger question is: Why should an expectation of measurability be suspended in the name of innovation? Campaigns can’t be innovative AND measurable?

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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