Are you in danger of becoming a robot fundraiser?

Published by Rachel Beer on

What’s the factor that will have more impact on the success of your fundraising campaigns than anything else?

You’d be forgiven for thinking its your charity’s brand, because you’ll so often hear people citing an unappealing or confusing brand or lack of brand awareness as reasons their charity struggles to raise funds.  Or because you might have heard the stories about investment in brand development having paid dividends when it came to fundraising. But, no, that’s not what I’m talking about.

Neither is it your campaign creative, the design, the photography, or even the copy – important though that is – that has the most impact.

And it’s not budget either.  Although, granted, the funds you’re able to raise can be limited by the budget your charity has to invest in fundraising.

RobotSo, what is it then – this secret ingredient for success?

It’s what marketers call ‘the audience’: the donors and potential donors that contribute from their own pockets to help your charity achieve its mission.  Or, putting it another way: People.  Why do I put it like that?  It’s because I sometimes feel labeling people as ‘donors’ implies they are somehow different to us: the fundraisers.  It also, somewhat paradoxically, makes them feel more abstract.  ‘People’ somehow feels more real.  People like you and me.

Good fundraisers know treating donors as individuals produces better results.  We employ all kinds of tactics in an attempt to achieve ‘personalisation’, because it uplifts response, gift amounts, income and return on investment, and, because its our job to generate the most funds possible for the least possible expenditure, we’re justly proud when we do it well.

Really good fundraisers go even further, investing in reflecting back to the people kind enough to donate to our causes – showing them how their support has helped, letting them know how important they are and how deeply we appreciate their financial support.  After all, the charity’s important, and often vital, work does depend on them.

Most fundraisers working in individual giving have been schooled in applying the tactics of personalisation – from the basics, like ensuring the salutation at the top of the email or letter is right, to the more complex copy variables acknowledging a donor’s previous support that might even include their last gift amount or, if someone is being really thorough, mentioning past donations to this project or area of work.  Some will even remember to recall a salient response to a donor survey or take the time to vary whole paragraphs to make copy more appropriate for important donor groups.

Early in my career, I was privileged to have be schooled in these tactics by seasoned fundraisers that had turned this approach into a fine art.  It was devilishly detailed, often mind bogglingly complicated and occasionally wonderfully sophisticated.  And it was worth it.

But, for every copy variable that added value to the donor, there was often one that didn’t.  One that the donor would not read as a thoughtful nod because it was nothing more than a piece of information from a field on a database being inserted into the same letter that thousands of other people were receiving (an almost identical version of).

At the beginning, when I was busy grappling with the myriad of combinations, the complexities of the data and what sometimes felt like endless checking, involved in delivering this, the trainee fundraiser I once was probably didn’t notice many of the copy variables that needn’t have been there.

But, after a while, I started to question them.  I started to see the ones that said nothing meaningful, that were varied for varied sake, that purported to be showing the donor how appreciated they were, but were fundamentally no different to the next version.  I realised some of them had become nothing more than a tick against a box in a process whose complexity had begun to overshadow the purpose.

HumanIncreasingly, I pushed back on them, rationalised or removed them.  As the years have gone by, I can recognise which ones will really make a difference – and are worth including – and which aren’t worth the time and energy or will even undermine what I’m aiming to achieve.  And I know that they are a very long way down the list of what’s really important to the people I’m writing for, so I worry less about the copy variables and more about the heart and soul of the appeal.

The thing is, it’s all too easy to forget what’s really important when your ‘to do’ list of tactics means you barely have a moment to stop and think, when you have several deadlines to meet and no time to spare, and when you have fundraising targets to meet that depend on hitting those deadlines.  Fundraisers are often under a huge amount of pressure and that pressure can make it hard to see the wood for the trees.  If you’re not careful, in your rush to meet all of those deadlines, your fundraising becomes nothing more than a list of tactics applied mechanically, in order, with no real thought to donors as people with feelings.  You’ve become a robot fundraiser and your donors will know it.

One of the most powerful things you can do to become a better fundraiser is to put the people before the tactics or, putting it another way: be more human.  You can learn the tactics of digital and direct on a course or by reading books, but being a great fundraiser is more about mindfulness, about putting people first, carefully considering how they think and feel, about how your actions and inactions are likely to be perceived. Being a great fundraiser means never allowing yourself to forget that that number in your segmentation matrix represents a number of people – real people, with real lives, with children and parents, bills and long working hours, health problems and debts, dinners to cook, places to go and things to do.  You are a long, long way down their list of what’s urgent and important on the average day and you have to earn your place in it.  So, what are they interested in?

Rachel Beer

Rachel Beer has been a professional fundraiser since 1999, with experience gained from at several fundraising creative agencies in the UK, as well as in house. Currently a fundraising consultant, she specialises in helping organisations to take their fundraising to the next level – creating fundraising brands, appeals and campaigns that excite existing supporters and attract new donors and fundraisers. She also works with teams in house at charities, helping them to develop the skills to get the best possible results. In 2008, Rachel created NFPtweetup - a regular series of events to promote effective use of technology in the charity sector, and she is well known as a fundraising expert, digital specialist and strategist for the third sector.


Dorothy · February 10, 2014 at 16:46

Thank you for reminding me about what’s really important!

Rachel · February 10, 2014 at 17:04

Thanks Dorothy – I’m glad it worked like that. It’s one of those things I remind myself of often

Dale · February 11, 2014 at 18:48

I do not envy the life of a fundraiser. It’s a ton of work and I think you need thick skin for it. Putting people first probably goes a long way in making the job more successful though. Great tip

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