Money. It’s emotional isn’t it? Show me someone who isn’t capable of getting hot under the collar about it. Having it, not having it, blowing it, hoarding it, talking about it incessantly or simply refusing to discuss it all, everybody’s got an opinion. In his fascinating book Homo Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes money as ‘the most universal and efficient system of mutual trust ever devised’, stating that the need for it is the one thing that unites everyone, everywhere.
Yet if I could give organisations one simple piece of advice to revolutionise their major giving it would be this.
Stop chasing the money.
Sounds counterintuitive, right? After all, isn’t this our raison d’etre as fundraisers, to bring in the cold, hard cash? Yet this fixation on money as the Holy Grail is precisely what stifles our creativity and progress and accounts for the highest level of failure in development teams.
We’ve all heard stories of development staff pressurised to justify their existence, with even inexperienced Major Gift Officers in fledgling programmes expected to ‘cover their salaries’ in their first year. Or there’s the panicky fixation on ‘making the ask’ – an over-used phrase that in my opinion should be expunged from the fundraising lexicon.
The idea that every donor and every member of staff has a price tag attached to them misses the point and the potency of relationship fundraising. As professionals we will always have important targets to meet, but we have a far greater chance of attaining them if we understand that money in itself is not the object, but only the energy that propels us towards the goal. What matters is to make the goal attractive, compelling and relevant to the donor and to build the trust that is essential for any financial transaction to take place.
If this sounds obvious – and it is – why do so many organisations lead with the money and not the amazing story they have to tell? Addressing this can mean going back to basics and challenging, not just your organisation’s mind set, but your own too.
Understand your own relationship to money
I spent twenty-five years trying to give up smoking. OK, that’s not strictly true. I spent twenty years valiantly working my way through every brand from Silk Cut to Sobranie Cocktails and about five trying to kick the habit, each time ending in failure. By focusing incessantly on the cigarettes themselves and my own resistance to them, I was never going to succeed. The day I understood the nature of my relationship to them and what feelings they were masking, I never lit up again.
We often fixate on the presence (or lack thereof) of money and not on how it makes us feel. By first understanding our own personal relationship to money and where these values come from, we can get a clearer idea of what might be holding us back from asking for it. It can also help us recognise why other people in our organisation might be resistant to fundraising.
A good exercise for a team away-day is for everyone to put their thoughts on asking for money – positive and negative – on post it notes and get them out on the table. This doesn’t have to be a therapy session, but what comes up might be enlightening and whether you grew up with not enough or whether you were sent to school with a thermos wide enough to take lobster ((™) Victoria Wood) there is bound to be a lot of shared experience. Discuss the post it notes and see which ones are relevant and which are outmoded for where you are right now.
‘Making the Ask’ – the most unhelpful phrase in fundraising
Some of the most successful and confident people I’ve met have balked at the prospect of asking for money. When viewed as an awkward imposition or worse, a humiliation, it’s little wonder that asking for money can seem like jumping off a cliff (although a tip here, if it feels this way step right away from the edge – it’s way too soon).
Asking for a donation shouldn’t be D-Day. It’s part of a process where you invite someone to make an investment in something profoundly positive. As a major donor fundraiser you are, in many ways, also the bringer of gifts, so think of this as an exchange of equal value that comes once the groundwork has been laid and it will take the heat out of the moment. If you can think of a snappier, original phrase for that, let me know.
It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the story
When senior volunteers and trustees have no idea what you’re fundraising for, you know your project is in trouble. If it sounds far-fetched, it’s surprisingly common and it happens when numbers take the lead over story.
How many meetings have you come out of where all you’ve done is go round in circles looking over lists of names and corresponding figures? It’s taken months to get this group of ultra-busy, high net worth individuals in a room together and yet none of them could recognise the contents of your campaign in a line up, let alone articulate it in a compelling way to anyone who might actually be able to fund it.
The story is the beating heart of your fundraising. Your volunteers don’t need to be experts, but they do need to be informed and enthused and ready to influence the influential. Introduce them to beneficiaries and experts, spend as much time as you need to ensure they know what the problems are and what your project or building will fix and bring your meetings back to this central point. In this way, you’ll help keep their eye on the goal (serving the beneficiaries) and not the by-product (money).
In a recent Ways to Change the World podcast, Richard Curtis stated he’d never had a donor meeting for Comic Relief that hadn’t contained an emotional core and that without it the donation merely becomes a deal. This to me is the central argument against fundraising as just another type of sale, a subject upon which a lot of nonsense is spoken. By focusing on the money as a thing in itself and operating purely on transactional terms, we not only miss the greater possibilities, but will struggle to get donors to stay with us.
Much as I love Liza Minelli in Cabaret, she’s wrong on this one. If stories are the rocket fuel of influence, it’s relationships that make the world go round.