How to avoid the two killer mistakes of fundraising

Nonprofits have to navigate their way between the Scylla and Charybdis of fundraising: The two errors in thinking that can sink your fundraising effectiveness.

1: Hating everything that’s been done before

You’d rather do anything than direct mail fundraising. It’s just so old hat, so tired. Email, which in marketing terms has yet to come in to its own, and is growing at explosive rates — to you, it’s dead already. Even Facebook is a tired old steam locomotive.

If you think this way, you miss the big opportunities. Because the big ones are the older ones. You’re also an easy mark for con-artist consultants who prey on your particular attitude by offering half-baked, exciting-sounding schemes.

2: Needing guaranteed success for everything you do

You can’t do a thing unless there’s an iron-clad performance pro forma and documented best practices. You’re not so much a late adapter as a never adapter.

No innovation is possible if you insist on guarantees. Every successful thing ever done started as a risky, unproven idea. If you never innovate, you find yourself in an ever narrower hole, less and less able to keep growing.

Either extreme is bad. But there’s something worse. Some organizations actually embrace both of these destructive tendencies at once. They hate to focus on the old stuff they’re tired of, yet they’re terrified of actual innovation.

So they end up chasing the latest fad: Red Cross raised millions via text messaging during the Haiti Quake; suddenly, hundreds of organizations were crying Get us some of that text-to-give! Same thing happened with the famous yellow wristbands; after that cultural phenomenon, literally hundreds of nonprofits tried to get on the bandwagon with other-colored wristbands of their own.

The smart path between these two attitudes is this:

  • If lots of people are doing something, that’s a good indication that it’s been tested and refined and it works. If you aren’t exploring it, you are probably making a costly mistake. If a fundraising approach has been around for a long time (like direct mail), that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s old and tired. More likely it means it’s powerful.
  • Don’t be afraid of failure. Be aware of best practices and past experiences, but don’t be afraid to try new things. Take risks in ways that limit your exposure in case you fail — which you will, more often than not.

(This post first appeared on February 24, 2012.)


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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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