Sinking Ships: 6 Do’s, and One Big Don’t, for Fundraising

Ever been on a sinking ship? I have. Literally.

But not for long. Because the minute I figured out it was going down, I bailed. That’s what you DO when the boat’s in trouble… you get yourself elsewhere. Quickly.

Which is why “sinking ship fundraising” doesn’t work.

no, this is not the boat I jumped off of. but yikes.

If you’ve ever been connected with an institution for any amount of time—a church, school, non-profit, or civic body—you’ve gotten “the pitch.” Maybe it was an email, a paper letter, a phone call, or an appeal at a large gathering.  Involving white tablecloths and bad hotel food. At the end of it, someone compelled you to give lots of money. With the not very inspiring directive that “if you don’t, we will die.”

But first, before the plea, there is the funeral dirge… Pick your own tune here. Is it: a) a grim financial report; b) a pie chart with alarming expanses of red; c) a long and tedious history of the organization’s ‘glory years,’ or d) some combination of all of the above? Doesn’t matter. By the time you reach dessert (or the end of the phone call) you are almost ready to write a check for any amount of money—anything at all!—just to have it be, for the love of all the things, OVER with.

I get it.  Most non-profits, especially faith-based ones, are struggling these days. There are more of them, with a dwindling pool of donors; expenses are up and disposable income is down; and of course,  institutional loyalty is taking a nosedive among Gen Xers and –yep, them again—Millennials.

I’ve been on both sides of the boat, so to speak… I’ve been on the asking end, trying to save a church that was going to die if we didn’t get a bail out; and more recently—several times in just the past week in fact—I’ve been on the receiving end of that request. And in every case, my internal response has been the same: if this ship is going down, I want OFF. I do not want to be further invested.

If you love a place—school, church or otherwise—you want it to thrive. But if the invitation to give amounts to, “give us more so we can keep doing the same things poorly and come back to you for another gift next year…” then I’m not buying. Or rather, I’m not giving. And neither is anyone else.

I’m not the first to say this, nor will I be the last: in a world that changes quickly, the most viable organizations are the flexible ones. The creative, the innovative, the fearless-of-change. Gloomy prophecy about the future does not reflect any of these qualities.  If your organization really is on the verge of a meltdown, here are a few good practices to guide your fundraising efforts. This will not only make your appeal more appealing… it will hold you accountable for future changes in direction. Hopefully avoiding icebergs.

1. Begin with inspiring narrative. Even a struggling organization can find one success story to draw out for the photo opp.

2. Share real people outcomes. Don’t just tell the story. Have people present, and hopefully speaking, whose lives have been transformed by your mission.

3. Somewhere in here, you SHOULD be honest about the struggles you face. Budget cuts, competition, environmental or community factors. Whatever. It’s not that you can’t share the bad news. But the challenges should be tempered with proposed measures for sustainability. “Here’s how the world has changed to make our work more difficult; here’s how we’re going to use your gifts well to make sure we’re equipped to handle the shifting climate. Etc.

4. Employ trustworthy leaders. This is fundraising 101, but you’ve got to have people up front who are engaging, who display integrity, and who are vocal about good stewardship practices. Along those same lines, you also want.

5. Institutional transparency. Big time. If folks are going to trust an institution with their money, they want involvement in decision making, and/or, at the very least, documented accountability at every level of operations.

6. Ultimately, any fundraising effort—whether your cause is flailing or thriving—should reflect the organization’s ability to adapt. Because it is a jungle out there, and everybody knows it. Be prepared to tell how your cause/organization is preparing for an uncertain future.

For what it’s worth, I learned all this at the helm of a dying church. Yes, there were people who floated the institution–literally–for years. But their generosity wasn’t really sustaining ministry. They were just keeping the lights on. Real life and growth didn’t happen until we learned to tell a better story… And it wasn’t that the better ‘ask’ improved our financial situation. It was more that the practice of asking better questions led us to a healthier model, and a more life-giving mission.

I’m not the first person to point any of this out. But having been asked to do my share of bailing lately, it makes me mindful that the desperate “all hands on deck/we’re going down” plea is not just ineffective. It’s a sure sign that an organization is not yet ready to reinvent; not yet ready to let go of that which is weighing it down… And ultimately, not prepared to be good stewards of the gifts people share in faith– believing that ultimately, there is life at the end of this ride.

We don’t want to keep bailing water out of the leaky vessel. We want to find a better way to get there, next time. And the time after that.

*I KNOW that “do’s” is not a word, nor is it proper use of an apostrophe. But for the headline, sometimes you’ve got to give the people what they want. May the Oxford English Dictionary have mercy on my soul. Leave me alone. Grammar Girl says it’s ok.

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