Fundraising Lessons from a Con-Man

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

What’s the difference between a fundraiser and a con-man?

There could be a joke there, but I think I’d be asking for trouble, and anyway, I can’t think of a funny punch line.  It’s a bit close to the bone perhaps, given sensitivities about face to face, door to door and telemarketing sales-people and fundraisers.  So let’s try another tack. What have they got in common? Not a lot, you’d hope, but you’d be wrong.

£20noteA couple of weeks ago, a neighbour came up to me as I was arriving home as darkness fell, locking my bike up in the front.  His name was Craig*, he told me, he’d just moved in down the road, Number 117. We had a brief chat about the street before he told me he’d left his wallet and keys at a friend’s on the other side of town. He hadn’t known what to do as he had his bike but not his lights and it was now dark, but when he saw me come home, he thought he’d ask if I could lend him the taxi fare to whizz there and back. He was a prison warden, he told me, and starting rummaging for ID. No, no, I said, I don’t need to see that. I can leave you my bike or my jacket until I’m back? No, no, I said, that won’t be necessary. I parted company with £20.  Do you want to leave your bike here, I asked, I can lock it up for you? No, no, he said (his turn). I’ll lock it up at home. I’ll be back in an hour. And as he walked off, wheeling his bike, I knew I wouldn’t see him or my £20 again.

Obvious? Maybe. The story unravelled as soon as I started to think about it. Number 117, it turns out, is the last house in the road, the boarded-up one waiting for a developer, with a hole in the fence and a garden full of empty beer cans. If he’d left his keys, how come he could lock his bike up?  I didn’t need to reflect on the fact that he didn’t head down the road to his house to leave his bike there, but towards the main road, and away.

So what did he do so well?

He established a connection. He approached me tentatively, introduced himself as a neighbour, and started a chat about what we apparently had in common. He was engaging. It was a genial, casual chat over the garden wall.  I was safe on my side, and he wasn’t in my personal space.

He built trust – He had an official job. He told me his name. He was well-presented (as far as I could tell in the dark). He offered to show me his ID, for god’s sake, and leave me his jacket!

He told a compelling story. He told me his problem, what he needed to do and how I could help him do it. It sounded as though the idea to ask had just come to him, which in the circumstances, made it more plausible.

He spoke to my values. How do I like to be thought of? A good neighbour? Willing to help someone in need? Approachable and trusting?  He pressed all those buttons.

He gave me a promise. Not worth pants, as it turned out, but hey, you live and learn.

There you have it, all things you have to do well when you are asking for money.  Craig was a liar, and he might have been a con, but he did it well. (Of course I’m going to say that, because I’m not that gullible. Really I’m not. At least I’ve got this blog out of the experience.)

So what is the difference between a fundraiser and a con-man? Obvious, isn’t it? Intent and integrity. The technique might be similar, but a fundraiser is authentic, committed and delivers on the promise. A fundraiser doesn’t leave a person with a story full of holes, a sinking feeling in their heart, and the question “what have I done?” agitating their brain.  You leave them feeling uplifted and great about the good they have just done in the world. And you get back to them soon after to reassure them, to tell them all about it and how great they are.

Don’t you?

*Names of individuals have been changed for their own protection.

Here are some more lessons from thieves, brought to you by British Transport Police.

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew consults and coaches through his consultancy Inspiring Action with charities big and small, in the UK and Internationally. He has over 25 years’ experience of charity fundraising, campaigning, communications and leadership, including being Fundraising Director at Greenpeace USA, Communications Director at Oxfam GB, leading a creative agency. He’s a committed conference speaker, blogger and charity trustee. His guiding principle is inspiring people to action, through communications and leadership, with a particular passion for supporter engagement and organizational effectiveness, aligning strategy and culture behind an exciting mission story. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @m_sherrington


David Cravinho · April 23, 2014 at 11:31

Hi Matthew. Thanks for turning your experience into something constructive to share! It reminded me of this post that I came across a couple of years ago that i though you might be interested in:


Useful lessons can be taken from all sorts of unlikely places…

    Matthew Sherrington · April 23, 2014 at 11:37

    Thanks David, and thanks for digging out the post on Nigerian scammers!

Fundraisingwoche vom 14.-20.04.2014 | sozialmarketing.de - wir lieben Fundraising · April 21, 2014 at 18:01

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