Cutting Through the Noise| A Fundraiser’s Strategy for Sorting It Out

Back in the Jurassic period of fundraising — oh, about the early 1980s — things were different…

If we wanted information, we subscribed to a magazine, bought a book, or paid to travel to and attend a seminar.  If the fundraiser was fortunate, he or she could get some resources at the local library, but being proficient with microfiche and the Dewey Decimal System were important search tools.

These days, we are fortunate.

A world of information, much of it free, is as close as our nearest smart phone, tablet or computer.  Not sure what a charitable gift annuity is?  Google it!  Wondering if your newsletter matches up to those of your competitors?  You can probably check them out on their websites.  And donors have access to 990s, annual reports and watchdog reports without leaving the comfort of their couch.

In my last post, I asked, “Does all the information really mean anything?”  After all, if we aren’t changing our behaviors (or reaffirming what we are already doing) as a result of what we read or hear, it’s not really accomplishing its purpose.  It’s just more noise in an overcrowded space.

There’s no excuse for not knowing, but . . .

Another challenge we have in today’s “global library” is that anyone can appear to be an expert.  After all, it’s on the Web — it must be right!  Deep down, we all know that isn’t true, yet I am constantly surprised by fundraisers who are quoting some random thing they read or watched like it was a proven fact that everybody should know.

In reality, a lot of what’s online is useless. 

We’ve all experienced this — watching the YouTube video to figure out how to do something, following it carefully . . . and failing miserably.  It looked so simple online, but in reality, it was much harder.  (Why do “5 Easy Steps!” always turn into 5 hours of frustration?)

So how do we sort it all out?

Years ago, I read an article in a magazines I subscribed to (at a fee, of course) entitled “16 Ways Small Organizations Can Compete” by Jerry Huntsinger.  After reading it, I tore out the article and read it again and again.  A few years ago when I reread the article, I was amazed — other than no mention of social media and the Internet (given that Huntsinger was not a psychic), it was as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.  (The article is not available online, but there’s a variation of it here.)

So, what makes that information still worth heeding decades later, but some of what is posted online today not worth viewing or reading?

The bottom line is that Huntsinger was a fundraiser. 

He lived it, breathed it, preached it.  He wrote about writing direct mail letters, and he actually wrote direct mail letters.  Lots of them.  So he knew what was working and what wasn’t.  I’ve never met the man, but I’m his fan because of what he taught me in my early career when he shared what he was still learning in his more advanced career.

So before you change your strategy because of something you read or watch online, ask about the credentials of the “advisor.”  Are they talking from the perspective of having worked passionately to raise money — and learned something in the process that was worth sharing?  Or are they just talking theoretically about what would work in a world in which our donors actually started behaving like the “experts” say they should?

Pay attention to the true fundraisers

Human beings are unpredictable.  We don’t always choose the “right” checkbox on the reply card, make an informed decision about giving or even read the email, newsletter or appeal carefully enough to appreciate the beauty of the perfectly constructed sentences.  Just ask anyone who is truly in the trenches of fundraising.  That’s the person whose advice you should listen to.

But even they will tell you not to follow it verbatim.  Challenge yourself by what you read from the true fundraisers, but also proceed carefully.  The road to fundraising hell is paved with good strategies applied to the wrong cause, donor base or season.