Fundraising True Confessions

Cups Completely EmptyIn December of last year, we made the last minute decision to do a year-end fundraising campaign for the very new organization that is Creating the Future. In the spirit of transparent engagement, we promised to share what would normally be kept secret – everything we learned from that campaign.

That is what this post will attempt to do. And I say “attempt” because there was so much that we learned, that we’re thinking it may become a book! For now, I’ll try to hit the highlights.

First, a quick chronology of the campaign from start to finish:

December 6: Blog post asking whether or not to embark on a campaign.
December 16: Decided to go for it.
December 29: Shut down the campaign.
December 30: Posted initial thoughts about what we had learned, knowing there were things that “just didn’t feel right,” that we needed to explore further (hence, today’s post!)

Learning #1: It’s all about Context
“What we learned” all depends on the context of the question. If the context is fundraising tactics, the answer becomes about the immediate task at hand – what worked and what didn’t work re: raising the money we set out to raise. For those tactical questions, the posts here and here pretty much cover it.

The problem we had with our campaign, though, was not tactical. It wasn’t even strategic. It was philosophical, rooted deep in our vision and values.

Mark Riffey’s comment from the December 6th post at my blog sums it up:

“If we are going to rebuild the charitable world, are we going to start doing so by funding it the same way that Friends of the Woolly Mammoth (et al) would do it? And if so, how is that congruent with the mandates/mindset of The Pollyanna Principles and Creating the Future?”

When put into that context, it becomes clear why we felt pulled between tactics and values. It also becomes clear what questions we, as a sector full of individuals and organizations, indeed need to be asking and answering.

What would it look like if resource systems were about sustaining thriving communities, rather than figuring out how to meet payroll?

Sustaining thriving communities would require cooperative systems – rooted in our interconnectedness, rather than rooted in competition (if for no other reason – and there are PLENTY of other reasons – than that cooperation lends itself far more easily to being self-sustaining than competition does). Those systems would be rooted in the abundant strengths and assets communities already have, rather than constantly having to infuse those systems with external resources (i.e. cash).

Sustaining thriving communities would require systems that aligned with core values, rather than requiring us to constantly choose between core values and economic survival.

That’s just some of what systems would look like if they were aimed at their highest potential – sustaining thriving communities.

Learning #2: It’s all about Current Systems
Current systems do not look at all like that. There is nothing strength-based / abundance-based / cooperative in any of our current resourcing systems. Rooted in scarcity, weakness and competition, those systems actually go directly counter to values that will lead to sustaining thriving communities.

Interestingly, though – and I’ve written about this extensively in articles at our website – current systems ALSO go directly counter to creating sustainable organizational resources.

No sustainable dollars + no sustainable communities
= Lose / Lose Scenario

The current system looks loosely like this:

  1. Organizations need short term funds.
  2. We use systems and approaches and tactics aimed at generating short term funds.  While we might call these approaches resource development systems – they are really fundraising systems.
  3. Those fundraising systems are rooted in assumptions of scarcity. Even the very word – fundraising – suggests that we do not have what we need (which we assume to be money), so we must raise it. Our strength relies on people outside our programs to make us strong.  And that dependence upon others for our very survival embeds fear into every effort.
  4. That said, though, the result of those fundraising systems is that they do indeed raise short term dollars.
  5. However, there are also other results. Because current systems depend on support from outside the organization, we must constantly go out and find the dollars that will keep our efforts alive. Fundraising becomes an ongoing job, separate and apart from the actual work we are doing to build strong communities.
  6. Because we need what others have, the system requires that we identify everyone associated with our work by the dollars we believe they can give us. We therefore value those with money more than we value those without money. Of course we say we value everyone, but in truth, we treat small donors like money trees – we only communicate with them when we send another ask letter.

    That said, however, we ALSO treat LARGE donors like money trees. We are just more attentive to those trees. We fertilize them and prune them. We pay homage to them, nurture them… until, of course, they stop bearing fruit, at which point we move on, finding new trees upon which to lavish our nurturing attentions in the hopes that they will be more productive.

  7. All that said, it is important to repeat that money DOES come in from these ongoing efforts. Enough comes in to allow us to survive until the next fundraising letter or event. But with no long-term investment in our strengths and in each other – and the ongoing requirement that we compete rather than building strength together – the money only lasts so long.
  8. And so we find ourselves back at Step 1: We need short term funds.

Learning #3: It’s all about Fear and Human Behavior
In late November of last year, Dimitri and I decided to stop the part-time consulting that was supporting both ourselves and this fledgling organization. If Creating the Future is to accomplish its mission, committing ourselves full time is the only way that will happen.

