Category Archives: Fundraising Oops

Nonprofit Email Subject Line Fails

IMG_3340Ping, ping, ping. New messages keep popping up in my email box, many of them from various nonprofits. (Silly me, I can’t resist signing all those petitions; an apparently effective way for nonprofits to capture names and email addresses.)

No way am I going to read all of these.  I’m usually looking for a reason to delete them unopened. No problem! Few of their subject lines offer any real temptation, typically because they’re either too boring or too strident.

At the boredom end, I received one today titled, “Watch this video!” To which I can only answer, “Why should I?” My Facebook friends already offer heaps of videos to watch. (Did you see the one with the cat that . . . never mind.) Anyway, a video is not the novelty it may have once been. (More specifics might have helped. At least tell me whether there’s a cat in it.)

At the stridency end, one organization whose list I remain on only out of a morbid curiosity to see when its desperate, demanding messages will sink it, uses subject lines like, “The Good Donors Have Signed Up. Who Are You?” and “I Am Really Tired of All This Fundraising Every Month” and “Our Worst Day of Fundraising Ever.” (Need I say more?)

Being on a nonprofit’s list means that I see its email messages not in isolation, but as an ongoing indication of its personality. Having a personality can be a good thing for a nonprofit. But I wonder whether they always intend the personality that’s coming across in the incessant drumbeat of email pings?

On a more positive note, here’s my earlier blog on “Best Email Subject Lines From Nonprofits.” And an article on “Nonprofit Fundraising Emails: How to Make Them Profitable.”

Don’t Promise Thank-You Gifts Unless You’re Able to Send Them!

Old books Used books donated to the poor and drive their growthI’ve heard too many stories like these lately: The environmental group that failed to send the promised calendar (and instead barraged the new member with additional requests for donations); the community radio station that sent the wrong book to an elderly recipient (and on top of that, sent her an anti-capitalist tract that she found politically suspect); the organization that had a major layoff and failed to send any of the promised thank-you gifts to anyone at all.

Perhaps that last situation is impossible to predict and avoid, but what’s up with the other ones? Surely no nonprofit on the planet thinks its okay to stiff donors of their promised gifts. More likely such lapses happen due to a breakdown in organization — a task gets delegated to someone with little experience, perhaps, or part of the work is handled by outside consultants and then the organization somehow fails or forgets to resume its in-house responsibilities.

While such lapses are understandable, they’re not excusable if the organization wants to maintain halfway decent donor relations. I don’t have statistics to back this up, but it’s probably safe to say that donors who don’t receive the thank-you gifts they thought they’d signed up for will not soon forget this apparent snub. (Why else would they tell me stories about it?)

It will damage their sense of relationship with the nonprofit, make them doubt its ability to organize matters with regard to its mission, and in the future, dull their interest in hearing about the latest cool thank-you gifts on offer in return for their pledge of $X!

If you realize that your nonprofit has made such mistakes in the past, it’s time for some serious damage control. Send a follow-up card and gift, make a phone call, do whatever it takes to assauge the donor’s sense of breached trust. You may not win that donor back, but you’ll at least reduce the degree to which he or she is tempted to badmouth your organization to others.

On the bright side, — and this isn’t much of one — a donor who doesn’t get a thank-you gift can take the full tax deduction for the donation! (In fact, this is a good reminder that donors should be able to opt out of receiving thank-you gifts — and the nonprofit should make sure to abide by the opt-outs and not send the gift.) Attorney Stephen Fishman explains these issues further in “Tax Deductions for Charitable Giving – The Nonprofit’s Responsibilities.”

Hey, Nonprofit: Are You Talking to Me?

armyI just received an email from a nonprofit with the subject line, “We Need a Tiny Fraction of You to Donate.” Exactly which fraction of me are they after? My pinky? My appendix?

All kidding aside, this awkward construction, using the plural “you,” is all too common among writers at nonprofits and elsewhere. The writers unconsciously picture themselves as addressing a crowd.

They forget that, by the time the email reaches my inbox, it’s just me. I’m expecting a personal touch — a direct appeal for funds based on a supposedly one-to-one relationship between the nonprofit and me.

But with a subject line like the one above, I quickly notice that the nonprofit is not really talking to me at all. It’s talking to a whole bunch of people. In that case, all I have to do is step aside and let the others make the donations, right?

We’re not talking complex grammar here. All anyone has to do to avoid this problem is to look twice at every use of the word “you” in addressing prospective donors. Make it singular, as if talking to just one person.

Then, don’t forget to carry this usage throughout the email or other missive — another common place where writers go wrong, as illustrated by another email that just landed in my inbox. It had such a promising, personal-sounding subject line: “My work with you.”

