It must be embedded in the nature of human beings that we get bored with the basic, the tried and true, the regular thing – that we always are drawn to the shiny object that catches our eye and makes an immediate impression on all those around us.

What is it that makes us do this? Is it the need to be seen as different or better? Or have we gotten tired with the old way and lost our belief that it actually works? Perhaps we need to be seen as innovative and creative, so casting aside the thing that works is a path to meet our need.

Who knows what it is. But one thing Jeff and I know is that, most often, when fundraising is not working, at any level, it is because we have turned our backs on what works and tried something new. Which is why, as we close out this year, I wanted to identify the major reasons fundraising doesn’t work and what you can do about it. Hopefully, this will get you on the right track for the new year.

In our experience, and in no particular order, fundraising does not work when:

  1. We think it’s about the good we are doing vs. the problem the donor is solving. This is a common problem in fundraising – where we think the donor or prospective donor cares more about all the good we do vs. how we can solve a societal problem they care about. It is true that giving a donor or prospective donor enough information about our ability to solve the problem is important and needed, but THE most important thing is helping the donor understand how they can solve the problem through their giving.
  2. We must explain every technical detail of our solution to the problem, when we should be helping the donor understand how they can help eliminate the problem. All we need to know when we get on an airplane to go somewhere is that we will get there safe and on time. We do not need to know how the airplane stays in the air, how all the systems work, or even that there are systems outside of the aircraft that get us to our destination. It is true that donors need to know that we can solve the problem we are presenting. But they do not need all the details.
  3. We think we need to talk about how great and effective we are, instead of helping the donor solve the problem we are addressing. Similar to #1, here we seem to be obsessed with all of our wonderful attributes. Our great board members, how big we are, all the awards and recognition we have acquired – even how effective we are in solving the problem. There are nuances to this one, but watch the balance of your content and messaging. It should major on helping the donor understand how they can solve the societal problem they care about.
  4. We get too formal in our messaging. Goodness, I go round and round with people on this one. Some believe there is a proper way to communicate, and it is what they learned in their education experience. It is formal, proper, using the right grammar and syntax – no incomplete sentences, etc. Yet when I tell these folks that they don’t talk that way – well some of them do – they say: “Well, that’s talking. But when you are writing or addressing an audience, it needs to be formal and right.” No, it doesn’t. Your fundraising communications need to be from your heart, in plain emotional language that usually does not follow any rules.
  5. We don’t ask frequently enough. It is amazing to Jeff and me that a manager, leader, or frontline fundraiser thinks that asking a donor to give once, or twice or three times a year is enough. No, it isn’t. This is a complex fundraising topic that has a lot of nuance depending on the type of donor and the agreements that have been made with the donor on their giving. But generally, when talking to your larger donor pool, you should be asking six or more times a year. Sometimes as much as 12 to 18 times. Why? Because you do not know the specific interest and passion of your general donors. So you have to keep presenting different offers and asks until you find a match that motivates the donor to give. And that takes way more than one, two, or three asks. Also, with regular pledgers and major donors, it is good to gain their permission to ask them for gifts above their pledge and their major gift IF the ask relates to their passion and interest. Donors will often give above their commitment to give if the need is in their area of interest and is urgent.
  6. We are not bold enough in our ask. We tend to ask too little because we fear rejection. Or, we worry about offending the donor. We don’t realize that the donor truly wants to help and often thinks they cannot help more because we have not asked for more. Ask boldly. If/when you get push back, simply say: “Oh, I’m sorry. I know you are passionate about this, which is why I wanted to present it to you. What, if anything, would be comfortable for you to do?” And then take it from there. Donors want to help. They will tell you where the lines are on amount and timing IF you ask them. Ask boldly.
  7. We don’t thank the donor enough and tell them that their giving is making a difference. This is the primary reason donors go away or give less – they do not know their giving is making a difference. Measure your value attrition every six months to see how you are doing in retaining donors and the value the donor is giving. Remember that on average, current donors give 40-60% LESS than they did the year before because they did not know their giving made a difference. If you are measuring this every six months, you can know how you are doing in this area.
  8. Our communication pieces (newsletters, annual reports, brochures, social media, etc.) focus more on creative design than on presenting and solving the problem we are addressing. Pull out a copy of every collateral piece you are using right now. Print out a representative sample of every social media communication. Pull the videos you currently use on your site. Now lay all of these out and look at them. Do they major more on design and creative expression, or do they effectively communicate the problem you are addressing? Most often, the creatives, communications, and public relations folks among us have had their way with the communication pieces so that they major more on design and creative impressions than they do on communicating the problem. Jeff and I and our team have often said to keep communication simple: a post-it note on a relevant copied internal memo, an iPhone video vs. a highly produced one, a handwritten note, a copy of a news article – make the communication about the problem and how the donor either helped solve it through their giving or can solve it, not about the how the communication looks.
  9. Every time we talk, write, or communicate in any form, we are more in our head than in our heart. Communicate how you truly feel and how the impact of the problem affects you. Let yourself feel it deeply. Do not stay in your head. You care and this problem your organization is addressing is troubling and emotional. There are consequences if the problem is not dealt with. Fear the consequences. Feel urgent about dealing with it. Grieve about the human consequence to not solving the problem. Get out of your head!
  10. We think we’re communicating with a group of people instead of talking to one person. It is so interesting to me how we always talk to the many vs. one person. Our public addresses, our emails, letters, brochures, videos, everything we send to the many has us talking to the many – to the group – vs. just one person. It sounds/reads like this: “many of you think” instead of just “you might think.” Always, always, always just talk and write to one person. It is just one person who is reading what you have written. It is just one person in that audience of 500 people who is listening to you speak. It is just one person in the webinar of 800 attendees who is consuming your content. It is just one person of your 2000 followers who is listening to your webinar or podcast. Talk to one, not the many.

OK, there you have it. 10 reasons your fundraising is not working and what to do about it. There may be more. But for Jeff and me and our team, these 10 are the most common. Pin this list near your work area to keep these in mind as you go into the new year. They will help keep your fundraising on track.