Is there room for experience fundraising?

Published by Ken Burnett on

Fundraisers should improve their storytelling skills so they can take donors effectively to where the action is.

‘Experience’ marketing is the fashionable new thing for today’s marketer. Apparently you don’t just sell your product, you live it. The aim is to immerse your prospect in a lifestyle that simultaneously stimulates all their senses.

An example of experience marketing is currently practiced by the manufacturers of those cunning designer ‘alco-pop’ drinks – Breezer, Schnapps and the like. Experience marketing for these products involves recruiting attractive, young, out-of-work male models – this is true – who are briefed to sit hour after hour in the most fashionable watering-holes with their Nokia mobile phone and Palm Pilot prominently in view, with the Gucci shoes, the Armani threads, the Rado wrist wear and the Trevor Sorbie hairdo – everything that successful youth might aspire to – and, of course, all the while knocking back bottle after bottle of Zippo, or Heave-up or whatever is being promoted to you, the unsuspecting punter. Just think, that stunningly attractive bloke at the bar who you thought had been stood up and were just about to move in on, may in fact just be coming to the end of his shift.

Silly, isn’t it?

Then I thought about it. Maybe ‘experience marketing’ does have some application for fundraisers…

My most useless moment
Along with much that is routine, even dull, my role as chairman of ActionAid has some privileges. Last year I visited several African countries to see ActionAid’s work in the field of HIV/AIDS. My trip included meeting people from partner organisations, women’s co-operatives and groups living with HIV/AIDS.

These included some of the poorest and sickest people on earth. I made lots of speeches and shook even more hands. Then when I was in Zimbabwe one of the people ActionAid has trained to visit and support people living with AIDS took me to the home of a young man who was in the final stages of this utterly devastating disease.

He was just 22 years old, he had been bedridden for four years and he was clearly dying. I have a son just a bit younger than him. But this young man’s home was nothing more than a shed. The floor was earth. The bare walls of his dismal room were decorated only by a single, crumpled photograph which showed the patient as a fine young man in distant, much better days. An old and dirty towel had been tacked across the window as a makeshift curtain. A dilapidated cupboard was the only furniture other than the creaking bed on which lay the young man in foul and sodden bedding. In the room with him were his father, the ActionAid worker, and me.

For once I was utterly lost for words. I couldn’t think of anything to say in that room that would have had any meaning or relevance whatsoever. Then my guide asked me if I wanted to take a photograph. And that was too much for me.

The thing is I knew why the boy’s father was there: he was there to comfort and be with his dying son. I knew why the ActionAid worker was there. She was there to offer what was left of this family the meagre support and help that she had been trained to give. And I knew why the young man was there. He was there because he had nowhere else to go. He was there to die from this disease called AIDS.

But at that moment I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why I was there. I felt like the worst kind of tourist. So, to my eternal shame, without even a word of comfort for the others in that room, I turned and left.

Of course I was there for a reason. I was there because those people wanted me to be there. They wanted to show me what dying of AIDS in Africa is really like. They wanted me to see it in its gut-wrenching awfulness so I would tell others that we must do something to stop this. I was there because, as a fundraiser, it is my job to tell other people about situations exactly like this. If I hadn’t seen it, I don’t think I could ever have imagined it.

Our donors and supporters, mostly, can’t be there with us at times like these. But we fundraisers are nothing if we are not communicators. It’s the fundraiser’s job to take donors there in words and pictures, to help them see the reality and why and how they should help. It is the fundraiser’s job to inspire those donors, to show them that there is hope for a treatment, perhaps even for a cure. And if no cure is possible then there is a prospect for comfort, for understanding, for practical help and trained support that will make it possible for these people to bear the unbearable.

We fundraisers have the best stories in the world to tell and the best of all reasons for telling them. We should use those stories better than we do. This demands that we spread inspiration, sharing our experiences to convey the real, painful, shattering but ultimately optimistic and rewarding experience of helping other people in need.

Maybe after all we could use ‘experience’ fundraising. It might work better than free plastic pens and phoney questionnaires.

(This article has been adapted from a feature that first appeared in Professional Fundraising magazine in 2002.)


This blog post is part of a series where Ken Burnett takes us back into his own blog archive to share his best timeless posts. These gems are hand-picked by Ken himself.

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett is an author, lecturer and consultant on fundraising, marketing and communications for nonprofit organisations worldwide.


January Serda · August 30, 2012 at 16:17

Wonderful piece on the impact of “experience” fundraising. Thank you.

Stephen Pidgeon · August 30, 2012 at 18:50

Ken, Adrian and I use this wonderful piece on our Certificate Courses in UK and now in Ireland, to start discussions on what purpose fundraisers hold in society. It is wonderful!

Jacklyn Johnson · September 1, 2012 at 19:10

Hello. I know an app on Facebook where you can setup fundraising campaigns to help families with hospital bills and funeral services. It’s called Evertalk. You can check it here: http://www.everta.lk

Eddie Justo · September 12, 2012 at 17:16

This is true fundraisers should tell their stories, which in turn will inspire the public. Please are too afraid to give money only because of lack of information. That’s where the fundraisers should do their job

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