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Unlocking Growth for Organizations and Idealists Like You

The Biggest Fundraising Trap To Avoid

"You're doing it wrong."

Ah yes, we all know the feeling. The acute sting of embarrassment we experience as someone publicly calls out our mistake. Sometimes we are on the giving end of this statement, and other (less fortunate) times we are on the receiving end. In either case acknowledging these mistakes is a natural part of progress. And while I fully support candid feedback I can’t help but cringe at being made an example of.

While most of my memories of being the “error guinea pig” take me back to my grammar school days, I have to admit that it has been happening pretty recently too. Not at work, not at home, but in my martial arts (Aikido) class. Every Sunday I diligently go to the dojo, and every Sunday the instructor claps his hands to signal the class should stop and listen. It is at this exact moment I know what’s coming.

He calmly and patiently explains, that if you are “muscling” or forcing your movements, you may be doing some martial arts, “but you are not doing Aikido!” It could be paranoia or egotism, but I always assume he is talking about me, and that everyone else is also aware that I am the subject of his criticism.

Whether or not he is in fact directing his comments at me I don’t know. However, what I am certain of is that outside of the dojo and in my role as a fundraising consultant I often feel like my Aikido instructor. As I coach our clients and review fundraising materials I take on the role of a teacher. 

It is in this role that I become increasingly aware of the feedback I provide and the way in which I deliver it. One of the most common pieces of advice I share with the organizations we work with is the importance of understanding what fundraising is, and better yet, what fundraising is not. Of course, if you ask anyone at these organizations if they know what it means to fundraise they will say “duh”, and truth be told they probably do know the definition. Yet, organizations constantly engage in campaigns or activities masquerading as fundraising, when they are not close to fundraising at all.

This disconnect becomes clear every time I see a call-to-action that suggests supporters should make a donation and in return that person will receive a tote bag, water bottle, magazine subscription, or some other item that will most likely end up at Goodwill (or in the trash) in six months. Sometimes the ask is even more diluted and suggests that the audience should “click here” to have money sent to the organization via a sponsor. It is at these moments I can’t help but wonder – do these organizations realize that these tactics are not cultivating successful fundraising cultures, that they are just gimmicks? 

As I mentioned earlier, I am not keen on making an example out of other people, so I have no intention of calling out specific organizations, but I do want to clarify that a true and effective fundraising ask is when you articulate what your organization has done, what it still needs to do, and how your audience can help you achieve that impact.

You know you are doing this correctly when your constituents not only spring into action and financially contribute to your campaign, but more specifically, when they enlist the help of their networks too. Now you have fundraisers.  

Creating the perfect fundraising ask takes time and brainpower. During this process you may begin to rationalize that you have to use these tactics temporarily as you come up with the right messaging and emotive appeal, but be careful! Without the right focus, these temporary crutches can easily become a permanent fixture in your organization’s strategy. Luckily, half the battle of avoiding this trap is just being aware that the trap exists. It is easy to solicit support in many different ways, but the most successful organizations will be the ones who encourage true fundraising initiatives and steer clear of gimmicks. 


Create a powerful and sustainable fundraising culture by focusing on the three biggest areas impacting your constituent's decision to support your organization. Download "The Participant Gears" e-book today and learn how to master each area!

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Topics: Funding Strategy