However, committing full time – and giving up the small amounts of consulting that were at least keeping the doors open – meant there was no longer any income at all. Yes, there was a business plan for generating revenues, and we are currently working 24/7 to implement that plan. But until that kicks in…

And so it was that a week after making the decision to dive into the deep end of the pool with no floaties, we realized, “Year-end is statistically when the very most money is donated to charity. If we did a year-end campaign, we could raise enough money to bridge the next few months.”

The rest of Learning #3 might as well say “See Learning #2.”

When we humans are scared, we don’t have the strength to buck trends and head out on a limb. We might know everything I have written here thus far – heck, I’ve been writing this stuff for years. And in that time, I’ve used that wisdom to help organizations accomplish amazing things.

But there is a big difference between being the dispassionate consultant and being organizational founders who are worried they won’t be able to pay their mortgages the next month.

Fearful about how we would make ends meet in the near term, Pollyanna Principle #6 led every one of our actions: “Individuals go where systems lead them.”

And all the systems – not some, not a majority, but virtually all the systems in this sector lead to “fundraising as it is done.” Case statements and asks and all the stuff that is so institutionalized that it is taught as “Best Practice” in some of the most notable universities in the world.

Even though we knew in our hearts that that was a path rife with scarcity – a path that went counter to everything we were working to achieve for this sector – the bottom line was the same bottom line it is for our clients.

We needed money. And the current systems was the only system around.

Learning #4: It’s all about Changing the Systems
So was our fundraising campaign a failure? Hardly. In addition to all we learned, we raised $7,000 in 10 days with virtually no mailing list and our hearts clearly conflicted.

But wait, that’s not entirely true. Because raising that money was not really in addition to all we learned, but entirely because of all we learned. And that’s because $5,000 of that $7,000 came from a donor who appreciated our courage and willingness to shut down the campaign – and to do so transparently – based entirely upon the core values we wanted to uphold and model to the world.

Which brings us back to the comment Mark Riffey made when we first raised the question of whether or not to raise the money.

What would funding look like if it is NOT the way we’ve always done it? What would resourcing these efforts look like if their focus was sustaining thriving communities?

Learning #5: It’s all about Changing the Norms
As we ask those very different questions and come up with the answers, one thing is clear: Nothing will change until it all changes.

Until a strength-based, cooperative, interconnected, life-affirming approach is the norm for how we build and support community-building efforts, individuals who are living in fear of paying the bills will be pulled into the scarcity-and-fear-based system that currently IS the norm.

Individuals will indeed go where systems lead them.

If Creating the Future is to live up to its mission of guiding this sector to reach its potential, we must change the systems upon which we are sustaining our communities. And we are indeed dedicated to accomplishing just that.

And so, in the words of our friends and colleagues Trae Ashlie-Garen and Troy Alford, we are “beginning as we intend to continue.” Yes, that applies to our efforts to sustain our work, but it also applies so very much to our efforts to engage transparently in all that we do.

We are quite certain we would not have learned nearly this much this quickly, had we not been committed to sharing each step with you. That decision has “kept us honest.” It has kept us more mindful and aware, and working far less in reflexive auto-pilot mode (or as Dimitri calls it, Zombie Mode).

Engaging at every point also reminds us that we are not alone – that this is, indeed, a cooperative effort, built on trust and relationship. We do have significant strengths upon which to build. We have a community. We know this is part of what it will take to reconsider not just funding and resources, but everything.

And so to you, our co-conspirators on this adventure to change how social change is done – we bow in deepest and most humble gratitude. And we cannot wait to see what’s next.

Photo Info: Cups Completely Empty shot by me, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO during our 2010 Midwest Tour.

15 Responses to Fundraising True Confessions

  1. Just last week I was approached for “advice” about starting a new nonprofit.

    Knowing what I know after a dozen years of immersion in the nonprofit world, I asked the Diaper Bank question – couldn’t you do this within an existing organization?

    Nooooooooooo, our cause is distinctive.

    OK, is your board composed of people who can raise and give money?

    Nooooooooooo, they are volunteers who give pro bono services to the organization. We couldn’t ask them for money too, and besides, they can’t afford it.

    So…the “advice” you want is the advice nearly everyone who asks for my advice wants: Please tell me where the giant pile of free money is located.

    And if you won’t tell us, at least give us a chunk of YOUR money.

    You’re right, Hildy – when they ask for “advice” they usually want me to “do it for them” by writing a check.

    Woolly Mammoth Fundraising is all we know and all we have. I struggle with this in many of the areas I fund. How will high-quality, independent sources of professional journalism become sustainable in the new media age, for example?

