The Hall of Shame: Fundraising Failures

Fundraising Hall of Shame


Last night Marc Pitman posted a blog inside 501 Mission Place about testing our assumptions. In it he included a link to one of the best resources I’ve ever seen for development officers or anyone involved in fundraising at a non-profit.

Marc asked this question: “As a donor to charity, what do we nonprofits do that REALLY annoys the tar out of you?”


The responses make up what should be required reading for every non-profit. These are mistakes that are avoidable and in many cases are common sense. Marc’s original blog inside 501 Mission Place coupled with some of these responses inspired a post I’ll share on Monday about whether we’re winning the battle but losing the war in fundraising. Until then, I wanted to share one of  the more striking answers:


From Susan Smith – Marc: My answers are not unlike many you’ve received already, but I’m glad you asked!

1. Assumptions that since I gave to a similarly-missioned npo, I will give to another or 20 others just like it. I had my reasons for giving to the one – don’t assume that I give indiscriminately. You’re “like missions” are not all alike, not by a long-shot.

2. Phone calls that sound like they are coming from a boiler room. Don’t call me and ask for money – ever. I do not give based on phone calls, not even to students who call from my alma mater. My giving isn’t like ordering from LL Bean. I don’t give based on one call a year.

3. Don’t make your only contact with me a call or a letter asking for money. If you can’t be bothered to tell me what you do with the money or to contact me when you don’t want anything, then don’t contact me at all.

4. Don’t send me stuff. I don’t need or want stuff. I will probably die before I can use all the notepads, address labels and tiny calendars I receive.

5. Don’t send me generic anything – solicitation letters, acknowledgements for contributions (!), brochures, newsletters or annual reports addressed to “To Our Friends At”. If you can’t be bothered to find out my name, then don’t waste your money sending me anything.

6. Don’t send me a “Dear Friend” letter with “Dear Friend” crossed out and my first name written in. I don’t find that conducive to wanting to give you anything, especially if I am already a donor. Send a letter – personal – to me.

7. Don’t send a solicitation letter that thanks me generically for past gifts. Let me know you did your homework and know who I am and what I gave you last year.

8. If I’ve told you I cannot make a gift this year, say “thank you”, wish me a good evening and get off the phone. Don’t keep trying to get me to say yes. I won’t.

9. Don’t keep mailing me the same letter over and over. I didn’t respond to it. Receiving it a 2nd or 3rd time with no new information will not snare my interest or my gift.

10. if you’re going to write a personal note on my letter, then write something more meaningful than “Hope you’ll give” or something equally inane. Show/tell me something that I may not know and that addresses why you need MY gift.

11. Big news flash: I know you are only calling/sending me a letter because I live in a desireable zip code. My zip code qualifies me for nothing other than paying my mortgage every month. It has no magic connection to your mission. If you’re spending money to buy lists based on zip codes, purchasing preferences and whether or not I subscribe to the New Yorker or Martha Stewart Living, you’re wasting your time, my time and your money. My income/education/demographic are predictors of nothing that likely has anything to do with your mission or purpose.


Take off your industry hat for a moment and think about your own experience as a donor. What turns you off?

I used to be a major supporter of Lyric Opera. I had two full-series box seat subscriptions, attended gala fundraisers and made a hefty annual gift for several seasons. When my divorce began my box seats were one of the luxuries I had to say goodbye to. When I didn’t early-renew like I normally do I was bombarded with phone calls. After explaining that my financial situation had changed but that I would still purchase individual seats when they became available to non-subscribers I thought the  phone calls would stop.

Not so. They continued to a level I consider harassing. My mailbox was also filled with solicitation letters and materials from Lyric on a weekly basis. This finally irritated me so much that I asked them to remove me from their database. I love the opera. I love the Lyric! But…I haven’t made an annual gift, gone to an event or purchased seats at a single showing since.

Do you have your own examples for the Fundraising Hall of Shame? Post them in the comments!

I can’t encourage you to read the full list of answers Marc received enough – they’re invaluable insight!


A Place to Grow

About 9 months ago I was leaving my house to meet a friend who was in town. Like me, she is the founder of her own non-profit. I left a facebook status update to that effect and another friend who is the Executive Director of a nonprofit made a comment that the next time I was doing a roundtable lunch I should invite her.

I was getting (and still get) emails everyday from people just like her – they had either just started a nonprofit, wanted to start a nonprofit or were the E.D. of a nonprofit and needed advice and help. I love helping people realize their own vision to make the world a better place, but it was impossible to answer everyone who asked and still run my own organizations effectively.

When my friend left that comment on my facebook status something clicked and I realized that what nonprofit Directors and Founders really needed was each other. They needed a community where they could learn from each others experience and share their own.  That night I filled out the articles of incorporation form for a non-profit that would do just that, The 4F Club.

I gathered a Board of amazing nonprofit Founders and set about talking to our intended community. We wanted them to tell us what they needed and what was missing – not the other way around. A few months into that process I met Chris Brogan at SOBCon (a conference I have spoken about many times here and can’t recommend enough!). After discussing my plans for 4F Club with him, he shared that he was developing a similar community under his new company, Human Business Works.

