Shiny red trucks and the best fundraising advice I ever got

April 26, 2013

“If you can turn our membership campaign around, you’ll be our hero.”

These words came from the top volunteer at an EMS organization where I’d been hired two weeks earlier in my first fundraising job.  In my 15 hour-a-week position I was tasked with creating an entire development plan from the ground up.

I don’t need to tell you that it was challenging!

With the aid of a since deceased local businessman, this particular organization had run a hugely successful capital campaign just five years prior. And what had they done since?

Nothing. Not a thing. Major donors were ignored. Foundation contacts lapsed. The organization belonged to some key community organizations, yet hadn’t had any contact in years. Worst of all, records were missing! Frankly, I thought that I’d taken on more than I could handle.

And nothing was a bigger mess than the annual membership appeal.  For the preceding five years the campaign had been farmed out to three different mail-houses, from all appearances each looking to gouge the organization for everything they were worth.  The last mailing had consisted of a gorgeous full color brochure mailing describing the benefits of…the trucks. 

I had come from a background working in programming and communications for a regional grantmaking foundation.  I knew nothing of direct mail, of LYBUNTS or SYBUNTS or packages or mail houses.

Information on the internet in its infancy.  With less than six weeks to go, there was no time for a course or a workshop.

A friend steered me in the direction of direct marketing.  And what’s the first rule of direct marketing?

Get “into” the customer.
  • Who are they?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What brings them joy?
  • What is most important to the reader?

By connecting with a handful of our most loyal donors, it was clear that shiny trucks were not the driving force behind donations.

My budget was severely limited but it didn’t matter.  My simple ugly two-page letter in Times New Roman font rife with emphasis, underlines and scribbles, with an envelope and a response device designed by yours truly, brought in over 30% more than the previous year.

What’s my single best piece of advice to fundraisers?  Get to know your donors on a deeper level.

Make it a point, whether through surveys, phone conversations, in-person meetings, email, intimate events, and social media, to figure out what makes them tick.

Get “into” your donors.

Translated simply:  “getting” donor-centricity is the groundwork for sustainable fundraising, period.

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