    This dialogue is a valuable one. I appreciate the transparency.

  2. Mark:
    If the wisdom you shared is the result of coffee, I intend to keep you fully tanked up!

    Ruth Ann:
    Thanks for the story – and for your insight in seeing that yes, it is the same old song, but it’s because no one is handing out any different sheet music!

    We are looking forward to having new blog soon at Creating the Future’s site, with writings by people who are eager to reimagine what the whole system might look like if it weren’t rooted in fear. I hope you’ll continue to add your thoughts there!

  3. Hi Hildy – I have read this about 3 times and, as your resident CTF fundraiser, I admit to being stumped. Is that because there is no model yet and not that you’ve figured it out and I am just not clear? I don’t have quite the “either or” sense of things that you describe here. I think good fundraising is all about the long-term, the authentic engagement of people and organizations. And I know that competition sucks and that sometimes it is a source of creativity and generativity. I don’t feel like it’s always bad. Perhaps others are where I am and would like a lengthier conversation.

    BTW, as one of the people who was asked to support your campaign and who did support it, I did not feel like someone on the outside being asked to give. “Our strength relies on people outside our programs to make us strong.” I felt like a member of the family being asked to step up and express my love for you and for CTF. I felt like the act of giving was the next natural step in advancing the goals of this community. It was lovely. No failure perceived here. And so I guess it comes down to what was expected versus what was achieved. And as you say, a lot was achieved.

    Sorry, I’m not getting it. I agree that much is broken with the funding system and that it’s time (been time for a long time) to re-imagine that. So, maybe I’m not terribly far afield. But I did not see you figuring out how to make a playful appeal to people like me was one iota a waste or a mis-fire, or in the system.

    As for your values, you seem to have a big chicken or a big egg before you — figuring out how to address the “now” as you address the future. I guess I don’t think that nothing changes until it all changes. I think stuff changes and we don’t see it changing because we are in it, being it, so we can’t always sense it. If you asked me how I got to be this person I am today, I’d say I haven’t changed a bit since I was 3. But I have. Everything is always changing and we are either working with that consciously, aiding and abetting, or we are just flowing down the mountain willingly or bitterly.

    I guess what I would add back in is the notion that giving is a sacred act. That one thought makes me shut up and be quiet. What does it mean if giving is a sacred act (and sacred is an anagram for scared…I just figured that out)? Andrea

  4. Oh Andrea, there is so much in all you wrote that I had to sit and think with it for a bit. That alone is sacred, and I thank you for that.

    Some of what bubbles up for me is that when we’re at the tactical and strategic level we ask different questions than we do at the vision and values level – the level of “what are we really seeking to accomplish?”.

    Yes, some people view giving as sacred and love to be asked. Some people, like you, absolutely gave joyfully and enjoyed the tactics of our campaign – (look at those words – tactics, campaign – just seeing those words makes me shudder).

    Yet others felt VERY uncomfortable with the campaign – felt it went somehow counter to our vision and our values, but couldn’t put their finger on why. And then there were one or two who actually hated it, and made that clear to us in no uncertain terms…

    As an aside (or maybe not), had we not been encouraging others to learn along with us and share their thinking, we never would have known how people felt. They would have either given or not, and we never would have known that even some of the people who gave don’t like the system – they just figure that’s part of what orgs have to do. As a further aside – and again maybe not – the person who gave the $5,000 told me that the thought of being “developed” makes her skin crawl. It doesn’t stop her from giving, but it does suggest that if one person feels that way, there are likely others.

    Which gets back to the issue of whether we are asking the tactical questions to the exclusion of questions that will allow us to achieve higher community-driven goals:

    • Are we just using this system because the cow path from old world charity became this?

    • If we had to start over – if there was no current system in place – what would a system look like if it were aimed at and fully aligned with (values) sustaining thriving communities?

    I am excited to not only explore those questions, but to actually develop systems that will get us where we collectively want to be.

    You are such a gift, my friend – thank you for thinking with me here!!

  5. Like Andrea, after reading through this post a few times, I was stumped.

    But I was struck by your statement “virtually all the systems in this sector lead to “fundraising as it is done.” Case statements and asks and all the stuff that is so institutionalized that it is taught as “Best Practice” in some of the most notable universities in the world.”

    Because I think that what is NOT taught in the best universities or associations in the world is effective donor-centric communications within fundraising systems.

    “What would funding look like if it is NOT the way we’ve always done it?”

    We’d focus on building relationships – not raising cash. We’d focus on transparency and increased personal communication. We’d focus on asking questions of our supporters – and applying their answers.