The writer proceeded to blow it within the first two lines: “Ilona, I’m writing to let each of you know about an important change at [our nonprofit.]” Each of me? Oh dear, I didn’t know my multiple personalities were that obvious.

That Fingerpainting Wasn’t Worth a Penny Over $49,000!

stjohnFrom the tabloids to the blogosphere to MSN to NPR, there’s hardly a news source that doesn’t  find this story irresistable. The elements alone are the stuff of sitcom, even before we get to the action.

Exhibit A is a wealthy Manhattan couple, Michelle and Jon Heinemann, whe are all too easy to poke fun at if only for the fact that they named their children Hudson Cornelius and Hyacinth Cornelia.

Exhibit B is the “posh” (that adjective came from the British press) kindergarten that little Hudson Cornelius attends, the Cathedral School of St. John the Divine, with tuition rates of $39,000 a year.

Exhibit C is a fingerpainting that Michelle, an artist, helped the divine little schoolchildren create for the school’s fundraising auction. She intended to place the winning bid on it herself, for $3,000, and apparently arranged this with the school before she went on vacation.

Now, for the action: The school apparently decided that its power over the absent Michelle’s bidding didn’t stop at $3,000. So when a first-grade teacher named “Ms. Bryant” threw herself into the bidding with great enthusiasm — or, according to the Heinemanns, with a wink and a nod from the school — it countered with proxy bids for the Heinemanns until the bidding topped out at $50,000. (Collective gasp.)

The Heinemanns may not want to spend $50,000 on a fingerpainting, but they may be about to spend that amount on lawyers. They’re suing the school for $415,000, a figure they derived from the costs of placing young master H.C. in another school. You can  read the details about that in the various tabloids. Let’s talk now about why the school’s actions were — if we’re to believe the basic gist of what happened — just plain dumb, and a reminder to every nonprofit not to get into the same type of trouble.

First off, if the school was really told that its bidding-proxy power stopped at $3,000, then failure to honor that is a major breach of trust. And even if that memo got lost somewhere, bidding a fingerpainting up to $50,000 just doesn’t pass the smell test, no matter how wealthy the bidders.

But let’s say it all seemed okay to the school in the heat of the moment, and no one rethought it until what must have been a rather awkward phone conversation with the Heinemanns. (“Uh, good news! You outbid the competition for the fingerpainting!”)

The school had a couple of perfectly viable options here. First, it could have offered the fingerpainting to the second highest bidder (“What, Ms. Bryant? You don’t want the fingerpainting for $49,000 after all?”). Okay, maybe the third-highest bidder. Oh, that was probably the Heinemanns. Come to think of it, the better option would probably have been to ask the Heinemann’s to pay the $3,000 that they thought they’d agreed to. And by the way, making them happy would have increased the chances of higher donations down the line.

The priceless lesson that the school hopefully learned here is that a nonprofit that gets into activities like auctions is acting somewhat like a business — and business customers expect to be treated with great deference, not as the walking checkbooks that nonprofit donors sometimes complain of being treated like. For more useful tips on how to run a fundraising auction, see The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising (Nolo).

“There Was Nothing to Bid on at the Silent Auction!”

This is not what you want to hear someone say about your nonprofit’s silent auction.

But it’s exactly what a friend of mine said recently, upon returning from a fundraising event. She didn’t literally mean, of course, that the silent auction featured rows of empty tables. But for her purposes, it might as well have. There was nothing she wanted. And she’s usually the type to eagerly enter lots of bids, as well as sign up for every raffle that comes her way.

I asked for specifics on what went wrong. They included:

  • “Too many local goods. I don’t live in that city, and don’t want to drive an hour just to redeem a restaurant or haircut gift certificate.”
  • “Too many crafts made by the same person. They were weird little animal sculptures.”
  • “I don’t know, too many things that just seemed a little tacky, or weren’t to my taste.”

It sounds like this nonprofit did some things right, and some things wrong in planning its silent auction.

dollFor instance, there’s nothing wrong with approaching local vendors for donations of auction items, particularly if most of your attendees will come from nearby. The local merchants will often say yes to a donation of goods or a gift certificate, partly because they’ll get advertising and goodwill among their natural clientele. But clearly not everyone attending an event will be a local, so it’s worth making sure to branch out or go to some merchants with a presence in other cities.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with soliciting crafts, most likely from an enthusiastic member. But if they’re not surefire sellers, make sure not to overwhelm the tables with them. People might wonder whether the craftsperson was having trouble selling them, too.

As for the “tacky” comment, it sounds possible that some merchants were also unloading items that weren’t selling anyway. This doesn’t mean you have to turn up your nose at offerings that might, after all, suit someone in your audience — you just need to balance these out with items that will suit a broad range of people.

