How to deal with the enemy within during the crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has starkly uncovered one of the deepest and most destructive problems in the fundraising world: The destructive power of the amateur.

Amateurs — often (but not always) in the form of opinionated board members — often have too much sway in fundraising decision-making. Their habit of making decisions based on nothing but hunch, opinion, and intuition has cost our sector billions in lost revenue over the years.

They issue rulings like ….

  • “Stop sending direct mail. Nobody reads it any more. Start fundraising on [fad social media site of the moment].”
  • “Our donors are dying! Give up on old people — let’s go after millennial donors!”
  • “Fundraising is too inefficient. Instead let’s just cultivate a great relationship with Oprah/Bill Gates/etc.”

… and a hundred other ill-advised, already-debunked fundraising “innovations.”

The professionals know better. But the amateurs are making the decisions.

And right now, when we really need to be on top of our game to survive this crisis and what will likely be a long and difficult aftermath, amateur decision-making is having catastrophic impact.

A recent survey of nonprofit organizations reported in The Chronicle of Philanthropy found that 73% of nonprofits say contributions are down in the wake of the pandemic — half of them down more than 20%.

Some of that drop is from cancelled events and disrupted activities like face-to-face fundraising — that is, somewhat inevitable, given the situation. But a lot of it is because so many organizations have decided to play possum — to curl up and pretend they’ve died to wait this out. They believe any attempt at raising funds during this crisis will cause huge problems — problems worse than zero revenue.

How many nonprofits have voluntarily chosen zero revenue is unknown. But look at your mailbox. It’s probably much emptier of direct mail fundraising than it normally is this time of year.

The professionals can tell you that fundraisers right now are breaking records. Donors are opening their hearts and their wallets at levels most of us have never seen before.

This information is not hidden. The professionals know it’s happening. You do not have to go gentle into that good night; you can rage against the dying of the light with skill and confidence! Maybe you can come out of this stronger than you were when it started!

Unless you are under control of amateurs who think otherwise.

The amateurs, not part of the professional conversation, have only their guesses to go on. But it’s good enough for them!

I know it’s cold comfort, but the rise of the amateur is not unique to the nonprofit sector. It’s a big problem in government too. (Two words: Jared. Kushner.)

How do you fight it? I can think of a few things:

  • Fight the amateurs with facts and truth. I know it doesn’t sway a lot of them, but it might move a few. (And be nice. Being nice works better than being fierce.)
  • Be as informed as you can possibly be. Have knowledge on your side, so your decisions will be better decisions.
  • Get professional help. Outside help can bring expertise you don’t have, and sometimes the amateurs will listen to an outside expert. (Sad, but true.)
  • If you can’t fix it, stop enabling it. Plot your move to an organization not run by amateurs.

As Tom Ahern said, “Opinionated, untrained board members are the coronavirus of the nonprofit world.”

Fighting a pandemic is hard. It takes a lot of determination, coordination, and most of all knowledge. It’s all the more so when the infection is of attitudes, not microbes.

I’ll leave you with an account from a wonderful organization I’ve been privileged to work with recently (and who wants to remain anonymous). They won a partial victory over amateurism when they created an emergency fundraising campaign:

I wanted to empower our donors by giving them the opportunity to be part of the solution to the crisis. But my attempt to send a direct mail emergency appeal was halted because they said we should be “sensitive” to a specific segment of our supporters.

So instead we created an email campaign, and didn’t send them to those donors we wanted to be sensitive to. It was the most successful email appeal our organization has ever had.

A few days later, we received a letter from one of those who were “protected” from hearing from us. He was asking why we haven’t asked for support.

Donors want to give! That’s not my belief, it’s what we’re seeing in the real world. If only the amateurs could understand that!

I’ve received accounts like this one nearly every day for weeks. It’s what happens when you get past the amateurs and their opinions.

Let me know what you’ve been doing to overcome the plague of amateurism!


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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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