Thursday, 5 June 2014

How NOT to plan a fundraising campaign (keeping up with the Jones)

Today saw me playing host at Gordon White's fantastic Institute of Fundraising training day on Social Media for Fundraisers. Prepare for the understatement of the year:

Mummy! I want a campaign like Jenny Jones' campaign! 
I learned a lot.

19 pages of notes a lot. I think that - in many years of secondary education, higher education, further education and continuing professional development - that may be an all time record. The man behind FatBuzz sure knows his oats. I could probably write six dozen fundraising blog posts on each one of his points, but I'll leave that for another day. 

Today it's all about how not to plan a fundraising campaign.

It was Gordon that got me thinking about it when he was talking about reasons people make the wrong choices about social media tools:
  • GMOOT: get me one of those
  • IWOOT: I want one of those
Or in other words: keeping up with the Jones (whoever those lucky Jones are). 

We're all prey to a bit of IWOOT. Maybe it's an iphone. Maybe it's a pixie haircut. Maybe it's a vintage 1960s Silver Surfer comic signed by Stan Lee (oh, just me then?). Most of them don't cost millions of pounds. But some of them do. 

In social media, the example used was Second Life. Remember when universities bought islands on Second Life? Sometimes that was because of interesting experiments to do with online learning and artificial intelligence. But sometimes it was because Stanford had one. 

Second Life did not help fundraising. 

But it's not just about digital tools. The same can apply in everyday, regular fundraising. The classic example: the Capital Campaign. What Vice Chancellor doesn't want to announce an ambitious, multi-million pound campaign? These things aren't just the preserve of Oxbridge you know.A university can barely show it's face without a big fat capital campaign in the North American Style. The Jones need to be kept in their place. 

Hold it. Hold it right there. 

Yes, US universities have been enormously successful with philanthropy. No respectable business person wants to be caught out at the dinner table confessing that he hasn't made a gift to his alma mater. It's a matter of pride! Of heritage! Of loyalty! Also, there's the tax thing. 

And lots of outstanding academics have worked in the States. They have seen this stuff work. And they want it. 

But here's the rub. In the same way that the streets of London are not paved with gold, the UK is not the US. Australia is not the UK or the US. These countries differ from each other. Their universities differ from each other. Their alumni differ from each other. The same rules do not apply. It's apples and oranges my friend, apples and oranges. 

Number 1 tip to the University Fundraiser: manage any expectations about a US style fundraising campaign very carefully indeed. Don't dismiss. Respectfully provide evidence of the differences. 

But enough with the negative, if you aren't going to take the Kresge Challenge and go all out to emulate Harvard and Yale, what's a fundraiser to do? 

You're going to do 3 things:

1. Identify the challenge
2. Identify the target audience
3. Use the right tools for the job

Here's an example from Gordon:

A man walks into the doctor's surgery. The doctor doesn't ask what is wrong with him. He just hands him a generic pill and pushes him out of the door. 

I sincerely hope that has never happened to you, gentle reader. If so, change surgeries. 

No. A doctor will ask what the problem is. She will analyse it and identify the proper solution. She will then provide the proper solution and one which works for the patient. No point in giving someone paracetamol for headache if they are allergic to paracetamol and will never take it. No point in putting all your media content on LinkedIn if your target audience are twitter users. No point in focusing on a single major gift when what your organisation desperately needs in broad reach and predictable, steady income. 

No. A thousand times no. Instead, follow these simple steps:

1. Identify the challenge e.g. "We have a huge number of applications from talented overseas graduates but not enough scholarships to offer them," or, "Our biologists are world-leading but their labs are falling down around their ears. If it's not solved, the research will suffer. Discoveries will suffer."

2. Identify the target audience - who can help solve the problem? Who cares?  So for example, do you have a large number of alumni amongst the growing middle classes in South East Asia? Are you working on research that would help specific diseases or conditions? Who would care about this? 

3. Understand your target audience - where do they get their information? What do they do? How are they influenced? By their peers? By social media? Through applications to their trust?

4. What do you want them to do?

5. How do they make their decisions? 

6. How can you influence their decisions? 

This type of thinking can apply to many donors or few, but what it will result in is a fundraising programme bespoke to your organisation's specific needs and opportunities. 


You're a Russell group university with a high number of professional alumni. You don't yet have much reach into wealth circles of philanthropy. You do have campuses in South East Asia running impressive medical programmes.  Should you kick off a campaign focused on big major gifts from North American donors? 

No. You should think about developing a really strong middle gift programme and invest in developing relationships in South East Asia, initially based around the initiatives you have going on out there. Your events and communications will be geared towards the interest of these target groups. You will know what those interests are because you have asked and you have listened. 

So. In summary:

  • Don't follow, lead. 
  • Don't plan campaigns around what the Jones have done. Plan your campaign around YOUR needs, YOUR audience, YOUR opportunities (but do learn what you can from the Jones). 
  • That word again: audience. Have your target audience at the forefront of your mind at all times. If you don't, you will be internal looking and your potential supporters won't get a look in. 
  • Use communications methods and platforms that your donors use, not the ones that you think look pretty. Looking pretty doesn't matter if your target audience doesn't care about pretty. 

Have bravery, have confidence, use your instincts and develop the University of <insert any random name> model of Fabulous Fundraising. Be strong!

Thank you!

Margaret AKA @CollectiveMarg

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