    I think, too, good fundraising can raise some hackles and that you can never please everyone. There are some great comments on this blog posting (particularly Tom’s) you might enjoy:

    As always, thanks for a really insightful and thought-provoking post Hildy.

  6. More thinking about “being developed.” I have donors who are so happy that there are those of us who are developing them, that is, acting as stewards of their hopes and dreams, helping connect them with people and with important work that aligns with their interest, finding ways to include them in important discussions that are germaine to their ability to navigate how to be part of the work they desire to be part of. Then there is the whole universe of educating people who have no idea what is going on in their community, have not given much thought to their responsibility to be knowledgable and involved, who people like me bring into contact with what is happening beyond their coffee cup and their email inbox. Whether or not they write a check to me, I am developing them so that there is a greater receptivity, and willingness to be in the world, get involved, risk caring deeply.

    What would I invent if I could invent any system? I guess the highest potential of what I would invent would make it possible, even inevitable that EVERYONE sees the benefit of fostering the common good, and that giving is just what we all do. I think one condition of that is that this system is voluntary. It can’t take the place of an equitable tax system. I don’t think conscription makes us better at exercising that muscle. Another condition is that it would be participatory; like a working democracy. Debate, ideas subjected to rigor, taking good ideas and making them better based on principles, but also based on whatever it was that the community decided, for good of for bad. There would need to be a way to determine whether we were getting anywhere and learning anything. Reports to “the donor” would be matched by “reports to the grantee.” In saying all this, would it look like what we have now, only with transparency, with community engagement, and with accountability?

    Everywhere I go, wearing my fundraising leader hat, all I talk about is our sacred purpose to bring more people into contact with the opportunity of their time on this planet to be of service. The well trod cow path is not mine, but the one that says that we must clutch what we have tightly to us for fear that someeone (like me, the used car salesman aka fundraiser) will try and swindle us out of it. Acquire. Hoard. Leave me alone. Not now. I’m busy getting mine. This seems to be where systems have increasingly lead us. The system I would envision would look like people giving away 10% of our income and 20% of our time to transform ourselves and our communities. It would make depression almost nonexistent. It would reduce lonliness and fear. It would possible heal the hurt that so much of us have that says we are not worthy of such success and abundance.

  7. Pam:
    I love this:
    “We’d focus on building relationships – not raising cash. We’d focus on transparency and increased personal communication. We’d focus on asking questions of our supporters – and applying their answers.”

    Can you imagine what be possible if this was not about “we” as organizations, but “we” as communities?

    What if sustaining thriving communities was built around your words above – whole communities building relationships, not cash…

    Whole communities that were transparent, with increased personal communication…

    Whole communities that counted on themselves to have great questions AND great answers (the wisdom is in the room), and to know that their highest wisdom would be implemented…

    The question, then, becomes, “What would communities need to have in place for a focus on relationship, transparency, communication to be possible? What conditions would lead to that being how we are with each other?”


  8. Andrea:
    First, it is always such fun watching your brain work, and always a joy to see where that leads – thank you so much for sharing that here so authentically and honestly!

    Second, wow and yes and ok, then – same question (you know the drill :-)). What will it take?

    It is so exciting when we realize that culture is malleable, that we invented it, that it is ever changing, and that we can re-invent it and shift it.

    So what will it take? Let’s make this happen! 🙂

  9. All cash is is an indication of relationship. A symbol of exchange of value. Offering cash is one expression of building relationships. Diapers can be a form of currency so what’s the diff? Is cash somehow unclean? If so, why?

    If I would like a professionalized community benefit sector that is staffed with all kinds of brilliant people who are dedicating their life to creating the future and also paying their mortgages and putting food on the table — which are wonderful things to do — then I envision a system where we are thrilled to invest in excellence in our sector, where we are not begruding employees of the benefits sector livable wages, health benefits, vacations, and decent living conditions. So, I envision a sector that is amply financed to be staffed to ENGAGE THE COMMUNITY in our work. It takes time and people and thoughtfuness to do this in a way that does not burn people or annoy people. So we would invest in that capacity, the capacity to engage people, be in relationship with people, get input and ingenuity from people and actually put it to use, and then watch it build on itself.

    Right now I think we are set up to begrudge the investment in engaging the community rather than seeing it as core mission work.

  10. Hildy, thank you for this post. I am in the process of starting a new project and this is the question I’m asking myself right now, but I’ve had trouble articulating it for others and for finding others to understand what I’m grappling with.

