Fundraising Hell

Inferno520

Dante’s Inferno is a masterpiece of medieval religious thought, an unflinching look at the nature of evil and what it does to the human spirit. I urge you to read it (and also the other two parts of his Divine Comedy, Purgatorio and Paradiso).

If Dante had been a fundraiser, his Inferno might have been slightly different, featuring the evils specific to fundraisers. Alas, he wasn’t. We’ve been waiting nearly 700 years to find out what’s waiting in the afterlife for fundraisers.

I have corrected Dante’s oversight.

Level 1: Virtuous Unbelievers

This level is a peaceful, pleasant, but somewhat sad place, where you see fundraisers wandering aimlessly.

These are fundraisers who never quite learned how to do their work right, who never heard the good news about effective fundraising. They never learned what works. Never attended a conference. Read a book. Or a blog. They just did the best they could in their ignorance.

Sometimes they got it right, more often they didn’t. But they didn’t really know the difference.

Many worked at very small organizations that couldn’t afford to send them to conferences, didn’t have books, and lacked connection to the larger fundraising community.

This is not a terrible circle. Technically, it’s part of Hell, but it’s not hellish. These deceased fundraisers continue their wandering and their relatively blissful ignorance. Their tragedy is one of wasted potential: They did their best, but their best wasn’t very good, because it lacked direction.

How can you avoid this level of Hell? Well, since you’re reading this, I can almost guarantee you aren’t headed there. You could be going someplace far worse, but we’ll get to that in the coming weeks.

Level 2: The Lustful

We enter now Fundraising Hell for Real, where the ugly stuff starts happening. This second level is where Lustful fundraisers end up. They are the people who spent their careers lusting after shiny new things (usually technology) and neglected what really worked.

They were bored with “old” fundraising vehicles, like direct mail or email. They loved saying things like Direct mail is dead, when there was no evidence whatsoever that it was anywhere close to an end.

Every time a new social site was launched, they slobbered all over it, eager to believe that this was the Next Big Thing that was going to kill direct mail, email, Facebook, etc.

Their more technical, the more exciting, in their eyes. If it required donors to buy new hardware, download new software, or be tech-savvy and cutting-edge — the Lustful couldn’t keep their hands off it: QR codes!

Their punishment in Fundraising Hell: to be endlessly blown around by the wind. With no anchors, no mastery, no faith in what is already proven, they were in life — and are in the afterlife — helpless, without control, unconnected, lost.

Want to avoid the second circle of Fundraising Hell? Commit yourself to the fundraising channels and methods that have shown themselves to work. Become a master of those things. Don’t ignore the new, but don’t lose yourself to it.

Level 3: The Gluttonous

We continue our trip downward, leaving the terrible winds of the Lustful Fundraisers and enter the level inhabited by Gluttonous Fundraisers.

These are the fundraisers who only took, never gave. They gobbled up donors, tossing out one campaign after another to rake in the gifts — but they never thanked donors, never reported back, never gave any thought to building relationships.

As new digital capabilities become available that allowed richer and deeper communication, they covered their eyes and ran away. They didn’t want two-way communication with donors! Too difficult!

They saw donors as resources to consume. Not as fellow human beings and partners in a shared cause. They became great experts in the art of response rates, but knew and cared little about donor retention or upgrading. Low average gifts or abysmal costs-per-donor didn’t bother them — just as long as they got those responses, the gross revenue in the door. They didn’t even care that their approach was profoundly unhealthy and unsustainable.

Their punishment: they lie like beached whales in smelly, slushy pools of semi-frozen sewage. As they were in life, they are blind and unaware of those around them.

If you want to avoid this afterlife, make sure you think about more than response rates and gross revenue. Watch retention like a hawk. Ask yourself what donors want out of giving to you. Think about donors as a precious resource you steward, not something to extract all the value out of and move on.

