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The Shocking Truth About Fundraising

I often despair at things fundraisers condone in the name of charity. The list is long and diverse: from special events and badge days to a raft of those walk/run/skip-a-thons, silent auctions, sports memorabilia, brand loyalty schemes etc. All well intentioned, but for the most part, very indirect and complicated ways of raising money.

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald describes a pole dancing event for a prominent cancer cause as a “prime example of the new face of fundraising in a country saturated with 700,000 non profit organisations, all of them seeking donations.” In the same article Keith Roberts, chief executive officer of Epilepsy Action, is quoted as saying that simpler things can be more effective. Here here!

Our industry is competitive. But the charity market is far from being fully penetrated and traditional fundraising methods still work. The problem lies inside us, in our attitudes towards asking people for money, not inside the people we need to approach for donations.


My contention is that many people involved in fundraising have a fear of asking for money, and this is the key reason why all these diversionary schemes are invented, created and clung to like a crutch. It seems most of us are caught between the desire to do good but petrified by the fear of asking people for money.


Peter Dalton in his brilliant little book entitled “The Key to Fundraising Success” argues that more funds can be raised by one person asking another for money than virtually any other technique in fundraising. My experience in three organisations bears this out.

My first job in fundraising was within a prominent disability agency in a newly created “Special Projects and Events” role. My task was to oversee an “exciting new fundraising division” including a major new badge day type strategy plus an annual schedule of at least 10 separate special events which together had been sold to the senior leadership team as a fresh new fundraising strategy with enormous targets and returns projected.

In reality, my day-to-day “fundraising job” entailed a very late entry into the badge day appeal market plus managing a diverse set of activities which competed with event production companies, music promoters, art galleries, local councils and so on.

This organisation, like most I observe, did virtually everything under the sun in the name of fundraising except actually go out and personally sell the mission of the organisation and ask generous people for money.

Contrast this to my experience at the Jewish Communal Appeal of NSW (JCA) which is an organisation which does little else but ask people for money. JCA relies least on direct mail which it considers the bluntest tool in the fundraising shed, and only called on once the other three big guns, namely personal canvassing, “ask events” and telephone campaigning have been exhausted.

The core purpose of JCA is to build relationships with individuals and ask them for money. The organisation’s philosophy is that people give to people – so all solicitations are carefully planned and volunteer askers are trained and assigned to approach targeted prospects.


What I learnt from this is a paradox whereby the fear of asking becomes an impediment to the joy of giving. Contrary to our perceptions, people do like to be approached to support a worthy cause and they don’t even mind being told they have been rated very highly in their perceived potential to make a major gift.

They may not admit it but this is interpreted as an honour. So if done compellingly, and in a way that invites potential donors to share in an inspired vision, rather than manipulation and guilt, most people will respond very positively. Yet sadly, in this post-September 11- search-for-individual-purpose-and meaning-world we live in, very few are invited to participate in this manner.


As Peter Dalton reminds us, there is little more fundamental in fundraising and in life than simply asking for what you want. He reports that in his personal experience of asking hundreds of people for money, not once were his requests met with rudeness, hostility or anger. My experience has been the same.

Sure, I may not have always got the gift or the increases I was seeking, but people were almost always polite and courteous and appreciated the efforts being made on behalf of those less fortunate than themselves.

There is no need to get diverted by the psychological barriers to fundraising. It needs to be understood that fundraising is not a one way street as many fundraisers seem to think. There are clear psychological exchanges that take place when donors “transact” with charities. They provide money and we, the charity marketers, deliver a package of meaning, purpose, gratification and good will.

There is no need to overload the annual fundraising agenda with a battery of low returning indirect activities. Fundraising in its purest form is probably the most profitable business on the planet. Just keep it simple and ask for the money – directly, personally and compellingly.


The table opposite shows the results of two different fundraising strategies – a traditional special event and a major donor “ask” function. The case studies come from two Australian not-for-profits.

On face value both events are successful in terms of funds raised. However, in reality the major donor function raised 7 times more than the traditional special event, and despite higher absolute costs, had a cost ratio that is more than 3 times lower than the special event.

The reason for the difference is simple. The special event is an indirect appeal at best. It is as much about branding and entertainment as about fundraising. The major donor function is an unashamed “asking for money” occasion. Not aggressive, but not shy either.

Furthermore, the major donor function is choreographed as a “theatre of the emotion” with one objective only: to solicit a higher pledge than last year from a group of wealthy, loyal and committed to-the-cause donors.

Lawrence Jackson is the managing director of Lawrence Jackson Associates, a fundraising and marketing consultancy. He has had several senior fundraising positions and is also an adjunct member of faculty at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM).


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