Fear makes bad fundraising — when it most needs to be good

Let me tell you about one organization’s coronavirus fundraising message: It’s a single letter-sized sheet. Blank on the back. Designed not to look like a letter, but something between a brochure and a bulletin.

The headline: [Organization] Responds to COVID-19

Yawn.

But it gets worse:

The bulk of the page was a recitation of good things the organization has done in response to the crisis. It’s basically a press release. You know those crappy full-of-themselves press releases that PR flacks spam you with? That kind.

Remember, this is a piece sent to donors with the purpose of encouraging them to donate. So far, not even a hint that the donor is even being addressed, much less asked to do anything.

About two-thirds of the way down the page, it pivots to fundraising. Sort of. Here’s the ask:

Donor support will ensure that [Organization] has the tools to provide appropriate, high-quality support for the many individuals who will be approaching us seeking assistance in the coming weeks.

I’m not kidding. Donor support, not you. I’ve revised it to obscure the organization and what type of work it does, but this is how the fundraising piece asks.

By not asking.

By talking about donors as if they are a group of other people outside of the current conversation … which is with donors.

It’s written at a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease level of 16. That’s virtually unreadable. It’s how you write your first draft when you’re just trying to pour everything out so you can make it strong.

The I:You ratio is 19:3 (and all of the I’s are plural — we and our). That’s sociopath-level lack of connection with the reader.

The only visual: small headshots of two mid-level executives. They didn’t sign the piece, it’s just their photos. Nice, formal, business-as-usual photos, implying some form of endorsement, I guess?

I’m describing this piece at length not just because it’s bad. There’s plenty of bad fundraising we could look at.

I’m showing it to you because normally, this same organization is competent at fundraising.

What would cause them to do something so thunderingly incompetent — now, when everyone’s best work is so very critical?

I bet you know the answer.

It’s fear.

I have no inside knowledge of this, but I feel I can reconstruct it pretty well. You probably can too…

The organization was crippled with fear that something they said would cause some kind of terrible blow-back from donors. I don’t know what kind of fantasy scenario they made up in their heads… Every single donor being disgusted by their daring to speak out loud during a crisis and walking away forever? A malpractice lawsuit? A violent uprising with torches and pitchforks?

So in an attempt to create a message that would avoid those imaginary terrible things, they commissioned a committee of 17 people to group-write their fundraising piece. Probably no fundraising professionals on the committee (who needs them?) — just wall-to-wall VPs, with a few lawyers and accountants thrown in.

They chewed on every word, settling on the least powerful one they could all agree on.

They added clause after clause to each sentence to make sure every base, real and imagined, was covered.

They made sure nothing was vivid, or strong, or urgent.

Because fear.

Fear made this otherwise competent organization stupid.

I should note that they did one thing very smart thing: They did something. There is courage in that. Sending out this fetid pile of amateur fundraising will at least get some response. That’s better than none at all.

Fear is driving many more organizations right now to go silent. Hide like a rabbit in a hole. Nobody will blame you for anything if you do that.

Just doing something is a good step. But we need great fundraising results right now. Our future is being determined by what we do now.

Cast out fear! We need fundraising heroes who act with courage right now. We need more courage right now, not less!

  • Dramatically scale back your approval process so it only has people who know what they’re doing — two or three at most! — and each one has a specifically defined area of knowledge about it.
  • Choose action over inaction. It’s nearly always the right course.
  • At every decision point, choose the bolder reasonable alternative.
  • Lead your leaders. They carry weight on their shoulders that often causes them to choose the way of fear. Help them be brave by being brave yourself. (And if they are unleadable, start planning your exit strategy.)

You will make mistakes. Everybody does. Fear doesn’t eliminate mistakes — it just adds to them.

I read somewhere that the Bible has the phrase “fear not” 365 times. I don’t know how accurate that is, but take it this way: Every day, don’t be afraid.

The book Dune by Frank Herbert has a powerful litany against fear. It starts like this:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

This is a scary time. You have worries about your health, the health of your loved ones, the economic distress that’s hitting so many, the malfeasance of some political leaders.

But act with courage.

You’ll have better outcomes for yourself, your organization, and for all of us.


Comments

2 responses to “Fear makes bad fundraising — when it most needs to be good”

  1. Marjorie Fine Avatar
    Marjorie Fine

    OK. Agree. Could you give examples? Thanks. Real language.

  2. Marjorie Fine Avatar
    Marjorie Fine

    OK. Agree. Could you give examples? Thanks. Real language.

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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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