Zen and the art of fundraising — and you

You’ve probably heard the old Zen saying,

“When the student is ready the teacher will appear.”

You’ve probably experienced it in your life. I certainly have. You develop an interest in something, or a need for some kind of knowledge — and almost immediately a person shows up in your life who not only has exactly what you need, but they’re also willing to help.

It’s so clear and pronounced that it seems like magic — or a divine gift.

It’s as if your need, your curiosity, somehow sends out a silent message that is heard by the teacher you need, who obeys the call and appears to you with amazing speed.

I think what makes it happen is this: We’re constantly being exposed to various “teachers” of various things. But most of the time, we’re not awake to what they have to offer; we don’t know or care enough to perceive the potential gift that’s in front of us. Until something happens within us that awakens us to it. And then: Wow! I can’t believe you just showed up like that, right when I needed you!

(I should add that my little “explanation” of this phenomenon doesn’t mean it’s not a divine gift or magic.)

I’m telling you all this because I think there’s a powerful fundraising correlation to this same truth:

“When the donor is ready the fundraising appeal will appear.”

That is, potential donors to your cause are going through their lives, unaware of your cause. No matter how many times they encounter your direct mail, your Facebook posts, your banner ads, your TV spots, your street fundraisers … they barely perceive it. It’s as if you didn’t ask at all.

And then something happens. Within the potential donor. And she is suddenly aware of your message. She can now respond.

Until that moment she could not respond. Because as far as she was concerned, you weren’t even there.

This can teach us a couple of useful things about fundraising:

  1. Why getting new donors is so hard. Because most people, most of the time, even in the best-targeted audiences, have not had that inner call in their hearts and minds. (And many never will.) Thing is, if you’re not there when or if it does happen … you won’t get that donor! (Someone else will, though!)
  2. It’s not purely random. Outside factors can turn on the light for many people at the same time. Like large natural disasters that bring in surges of donors. Or events like the election of a disturbing candidate. Unexpected fads like the Ice Bucket Challenge. Or a very well-conceived fundraising offer.

So practice your fundraising like you live in a world that’s thick with benevolent magic. Because it is.

But also stay aware that no matter how much heart and soul you put into your fundraising, it’s still partly a numbers game.

And that may be a path to true fundraising enlightenment.


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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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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.

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