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The 20 Biggest Fundraising Mistakes, Part II

Last month, we published fundraising mistakes 1-10. This month, we complete the list.

Excerpt from The Relentlessly Practical Guide to Raising Serious Money

11. Failing to Have a Strong Rationale

Before setting out to raise money, each organization must think through the rationale for its appeal: why do the funds need to be raised, what will they achieve, and who will benefit?

The mere fact that you and your board need money won't stir people, no matter how well organized your effort.

Rather, with your case for support you must move your prospects emotionally and intellectually. They need to feel that, by contributing to your organization, life will in some way be better for them, for their children and grandchildren. They need to sense that their community—or even the nation—will be advanced as a result.

12. Failing to Cultivate Donors

Cultivation, a sustained effort to inform and involve your prospects, is needed for practically every gift—the bigger the gift, usually the more preparatory steps needed.

The best cultivation, which uses a mixture of printed matter, special events, and personal attention, takes place slowly over a period of time, sometimes years.

If there's any secret to it, it is being yourself and cultivating people the way you would want to be cultivated. That is, with simple sincerity, not glitzy programs.

Donors give more when they can visualize an organization not as an organization but as people. Achieving that end is, in essence, the goal of all successful cultivation programs.

13. Failing to Set a Realistic Goal

In all but the newborn nonprofit, it's a mistake at the outset of a campaign to say, "We'll raise as much as we can."

This often reveals to prospective donors that your board or staff hasn't analyzed the organization's needs.

Rather, a tenable dollar goal should emanate out of your organization's growth pattern and the (evaluated) financial ability of your prospect list. It is not, as some assume, simply a percentage increase over last year's gross, nor is it necessarily the difference between the total dollars you need, less expected income.

While some argue for a high goal and others insist on a low, achievable one, what really is desired is that magic number that inspires your volunteers, makes them work harder than they expected, and gives them the unmatched thrill of victory.

14. Failing to Train Solicitors Adequately

No matter how virtuous your project or organization, most prospects need to be sold on contributing. You must, therefore, have a team of highly trained solicitors—a "sales force," if you will.

Generally, you'll be dealing with three types of volunteers, each requiring slightly different treatment. First is the rookie who wants to help but needs detailed instructions. Second is the veteran of many campaigns who needs special prodding to attend trainings. And third is every volunteer who's being introduced to new procedures.

No matter how bright or experienced your volunteers, nor how busy they are, too many drives degenerate due to mediocre solicitor training.

15. Failing to Thank Your Donors

Thanking donors, besides being polite, is an act of cultivation—and a smart one.

People appreciate when their generosity is recognized. They not only feel closer to your organization, they're inclined to continue giving.

Most important with thank you's is to acknowledge gifts positively and quickly. You want the donor to know that your trustees are aware of the gift, that his or her generosity will stir others to give, and that your organization will put the money to good use.

Board members can be especially effective in expressing appreciation, either by sending notes or by making telephone calls to selected donors.

16. Failing to Focus on Your Top Prospects First

It is foolish to squander your efforts on small donors until you've approached all of your best prospects.

This is, of course, known as sequential solicitation.

You begin by seeking the largest gift first—the one (at the top of your gift table) that is needed to make your campaign a success.

If this top gift comes in at the level you require, then it will set the standard and all other gifts will relate to it.

If it's too low, other gifts will drop accordingly and possibly imperil your whole campaign.

Sequential solicitation forces you to focus on your most promising prospects. While small donors are graciously treated, they do not receive disproportionate attention.

17. Failing to Ask for a Specific Gift

The need to ask for a specific gift is one of the most misunderstood—or it is feared?—principles in raising money. "Will you join me in giving $500 to the Wakefield Symphony?" leaves no doubt as to the size of gift the solicitor is requesting.

Most prospective donors need and want guidance. By requesting a specific amount, you show that you've given thought to your drive and you put the prospect in a position of having to respond.

The suggested amount becomes a frame of reference, one that will get serious consideration if the solicitor is a friend, peer, or respected community figure.

18. Failing to Focus on the Best Sources and Methods

Nearly every board hopes it can raise the money it needs from foundations and businesses. These sources, perhaps because they're more impersonal, are seen as less scary than people.

And while, certainly, you want diversity in your funding, it's imperative that you and your board understand that most contributions—fully 90 percent—come from individuals. Here is where you'll invest your time and effort if you're serious.

As for methods, the most effective way of raising money—and most productive in terms of the size of gifts—is the face-to-face approach. The second most productive—again in terms of the size of gifts—is the appeal made to a small group of persons. The third most effective is the telephone call. And the least effective solicitation, in terms of gift size, is direct mail.

19. Failing to Find the Right Person to Ask

Find the right person to ask the right person is an old but enduring maxim in fundraising.

There will of course be exceptions, but a solicitor who makes a $100 commitment to your cause should call upon prospects who are capable of giving a similar amount. Likewise, a $500 prospect is best approached by a solicitor who himself has contributed a similar sum.

But as important as matching like amounts is pinpointing just the right solicitor. Some prospects expect to be asked by the president or the chairperson of the board. Others are less formal and would welcome the person they know best from the organization to ask for the gift. Still others may need the ego stroking of a team of solicitors. Reading this dynamic correctly is the key to success.

In a large campaign, solicitor/prospect matching can consume hours. But it is one of the very best uses of time.

20. Failing to See Your Top Prospects in Person

While there are dozens of ways to solicit prospects, nothing beats the personal request. The adage "people give to people not to organizations" is another way of phrasing this principle.

Certainly if your organization has a favorable image it helps. But the personal request of a friend or peer for support has a far greater impact than any knowledge your prospect may have about you.

Harold Seymour, legendary fundraiser, puts it best: "For clinking money, you can shake the can. For folding money, you should go ask for it. For checks and securities and gifts in pledges, you have to take some pains—make the appointment, perhaps take someone along, count on making two or more calls, and in general give the process enough time and loving care to let it grow and prosper."

Read "The 20 Biggest Fundraising Mistakes, Part I"

David Lansdowne
© 2007. Excerpted from The Relentlessly Practical Guide to Raising Serious Money. Emerson & Church, Publishers. All rights reserved.

David Lansdowne has spent much of his professional life in the nonprofit sector, serving in development and administrative positions for educational, cultural, and health organizations throughout America. The book from which this excerpt is taken, The Relentlessly Practical Guide to Raising Serious Money, was chosen by AmeriCorps Vista as the premier work on the subject. He is also the author of Fund Raising Realities Every Board Member Must Face.
Topics: Fundraising