Level 4: The Greedy and Wasteful

After we leave the sadly passive sufferings of the Gluttonous Fundraisers, we make our way down to the next level, where we find the Greedy and Wasteful Fundraisers.

These were the fundraisers who valued self expression over other connecting with donors. To them, the purpose of fundraising was to display the awesomeness of their organization — its methods, its history, its staff, whatever they deemed worth bragging about.

This type of fundraising evil takes two different forms:


  1. Greed, where the fundraisers didn’t see fit to be open or informative about what they do with their donors. They don’t think donors can handle the details; they’re not real partners, just passive funders.
  2. Wastefulness, where the fundraisers can’t shut up about their greatness. Donors don’t matter to them, either — except as passive audiences to be enlightened.

Opposite sins, but remarkably similar. Either way, it’s because they’re horrifically self-centered.

For punishment, they endlessly push gigantic weights along until they crash into others and their weights. They yell and curse at each other (these types really hate each other), then start pushing their weights somewhere else.

The entire level is watched over by a slavering wolflike giant, the Demon of Branding. It’s really his domain.

To stay out of this level of Fundraising Hell, fix your mind on one thing: Fundraising is about donors. It’s not a vehicle for your pride and self-expression. Your excellence is a vehicle for their greatness, not vice-versa.

Level 5: The Wrathful

After we leave the Greedy and Wasteful Fundraisers, we descend to a level inhabited by some who were not unlike them — Wrathful Fundraisers.

They disliked their donors.

Disliking your donors is a grave and terrible sin. For living that way the Wrathful face eternity in the black, marshy waters of the River Styx. Some of them furiously fight one another, while others lie gurgling at the bottom, unable to see or hear anything but their sullen, unpleasant thoughts.

Donors are your source of life: they make everything from your cause to your health insurance happen. Fundraisers who dislike those donors — usually because they have different taste, knowledge, or expectations than the fundraisers — cut themselves off from the one thing that matters in their world.

Escape this fate by remembering always what your donors give you. They aren’t you, and that can be frustrating, but the mature, well-rounded fundraiser can embrace that difference and serve those donors, despite the differences.

Level 6: The Heretics

As we continue our descent into Fundraising Hell, we now reach the Heretics: Fundraisers who went against the truths they knew.

They had all the advantages. They were educated and informed about their work. They went to the conferences. They read the books and blogs. They heard it said hundreds of times that fundraising is about donors, that if you let your work devolve into skimming cash without creating meaningful relationships with donors, you’re wasting everyone’s time and money.

But they didn’t care.

They did crummy, old-line, barely successful, soulless fundraising that managed to pay for itself but couldn’t be sustained. They practiced churn-and-burn tactics that maximized response at the expense of retention, net revenue, upgrading, and deeper engagement.

Their fundraising was like strip-mining or forest clear-cutting. Effective for a while at getting the resource, but wasteful and unsustainable.

They managed to raise money (though they tended to be much better at gross revenue than net), but they trained donors to think of fundraising as stupid, irrelevant, and annoying. Many donors who otherwise might have been generous supporters of the world’s causes became miserly skeptics — to the loss of us all (and themselves) because of the horrific work of these fundraisers.

In short, these people not only went astray, but led others astray too, including donors.

For that, they lie trapped in red-hot flaming tombs. They continue their dead disconnectedness in the afterworld.

Don’t end up among these folks! Pay attention to what you know about good fundraising. Respect your work and your donors, and do your best all the time!

Level 7: The Violent

After we visit the heretics in their flaming tombs, we visit even more terrible offenders against fundraising and donors: the Violent, or, as they were called in life, the Brand Cops.

They committed violence against their causes, their donors, and themselves. The violence came in the form of ill-conceived, corporate-style branding that confused donors, garbled their messages, and killed revenue.

These Brand Cops were the perpetrators and defenders of destructive branding practices. They enforced whatever the brand mandated, which usually consisted of:


  • Self-centered messaging that was about the awesomeness of the organization, not the opportunity of the donors.
  • Abstract, symbolic descriptions of what the organization did, not concrete and literal descriptions that would give donors an idea what their giving might accomplish.
  • Bad design that was hard to read.
  • Aimed at non-existent or non-responsive audiences.

Worst of all, they insisted on these things, against all evidence. Proof that it was hurting the cause and missing the donors did not persuade the Brand Cops to lighten their vigilance.

The Brand Cops suffer a variety of terrible punishments in Fundraising Hell: Some are submerged in pools of boiling blood. Others have been transformed into gnarled thorn-bushes that are continually gnawed on by harpies. Yet others lie in red hot sand while fire rains down on them.

It’s just not nice at all in the seventh level of Fundraising Hell.

You can avoid this by insisting that your communications be based on the knowledge of donors and their behavior, not the inventions of Brand Experts. That’s your responsibility as a fundraiser. Donors, not brand.

(There are a few brand-focused fundraisers who are blissing out in Fundraising Paradise. They’re the ones who used brand to enforce donor-based fundraising. It can happen!)

Level 8: The Fraudulent

You thought Fundraising Hell couldn’t get any worse after seeing what’s happening to the Brand Cops?

Think again. (Evil laughter.) It gets worse as we drop down a massive cliff to the level of the Fraudulent — fundraisers who lied to donors.

These fundraisers were loose with the truth. They knew what kinds of stories moved donors to compassion, so they told those stories. Even when the stories weren’t true.

They fudged a statistic here, exaggerated a truth there. They failed to tell the truth.

You might wonder why these little white lies — told in service of good causes — land people so deep in Fundraising Hell. After all they are deeper in than fundraisers who did committed much more dramatic evils. After all, fundraisers who preferred to brag about themselves over connecting with donors are way up in the 4th level. And Greedy fundraisers who only took and never gave are up in the 3rd level. Heck, even Brand Cops are higher than these guys.

Well, those little lies might look insignificant to us, but the harm they do is immense: Many donors live in fear that we aren’t telling them the truth. In fact, one of the reasons people who never donate give is they don’t think charities are trustworthy. When we let untruths go out to donors, we confirm their fears. We make fundraising that much harder not only for ourselves but for all fundraisers — including the scrupulously honest ones. Worse yet, we put up a wall between donors and the causes they should be supporting.

For that, some of the Fraudulent are driven like cattle by demons with whips. Others are trapped head-first in tight holes, their feet on fire. Others just writhe forever, enveloped in flames that never go out.

Don’t lie! Not even a tiny bit! You don’t want to land in the 8th Level of Fundraising Hell!

Level 9: The Treacherous

We’ve finally reached the deepest pit of Fundraising Hell. A place so vile, degraded, and horrific that all the levels above seem pleasant by comparison. This is the final home of the Fraudulent: fundraisers who betrayed their donors.

Their fundraising was a con job, meant to enrich themselves, not make the world better.

Those fundraisers in the levels above committed all kinds of sins. They neglected donors, they communicated poorly, they twisted their messaging, they killed relationships. But they were all fundraisers. Their sins were terrible and extreme, but they were trying to raise funds.

These guys in Level 9 — they weren’t about raising funds. They broke the very idea of fundraising.

In fact, some of them were very good fundraisers. They didn’t commit any of the sins of the higher levels. They knew exactly how to motivate donors to give. Except for the most important part of all: the money didn’t do what they told donors it would do.

It’s the ultimate evil any fundraiser can do.

The Fraudulent Fundraisers are eternally frozen in ice. Some up to their necks. Others entirely encased in it.

Think that seems a bit anti-climactic after all the various torments involving fire in the higher levels? Hold an ice cube in your hand for five minutes.

You don’t end up in Level 9 by accident or through incompetence. (Those fundraisers are in various parts of Fundraising Purgatory.) This is the level for the worst of the worst.

Please don’t go there!


What this blog is about

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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About the blogger

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.