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It Only Starts with a Coffee Mug

It Only Starts with a Coffee Mug

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October 2018

As anyone in public affairs can tell you — PAC managers, especially — raising money is a constant challenge. In The War for Fundraising Talent: And How Small Shops Can Win, Jason Lewis, the founder of Lewis Fundraising, provides a forthright, sometimes troubling look at the capital-development realities any nonprofit must face to succeed.

The case of Olive Cooke represents, you seem to think, a profound development in the world of fundraising. Who was Olive Cooke, and why is her situation revealing?

Olive Cooke was a retired postal worker in England living on a small pension. Every single month, she was receiving 267 charitable appeals in her mailbox, more than 3,000 a year. She had made a few trivial contributions to charities, like 10 pounds a year. But then her address got sold to other organizations, and about six months later, in 2014, this unfortunate woman committed suicide. The British press immediately came to the conclusion that she had been hounded to death by fundraisers, which turned into this indictment of nonprofits generally, not just in the UK but in Europe as well. Olive Cooke’s family later said she suffered from depression. But there actually might be a connection between the charitable appeals and her depression.

How so?

Psychologists tell us that we derive meaning from charitable giving. They say it helps us integrate ourselves as individuals and helps us figure out how we fit into the larger world we live in. Some of these psychologists say addiction itself is a seeking after community and meaning in our lives. The opposition of addiction, they argue, is connection. And if this is the case, then this woman’s charitable giving, small as it was, might be seen as her seeking after that sense of community and meaning. She was preyed on in the sense that the expectations and hopes she had weren’t being met. If she was giving money to these organizations in the belief that she would establish this bond, it wasn’t happening. When that happens with a genuine addict, they turn to a poor substitute — to drugs or alcohol, typically. It could well be that giving to these charities became in itself a form of addictive behavior.

And I think there is an important lesson in all this, or should be, for all nonprofits in the fundraising aspects of their work.

When people contribute to an organization or cause, they expect some kind of relationship. And I’m not sure all of them quite realize this yet. It’s one of the ways nonprofits haven’t quite kept pace with what’s been going on in the world.

Can you offer an example?

Let me explain it this way. Fundraising talent is in great demand these days. That’s apparent in salaries that capital-development people in education and health care can command. Managers of major gifts even for feeder Ivy League prep schools can make $250,000 a year. In the mid-Atlantic region, managers of major gifts for hospitals can make $500,000 a year. You see this not only in education and health care but in religion as well. A major role of the clergy these days is capital-development and fundraising. And in large part the emphasis on fundraising, and the competition for fundraising talent, is a form of overcompensation. It reflects the extent to which we’ve not given enough attention to fundraising. Organizations are trying to catch up.

Can you explain?

Sure. Let’s take churches as an example. Typically, the minister might give a stewardship sermon once a year, and that’s about the extent of it. Churches for understandable reasons just haven’t been very good at this aspect of their work. People don’t like to ask for money, and churches don’t like to talk about money. Also, people don’t like to be asked for money. So the guard is up — both for the person making the request and the person being asked for money. People are fearful of rejection. So they just haven’t given this area of their work the attention it deserves. They haven’t taken it seriously, and they need to. So too many organizations realize they are deficient, and they think the answer is to hire a rock-star fundraiser — someone who can take rich people to lunch and ask for big checks.

So why is that wrong?

Here’s one way it is wrong. Nonprofits have come to rely so heavily on big checks from mega-donors that they haven’t taken full advantage of the many contributors who can also give substantial amounts of money. People know, for example, that Bill Gates gives a lot of money. So they all chase Bill Gates, not realizing he has a lot of neighbors. Studies show how the reliance on big donors has increased, while the reliance on smaller donors has decreased. But these studies also show that people aren’t giving nearly enough attention to the donors in the middle — ones who haven’t been asked to give at a meaningful level. And by meaningful — let’s think back to Olive Cooke — I mean meaningful to the organization but to the donor, too. And technology has actually made all this a lot worse.

In what way?

Technology has made it possible to raise money online, electronically. That’s well-known. But it also means that we’ve gotten really good at capturing that trivial first-time gift but not the meaningful gifts that are based on real relationships. You can outsource a lot of that work, automate it and maybe pay only one person to handle it all. But better outcomes rely on the next gift — the second one — and the enduring relationship. This can’t be done electronically. It needs that person-to-person connection.

A lot of our readers are PAC managers. What advice do you have for them?

I think they should look at what hospitals and higher education have done in these areas. They’ve figured out a lot of this stuff in ways too many nonprofits haven’t. The people who do this best know that the golf tournament they host is only the beginning. It is followed up by the personal visit where the participant is asked for a meaningful contribution to the cause. On a smaller scale, yes, it is important to give a coffee mug or a pin to say thank you for making a donation or joining the PAC. But it’s not sufficient. A pizza lunch with a speaker is a good start, but it is only a start. You won’t want to measure your success the way the mass market too often does, where it is defined by volume and efficiency — by how quickly and economically you can raise money from large groups of people. That’s not the indicator of success.

What is a good measure?

Think of it this way. What’s important over time is the relationship. So even the gesture of a phone call to a donor is important because it is the beginning of the relationship, where the guard that was up is now down for both of you. And you need to create opportunities for this lowering of the guard to happen. If you are not making it possible for the donor to give at a level that is meaningful to them, you’re missing out. And you need to understand that the deeper the relationship is, this gets easier, not harder. Even a coffee mug as an expression of gratitude is important. It lowers the donor’s guard and is a door opener.

Reach Lewis at 443.722.4272 or [email protected].

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Additional Resources

How Philanthropic Giving Can Solve Social Ills

The Advocacy Conference