At a silent auction that I recently attended, one of the items that got the most buzz was a Trader Joe’s gift certificate for $25. The bidding started at $15 and ended at a mere $26. Not exactly a big-ticket item, but that was $26 of pure profit for the nonprofit — and it added something to the table that everyone, male or female, bargain or luxury hunter, found interesting and worth returning to check on. People who come to the table to look at one item are bound to give one more look at the other ones there . . . .

For more information on holding a successful auction, see the articles on the “Nonprofit Fundraising” page of Nolo’s website.

Wanna Hear Insults? Listen to What People Have to Say About Bad Event Emcees

shakespearemedlers-sThe world used to be a lot more creative about issuing negative criticism. Shakespeare, for example, came up with lines like, “He is white-livered and red-faced” (Henry V) and “You are not worth another word, else I’d call you knave” (All’s Well That Ends Well).

Nevertheless, some pretty biting stuff can be found in the realm of audience reactions to a bad emcee at an event. It’s almost visceral – perhaps because one is trapped in a room (or in a TV-land audience), waiting for the real action or to hear from the people you care about, only to have precious time wasted by some joker who should never have been handed the microphone – but is now in total control.

Of Seth MacFarlane as the 2013 Oscars host, for example, New Yorker writer Richard Brody said, “he seemed as if he were doing an ‘S.N.L.’ parody of an Oscar host, delivering lines that resembled Oscar-host gags that exaggerate the worst emcee stereotypes (mainly, regressive, Archie-Bunker-ish attitudes) and faking the outward tone of chipper salesmanship while never conveying authentic joie de shtick.”

Or, from the gaming world, there’s this commentary from Michael McWhertor about Jamie Kennedy’s hosting of the E3 2007 Activision press conference: “Jamie would seemingly not appreciate being reminded that his phoned in, barely comprehensible emceeing gig, in which he was heckled by the crowd and out-joked by at least one video game developer, was actually a trainwreck.”

Or, in case you all missed the Miss North Carolina messageboard, some poor pageant emcee seems to have been univerally reviled, inspiring such audience comments as, “Anyways this guy is a terrible and I mean terrible emcee. He doesn’t understand timing at all. He’s some meathead, football loving, brainless person that needs to be replaced immediately.”  To which someone added, “The main thing I see is that he isn’t prepared. Did he get the script yesterday? When you have to read a question like ‘What’s the typical day of a Miss NC’ to Arlie from a notecard, you have a problem . . . .”

So, whether it’s the Oscars or the Miss North Carolina pageant, finding a good event emcee can clearly be difficult. Meanwhile, countless nonprofits are trying to do just that, for their next fundraising event. To help you avoid the slings and arrows of a disgruntled crowd, we offer the following new article on Nolo’s website: “Choosing an Emcee for a Fundraising Event: Do’s and Don’ts.”

After the Event Is Over: Where’s the Follow-Through?

3a47103rDo you know when the real work of a big event begins? Not the day of the gala, but afterwards.

Nonprofit organizations often put  much energy into an elegant gala, an annual dinner, a silent auction, or some other special event. The event itself may be a roaring success (or maybe not). But then, as Bay Area fundraising consultant Lela DaVia describes it, “the captive audience attending the event is often forgotten in the aftermath of  staff and volunteers recovering from the hard work. If there’s no follow-through, you may have lost a golden opportunity to cultivate current donors and engage new ones who attended.”

A profitable event can, with the correct follow-through, maximize its fundraising potential by fostering new and ongoing donor involvement.  This was a key theme in DaVia’s January, 2013 workshop at the Foundation Center in San Francisco, entitled “A NONPROFIT’S NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: IMPROVE DONOR RELATIONS.”

What exactly does effective follow-through involve? In the case of one organization with which DaVia worked, it meant that “after the event, every person in the room was entered into the organization’s database; the guests were segmented into categories; and then they were personally contacted by someone from the organization (ideally a Board member or key volunteer), asking how they learned about the group and inviting participation, for example in the next year’s event-planning efforts.” Sending a follow-up letter or e-mail is another option for communication.

Of course, the organization that holds the event may not have a complete guest list on hand — after all, if a corporation buys a table and invites various employees and their family members to attend, even the ticket-buyer may not know until the last minute who will actually show up. But your group can capture such names by unobtrusive means, such as putting out a guest book, offering a door prize, or holding a contest (in which attendees are quizzed on facts about your organization). You can do all of these to cover all bases.

