This is the Life: When it comes to fundraising, if you don’t ask, you don’t receive

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I attended last week’s presentation on fundraising only at the request of a friend. It was scheduled to follow the Creston and District Community Resource Centre’s annual general meeting and I don’t normally cover AGMs. For the most part I don’t cover one-off events like Lorna Visser’s talk on fundraising either, because our preference at the Advance is to promote events before they occur, which is what we had done.

I timed my arrival to the very warm Erickson Room to miss the AGM and see Visser’s talk.

Perhaps I should explain that after 20 years in Rotary and on the credit union board, as well as through other community involvements, I have seen more than my share of speakers on any number of topics, had my fill of PowerPoint presentations and too many times have sat fidgeting and keeping one eye on my watch. And I’ve been on the presenter’s side of the podium, too.

So when Visser launched into her talk with a Wiki-talk about the history of money and then commenced to pass around coins, banknotes and other representations of currency I admit that the open doorway to my left looked very inviting.

That began to change, though, as she moved into a discussion about fundraising and how to approach it. Soon I found myself thinking about how closely the success of non-profits mirrors business success.

Visser reported that nearly 80 per cent of charitable donations in Canada come from individuals, with only about 10 per cent each coming from the corporate sector and foundations. I sat wondering (and pretty much knowing the answer) about how much time and energy the community resource centre — and the vast majority of non-profits — spend applying for grants from foundations and how little effort is put into asking individuals for donations. The simple answer is that foundations tend to give money out in larger chunks, making the reward seem worth the effort. But writing grant applications is also appealing because foundations exist to give their money away. So even an unsuccessful application feels like it has been welcomed and appreciated.

Individuals’ contributions, on the other hand, tend to come in smaller amounts, and it’s much harder to face the possibility of a negative response in a face-to-face request than it is to receive an email or snail mail rejection.

Visser was bang-on in her view that successful fundraising results from appeals that connect with the values of those who are being asked for donations. Her message was compelling — we are giving people the opportunity to participate and support activities that they believe are important. A “no” response shouldn’t be taken personally, she said. Most people are flattered at being asked for their support even if they don’t choose to donate.

There is a rule of thumb in the private sector that typically 80 per cent of one’s business comes from 20 per cent of its customers. That was the basis from which we did much of our marketing at the credit union, expending more resources in trying to increase our share of a member’s financial business than in getting new customers. It is why we get mailouts and phone calls from non-profits that we have donated to and it’s why we get endless telemarketing calls from our credit card providers. They all know that we already have a relationship with them and are therefore more likely to be open to listening to their message. Getting one donation from an individual opens the door for more in the future.

Visser didn’t say it in so many words, but I think she would agree that, like a business, a non-profit has to act successful if it wants to be successful. People don’t want to throw their money down the drain. It’s why businesses love to contribute to campaigns when their donation will put it over the top — they are associating with success and have assurance that their donation won’t languish unused for an unknown length of time. It’s also why government agencies often will only match other donations. Success breeds success.

I walked out of Visser’s presentation thinking that if I was still involved with non-profits I would want to attend one of her day-long workshops. I think it would be a good investment of time.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.