Monday, May 19, 2008

Words Count

Fundraising, as we all know, is the right person asking the right prospect for the right amount of support for the right project at the right time. It’s also asking for that support in the right way.

What that way is depends, in part, on who you are asking. A direct mail piece will make the case differently than a grant proposal, even when you are requesting support for the same project. Likewise, a 30-year-old technology billionaire prospect should be approached one way, while his 60-something boomer dad will require a different method.

Sometimes, though, the issue isn’t who but what, and here words really are all.

"Hey, I need you to fund my salary,” just doesn’t resonate nearly as well as “Support for our organization helps us to provide food and shelter for the homeless.”

That the unrestricted support your organization raises may actually go to pay your salary doesn’t negate this. The homeless—or whoever your clients may be—cannot, in fact, be served unless there is appropriate staff and resources.

Making your case also means positioning yourself in such a way that people will want to support you. That means showing off successes and minimizing those things that don’t shed light on your better side. Or, as the keychain a former employee gave me states, “No Kvetching.”

The importance of this really struck me about a week ago. I received a direct mail appeal from an organization where I have been a small annual donor for several years. I had become a donor because I liked what they were trying to accomplish. So I opened the envelope, expecting to read about their accomplishments, find out about new initiatives, generally feel good because I was a supporter.

Instead, what I found out was that a large grant they had been getting for many years was being discontinued. “We need you to make up this loss,” the letter said, then went on to tell me that they couldn’t survive without this support.

Did that case make me reach for my checkbook? Not at all. In fact, my first thought was, “Ummm, wonder what that funder knows that I don’t?” The second was to seriously consider following that funders lead and pull my support.

Why? First off, it made me feel that they weren’t handling their business very well. And making sure that you have enough funds to run your programs is a major part of a nonprofits business.

Secondly, I don’t like feeling like a loser—and I don’t like supporting losing organizations. I want to put my money where I think it will make a difference and not just keep an organization from closing its doors.

Telling me about their successes this past year, and showing me that I was making a difference, would have kept me as a donor. The fact that I’ve been a regular, albeit small, donor for some time should have also triggered some special attention. A phone call, personal note from the executive director or president of the board, asking me to increase my support and help make a bigger difference, would have had the right kind of impact.

Actions may speak louder than words, but never lose sight of the fact that words do count, and make sure you use them wisely.

Janet Levine is a fundraising consultant. She can be reached at jlevine@levinemorton.com. Her online grantwriting class is available at www.levinemorton.com/classes.html.

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