10 Fundraising Lessons from Arrested Development

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Arrested Development is probably one of the best-loved television shows here at Qgiv. It’s quoted on a pretty regular basis, and we noticed that there are some recurring themes within the show than could be looked at as fundraising lessons. Here are some fundraising lessons you can take from Arrested Development:

1. Don’t ditch tried-and-true fundraising methods

George Bluth says it time and time again — there’s always money in the banana stand. The banana stand isn’t the most glamorous part of the Bluth business, but it’s the most profitable one — it’s a tried-and-true business that has worked for the family for years.

What tried-and-true fundraising methods do you use? It probably isn’t your shiniest, newest fundraising strategy — it’s probably something like direct-mail fundraising, or a certain event that’s a success every year. Michael ends up getting himself into trouble when he burns down the banana stand, not realizing that there is literally money in it (the walls are lined with it!); don’t get yourself into financial trouble by abandoning proven fundraising methods in favor of new ones.

2. Communication is important

In the show, George Bluth teaches his children valuable lessons by recruiting his friend to traumatize them, apparently because of some shortcoming on their part. One lesson that really sticks out to them is the importance of always leaving a note, which they learn after a man’s arm is apparently torn off in a car accident.

This lesson is important for fundraisers, too! We don’t suggest traumatizing your staff with elaborate pranks to drive home this point, but effective communication — both between you and your donors and between your nonprofit’s staff — is a huge part of running a successful development department. Leave effective notes in your CRM, communicate thoroughly with your staff about expectations and roles within the office, and be sure to keep in touch with your donors before and after they make a gift or volunteer with you. Always leave a note!

3. You’re never alone, no matter how unique the situation

Tobias Fünke has an odd affliction — he’s a never-nude, who is never (ever ever) nude. He wears jean cutoffs at all times, even when he’s in the shower. But, regardless of the absurdity of his condition, he’s not alone — there are dozens of never-nudes! DOZENS!

Similarly, you might find yourself in an off situation at work. You might be a fundraiser who has a particularly challenging event coming up. You might have a weird organizational structure that presents you with uncommon obstacles. You might have an awkward situation on your board. You might feel like you’re the only one who’s ever struggled with your particular set of circumstances — but chances are good that you’re not alone. There could be dozens of you — DOZENS!

The trick is finding out where other people with your circumstances hang out. Try finding a supportive group of fundraisers where they congregate, like X, fundraising forums, or local groups. You’ll probably be able to find someone that can offer you wisdom and guidance, or at least someone who can help encourage you.

4. You (and your organization) shouldn’t be the center of attention

Buster Bluth was educated at Milford, a school for boys that taught its students that they should be neither seen nor heard. When a PR crisis arises, Buster decides that he can lay low… and he does. He lays really low!

Fundraisers can learn a valuable lesson from Buster’s ability to fade into the background: you and your organization shouldn’t necessarily be the center of attention. You’re definitely important, but your job as a good fundraiser is to recognize that donors want to change the world and to help them do just that. If a fundraiser does a good job, they blend into the background, leading a potential donor to the organization, showing them how their support will change the world, and letting the donor act from there.

5. If you don’t stand out from the crowd, you’re going to get left behind

Michael Bluth’s bland girlfriend, Ann (her?!) goes with the Bluth family on a trip to Mexico… and then gets left behind. She was so boring, they didn’t even realize she was gone until they’d already gotten back to California.

Be honest: is your organization a little… boring? Your donors are being bombarded constantly with advertisements for businesses and appeals from other nonprofits. You need to do something remarkable with your organization’s brand, mailings, and other communications if you want to stand out from the crowd. If you don’t, you risk being like Ann — being left behind without being missed.

6. Make your asks and requests clear

Lucille Bluth isn’t the most likable woman in the show — she’s snobbish, manipulative, and arrogant. She doesn’t have a ton of common sense, but she does know enough not to answer a question if she doesn’t understand what the question is.

Your donors probably aren’t as dysfunctional as Lucille, but they are unlikely to act if they don’t understand what you’re asking of them. Whether you’re asking for a donation, asking for volunteer hours, asking for a sponsorship from a local business, or asking anything else, make sure that you’re being clear with what you need from your supporters. Don’t be ambiguous; you don’t want them to pull a Lucille and not respond to your questions.

7. Own up to your mistakes (and learn from them)

Now, you might have to take this one with a little grain of salt. Gob is really great at recognizing when he’s made a mistake, but he isn’t necessarily good at learning from them. Whether he’s dumped a woman that he should never have dumped or gets himself needlessly incarcerated, Gob is really good at recognizing when he’s screwed up.

Similarly, you should be willing to recognize your mistakes and own up to them. Making mistakes or failing isn’t bad! Just be willing to learn from your shortcomings, recognize where you went wrong, and come up with a strategy for avoiding the same pitfall in the future. Did a new campaign flop? That’s okay! Own your shortcomings, revisit your strategies, and fix the problems in the future. Be like Gob and own up to your mistakes… just learn from them!

8. Always practice financial transparency

George Bluth is a notoriously shady businessman whose portfolio is full of seedy business dealings and illegal projects. It takes his son, Michael, weeks and weeks to get information about his father’s business and financial situation, and he has to resort to lying and setups to get even the most basic picture of the overall health of the family’s business. Bluth’s terrible business practices get him arrested, get the family in trouble, and make Michael’s life a living hell.

Don’t be like George! Financial transparency is immensely important. Your donors want to know that their money is being used wisely, and many of them are looking for your financials on your website before they decide to give. Financial transparency is especially important with major gifts donors, corporate sponsors, and foundations who give you grants.

9. Get creative with your resources

We couldn’t find a good .gif of this, so you’ll have to watch the (super-short) video to see what we’re referencing. Carl Weathers is an actor that Tobias recruits as an acting mentor. Carl is also broke, but he has an awesome attitude about it and is resourceful with what he has. When Tobias starts to throw away a rib at a party, Carl stops him and tells him to use it to make a stew. That becomes a recurring joke throughout the series.

In an ideal world, you’d have everything you’d need to run the best campaigns, throw the best events, and write the best grant applications, all without feeling overwhelmed or over-stretched. Unfortunately, this is the real world, and everyone face limited resources. Whether you’re trying to cope with a small budget, limited fundraising staff, or a shortage of time (and energy!), take a leaf from Carl Weathers’ book and be creative with your resources. Sometimes all you need is some creativity, some effort, and some ingenuity, and baby, you’ve got a stew going!

10. Stay optimistic

George Bluth actually enjoys being in prison — he makes friends, he exercises, he gets plenty of sleep. He says it’s like a vacation!

Admittedly, George has a little bit of denial going on. But you have to admit that he’s making the best of a bad situation and is looking for the positive aspects of his predicament. We should practice doing the same thing! There are lots of ups and downs that go along with being a fundraiser. Sometimes you’ll have to deal with the downs — the campaigns that don’t meet goal, the event that doesn’t have great attendance, the major gift donor that turns down a proposal. It’s okay to be disappointed about those things. But don’t wallow! Stay optimistic. Get up, dust yourself off, and remember — you’re helping change the world!

And we think that’s pretty great.

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