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  • Pat Libby

Fundraising foibles and four ways to avoid them

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

As most nonprofit professionals know, the end of December is often a hair raising experience that involves waiting for the last batch of year-end donations to flow (or trickle) in. It’s metaphorical water torture watching the drip, drip, drip of contributions arrive, hoping that they’ll fill the virtual bucket to the brim.

Now that a new year has started, nonprofits can either breathe a sigh of relief that funding goals were met or… not.

But this year, the outcome doesn’t have to be a game of chance.

Careful planning, attention to detail, and good donor management produce results.

And the opposite – poor planning and lack of attention to detail – can have disastrous effects, the worst of which may involve ticking off donors so badly that they’ll be hard pressed to support your nonprofit in the future.

So with that, I present my latest tale of personal misfortune in nonprofit land. Thankfully though this one didn’t involve paint on my bright green sweater (see November 17th).

This situation involved an organization asking me for a year-end gift because, according to their records, I hadn’t made one this year.

That was correct.

However, my husband and I had made several contributions to that nonprofit during the year – gifts that totaled a very healthy well-into-the-mid-four-figures amount (so much so they were probably out of whack with what we could reasonably afford but, affection won out over reason).

In fact, our combined gifts to this organization significantly exceeded what we had contributed the previous year.

What’s more, the request letter we received, which was personally signed by two people I am on a kiss-hello basis with (the top professional and board chair), was addressed to “Patricia” – a name only telemarketers use to refer to me since my beloved father passed away many years ago.

And, to make matters worse, it was a “shaming” letter that said, in essence, “you made a gift last year at this time and our records indicate that you haven’t joined our other supporters this year in doing so …”

I wrote a polite letter to these folks, letting them know that we were offended by this request, recounting how much we had already given this year.

The telephone response I received from the chief executive was priceless.

She told me she thought we’d be offended if they didn’t send us a letter.

Her rationale was that we might hear that others had been asked to make a year-end donation and feel slighted that we hadn’t been asked!

Hoooooooo boy, that’s nuts!

So what went wrong?

The organization violated core rules of etiquette and common sense regarding donor relationships.

Rule #1: Know your donors and their giving patterns

A simple record check to compare our year-to-year contribution amounts would have led most people to the common-sense conclusion that we had given what we intended to give since it was a much greater amount than the previous year.

Rule #2: Draw on your personal relationships with donors

It’s important to remember that donors are not ATM’s – they are people who have feelings. If the organization felt desperate for more year-end funds or, if they really believed in their heart of hearts that we had forgotten to make a year-end gift, they could have picked up the phone to speak to me or my husband to ask directly for another contribution.

A phone call would have been more intimate and more in keeping with our relationship.

It definitely would have been much more effective than a shaming letter!

Rule #3: Details count!

If you are sending out a letter to someone you know well, be sure to spell their name accurately (and/or to address it by the name they use to refer to themselves!)

When I was a nonprofit exec, I hand-wrote a personal note on every donor letter I mailed – thousands of letters each year – relating a unique message to every recipient based upon my relationship with them.

Did that translate into robust fundraising? You bet it did.

Rule #4: When you make a mistake, give a sincere apology

Years ago I read a brilliant article called “The Art of Apology” that lays out an 8 step approach for doctors to use when apologizing for mistakes they’ve made. It’s always stuck with me and is relevant for anyone working in any sector.

It aptly says “A badly done apology can make things worse…

Or, as I like to say, when you’ve messed up – fess up!

Now the donor isn’t always right. However, as Kenny Rogers sings, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.”

When you’ve made a mistake, dig deep and mean what you say.

If you follow these simple rules, raising money in 2017 will be like water off a duck’s back!


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