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30 things I've learnt in 30 years of fundraising

In May 1962 when I returned from nearly four years overseas to join a fledgling direct mail advertising company, I encountered my first fundraising mail programme.

In the 30 years since then, fundraising has moved on to become a sophisticated process combining a variety of methods in an integrated programme. So here are just 30 of the things I’ve learnt in three decades of working in this fascinating and rewarding field.
  1. Direct mail is still king when it comes to cost-effective methods of identifying new donors.
  2. A good mailing list is worth more than the combined effect of a good offer, good copy and an interesting package design.
  3. Donors decide whether or not to give to your cause. You have no right to make the decision by not giving donors the opportunity to support your work.
  4. Every few years, in every not-for-profit organisation, a new accountant will come along and want to cut the donor acquisition programme.
  5. The surest way to kill income is to reduce your donor acquisition programme.
  6. The next best way to destroy your donor file, and your income, is to neglect your thanking programme.
  7. If your staff consider that opening envelopes, banking money and thanking donors is a lot of hard work, then they will eventually kill your direct mail programme.
  8. When you act upon the complaints of five donors, you will suffer a loss of income and a shrivelling fundraising programme. Rather listen to the 2 000 donors who sent in their cheques in response to the same mailing.
  9. If you don’t ask you will never get the donations you desire.
  10. In capital gifts fundraising who asks is often more important than the cause.
  11. The right chairman for a steering committee or an appeal committee is crucial to the success of the campaign.
  12. In major gifts fundraising arranging a face-to-face meeting to make the ask is a non-negotiable.
  13. Major donors often need to have their giving decisions reinforced – and there is no better way than a variety of thanking procedures and (where appropriate) public recognition.
  14. If the top gift in a capital campaign is not at least 15% – 20% of the total sum needed, then the chances are that the target amount will not be raised.
  15. Even the toughest negotiators can be afraid to make the ask – until they are coached and experience how rewarding it can be to ‘get the gift’.
  16. About one organisation in 20 has development staff who are willing to pay fundraising counsel but don’t listen to the advice because they know better.
  17. Fundraising copy which is subject to approval by more than one person always turns out a complete mess.
  18. Murphy’s Law rules that the one person who receives the direct mail package containing two donation forms and no reply envelope will be the chairman of the board!
  19. In copywriting, the right degree of emotion needed to move the donor to make out a cheque will never be acceptable to certain members of the organisation.
  20. Many donors who complain about too many appeals are lonely people with not too much happening in their lives and they can be turned into friends by a kind and caring reply.
  21. There is nothing like a sincere and prompt thank you to cement donor loyalty.
  22. Making a meaningful contribution to a nonprofit cause is one of the most uplifting experiences.
  23. If you’re a fundraising consultant, when the main contact person in your client organisation is replaced, you must treat the organisation as a brand new client – or face the consequences.
  24. Many organisations believe that bequest income will keep coming in without a proper bequest programme – until it dries up.
  25. If your case for support and prospect listing is right, you can get almost any amount of money you need from less than 100 gifts.
  26. If you share every bit of knowledge you’ve ever learned about fundraising with everyone and anyone who’ll listen, you’ll lose nothing, and gain a great deal.
  27. Your older donors are often immensely appreciative when you explain how they can continue their support with a bequest.
  28. Fundraising will always attract a particular type of person hoping to make a quick killing from what they perceive to be naive and desperate organisations. Those who lend their name to these people have only themselves to blame when they lose money and credibility.
  29. The success of a fundraising programme is often directly related to the amount of energy put into it by staff and volunteers.
  30. If I spent another 30 years in fundraising I still wouldn’t know all the answers, because, thankfully, fundraising is, and always will be, all about people helping people – and not an exact science.
This article first appeared in Fundraising Forum: Issue 21, May 1992.

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