Both Chris and I really believe in collaboration and that’s exactly what we did. I am really proud to officially announce that I brought everything I was building at the 4F Club over to the kindred home for nonprofit Founders & Executive Directors Chris was already creating, 501 Mission Place.

I’m privileged to not only be the host at 501 Mission Place, but to get to work with very special resident contributors Marc A. Pitman, John Haydon and Rob Hatch. The four of us have created what we know will be a valuable place for you to spend your valuable time. Created specifically for the needs of nonprofit leaders, 501 MP is founded on the idea that in a room full of peers every answer, every resource and every connection already exists.

Each month we’ll bring in new content from thought leaders to veterans in the industry to people just like you (because we’re all experts in our own way) in a format that takes the realities of your busy schedule into consideration. But the real value is the community. You are the value. Your peers are the value. You have knowledge to share that I need to learn and vice versa.

I am beyond excited to share 501 Mission Place with you. Find out more here – can’t wait to see you inside!

*thanks to Veronica Ludwig, Sarah Ahmed, Patty Kerrigan and Robin Katz for your work and inspiration with 4F Club. I am honored and blessed to know such Fabulous Females!

*thanks to Chris Brogan, Rob Hatch, Marc A. Pitman, John Haydon, Liz Stewart, Patrick Iwanicki and 9seeds. You are an amazing team to work with and all of why 501MP is such a wonderful place.

Bang For Your Brandraising Buck

My non-profits are small and like all young organizations we are short on time, manpower and most of all – money. That doesn’t stop me from spending it on brandraising or awareness, though. You can have the best cause in the world and be doing incredible work but if nobody knows you exist, or worse – that your cause does, you won’t get very far.

I try to think out of the box when it comes to raising awareness for my cause and my brands, with the most important objectives always being reaching as many people from as many different places as possible who aren’t already in my cause community without breaking the proverbial bank.

This past February my non-profit, Big Love Little Hearts, launched The Global Geocoin Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Campaign. It not only achieved all of those objectives  – it has become one of the most emotional projects I’ve ever created.

Geocoins are trackable items used in geocaching, a sort of high tech treasure hunt. There are more than one million geocaches hidden around the world by approximately 100,000 active geocachers. Geocoins can be minted to look like most anything and have a trackable number on the back which directs the finder to a specific website where they can read and contribute to that coins log, as well as find out what they should do next.

My son and I are avid geocachers and the first time I found a geocoin a light-bulb went off in my head. People who geocache come from all walks of  life, are active all over the world and have no connection to the congenital heart defect community – a perfect opportunity to raise awareness and build our brand!

I set about having 200 geocoins minted to look like our logo, complete with trackable item numbers and google-map icons (this cost approximately $1800). While they were being processed I made a post on the geocaching forums requesting volunteers to help hide the coins. Not two hours later I had volunteers for all 200 coins from 37 states and 18 countries.

Once they arrived my brother and I customized the log website for each of the 200 coins with information about heart defects, the campaign and how they could donate.

If it doesn’t seem like 200 is enough to make much of a difference let me point out that on average each geocoin is moved once or twice a week. This means that those 200 coins will be found 10,000 – 20,000 times per year. That’s an average of 15,000 new people who’ll see our logo, read about heart defects and what we do. Per year. Perpetually.

We shipped the coins along with this letter to our volunteer “hiders” who released them during Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week, February 7-14, 2010. I can’t tell you how blown away I was by their passion – this log represents a typical sentiment. Because heart defects are common – 1 in 100 – it’s not surprising that one of our hiders was personally affected by them. A volunteer in Japan even translated our message and made a spiffy holder for this one!

Since then they have been moved and found over and over and over again. I receive hundreds of log notifications a week. Some have moved through several countries and traveled more than 10,000 miles from their original release. They have done their job of raising awareness and continue to touch people personally. One family lost their daughter to a heart defect and they put our coin in a cache near her grave. They took a picture of it cradled in the arms of an angel overlooking her headstone – it is one of the most moving pictures I’ve ever seen. I cry every time I look at it.

It has raised money – not very much, but that wasn’t the point. Our $1,800 got us 15,000 new eyes and ears a year, every year. It also got us a whole lot of SEO power. Each one of those 200 coins has its own webpage and every time a new log entry is registered it caches separately. I don’t think we could have gotten more bang for our brandraising buck with this campaign if we tried!

Start thinking more creatively about how you can do more with less and how you can make the money you do spend on brand building and awareness as impactful as possible. Even small things like placing your logo/website on the back of your t-shirts can make a big difference when someone’s behind one of your supporters on a running path or at the gym.

Being a small non-profit with a small budget doesn’t mean you have to forgo brandraising or awareness campaigns – it just means you have to be smart about it and think a little more outside the box.

Before I end this post I want to include this geocoin log because it’s the greatest ROI I’ve gotten from this project on a personal level. To know that I made someone want to give more – do more – love more, is an immeasurable gift.


Small, Young Non-Profit? You – Yes, YOU, Can Run A Cause Marketing Campaign!

