facebook linkedin-square google-plus menu-arrow angle-left angle-right envelope angle-double-right level-up envelope phone map-marker

Fundraising Mistakes

Legal Counsel for Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector

Information and resources on nonprofit law & regulation

Back To Top

Fundraising Mistakes

WHAT SHOULD YOU SAY, AND WHEN SHOULD YOU SAY IT?

This article, by Ken Hoffman, originally appeared in Third Sector on November 9, 2005.

Here in New England, the region's 'signature' season is upon us.

No, not fall's display of brilliantly coloured maple leaves settling on the Town Green. It is, rather, the start of the charity annual appeal season, when postboxes will fill to bursting with appeals from a million US charities and an uncounted number from overseas.

So what is the magic formula that unlocks the riches of the New World?

Looking back over 25 years of contributing to this scourge, I am becoming aware not of what does work, but rather of what does not work in formulating appeals.

Taking yourself hostage: in an ill-considered moment, a chief executive of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, an exceptionally well-endowed charity, once threatened donors that, unless they gave generously, the organisation would face financial ruin. Not credible. Too many people knew about the vast property holdings and an endowment worth more than $50m (£28m).

Cross-purposes: the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, mired in a horrendous sexual abuse scandal with huge payments to make to victims, started to close parishes and realise cash by selling the properties.

One of those ordered to close was in the midst of a capital campaign.

After notice was served, the next letter asked for first pledge payments on the campaign. One parishioner replied promptly - he cancelled his pledge.

Extortion: the more radical animal rights groups seem to favour an approach that might be characterised as "send money or we shoot the seal". Not endearing.

Just as vexing is the question of timing in a world saturated with bad news. In September, immediately after Hurricane Katrina, two UK clients asked if their planned fundraising events in New York and Philadelphia ought to be cancelled out of respect for the US's hardships.

My unhesitating reply was "no". First, the devastation was 1,900 km away from the charity events, the equivalent of London to Tunis. Second, there will always be a plethora of causes contending for portions of the £138bn given away annually by US donors. To postpone one's own campaign out of deference to another would take decision-making out of the hands of the donors.

There will never be a good time to conduct fundraising. But the secret is to recognise that there is never a bad time either.