If this sounds like common sense or something you’ve heard before, remember that it’s still not the way things typically happen. In fact, lack of follow-through was a prime concern expressed by members of DaVia’s workshop audience. In many cases,  despite coming from established nonprofits, and their interest in attending the workshop indicating their organizations’ commitment to professional development, many cited lack of follow-through as a major impediment to their group’s fundraising success. Sometimes the ball got dropped even before the event was over, as in: “We have house parties, but no one is willing to make a clear ask for money.”

Follow-through issues can be compounded when a group brings in a consultant to serve as events planner. The very person who was devoting the most energy to assuring the event’s success must pick up and leave when it’s over, along with a good deal of institutional memory. No matter how great a job the event planner did at creating notebooks or files describing what happened before and during the event and what needs to happen after, the key is  actually reviewing those notebooks to take the next steps. A good new year’s resolution to cultivate those donors from minor to major!

BIG Fundraising Oops: The Susan B. Komen Debacle

For a foundation that seemed to have so much marketing savvy, the Susan B. Komen foundation can be awfully tone deaf — and send a message that it’s more interested in raising cash than in spending it charitably.

Their current colossal oops, having stopped funding Planned Parenthood despite that agency’s importance in providing mammograms to low-income women, is only the latest example. As I described in January of last year, the Komen Foundation alienated plenty of nonprofit watchers with its hypervigilant efforts to protect its brand: See “Fundraising Oops: The Susan B. Komen Foundation Uses Donor Dollars to Sue Smaller Groups.” (I was going to illustrate this post with something pink, but decided not to take the risk. Did I say “pink?” I meant “that color that is a mix of red and white.”)

And then there was the foundation’s odd choice in 2010 to put its branding on buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Given that junk food and grilled food have been linked to cancer, this inspired plenty of commentary, and one “What the Cluck?” headline by the group Think Before You Pink (“a project of Breast Cancer Action, launched in 2002 in response to the growing concern about the number of pink ribbon products on the market.”)

Clearly there are people who were already shying away from pink products, not to mention supporting anything else but the Komen foundation, before the latest misstep. But at this point — based on all the media attention, not to mention the fact that my Facebook friends seem to be talking of nothing else — I’d say we may start seeing some pink products on the remainder tables. And an increase in donations to Planned Parenthood.

For an excellent summary of the current pink meltdown, analyzed in terms of nonprofit marketing best practices, see Kivi Leroux Miller’s “The Accidental Rebranding of Komen for the Cure.”

What Part of “Inspire, Don’t Guilt” Don’t They Understand?

Today I received a fundraising email with the subject line “Bad Start to December Fundraiser.” I didn’t open it. (Would you?) It’s from an organization that I won’t name, but which I’ve come to think of as the perpetual purveyors of doom and gloom in my inbox.

With all the access to fundraising wisdom out there, explaining the need to make donors want to join your winning cause, rather than getting them worried about throwing good money after bad, shouldn’t they know better? Only a couple of weeks ago, Nancy Schwartz wrote a fine blog about how to write good email subject lines — and among her tips was “Inspire, don’t guilt” people. (I talked about her post in my November 2 blog entry.)

But maybe this strategy is actually working for this group . . . . nah, probably not. I get too many emails from them telling me how badly their fundraisers are going. Time for a change in strategy.


Fundraising Oops: Thank-You Letter With Backwards Tax Info

A nonprofit thank you letter for a donation serves two purposes: It furthers the dialogue between the organization and the donor (hopefully making the donor feel good about the great uses to which the gift will be put), and it gives the donor something to tuck away in those tax files, to be brought out next April 14th. (Oh, do other people start their taxes earlier than that?)

So I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I recently received a thank you letter for a $50 donation that I’d made, where the last line read, “Estimated value of benefits received in consideration of this donation is $47. The portion of the contribution exceeding the fair market value of  benefits received is tax deductible as allowed by law.”

What’s so laughable/cryable about that? Hold on, you need a little more information: The “benefit” that I received for my $50 was a canvas tote bag, pretty clearly hand silk-screened. And there are two very large problems with that:

  • There’s no way the FMV of the tote bag is $47.  And if it was, I wish they had not bothered to send me such a gift, because that would leave me with a mere $3 tax deduction. More likely they got it backwards — they’re estimating the FMV of the tote bag at $3, which should have been the amount stated in the first sentence.
  • I suspect that the tote bag is of “token” value — that is, an item that bears the organization’s logo (which it did), cost it no more than $9.50 to produce (which it must have), and was given in return for a donation of $48.50 or above. A nonprofit doesn’t even need to mention the fair market value of token items in its thank you letters.

For more information on requirements for a thank-you letter, and related tax issues, see The Volunteer’s Guide to Fundraising.