Fundraisers should be single-minded but not small-minded

08 Jun 2012 Voices

Single-mindedness in fundraising is effective, says Reuben Turner, but it can cause small-mindedness which works against our charities and our profession.

Single-mindedness in fundraising is effective, says Reuben Turner, but it can cause small-mindedness which works against our charities and our profession.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a fundraiser. If so, give yourself a mental pat on the back. People like you are amazing.

Fundraisers got Nelson Mandela out of prison, and Barack Obama into office. They’ve made a massive dent in the child mortality figures that shame us all. They cured polio in the developed world and are making headway in wiping out malaria in regions of need. The world would be poorer in every way without fundraisers.

So what does it take to be one? Being a successful fundraiser is a state of mind, and that state of mind is usually single-minded.

The gift is the goal. Every journey begins with the gift in mind. Every argument and proposition is about the gift. Every technique in the rhetorical arsenal is used to make it happen. Don’t put it off. Don’t think about other ways to change the world. Don’t think at all. Just give. Now. It’s an approach I’ve employed hundreds of times over the last decade. And it works.

So, if being a fundraiser is about concentrating on the gift to the exclusion of all else, what’s the cost of that? Has that laser-like focus on the gift, to the exclusion of all else narrowed our view too much?

The single-minded fundraiser has morphed, Gollum-like, into the smallminded fundraiser. And that’s a shame.

The small-minded fundraiser believes that asking for money is the sole purpose of nonprofit communication. Anything else – awareness, engagement, campaigning is a waste of time and money. The small-minded fundraiser believes that communications teams only obstruct or water down effective fundraising.

The small-minded fundraiser believes that ‘brand’ is a distraction, ‘branding’ a waste of money and ‘brand awareness’ a near-useless metric.

No wonder so few fundraisers ever end up leading the charities they’ve spent so long raising funds for – which is a real shame for the profession, and indeed, the sector.

The problem with everything I’ve just said is that single-minded fundraising works. Or rather, like astrology, it ‘works’. That is, it works within the rigid set of parameters – response rates, lifetime value, return on investment – that it has set for itself. It raises money and we can’t argue with that.

But it also creates fundraising programmes that have little or nothing to do with the story that the rest of the organisation is telling. That are working independently of, or even against, the rest of the charity. Compare the stated aims of many charities as expressed in their strategies or annual reviews against their fundraising appeals, and they often bear no relation at all.

Small-minded fundraising also locks us, as a profession, into self-imposed exile. We’re not involved in conversations about organisational strategy, brand, communications. We’re not interested, because they don’t raise money.

But where does that leave the donor? Usually, locked into a single-minded conversation that only goes where we want it to. At worst, they become a living, breathing cash machine that exists only to fund the organisation. They are locked out of the mission the rest of the charity is involved in – a mission they might very much like to play a bigger part in.

Because after all, fundraising didn’t get Obama into office on its own. Brilliant fundraisers worked alongside an incredible political communications team – and, frankly, a man who could live up to the message. (Whether he’s lived up to it since is perhaps another matter).

Fundraising alone didn’t get Mandela out. Public will did. Driven by campaigning, journalism and the odd Two-tone record.

Save the Children has reported an increase of 33 per cent in fundraising revenue in the last year. Fundraisers like me would like to take all the credit. But we can’t. Because it’s been driven by a concerted effort to raise profile and build a powerful brand story around child survival and achievable objectives. A team effort. A single-minded one, yes. But not a small-minded one, by any means.

So, fundraisers. I admire your singlemindedness. But not when it becomes small-mindedness. Because then you’re focusing on the small target, not the big one. 


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