The Secret Ingredient of Fundraising in 2013

The 21st century has written new rules for fundraising, or so it seems. “Likes”, “Tweets” and “Views” seem to have become the new benchmarks, long replacing the campaign thermometer of days gone by.

by Chaim Katz

I was having coffee recently with a colleague of mine, each of us sharing some anecdotes of the trade. As is true in many professions, only one who is familiar with the nuances of the job can truly appreciate the trials and tribulations associated with the tasks at hand. I’ve often thought that fundraising professionals should compile a book recounting the various responses that they receive and situations they encounter. It might sell well, at last within the field itself.

My colleague is a veteran fundraiser currently representing an established organization that provides care for adults with Alzheimer’s disease. When asked how the campaign is going, he remarked that “Alzheimer’s is a hard sell. Children and education, for example, are much easier but people just don’t seem to be interested in Alzheimer’s.”

What I found most interesting is that I heard virtually the same comments throughout the coming days from other professionals who, ironically, raise funds for children and education. I also have heard this feedback recently in regards to campaigns for cancer treatment (adults and children), environmental concerns, as well as a host of other “mainstream” causes.

Having worked in Resource Development for more than 2 decades, the responses are nothing new. The issue at hand is what actually elicits those responses and, of course, how to approach this verbal reality.

It is no secret that isolating exactly what will attract a donor to a specific cause is the goal of the fundraiser. Of course, keeping abreast of changes in attitudes, mood, feelings, etc. is a requirement for any measure of success.

The 21st century has written new rules for fundraising, or so it seems. “Likes”, “Tweets” and “Views” seem to have become the new benchmarks, long replacing the campaign thermometer of days gone by. But, one can’t help wondering if, despite the tremendous communication and information advantages offered us by modern technology, perhaps we have inadvertently lost something crucial along the way.

Similar to any other business, nonprofits and charities have to compete in the consumer market. And, those professionals who dedicate their skills and energies to provide the funding know all too well how competitive that market truly is. In a business where achievement is often measured in quantitative terms, there is always a burning desire by fundraising professionals to seek new and innovative ways to produce results. Any slight downward trend in a national economy sends ripples of concern through the fundraising world, not unlike those of Wall Street traders.

Not long ago, I participated in a rather interesting discussion in which several of us debated whether a fulltime fundraiser worked harder than an average salesperson or vice versa. For the sake of the dialogue, the examples used were a hospital fundraiser versus a furniture showroom salesperson. The products, so to speak, are vastly different but each has to achieve a certain level of sales. The debate was quite lively and led to some interesting and practical conclusions.

By and large, it was felt that fundraisers have a much harder task. A salesperson generally sells a tangible product or service (whether the consumer actually needs it is a side discussion) while fundraisers must first sell the intangible – a concept or idea, often as part of a multi-tier pitch. Furthermore, a salesroom generally tries to attract visitors through its advertising, thus paving the way for the sales personnel. A small percentage of donors come forth looking for a cause to accept their donations. It is necessary to find them and, if one is lucky, the donor may already be aware of your cause, saving you part of the task. Otherwise, the challenge is that much greater.

But, when the dust settled on the debate, one point was crystal clear. Regardless of the industry, and even putting aside the type of cause or the actual product, there was unanimous agreement that the most successful sales were achieved depending on the personal and inter-personal qualities of the seller. Remove the human contact and you have lowered the chances of closing a lucrative deal by at least 50%.

Social networks have enabled many organizations to vastly multiply their numbers of contacts. And, quite honestly, they have contributed greatly to cost-effective management of many organizations, replacing expensive bulk mailings. But, everything has a price tag. The lack of human contact may inversely offset the numerical gains that are “contact only.” One has to consider what will ultimately attract donors to your cause – a strategic race for record numbers of online friends or cultivating actual friendships.

Ours is a people industry – people helping people. There is no substitute for sitting opposite someone and speaking from the heart. A visit to a school or healthcare facility is worth far more than the best written campaign letter. A smile has no replacement.

One of my daughters is soon to be married. A couple of weeks ago, I accompanied her and my soon to be son-in-law to an appliance store. As I listened to the salesman extol the virtues of a new, 2013-model refrigerator, I realized that he was being quite honest with them about one important fact. After you remove all the fancy features, computerized gadgetry and sensors, the bottom line is not to forget that you are buying a refrigerator.

The number of causes that we serve and support is staggering, and, as public coffers become ever more diminished or restrictive, the need for public support will continue to grow. The tools available to help “peddle our wares” seem to be proliferating at an astonishing rate, and let us make no mistake – many are quite innovative, let alone versatile and useful. But, after we peel back the creative ad campaigns and catchy marketing, at the core of what we do is the one primary resource that makes all the difference – people. Tools don’t use people; people use tools. Remove the human element in the fundraising and you’ve removed the secret ingredient that promotes success. The more you add, though, the sweeter the end result will be.

Chaim Katz has lived in Israel since 1987. A native of Toronto, Canada, Chaim’s career has spanned three countries and a variety of positions within the private and business sectors. He currently devotes his time to writing as well as operating a Canadian charitable foundation that supports various projects in Israel.