It's Halloween! In honor of this cringe-worthy holiday, I thought I would share with you some of the most horrifying moments that I have been part of in fundraising. These are worse than any ghost story. Prepared to be spooked.
The first story is definitely my worst miscalculation in fundraising. My first fundraising job was with the Libertarian National Committee in Washington, DC (otherwise known as the headquarters of the Libertarian Party, the 3rd largest political party in the United States) and I managed the transition of the LNC from a custom database that they had outgrown to Raiser's Edge. I was so over-excited by the analytical possibilities of this database (at the tender age of 24 years old) that I convinced the leadership that we needed to do a big data survey of our membership to raise money and optimize the database.
It turned out to be such a colossally bad idea that I have no clue how I convinced all of my superiors to do this. You see, libertarians are some of the most privacy oriented people around. Privacy is almost a spiritual issue with this group. As soon as those surveys hit the mailboxes, we began getting calls, emails and all manners of very vocal complaints. It went on for weeks. It was a classic case of 1) getting too enamored with technology over people, 2) not fully understanding the character of your constituents, and 3) leadership not stepping in to stop a bad idea.
Ah, well, you live and you certainly learn.
If the shoe doesn't fit
At both the University of South Carolina and the University of Southern Mississippi, I have seen success with a mailer/phone call campaign that rotates alumni off of the school's Do Not Contact list after a certain period of time. You see, at large public schools, many alumni don't know that or how they got put on the list and sometime phonathon callers put folks on the list unnecessarily. Over the years, that adds up and locks too many prospects away without need.
I talked about this campaign method at a conference I taught for annual giving officers and a former colleague of mine adapted it for the school she worked for, which was a small, private liberal arts college with an activist character. I felt terrible for putting her onto the method, because she called me later and let me know that it was a huge controversy and it was even on the front page of the school newspaper. Eeeekkkk!!
The worst meat pies in Mississippi
I remember the meeting clearly. We were planning our lifetime donor club Gala event. It was our first big event after an EF-4 tornado tore through our campus. There was a great story with our School of Music because they had been rehearsing the musical for that year, Sweeney Todd, when the storm hit their building. The students and faculty were lucky to survive. But the show went on to become a smash hit! Stephen Sondheim actually sent a gift with a hand-written note. Great story! So, my VP announces that the cast will be performing numbers from the show at the Gala.
I raised my hand. "Um...do you all know what Sweeney Todd is about?"
"Sure, it's about a crazy barber."
"No, it's about cannibalism." (Pulls up the song, The Worst Meat Pies in London and A Little Priest and I play them on my phone)
"Oh, surely, they won't select those." (I cross my arms and say, "we'll see.")
The night of the Gala, with $75 per plate filet mignon steaks in front of our top donors, the cast did in fact sing both of those songs. And there were gentleman and ladies in lovely dresses with green faces leaving the ballroom. "Have a little priest?"
What is that? It's fop
Finest in the shop
And we have some shepherd's pie peppered
With actual shepherd on top
The moral of these stories
The takeaway from these stories is to "Honor Thy Constituency" without becoming paralyzed by fear. If you stop doing innovative things, you'll never raise the money your institution needs. But, you must be careful to monitor the details and make sure the overall concept matches the character of the constituency you serve.
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Jessica Cloud, CFRE
I've been called the Tasmanian Devil of fundraising and I'm here to talk shop with you.