As I type this, my organization Big Love Little Hearts is about a week shy of our 10 month anniversary. I’m beginning with this fact because I hear a lot of young non-profits lament that they’re too small, too green, too you name it to embark on a Cause Marketing Campaign. I don’t know if this is because there’s not a clear understanding of what cause marketing really is, or if it’s because most non-profits assume that the only suitable partners for a CM campaign are giants like American Airlines or Pepsi. I’m here to tell you that any organization can run a cause marketing campaign, no matter how small or young you are!

If you don’t feel like you’re familiar with what constitutes cause marketing and what doesn’t, head over to Joe Waters’ excellent blog, Selfish Giving, my favorite (and hands-down best) resource on the topic out there and educate yourself.

Back yet? Okay…now that we’re all on the same page regarding what exactly cause marketing is I want to share how we successfully implemented a CM program at Big Love Little Hearts this past February when were just under 8 months old.

Awareness Week for Congenital Heart Defects is February 7-14, with our official Awareness Day falling on Valentine’s Day. My cause community is very lucky that this falls during a huge consumer holiday. Like any good student of marketing (I got my non-profit education at Kellogg) I sought to take advantage of this. We came up with a program called Eat Your Heart Out, where participating restaurants gave us $1 from every check on Valentine’s Day or some other night during the week of February 7-14. When they presented the check to the customer they included an Awareness Card that talked about heart defects, CHD Awareness Week and Big Love Little Hearts.

We didn’t begin recruiting potential partners until January yet very easily managed to forge relationships with restaurants from two major groups in Chicago: Francesca’s and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Of the many restaurants we recruited the most fruitful was HUB51 because they were open on Valentine’s Day from brunch through dinner. This netted us the most donations and biggest awareness impact but all of our participants were a successful partnership. It cost us nothing to print up the awareness cards, we created no fancy presentation for potential restaurant partners, we raised a fair amount of money and most importantly gained exposure among an audience we otherwise wouldn’t have.

Eat Your Heart Out was so successful for us that we’re not only expanding the scope of it in Chicago (our home base), we’re also rolling it out in at least 5 more cities next year (New York, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans and Atlanta). We plan to start recruiting partners much earlier this time around (in October of this year when restaurants are planning their 2011 first quarter budgets) – with this increased time to plan and lessons learned, we expect to raise several thousand more dollars than we did this year and to reach several thousand more people.

This is an example that can easily be adapted for your cause during your awareness week or any other special day of your choosing. It can be done on a small or large scale and requires virtually no budget or staff time. It is cause marketing at its simplest and promotes awareness in ways that many cause marketing campaigns don’t. Feel free to steal the idea outright or use it as a jumping board to brainstorm a simple and effective campaign for your own non-profit. Whatever you do, just bring your brain around to the idea that cause marketing is for you, no matter how small or young your organization is!


What Blew Me Away at NTEN’s Non-Profit Technology Conference

I am just now caught up from the awesomeness that was NTEN’s 10th Annual Non-Profit Technology Conference, and it ended a week ago! I could write a dozen posts about everything I learned there – or everyone I met there – but a lot of my fabulous fellow attendees have already done so. I don’t like to be repetitive so I’m just going to broadcast what absolutely blew me away there. It was very hard to narrow this list down to just three, but here goes!

People. What blew me away more than anything else were the small handful of nearly 1500 nptechies in Atlanta last week that I was privileged  to meet or hear speak. It was an incredibly energizing experience to be around that many amazing people, all of whom are passionate about the amazing things they’re doing. Here’s what I noticed about everyone I met there: they were soulful, intelligent, committed, passionate, honest, humble, collaborative and giving. Mutual admiration abounded. Partnerships were created. Lifetime friendships were forged. The non-profit tech community made this conference for me.

OpenAction. If you’ve met me, if you’ve read my blog, if you read my tweets…you know Development Mapping is something I care about. A lot. In the middle of Debra Askinese and Bonnie Koenig’s great Affinity Group on International Collaboration, Mike Wenger, co-founder of started speaking about their project. After the session was over I walked over to Mike so he could demo OpenAction for me. I’m not sure how far in he was when enough light bulbs had gone off in my head for me to stop him mid-sentence and ask if I could hug him, but I don’t think it took very long! I created a Group for Big Love Little Hearts the next day and a Project within five minutes. This platform, in my opinion, is the future and hope of Development Mapping. That the founders (John Brennan is the other co-founder) are two of the coolest people I’ve ever met is secondary to the brilliance these two have created. Check out what they’re doing – and if you’re doing work in the developing world, sign up – here:

Clip Call. See3 and Charity Dynamics gave an excellent session on Innovations in Social Media. One of the things they demo’d was an incredibly useful – and just plain cool – tool that non-profits can incorporate into advocacy, fundraising, or other action-oriented endeavors. I can’t even begin to explain this so instead I’ll just direct you to the page the demo is archived on. Follow the instructions. Be amazed. Contact See3 to find out how your organization might use something like this (I have a meeting with them when I return from D.C. next week).

These were just my personal favorites, but there was an incredible amount of incredible information presented! Luckily for you (and me!) the #10NTC community did a fine job of tweeting, blogging and cataloging it. Browse the tweets in Twapper Keeper or view the session slides on SlideShare: