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Back to Basics: 10 Fundraising Mistakes You Can Easily Avoid

Resource Center - Foundation

By Amy Eisenstein

June 5, 2012

Even intelligent, hardworking, well-intentioned fundraising professionals make mistakes from time to time. We all do.

The scariest mistakes, though, are the ones you don’t even know you’re making and repeat over and over again inadvertently. Recognizing them is the trick. Here are ten fundraising mistakes that are easy to make, but also easy to avoid.

10. Do you talk when you should listen?

Many fundraisers are extroverts. If that’s you, you may be in the habit of talking more than you listen.

No one wants to hear you go on and on about how wonderful your organization is (even if it’s true). Engage donors in conversation by asking open-ended questions. Find out why they are (or might be) interested in your organization.

It’s also especially important to listen after you’ve asked for a gift, even if there are a few moments of uncomfortable silence. If you talk first after asking, you might backpedal. For example, you might be inclined to say something like, “I know $5,000 is a lot of money. How about $500 instead?”  Give them a chance to think about what you’ve asked them for. They’ll respond when they’re ready.

9. Do you treat all of your donors the same?

Do you wish that donors would treat your organization like the most important charity?

If so, maybe you should be treating each supporter like your most important donor. And that doesn’t mean sending generic form letters (either appeals or thank-you letters).

Instead, segment and personalize as much as possible. Have different letters for first-time donors, for board members, for loyal donors and for lapsed donors. Write personal notes whenever possible. Have a VIP, red-carpet plan for your best donors and include personal meetings, phone calls and other personal touches.

8. Do you rely on your board members to bring in donations?

You may wish your board members would constantly funnel wealthy prospective donors your way, but that doesn’t happen very often. Stop using your board members as an excuse not to raise money.

Consider how you’re training and recruiting board members if they are not meeting your expectations. There are many excellent ways to recruit and retain great board members. But in the meantime, don’t be afraid to go out and build relationships with your donors on your own.

7. Do you ask more than you thank?

Always follow up with donors after they’ve made a gift. Stewardship is a key part of the fundraising process, but unfortunately many nonprofit organizations neglect or minimize this important step.

Do your donors know how their donation was used before being asked for another? Do your donors feel thanked and appreciated?

Test how you’re doing in this area by asking a few donors (of differing gift levels) and find out for sure.

6. Do you ignore lapsed donors?

Lapsed donors are former donors. These donors might have lapsed (or stopped giving) one, two or three years ago. The longer they lapse, the more difficult it will be to inspire them to give again.

Once a donor lapses for a year or two, many organizations write them off. However, contacting lapsed donors can often result in another gift.

If you have a large number of lapsed donors, begin with those who have lapsed for the least amount of time (two years or less), and/or those who have given several times in the past (not just one-time donors).

5. Do you neglect your statistics?

Do you know your donor acquisition rate? How about your attrition rate? Your retention rate?

Donor acquisition is the number of new donors you attract. Donor attrition measures the number of donors you lose each year (become lapsed). And donor retention is the number of donors you keep from year to year.

If you’re not keeping track of these critical statistics, you won’t know if your fundraising program is growing or shrinking. In other words, you won’t know what’s working and what isn’t. Start keeping tabs on each of these and other important fundraising stats.

4. Do you take your board members for granted?

Your attitude will go a long way in terms of what board members are willing to do for you and your organization. Remember that they are volunteers and have other priorities and commitments in addition to your organization.

Consider providing annual board retreats with training and energizing activities. And, always thank your board members in formal and informal ways. Let them know that they are appreciated and they will be more likely to be involved, engaged and committed board members.

3. Do you ask just once per year?

There seems to be the sentiment among many board members and even some staff members that people should only be asked once annually. This is simply not true.

Asking frequently leads to raising more money. Period. If you’re only asking once a year, you’re leaving money on the table.

2. Do you use fundraising jargon with donors?

Do you use acronyms or terms that are specific to your cause or to the act of fundraising? If so, your donors may not know what you’re talking about.

Be aware that fundraising-specific terms like campaign, development, restricted and unrestricted, lapsed, and prospect could be confusing to donors.

1. Do you assume that no means no?

One of the biggest mistakes that fundraisers make is assuming that no means no without digging deeper.

There are many reasons why donors say no when asked for a gift. But if you’re able continue the dialogue, you’re much more likely to get a gift down the road.

Amy Eisenstein, MPA, CFRE, is owner of Tri Point Fundraising in Westfield, N.J.

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