How insider thinking makes you an ineffective fundraiser

When I’d been at my first fundraising job just over a year — long enough for me to think I knew what was going on — my organization brought in a consultant to do a television project.

Our work was focused on helping the poor of Calcutta, India.

When the script came to us, it was full of description of the poverty and squalor of Calcutta, including this phrase, in a description of what it was like to walk the city streets:

… you can’t escape the tormenting stench of sewage and cooking food.

I was appalled. I’d recently been to Calcutta, and was hyper-sensitive to the fact that Calcutta (like anyplace) was a multi-faceted incredibly diverse and complex place that contained as much wealth and beauty as it did poverty and squalor. Focusing on the stench (which was, admittedly, very real) missed the point about the place. Furthermore, equating the odor of sewage with that of cooking food was just plain disrespectful of the people who cooked and ate that food.

I noisily made my case, and got the offending passage removed from the script.

I was wrong.

Now there’s something wrong-headed about that phrase. But killing it was dumb. I should have sought an edit removed the wrong-headedness but kept the power.

Sensory details make writing more vivid. And when its’ more vivid, it’s better at moving people to action. Talking about the smell is a powerful way to make the scene more real to people. By removing that strong sensory detail, I made our message less vivid … less effective.

Only an insider could have got that worked up about that phrase.

The vast majority of our donors and prospects would have taken it at face value and affected enough to take action. But we insiders had a nuanced and complex view of Calcutta. That comes from familiarity. The mistake is thinking everyone should see things the way we do. But like so many nonprofit insiders, I fully believed that if I could make everyone see things they way I did, the world would be a better place.

And maybe it would. But looking back, I find that a bit of a stretch. And more than a bit arrogant.

You can’t un-think your insider thoughts. Nor should you.

But you have to have a non-insider imagination that helps you see things without your blinders. Otherwise you will constantly miss connecting with donors and make mistakes like I did.

Donors aren’t you. Very few of them ever will be. You have no duty — and no right, really — to try to make them so.

When you learn how to suspend your insider thinking, you are a true fundraiser.


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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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