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My Big Fundraising Failure—and What You Can Learn from It

In October, I rolled out a fundraising appeal for our new Training, Facilitation, and Consulting Certificate Program with Marlboro College.

We had launched the week before and—after a decade of dreaming and a solid year of planning—I was SO EXCITED to see it all come together.

I wrote a fundraising pitch, sharing my excitement. I sent an e-blast to the Train Your Board list and emailed lots of friends and professional colleagues.

After a decent start—in the first week, we raised about $1,500 toward a $10,000 goal—the campaign floundered. I felt disappointed and a little confused.

What went wrong? With the help of two smart consulting colleagues—Andrea Kihlstedt, the guru of capital campaigns, and Lynn Murphy, who happens to be my sister-in-law—I set out to learn from my mistakes.

I’m happy to share these lessons with you.

1. Enthusiasm isn’t enough

My Big Fundraising Failure—and What You Can Learn from ItAll fundraising begins with a passionate asker. Enthusiasm covers a multitude of sins, especially when you’re asking in person.

However, even the most enthusiastic fundraising pitch needs a strong case that describes the nonprofit’s work, measures its impact, and connects with the reader’s values, beliefs, and priorities.

Ultimately, the case for our train-the-trainer program—why it matters—wasn’t strong enough to engage many potential donors.

2. Email has its limitations

On one hand, it’s SO easy to send email. On the other hand, it’s equally easy to park an email, with the best of intentions, and never look at it again.

These days, the most successful fundraising campaigns use multiple tools: email, social media, personal asks, targeted events, phone calls, etc. Each channel reinforces the other, delivering complementary messages in multiple ways.

As a volunteer fundraiser, I didn’t have the bandwidth to implement all these strategies—and our results demonstrate that.

3. Ask your friends—and accept that not everyone will respond

My Big Fundraising Failure—and What You Can Learn from ItI continue to believe that the number one reason people give is because they’re asked by someone they know and admire.

In our era of crowdfunding, this may be even more true. How many times have you pledged for a friend who was walking or running or pedaling for some cause you wouldn’t normally prioritize—but you gave because your friend is involved?

Yeah, me too. And frankly, I expected the same response.

To be fair, several friends and professional colleagues have given—and many more have not. As I learn and re-learn (after 35 years in the field!), fundraisers need discipline and compassion to not take it personally when people ignore your request or turn you down. More on this topic in a future post.

4. What’s your impact?

Some fundraising pitches are straightforward and easy to understand: Find a home for these puppies. Shut down this landfill—it’s polluting our neighborhood and sickening our children. This hospital just burned down; help us rebuild it.

Some pitches—for example, mine—are more complex: For nonprofits to be successful, we need a network of skilled trainers, facilitators, and consultants to teach them, challenge them, coach them, and help them do their work more effectively.

It’s not the same as puppies and kittens, but for a certain audience this pitch can work—but only if the impact is clear and measurable.

5. Urgency matters

People respond to urgent needs: earthquakes, floods, feeding people who are hungry, raising enough money before the holidays to present the holiday concert.

Because we began fundraising after our program had already begun, that sense of urgency was less tangible.

Note to self: Next time, regardless of how busy you are, start earlier and create hard deadlines.

6. Sometimes technology fails

Online fundraising is all about impulse and convenience—a few clicks, enter your information, click “Submit,” done!

When it works, it’s awesome. When it doesn’t, it’s frustrating.

Two friends told me that they were unable to give online. Others donated, so the website worked for some people and not others. Support staff at the crowdfunding platform couldn’t diagnose or solve the problem.

My fallback request to donors: Please mail a check. Not so convenient, right?

The unanswered question: How many gifts were lost due to bad technology?

In the end, persistence pays

All successful fundraising campaigns require two qualities:

Optimism: Yes, we can do this!

Stamina: We will keep working until we reach our goal, regardless of the time and effort required.

To quote my friend and colleague Kim Klein, “Fundraising is a volume business.” If you ask enough people, eventually you raise all the money you need to raise.

... I’ll leave you with this: Keep asking.

My Big Fundraising Failure—and What You Can Learn from ItThis is a cross-post by Andy Robinson from the Train Your Board blog. For 35 years, Andy has worked with a variety of nonprofits as a fundraiser, facilitator, trainer, and community organizer. As fundraising consultant, he's provided support and training to thousands of nonprofit staff and volunteer leaders in 47 U.S. states and across Canada. Andy specializes in the needs of organizations working for human rights, social justice, artistic expression, environmental conservation, and community development. To learn more, visit www.andyrobinsononline.com.

Topics: Fundraising Funding asks
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