Three Tips for Common-Sense Fundraising

May 1, 2017 Pamela Barden

Even if you aren’t a frequent flyer, you probably have an opinion about United Airlines—and it’s likely that recent events regarding forcibly removing a paying passenger to accommodate crew members impacted that opinion. The truth is, when faced with an “urgent need,” common sense often becomes uncommon. Fundraising is certainly not exempt from this problem; we base decisions too often on expediency rather than an analysis of long-term consequences.

Common sense is very uncommon. (Horace Greeley, editor)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines common sense as “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.” As fundraisers, facts are the basis of much of our work, especially with the direct response portion of our program. Yet, despite this abundance of data, fundraising faces serious challenges and many nonprofit organizations are balancing their futures on very shaky foundations.

Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. (Gertrude Stein, author)

Perhaps one challenge is that “sound and prudent” decision-making is rather subjective. I may think I know the best fundraising decision, but too often that is based on my being convinced that what I want to be true is true. In other words, what works for me will work for everyone else.

How can we develop more reliable decision-making to reduce the risk of failure and increase the likelihood of building a cadre of faithful, committed donors? Based on resources providing guidance for developing common sense, here are three tips that I believe are apropos to fundraisers today:

1. Slow down

I lead with this recommendation because it is where I most need to improve. The stupidest mistakes I make – sending an email to the wrong person, for example – happen when I am rushing to finish “just one more thing” before I go to bed. In my hurry to get it done, I create more work cleaning up the fallout the next day. Making decisions when we are tired, angry, scared, or experiencing other strong emotions can negatively affect our judgement. Give common sense a chance to kick in by allowing yourself time to consider the options and the consequences.

2. Know your target audience

“It works for me” is a terrible reason to go in a certain direction, but too often it’s the deciding factor. If you can’t relate to your typical donor, get to know someone who can be a mental surrogate for the donors, and then consider each decision in light of that person. “Will it play in Peoria?” isn’t just an expression that relates to vaudeville; our own common sense will increase if we ask, “Will this decision ‘play’ with our target donor?”

3. Admit mistakes quickly

One of my childhood memories relates to my dad trying to convince my mom that he hadn’t made a wrong turn to the east toward Green Bay, WI, despite seeing the “Home of the Green Bay Packers” along the road. He could keep driving in the direction he was going and make excellent time, but he would never get to Minnesota, which was to the west. It’s great to be cranking out fundraising projects, but if they aren’t resulting in gifts from donors who are growing more and more committed, it’s time to make a course direction. 

What to be a fundraising genius? Cultivate common sense!

Common sense is the genius of humanity. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, poet)

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