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Ten commandments of successful fundraising

24 April 2020

After being involved in large fund-raising ventures during his ministry, Michael Higgins offers ten commandments for fund-raisers


IF YOUR church is due to start work on a fund-raising appeal for fabric repairs, or the organ, or the church hall, it is worth knowing that, in most appeals, roughly 80 per cent of the total raised comes from about five per cent of donors — which is also true of most stewardship giving.

While the widow’s sacrificial mite will always have a significant place in any campaign, you will want to invest significant time and energy into attracting substantial gifts from some prosperous donors.

In my position as priest over the years, and as development director of East Anglian Air Ambulance for six years, I came to realise that many of the simple rules of daily life applied equally to fund-raising — and it was also clear that I often broke them.

Nevertheless, these ten com­mand­ments on how to handle donors may be of interest to you.


Always meet

A FACE-TO-FACE meeting with any potential major donor is essen­tial, just as it is with wanting sig­nificant help over anything else in life. Approaches for funds by letter, phone call, or email are a waste of time: most written material will land swiftly in the bin or the delete box. But arranging even a short meeting with a busy person will often call for ingenuity of a high order. For ex­­ample, the ground may have to be laid through the PA or “doorkeeper” of the target person, or using a third party’s good offices.

All of this takes patience and time. A good route can be to invite the potential donor to a small function unconnected with fund-raising: per­haps to meet a person prominent in public life, or the arts, or the local community. Initial social contact can then be made, paving the way for a later approach for a meeting.


Always be personal

IT IS essential that, once a visit has been set up, this is made by a person who is likely to be on the potential donor’s wavelength, able to establish empathy with him or her and achieve respect. At the same time, the more personal the approach, the more it is likely to bear fruit. Re­­search into the company or in­­stitution that a potential donor leads, or into his or her interests and per­sonal history, will pay dividends during a one-to-one meeting. Any written correspondence, other than emails, should be “topped and tailed” by hand, and made as per­sonal as possible.


Always involve

WE ALWAYS react more positively to situations in which we are in some way involved. Often with a possible donor there is some involvement through residence or church mem­ber­ship, but sometimes motivation and involvement will need to be built.

A personally conducted tour of a proposed building site with the architect, a guided tour of a decaying aisle, a lecture or the demonstration of a failing organ — if conducted with sensitivity — will draw a listener into identifying with the need and becoming further involved. During my time with the Air Ambulance charity, I never ceased to wonder at how watching an air ambulance land at a fund-raising event never failed to open donors’ pockets.


Always thank

YOU would imagine that thanking donors would be high on any fund-raiser’s agenda. But it is not always so. There are parishes where regular donors are taken for granted, or, if they do receive thanks, it is only sporadic.

Gratitude never fails to be apprec­iated, and one of the main com­mandments in any fund-raiser’s book is to say thank you, and then say it again. I have been on the receiving end of an angry letter from a donor who has not been thanked — and it hurts. Conversely, a small donor who receives a warm word of appreciation can turn into a larger donor, or one who, at the very least, will give again.


Always attend to detail

IN FUND-RAISING, the devil is in the detail — as it is in most walks of life. A smooth, enjoyable, and well-organised function, with well-presented material, can impress and release funds; one that goes wrong can empty coffers. I can recall an embarrassing occasion when the P/A system failed to arrive at a function for several hundred guests; the time a party was over-booked and guests had to be disappointed; or when there were no copies of a promo­tional brochure available. All could have been avoided by more detailed preparation — to say nothing of under-heated reception rooms, poor catering, or inadequately prepared speakers. . .


Always talk success

IN FUND-RAISING, as in life, success breeds success. No one want to donate to a failing cause. It is vital to project success and to minimise any disappointments. “Giving to date has been poor, and unless it picks up in the near future there will be serious problems ahead” are words that should never be ut­­tered.

I recall working with a chairman who, at an appeal’s monthly progress meetings always found something to praise, even if it had been an unproductive month. He was con­sistently uplifting and encouraging, ensuring that the troops went back to the trenches invigorated, while donors were inspired to give.


Always deliver

IT IS all too easy to say: “I will telephone next week,” or “The brochure will be with you by Wed­nesday,” or “I will visit and report progress very soon,” and then to fail to deliver.

In the whirl of busy fund-raising, it is all too easy to throw out prom­ises. Prospective donors will be alienated if such promises are not kept, while a record of stable reli­ability generates trust, often followed by generosity.


Always be courteous and polite

THIS is a sensible rule in life, but it is hard to keep when, for example, a potential donor — on whom you have possibly lavished time and energy — comes up with nothing except complaints about the stan­dard of service at an event at which he or she was a guest.

Unhelpful letters can also some­times call for a biting of the tongue. I recall a missive after a fund-raising event which accused me of inviting only prosperous guests to the occa­sion, while ignoring the eco­nom­ically deprived who would have enjoyed such a gathering. Acknow­ledging all corre­spondence is a basic “must”, and these days that includes emails. In the case of the latter, it is a rule that is easy to forget, and prospective donors are not im­­pressed.


Always say sorry

IN LIFE, nothing is more annoying than people who try to cover up their mistakes with a cloud of verbiage in place of using that little word. Experience has shown that it pays to be honest when you have made a mistake. A donor once com­­plained bitterly to me about re­­­ceiving an unstamped letter, and having to pay the postage: not, you might think, the start of a beautiful relationship. But I replied with a generous postage refund — and a handsome apology — and received a large, and unexpected, cheque by return of post.

In contrast, I have a personal standing order with a well-known charity. When this went pear-shaped recently, owing to a blunder in their office, I was sent a long letter de­­­tailing technical errors and com­­­puter failure. But that little word was nowhere to be seen, and it strained my loyalty to the charity.


Always be patient

DONORS often take a long time to write cheques, or replies to letters, or to sign standing orders. Early re­­­minders can be counter-productive: it is pointless trying to remind a tycoon in the middle of a takeover bid, and it is worth waiting until another donor has completed the sale of a property before admin­istering a “nudge” — although, in the latter case, if you wait too long, he or she may have given some of the proceeds to another charity. Timing a reminder is a skilled art.


The Very Revd Dr Michael Higgins is a former Dean of Ely.


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