When I created the pictured meme and posted it on LinkedIn, I had no idea how popular it would turn out to be.
I just thought it would be a shared frustration between myself and a few fellow fundraisers. Now, with over 10,000 views and several hundred reactions, the response far surpassed any other LinkedIn article or post I’ve ever done. Obviously, it struck a chord.
So what prompted me to make this meme? It came after working on several end-of-financial-year appeals for Australian charities. A few were new clients this year and almost all of them reported difficulties with some or all of the following:
- Restrictions on fundraising language we were permitted to use
- Difficulties with getting approvals
- Lack of understanding of fundraising practice
- Lack of understanding of donors
This is nothing new. Every fundraiser has horror stories. Some of my worst ones:
- Too many cooks – An appeal I wrote which went through approvals with 19 people. NINETEEN. Fortunately, the fundraisers managed to win enough of the arguments for the appeal to go on and perform well… but it wasn’t without hours of negotiation and argument.
- Butchered – An appeal which was butchered to the point where it was unrecognisable. It was so bad I requested the client not to tell anyone that I had written it. Funnily enough, the fundraising director told me later the appeal performed better than their past ones… because their usual appeals were so bad that even a butchered version of my work did better.
- Restrictions – A fundraising officer who was struggling with the restrictions the marketers wanted to put on fundraising appeals language and style. She said to me, “I used to watch fundraising seminars with case studies of terrible things we’re not supposed to do in appeals… but now we’ve become one of those case studies ourselves.”
Throughout my years as a fundraiser and developing appeals, these kinds of problems come up over and over again. Fundraisers fighting for the chance to just do their jobs. I know I’m not alone. I seem to be regularly commiserating with a fundraiser or client over the watering down of appeals. It’s not only bad fundraising but is demoralising and insulting to fundraisers who have put in time, effort and training to learn their profession. It’s also a huge waste:
- A waste of hours, even days, of time spent arguing over proven and standard fundraising tactics
- A waste of fundraising talent because so many fundraisers eventually give up and either move to a charity where their skills can be properly used OR leave the sector altogether. I’ve counselled quite a few fundraisers in despair over the lack of understanding of the fundraising industry or even the openness to learn.
- A waste of creative energy because so much time and effort is spent trying to get approval for what are tried and true fundraising practices. Fundraisers should be focusing on how to make an appeal stronger and ways to forge deeper connections with donors. Not begging to get rid of unreadable reverse text and trying to convince approvers that if you want to raise funds, you need to ask for money in your appeals.
- An opportunity cost because every dollar you don’t raise due to ill-informed directives about fundraising is a dollar that can’t go towards achieving the mission for your cause. That means people helped. Trees saved or planted. Animals cared for. Or whatever it is you do to make the world a better place.
So what can be done about this?
On the ground in the short-term, here are some practical things that can help:
- Get buy-in early for your appeal concept, key messaging, the wording of your offer and dollar handles and the images you want to use BEFORE you write the appeal. This does not resolve all problems in all instances but it can help.
- Workshop specific phrases or language that come up regularly as problematic. Often you can massage and compromise on some wording so it can still retain the essence and urgency of what you want to say. This is a lot of work but if you can do it upfront, again BEFORE writing an appeal, it’s better than arguing over stuff after the appeal is written. And it’s also better than using completely ineffective language for fundraising.
- Use direct quotes from beneficiaries where possible – this is a good thing to do anyway because ideally you have beneficiaries telling their own stories.
- Work on educating your stakeholders – explain the rationale behind successful fundraising tactics, how they are evidence-based and why they work. Show and explain your results and why something was successful. However, be aware this has limited effectiveness. I’ve spent years now educating and re-educating staff and stakeholders who come and go in different charities. Generally, either a staff member falls in love with professional fundraising and becomes an enthusiastic supporter OR the staff member grudgingly accepts that standard fundraising tactics work but still hates it and doesn’t want to do it. And if the staff member who hates it is in senior management, this is highly problematic.
