How NOT to Fundraise

Knowledge

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We often talk about ways to ask for donations, but that’s only half of the equation. Let’s talk about how NOT to raise money!

This topic came up around the dinner table the other night when I and some friends were swapping stories about donation solicitations we’d received from our alma maters. We all graduated around the same time and moved right from college into what people now call the “Great Recession.”

We were all college graduates that were working in restaurants, storefronts, or odd jobs. And all of us — all of us — were solicited for donations to our respective colleges within 6 months of graduating. Many times, we got calls much sooner than that.

The requests weren’t the bad part — they’re to be expected! What was bad was how the solicitations were handled. The calls offered some valuable lessons, though. Here’s what would have made the requests much better:

Offer an incentive for donating

There are a ton of school and college fundraising ideas and strategies out there. One of the best is to offer a small incentive to your alumni or student donors.

This can be something as simple as a branded mug or a t-shirt with your university’s logo on the front.

Offering a product or item can be an easy way to encourage reluctant alumni to give back to their alma mater. If they know that they’re getting a “free” incentive, they’re probably going to be more likely to make a small (or even a large!) donation.

Make sure that you choose products that everyone will want that can be bought and replenished at a low cost. You can even offer different products for different levels of giving!

Timing is everything.

Any professional fundraiser will agree that making an ask at the right time is critical to the donor’s response. For a bunch of broke college kids with looming student loan payments in the worst job market in decades, a few months after graduation was not the right time.

More than one of the people in our conversation felt that the timing of their college’s request showed that the school was out of touch with their graduates.

When you approach your donors, make sure you consider the timing of your request. Avoid making requests that make them feel like you’re out of touch with their lives.

If they’ve just given a gift, for example, or if they’ve had a major life event that would prevent them from giving, avoid asking for donations. Preserving the relationship you have with your donors is more important than immediate money.

Learn to Take “No” for An Answer

Persistence is often a virtue, but fundraisers need to be able to take “no” for an answer. This was a common complaint in our discussion; even after each graduate indicated that they couldn’t afford to make a gift, the fundraiser tried to barter with them.

Conversations went a bit like this:

Caller: We depend on donations from alumni to support our operations! Would you be willing to make a gift of $300 to our alumni fund?
Graduate: I’m sorry, I really can’t afford to give anything right now. I just graduated and still haven’t found a job.
Caller: I understand! Would you be able to give $150?
Graduate: No, I’m sorry, I really can’t afford to make a gift at all right now.
Caller: We really rely on alumni gifts to fund our scholarships. Would you be able to afford a $50 gift?
Graduate: … No, really. I can’t give anything to you right now.

Eventually, at least a few people had to cut off the caller and tell them that they understood that asking for smaller and smaller amounts was their job, but that their answer was “no.” Don’t put your donors in that position!

If your donors feel like they’re being harangued for money even after they’ve said “no,” they’re not going to want to support you in the future. Instead, be supportive of your potential donors even after they decline your request.

Ask them for feedback about your organization, offer to help them get involved in different ways (volunteer opportunities, anyone?), or just sincerely thank them for their time. It’s better to accept a “no” and keep the door open for future involvement than to keep persisting and alienating your donors.

Ditch the Script

Each graduate who talked to a fundraiser said that each caller was obviously working from a script. That’s understandable; most of the callers seemed to be college students who were working for the school part-time for some extra money.

Knowing that the callers were student workers, though, didn’t make the script any less awkward. Each graduate had a keen awareness that they weren’t being addressed as real people — they were just another name on a list of individuals that was divided among callers. It didn’t make a good impression.

Don’t make your donors feel like another name on a list. Whenever possible, make your appeals on an individual, personal basis. If you have to use templates for appeals, work on making them as warm and personable as possible.

Requests for donations are much more successful when donors feel like they’re being spoken to like real, individual people. Cold, scripted solicitations are generally much less successful.

For each graduate at the dinner table that night, the scripted, exasperating, poorly-timed fundraising calls they got from their alma maters did more harm than good. They were frustrated with the experience and, even today, they aren’t enthusiastic about donating to those colleges. Don’t make your potential donors feel that way!

Focusing on warm, genuine donation requests works much better and, even if someone can’t give right away, keeps the door open for future interactions. Learn what not to do — it’ll make a huge difference in your bottom line.

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