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The Downfall Of Nonprofit Fundraising Incentives

The Plenty Team
March 10, 2015

My daughter Sadie’s school is hosting a fundraiser. She brought the pledge envelope home this week and was brimming with excitement. She announced that she and her friend were participating, that they were going to raise $250, and planned to knock on doors and ask for pledges that very afternoon. They are just the kind of ambitious fundraisers every program needs, right?

Part of Sadie's tenacity for fundraising stems from the effort my husband and I put into trying to raise charitable children. I talk about my job with them and explain how we at Plenty strive to help organizations who are working to eradicate some of the worlds most pressing problems. We involve them in some of our decisions about which charities we should support. And we try to find ways to show them how lucky we are, that scarcity can be conquered by changing our perception of what having “enough” means, and that there is an inherent responsibility to give back.

So you’d think I’d be proud of Sadie, ready to knock on every door in the neighborhood to raise money for a good cause. The truth is, I felt disappointed. 

It didn’t take long to realize that her real motivation was the incentive prize. She saw pictures of t-shirts, Frisbees, and iPod speakers and knew she wanted in. She picked out something nice and figured she could raise enough in an afternoon or two. Not a bad deal.

I could be happy she’s helping others. Or that she’s learning how to work for something she wants. And I was relieved that she at least knew the mission of the organization and how the money would be used. But what are we teaching kids about philanthropy when the earliest efforts focus on ducks and jump ropes to inspire fundraising? Kids are natural believers and have no tolerance for things that are unfair. I’ve seen my kids get fired up over injustice, and they have little inhibition about asking people to help. When our neighbor told Sadie that he couldn’t donate because he didn’t have any cash, she looked him straight in the eye and replied, “We take checks.” That’s the spirit I want to foster in my kids while it comes naturally to them. 

The dilemma around nonprofit fundraising incentives isn’t new, and the truth is many organizations incentivize their fundraising programs regardless of a fundraiser's demographic. And while this tactic can be motivating, does it actually create a sense of service in fundraisers?

I understand why organizations use these tactics with kids – quite simply, they work. But is a path lined with incentives the way to your mission? I believe our elementary kids can be big believers in your vision to change the world, and I believe that vision will inspire them to fundraise. There’s a lot of talk about millennials, but let’s not forget about Generation Z. If we teach them to be generous and fired up now, imagine what they will accomplish when they are older.

Consider how your organization motivates your fundraisers. Try replacing the iPod speakers with recognition during an event. Or swap out the Frisbee with a thank you note that communicates the impact their fundraising made. Your mission should be the reason someone fundraises for your organization, not a promised prize. Incentives come and go, but increasing awareness and empathy for your mission through meaningful recognition practices will lead to the cultivation of loyal and passionate fundraisers.

Incentives and recognition are only one piece of the fundraiser acquisition and retention equation. For a deeper look at the components impacting your fundraising results and a full review of the state of the industry, download our free e-book, “The Expansive Impact of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising”.

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