Have you ever made a fundraising mistake?
I’m hoping you answer “yes”.
Mistakes are important in our field. We’re adding daily to our knowledge of fundraising. That new information often comes from mistakes – or in their nicer outfit, experiments.
Those of us who love direct mail and email know how important those experiments are. It’s called “testing” and either you build it into your program or if you’re too small, you study what others have learned and hope you can adapt it.
The key to failing well is learning. You can do that in and environment where it’s safe to admit mistakes and learn from them. A strong organization focuses more on “what happened and what can we learn” than “whose fault is it”. But it’s important to know failure tends to make people emotional – and that can make it hard to learn. (See this article in Harvard Business Review for more.)
If you’re leading an organization or a department, make it a point to encourage people to admit to their mistakes. Then allow everyone on your team to learn. Staff will be more willing to try new things. You’ll do better work, and grow faster.
Smart organizations also know that donors appreciate transparency. So they’re open about mistakes, and also about what the mistake taught them. Donors are our partners – it makes sense to include them this way.
My very recent mistake
When I wrote last week about my experience building an annual giving program, I didn’t touch much on the mistakes I made along the way. I should have. My mistakes might be as instructive as the things I got right.
Given that this was a long time ago, I don’t remember everything I did wrong. (I’m positive I failed – and often.) But here are a couple of things I know I messed up on.
Saying thank you? Call me clueless
This makes me cringe now. In the rush to handle (solo) a new stream of gifts and givers, I did a bad job thanking donors. It was an issue of systems and workload. But it was also simple ignorance. I knew I had to get acknowledgments of some sort out the door. I didn’t understand there was so much more to it than an official requirement. A receipt shoved in an envelope is not a thank you.
In a few years, we added staff and software. And I created systems to make sure thanks were getting out. But our timeliness still suffered. And the messaging continued to be formal. Our program continued to grow – but growth probably hid the consequences of inadequate gratitude.
I wasted time and money on fancy brochures
The other mistake was costly and made with the encouragement of professionals. It was the dreaded annual fund brochure.
Oh, the time and effort we spent every year on that! Badgering a designer for pro bono work. Spending hours and hours coming up with a “theme” or some witty visual pun. Bothering printers for free or reduced price printing.
We spent far too much time on something that was depressing our results. Sure, we usually ended up with a clever piece. It made the designers feel good, it made the board feel good, it made us feel good. And it was a waste of time.
How did I figure this out? Those same print newsletters of Jerry Huntsinger’s that taught me to write for donors. I wish I still had them. (Unfortunately, my successor threw them all out.) But you can find more of Jerry’s smarts on SOFII. Also, see Jeff Brooks for a more recent article on brochures here.
Don’t cringe – share!
First, I have to credit Jim Martin, who inspired this idea. Having the right friends is never a mistake.
And now I want to hear from you. Because confession is good for the soul. But also because there’s someone out there who hasn’t made your mistakes yet. If you share, you’ll be doing someone else a great favor. And we’re helping kind of people, right?
Next week, I’d like to share some of your mistakes. I think it will be educational and fun, too. You can contact me privately, and I swear I’ll never tell it was you. Or if you’d rather, I’ll happily credit you. Your choice. But please share!
Photos by Ryan McGuire