Fundraising War Stories: Three Lessons on Choosing Prospects

• fundraising • effective fundraising • fundraising game • board's role in fundraising • sustainable fundraising
Ellen Bristol

"You've got to help us out," they said, "we really need you!"  And so, with the ink still wet on my incorporation documents, I agreed to conduct my very first fundraising retreat for the board of The Commodores, not their real name.  I even drafted my friend Rebecca, with her PhD in organizational psychology, to share the project with me! We expected to enlighten these folks, dazzle them with our brilliance, and then give them fundraising strategies that would reinvigorate them and give them a brilliant future.

In three hours.

We arrived early to set up the room, and then the board members started to trickle in.  I knew we were in trouble when four of them limped in dragging their portable oxygen bottles behind them.  Finally the president, a sprightly 75-year-old, stood up and said, "before we start this meeting with, um, what're your names again?, let's figure out where we're going to meet next month, and who's in charge of food."  Not a promising beginning.What a mistake!

The group had a legitimate challenge.  Originally formed as part of the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976, they had no real mission anymore, and had pretty much run out of money.  Our job was to help them choose a new direction or mission, and to guide them to some more effective fundraising strategies.  After a slow start, we got a few ideas on the board and were starting an exercise to prioritize them when the back door flew open and Lady with Hat (a gigantic confection with a three-foot brim) waltzed in, about an hour late to a three-hour retreat.

She strolled up to the front row, assembled her sizable tote bag, three-legged cane, cup of Starbucks and assorted bits and pieces in front of her, while calling out greetings to various participants.  When she finally settled down, we attempted to resume the prioritizing exercise.   Lady with Hat interrupted every speaker, dismissed every idea and challenged every suggestion.  As the clock ticked on, the meeting dissolved into nothing.  By the end the final result was Lady with Hat, Winner by a Length, The Commodores had no new ideas, and we accomplished a whole lot of nothing.    Nothing for the client, that is.  Rebecca and I still burst into laughter whenever we mention The Commodores, but we learned three great lessons that apply to fundraising as well as nonprofit consulting.

Lesson #1:  Choose your prospects wisely.  Because it was my first nonprofit project, I didn’t really mind losing money on it, since I figured we’d get lots of visibility and more opportunities from other nonprofits.  This did not happen.  Have you ever allowed yourself to invest a lot of time on a donor prospect, just to get a small gift?  And even worse, the donor never referred you to anybody, participated in your events or bought tickets to the gala. 

Lesson #2:  It’s not always good to win the gift.  In fundraising, sometimes a gift is more like a curse, especially if the donor expects something you can’t provide, tries to interfere with your mission, or stirs up conflict and controversy without cause.   In our case, we lost money, didn’t improve our reputations, and didn’t learn much – except Lesson #1, to choose our prospects more wisely.

Lesson #3: Make sure their motivations for giving line up with your nonprofit’s values. I was so determined to “fix” this little organization that I couldn’t tell what they really wanted, which was probably just some new ideas for fundraising events.  If your donors aren’t committed to your mission and don’t share your values, they’ll be hard to acquire and even harder to retain.

What about your fundraising war stories?  I know you’ve got them.  Please share some of the goofs, boo-boo’s and boneheaded stuff you’ve observed when trying to get your agency to raise money.  And I also want to know what you’ve done right, the clever tactics, breakthroughs and strategies you’ve either engineered or observed.  I’ll include the ones I like best in The SMART Fundraising Game, our new game that shows program staff, volunteers and board members what fundraising is really all about.  If your comment is selected, you’ll get a free copy of the game plus our latest e-book De-Mystifying Fundraising: Seven Steps to Fundraising Success, along with all the calculators and templates.  Just comment below or email me!

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