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The key to fundraising is them, not you

5 min read

For some, fundraising conjures images of drum rolls and giant check ceremonies, but these are not the moments that inspire alumni to support their schools. People care little about your financial goals - they care about helping people. 

A successful fundraising campaign is more than just asking for money. It takes a well-planned, well-executed effort from an advancement team that has spent years cultivating relationships with alumni, learning their interests, and strengthening the connection to their school. 

Stop dancing around the subject of money

So, when the day comes to finally seek alumni’s support, is it smart to dance around the subject of money? Not when you make it clear what that support can accomplish. Lori Jacobwith, a fundraising and culture change expert from Ignited Fundraising joined Mongoose’s FYI podcast to talk about how institutions can better reach their goals. 

The conversation was filled with interesting advice and real life stories of fundraising efforts, some successful and some not. Lori stresses that, by talking about money and illustrating the anticipated end result of a fundraiser, you can get better results.

Telling a compelling story is the first step in reaching your goals. Lori says, “That story we share has to cause me to feel some empathy. It could be frustration, irritation, joy, happiness. If I don’t feel something, I cannot make a decision.”

You’re a translator, not a fundraiser

If you talk about your fundraising mission as a means to collect money until a goal is reached, you’re not connecting with your audience. You have to lead alumni to a place they’ll care about. Instead, address the outcomes that are possible with support. Put a face with the fundraising effort and allow people to feel proud about what they’ve accomplished with their gift. 

Lori says that it’s important to think about how you communicate, “We’re not really fundraisers, we’re translators. We’re translators for the mission. And that mission goes into people’s hearts and minds. We translate to people in real language what they could be doing more of, so they get to be the hero.”

“Emotion is emotion. If we are using what I call scarcity thinking and scarcity language choices like ‘we really need your help’, that doesn’t inspire me and that doesn’t cause me to feel great. But, if we use language like ‘we have helped students because of what you’ve done, aren’t you proud of your impact? Wouldn’t you like to do more to help students?’ The least effective words to use in fundraising is ‘help us with our goal.’ No one cares about your goal. Figure out who the end user is.”

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When the mission isn’t prestigious

Not all fundraising endeavors grab news headlines, but that doesn’t make them unimportant. When your advancement team is tasked with raising support for a smaller project, Lori says that you should talk about the impact of your effort. 

“One of the things I tell folks is, we can fundraise the easy way or the hard way. The hard way is to tell folks everything about us - how long we’ve been doing it and what the statistics are, and what the return on investment is. The easy way is to put a face on the impact of what someone gives. Give someone a vision of what else you can do together.

Raising awareness of why

Your story should be specific in describing the intended end result. Alumni relate to their own experiences. For example, a student who played soccer is likely to feel a connection with the team for years beyond their graduation. Using that common ground and emotional connection is an effective way to gain support. 

Lori says that in her hometown, it’s getting harder for schools to reach their goals, “Here in Minnesota, funding for higher education is at a pretty tough place. Tuition is going up. Resources are going down. Allocation from the state is less. So, giving from philanthropy is the only way that the impact can grow or at least continue at the level it is at. Remind people of their passion.” 

“Are you a Christian school? Remind us of that and how values are what get translated for all the students who walk through your doors and come to your classes. Are you a theater school or a nursing school? Whatever it is that you do, you can only door more of it if you have the resources. Not everyone is a fundraiser, but raising awareness of why you require outside philanthropy is everyone’s job.” 

Money is not the root of all evil

In our conversation, Lori speaks about the awkwardness some development professionals might feel in seeking support. Asking for money shouldn’t carry a negative connotation when the end goal is to better an institution. 

“Money is a taboo subject. The reality is, money is there to trade goods and services. It’s there to do good. It’s a key element of any non-profit organization, especially education-focused. So it’s not ‘how do we get more money?’ it’s ‘how do we do more good and here’s what it will take?’ Make an opening for people to give.”

Be clear about your total goal

Asking for support isn’t easy, and it’s certainly not easy for people to part with hard-earned money. So, when you’re asking for support to make a difference or complete a project, it’s crucial that your audience knows the whole picture goal from the beginning. In other words, don’t ask for money, celebrate a fundraising goal, and then reveal that it was only part of the goal and now you need more money for that same cause. That’ll make your job harder in the long run and cause donor fatigue.

Put yourself in your donor’s shoes

People want to help. The difference between someone supporting your fundraising effort and passing on the opportunity is often over whether or not they relate to the story you’re telling. 

Lori says that you have to show them the face of the person or people they’re helping, “We want our donors to feel as if they’re the heroes. We want them to feel empathy as if that could be their kid, their grandkid, or themselves. When I hear stories of students who struggle, I put myself in their shoes. You want to make sure you have a story that is an example of what you do. Whatever kind of college or university you are, you pick one example and tell it in such a way that I feel empathy for that person.”

An advancement professional’s job isn’t finished when a fundraiser is over. You owe it to your donors to share results and remind them of the ways in which they’ve helped. Not only will that encourage future support, it will help strengthen your alumni community. 

If you’d like to learn more, check out our podcast with Lori Jacobwith. 

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