How fundraisers can conquer crippling fear

… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

from FDR’s First Inaugural Address, 1932

Fear in small doses can keep you out of certain kinds of trouble.

But just a bit more fear can push you to make terrible decisions. That’s where a lot of nonprofits live: in a bath of fear that makes them mediocre — or worse.

Let’s look at some of the common fears and ask if they’re really as terrible as they seem:

  • Fear that donors will complain. This is the killer. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen organizations say a campaign was a massive failure because nine people complained. Out of 100,000 pieces you sent and that brought in several thousand positive responses. If you do anything at all, someone will complain. It won’t kill you. In fact, you can almost always turn a complaint into a chance to deepen your relationship with someone who cares enough to complain.
  • Fear that your fundraising will cause donors to abandon you. Maybe they won’t bother to complain and just walk away. Sounds reasonable. But what really kills donor retention are two things: 1. Irrelevant communication — usually fundraising that doesn’t really ask or asks for things donors don’t care about. 2. Under-communicating. You are far more likely to lose donors because you only connect with them a couple times a year than you are from communicating too much. How much is too much? It varies, but few organizations are doing it.
  • Fear of failure. Failing is a sign of trying. It’s inevitable. Have you noticed that you always recover from failure — especially when you take calculated risks? Failure is a necessary part of success. And it’s often the doorway to success. You should be a lot more afraid of dying away because you never tried anything and couldn’t adjust to changing conditions. That’s the real failure. But it happens slowly.
  • Fear of being embarrassed. People you know and respect — but are not donors — can really let you have it about fundraising. It’s easier to be influenced by their opinions than by actual donor behavior. After all, you value these people. But they are almost always wrong, and their opinions shed no light on the effectiveness of your fundraising. This fear can be realistic when the ones you fear have decision-making authority over you. Well-run organizations know how to let people have their say without allowing them to throttle fundraising in order to feel better about it.

When you find yourself making a fear-based decision, try this:

Follow your fear-thoughts through to their logical conclusion. You’ll usually realize that what you’re afraid of is extremely unlikely or not so bad. Fear is most powerful when it’s unexamined — like those monsters under your bed when you were a child.

Here’s what you should really be afraid of: Sooner or later, there’s going to be an organization that doesn’t operate under the fear that’s shackling you. They’re going to get stuff right. And your donors are going to migrate over to that organization. Suddenly your nightmares are true. Just not the way you thought.

That’s why fear itself is what you should be most afraid of.


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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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