    I could look at Venture Capital – but I don’t want to learn the jargon to play the game that the VC’s appear to need me to play. I’m not playing, I’m doing something joyful that is serious. It’s not a game. I am reluctant to give away the basis of the community I’m wanting to build before the community has a chance to participate in any way. I don’t want to build my new project based on old paradigms. But I need to pay my rent while I dream and plan and act to get this in a form to present to others.

    It’s good to know that I’m not the only one thinking like this right now. I’ll be participating in this conversation with great interest.

  11. Hi Hildy from Melbourne, Australia. The question – what is a better (translate as easier) way of fund raising – is one that many of us in the community benefit sector ask ourselves often.
    And most of the time we justify “if only we had more money, we could do so much more …” and look to governments to better fund us, rather than having to do the hard yards in raising / earning the money to do what we want to do.
    I don’t have the answers to the fund raising question, but here are some thoughts and learnings that might prompt further thoughts:
    In my experience it is very easy to give a service for “free” (or paid for by governments), and very difficult for us and our staff to ask clients for a fee or a contribution. Yet salespeople find it very easy to ask for and get money in return for a service or product … so we have to learn why and how they do it.
    Second there is substantial evidence that moving people (our clients) from being receivers to being contributors as well has individual and collective health and well being benefits that far exceed the transaction “value”. Yet donating money is not seen in the same light. Why not? And how could it be?
    Then “value” is both in the eye of the receiver and the giver (as giving obviously fulfills a need otherwise they wouldn’t do it). So how do we raise the “value” of a donation to the giver so that it is in proportion to how it is perceived by the receiver – you (and all of us CBO’s) who need money to do our good things? And how do we get across the message that every bit helps?
    One thought is to make a donation more perceived as contributing to one’s own health benefit. Another is to make it easier and more acceptable for people to give – certainly a bartering or exchange seems to be easier (cf eBay) than donating to good causes.
    I personally find it easier to justify not giving money (and here in the southern hemisphere we have certainly had our share of floods, droughts, cyclones, fires and earthquakes – all good causes), but will readily give my time (precious and limited) to helping. So there are psychological factors at work to that would be useful to understand.
    And lastly do we communicate the impact of what we do well – obviously not.

  12. Andrea:
    Many thoughts buzzing from your comment, as I would expect!

    First, re: your question, “Is money unclean?” The thing with money is that, while diapers are the ultimate thing we need, money is simply a form of exchange, not the ultimate thing we want. So I’m not sure I’d say it is “unclean” (although some do feel that) – it is, in fact, really not anything. It is a substitute for everything, which means it really is a no-thing.

    When we aim at money, we are looking at the finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself. When we look at the moon (end result) we aspire to get there. When we look at the finger (the means) we are more likely to face fear. “How will we pay the bills?” (money) is a very different question from “What do we really need? Who else has that, that we might share? How can we engage others in this work, so those assets and resources grow while our power and strength grow?” Ultimately the question is, “What do we all care about? What is important to all of us? What can we accomplish together that none of us can accomplish on our own?”

    Which brings me back to the question that is simultaneously daunting and exhilarating: If there were no community benefit sector, no orgs to support, no work being done – if we were starting from scratch; and if our goal was to build and sustain thriving communities, what favorable conditions could ensure our communities were wildly successful at sustaining that level of being?

    To sustain a thriving level of community health and well-being, our communities would need to be more ____________; would need to have more _______________.

    If we really want to re-imagine not just “philanthropy” (which is a means to the end result) but really reach for what it would take to build thriving communities, what favorable conditions might make that level of health simply inevitable?

    It is just this exploration and conversation I am excited to see when we kick off the new blog for re-imagining philanthropy – hopefully within the next month!!

    Thank you, as always, for continuing to push my thinking!

  13. Amanda:
    Congrats on the work you are doing – and thank you for your thoughtful additions to the conversation. No, you are absolutely not alone in your thinking!

    As to the immediate funding of your project in a way that builds community while supporting your work, there is a series of articles in our library that might help you, if you have not already seen them. That link is here: Also, there is a whole section in The Pollyanna Principles that gives case studies and goes into specific detail about all of what you’ll see in those articles. I hope that is helpful – and please keep chiming in to this conversation!

  14. Michael:
    Wow – I feel like I am actually watching your brain work!

    As we are working through so many of those questions ourselves – and others are as well – the question we come back to is, “If each of your scenarios was 100% successful, what would that make possible? And then what would that result make possible? And so on…”

    The answers start to unpack some of what I asked Andrea here – what are the favorable conditions that would be present in communities if instead of “supporting my organization and mission” we were “sustaining thriving communities”?

    I look forward to watching your brain as you continue to play with this!