When Fundraising Becomes Begging

This time of year we hear from lots of people asking for money. That includes my charity-of-choice—the American Red Cross—which recently launched its holiday giving campaign.

Everywhere I turn someone’s hitting me up for another contribution. Isn’t it enough that I’m a leadership giver to United Way? Or that I also tithe at my church? Or that I buy trash bags, cookies and popcorn to support worthy causes?

As I drive around town, I’ll often see a homeless person panhandling at a busy intersection. His “case for support” will likely be handwritten on a crude cardboard sign.

Last week as I walked into my favorite bookstore, I was accosted on the sidewalk by the same man who’s been there years. Quite literally, that’s his “job”—begging for money. That brief encounter prompted me to think about the similarities and differences between a panhandler and a nonprofit fundraiser. Here’s what I came up with:

How are they similar?

  1. They both want my money.
  2. They both think they are quite deserving of a contribution.
  3. They both act as if it’s my patriotic duty or moral obligation to support them.
  4. They both will say thank you once I’ve given.
  5. Neither will likely follow up to let me know the positive impact my gift had.

How are they different?

  1. One is dressed nicer than the other.
  2. One has showered and shaved today.
  3. One is more likely than the other to have my e-mail address.
  4. One might publish my name in 6-point type in an annual report.
  5. One is more likely to ask me to give again, reminding me how much I gave last time and even requesting an increase.

Having said all this, I’m very aware that my compensation as a nonprofit employee comes, in large part, from the generous contributions of our valued donors. This is not an indictment of donors or charitable giving. It is, rather, an appeal to fundraisers to be more purposeful in building interactive relationships with donors. I’d also like to encourage CEOs, board members and other influencers to have realistic expectations so fundraisers have ample time to build those relationships.

Granted, in this tough economy nonprofits need money. They desperately crave cash (as in contributions). Unrealistic expectations, though, will often prompt development officers to use quick, knee-jerk reactions to bring in money.

I’ve seen some nonprofit organizations naively expect to reap a bountiful harvest from an empty field. Somehow in their desperation they forgot the rule of the harvest:  You can’t pick apples if you don’t have any trees. And if you won’t have any trees unless you first plant the seed, nurture the crop and carefully prune the branches of each individual tree.

This all takes times. You must “develop an ongoing relationship” with the orchard if you want it to yield rich returns. Same with donors. You can never begin with the harvest (unless you’re a beggar or panhandler).

I’ve actually contributed to several methods of nonprofit panhandling. I’ve used my cell phone to text a contribution to a national charity. I’ve dropped coins into a kettle at the entrance of a shopping center. I’ve placed canned goods into a collection barrel. Each time I’ve been warmed by a fleeting feeling of doing something good. Yet I never developed an ongoing relationship with the charity. They never knew my name. They were never able to keep me involved and move me along the continuum of deepening levels of intimacy and engagement.

My message to panhandlers: I don’t like giving you spare change. I don’t feel like I’m doing much good. I’m only treating a symptom when I could help you better by giving a more sizable gift to the United Way. I expect them to use my contribution to address systemic problems and deal with underlying societal issues. (Yes, I understand that sometimes we have to give a man a fish before we can teach him to fish.)

My message to nonprofit fundraisers: I don’t want to feel guilty when I ignore an impassioned appeal that you’re in desperate need of money. That gets old after a while. I’ve built up immunity to such messages. In your professional circles you might attribute my apathy to donor fatigue. Yet I welcome opportunities to partner with you when you don’t come across as just another needy beggar. Let’s work together as partners. We can have an impact. Together we can do things neither of us would have achieved on our own.

2 Responses to When Fundraising Becomes Begging

  1. JoAnn Woody says:

    VERY interesting piece Duane – definitely thought provoking…and dead on!

    It’s important for non-profit organizations to remember that the very economy that is squeezing their budgets is having the same affect on their donors and potential donors. Add to that the fact that there are new non-profits organized every year – some reports indicate that number is in the tens of thousands new non-profits every year.

    All that to say that competition for “donor dollars” is intense, to say the very least. I believe that most folks want to know their donations are truly making a difference to the cause – show your donors that $X provides XX meals/blankets/immunizations/changes of clothes/etc and follow that up periodically with how many of those meals/blankets/immunizations/changes of clothes were actually given out in a month/quarter/year.

    Working with donors/supporters is much like working with partners. You have to work to build that relationship in the early stages — and then work twice as hard to maintain it and keep it strong. We give to organizations because we believe in their mission – but as savvy consumers in this economy, we need to know that our money is being put to its best use.

  2. Almitra says:

    Very good post! I would add that cultivating relationships w/ donors also reduce the need for episodic feast or famine fundraising.

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