The Urban Legends of Fundraising – Part I of III

Urban legend – An urban legendurban myth, or urban tale is a form of modern folklore consisting of stories thought to be factual by those circulating them. (Wikipedia)

This week, my aim is to debunk a few urban legends regarding fundraising. These are examples of “conventional wisdom” that, over the years, I’ve heard repeated often by otherwise very smart development folk. Simply put, they are not true. I’ll highlight the top 3 Urban Legends for Fundraising, one at a time, over my next few posts. Today, we’ll start with…

Urban Legend of Fundraising #1 – The Well Will Run Dry. Or to put it another way You Can’t Continue Going To The Same Major Gift Donors And Expect To Get Large Gifts.

Uh, yes, you can. In fact, if you want to be successful, you have to. I recall a story told by Bruce Heilman, former president of the University of Richmond. Dr. Heilman, one of the most successful advancement presidents our country has known, was speaking to a group of major donors at another university’s Founder’s Day event. The university had early success with a comprehensive campaign but had more recently experienced a slow down in gifts.

Dr. Heilman stood behind the podium, adjusted the microphone, thanked the university for inviting him to speak and thanked everyone in attendance. He then proceeded to tell all within earshot that the university would be successful in completing the campaign because he was speaking to the very group who would be making the gifts to ensure success. This, of course, was the very group who had provided the bulk of the early gifts to get the campaign started in strong fashion in the first place! He was right, of course. And over the next 18 months the university received second and third campaign gifts from many in attendance that night and went on to successfully complete the campaign.

So, why does this thinking persist with development professionals as an urban legend? One reason is that many development officers (and donors) view money as a zero-sum game. If you have $10 million dollars and you give $1 million away, you now have $9 million. If you keep making such gifts, you will run out of money — the well soon runs dry. But the truth is, people’s wealth is not a zero-sum game. If you have $10 million and give $1 away, you just paid much less in taxes, you have the other $9 million working for you in a variety of investments, and within a very short time, you are right back to having $10 million again. The well fills back up and in most cases, the wealth level rises higher than it was before the first gift.

However, the well filling back up isn’t the biggest reason the “well runs dry” thinking is faulty. The real reason this is horrible logic is because it focuses our attention on the gift and not the relationship with the donor. It focuses on dollars and not vision. When we collaborate with donors to craft a strategic vision for our organizations and focus attention on how their giving will result in outcomes that are in alignment with their values and interests, the donor will not only give again, she will encourage others to do the same. When donors help craft the vision and understand that their giving will impact issues important to them, you no long have simple donors, you have partners and advocates. Partners and advocates won’t let you fail and they will support you over and over again.

The well running dry won’t be your problem. Abandoning the power of your organization’s vision will.


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