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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Two Fundraising Mistakes to Avoid

by Kay Sprinkel Grace

Not a household name like the American Cancer Society? Not a "popular" cause like Feeding America (formerly Second Harvest)? No need to fret.

If your organization is relatively unknown, or if your cause doesn’t involve children or animals but controversial social issues, you can still raise money. 

Believing that your opportunities are limited by the issue you’re addressing or by a lack of branding are just two fundraising mistakes to dispense with now.

You don’t have to be a household name to win support

YMCA. Goodwill. Red Cross. Salvation Army. Habitat for Humanity. 
Household names, yes. Or, as the marketers call them: brands. But it’s a mistake to think you have to be a household name to win support.

Fundraising Mistakes that Bedevil All Boards
This article features two of the 44 fundraising mistakes that Kay Sprinkel Grace examines in the newly revised edition of her bestselling book, Fundraising Mistakes that Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too).

We hide behind that idea when explaining why our annual or capital goals fell short, or why we failed to receive even a portion of the estate of one of our donors. It all went to the Salvation Army.

In my first development job, at a day treatment school for children with special needs, I was notified shortly after I began work that we had received an estate gift. The name of the donor wasn’t in my files (BC, before computer), so I asked some of our long-time donor relations volunteers about him. 

At first, no one remembered, but they had a system that in hindsight seems primitive: a shoebox filled with 3 x 5 cards of donors who had stopped giving. His card was in there. His last gift had been $25, given 10 years earlier. 

Someone remembered he had a blind wife and they used to walk around our school campus. He once told one of the volunteers how his wife loved the sounds of the children.

The charitable portion of the estate was allocated among several groups: our organization and two household names – Braille Institute and Reader’s Digest Books for the Blind. But we received the residue of the estate, making our final distribution nearly twice what the others received.

To him, we were more important than the household names. 

Trust in a brand is important – we see that in purchases we make. But just like the “off brand” you try and find to be superior to the brand you’ve always used – your organization can distinguish itself among your donors through its programs, outreach to the community, stewardship of its donors, and perception as a true community partner.

People will support a cause like yours, even if it’s controversial

Children. Babies. Animals. We all know what gets the money and attention. 

But if yours is a cause that makes people uncomfortable, one they’d rather not talk about, or one addressing issues with limited acceptance, then you might mistakenly think you can’t raise money.

Not so.

I’ve worked with an organization that served adult survivors of incest. We raised money. I’ve worked with agencies focusing on domestic violence long before it was a mainstream issue, and they are thriving. I’ve worked with groups advocating for freedom in sexual preference, and they’ve expanded their donor rolls exponentially.

There is a simple window through which we need to view all donors – those who support children, animals, survivors of domestic violence, and lesbian and gay rights – and that is: All philanthropy is based in values.  

We know from research and from our own experience that people don’t give to, join, or serve organizations whose values they don’t share. Try as you might, you won’t get a pro-choice advocate to give to a pro-life cause.

Still, while you may have a smaller constituency with unpopular or sensitive causes, often you’ll have a more loyal backing because they are people who’ve experienced the issue in some way. What they lack in numbers, they make up for in passion.

Also, with increasing numbers of private and family foundations focusing on issues-based giving, many have one of these narrow or emerging causes as their focus.

If your cause isn’t mainstream, don’t despair – and don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s no support for you. The key is in finding imaginative links.

In the past, for example, you’d have been hard-pressed to interest men in domestic abuse issues. Undaunted, the Family Violence Prevention Fund approached who else? male athletes – a group conscious of its image and much admired by boys and young men.

Who better to be “Coaching Boys Into Men” than these idolized baseball, football, basketball, and soccer players?

Engage those who are passionate, whether or not they have money. People who care will find the warm and fuzzy in your cause.

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