In the long-term, both sector and organisational change is required to effectively deal with these problems. The suggestions I made above are really only tinkering around the edges of the issues involved. Here are some thoughts on how we can move forward:
Fundraisers asking more questions in job interviews – the marketing manager who interviews you for a new job may say they want fundraising growth, that they’re open to new ideas, that they’re willing to be challenged… but are they really?
Fundraisers need to probe more deeply. If they want growth, are key people like the CEO and Board willing to get out there and meet with donors? How many people will have to approve fundraising appeals and communications and what sorts of changes are usually required? What do they think about increasing appeal frequency? Ask to see samples of their appeals then provide samples of your work and ask what issues they foresee with that kind of fundraising. If there are brand guidelines, do they allow you to do best practice fundraising? When you’re in the job interview, ask the questions you need to find out whether you’ll be allowed to do your job. If you get the sense that you can’t, keep looking for a job where you can!
Collaborative brand development – if you’re going to undergo rebranding in your charity, then get your fundraisers involved and get their feedback. I’ve seen many a brand guideline document that a charity has spent time and money on to develop. So many of these brand guidelines make it literally impossible to fundraise, especially if you work in individual giving.
Font and colour rules that will result in communications that older donors won’t be able to read. Stringent stipulations on logo usage and style which mean you won’t be able to send a donor anything that doesn’t feel corporate rather than personal, authentic or fresh. Language and image restrictions which mean you must be always positive and “hopeful”. So you won’t be able to show the need or even tell the story of the beneficiary as they told it. Your brand guidelines must allow your fundraisers to do their jobs.
Specific training for anyone who is involved in making decisions about fundraising communications – first, there needs to be understanding that marketing expertise does not equate to fundraising expertise. Not when it comes to the direct mail tactics that were the subject of the pie chart. When I write an appeal, I use not only what I’ve learned from direct response training but I draw on decades of direct response testing done by others in both the fundraising and commercial sector. Yet so many marketing and communications managers believe their preferences will perform better when there’s little or no evidence their approach will work. They draw on no fundraising body of knowledge and have little interest in properly testing their hypotheses.
Marketers and communications staff who work on fundraising appeals must have some training in direct response and the evidence base around it (as opposed to leaving it to your poor fundraiser to educate you). I’d go so far as to say it should be mandatory for you to complete some kind of certificate in fundraising direct mail before being allowed to work on charity appeals. After all, you wouldn’t let an unqualified heart surgeon do your triple bypass. Why would you let an unqualified direct mail practitioner, no matter their past experience in marketing or communications, work on your appeals? That would be like letting the anaesthetist who put you to sleep for heart surgery do the whole operation. It’s a different skill set.
Anyone who “hates” fundraising direct response tactics or who doesn’t properly understand them should not be in a position where they get to approve appeal copy or images. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for questioning or trying something different. But that should always be in the context of a well-defined test, preferably over multiple appeals, and over several years.
Specific training in fundraising aimed at CEOs/ senior staff – so many charity CEOs (and even a lot of charity marketers) I know of seem paralysed by the thought of fundraising. They have no idea of the different types of fundraising options available to them and how to evaluate which ones would best suit their needs. As a result, they’re hyperfocused on tactics instead of strategy. Should we hire a grant writer? What about a corporate partnership? Should we send out an appeal letter? What about a crowdfunding campaign?
There needs to be training available so charity leaders can learn the pros and cons of different types of fundraising, how they work, the resources required and what you need to do to support fundraising. In relation to direct mail specifically, you as a charity leader don’t need to be experts in this area. But you do need to realise that you are not the target market for those appeals. You are not the donor. The level of approval you’re allowed to have on direct mail appeals should be limited to fact-checking. Or if you insist on micromanaging or you believe you know how to fundraise better or you somehow think your donors are “different”, then just produce and run the appeals yourself. Please don’t put your fundraiser and/ or copywriter through the agony outlined in the pie chart.
If you’re interested in a facilitated workshop to work through some of these issues, please contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.