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When Fundraising Goes Wrong, Really Wrong

By Nell Edgington

When I went to get my mail today, I was reminded how some nonprofit organizations simply refuse to change, despite how ineffective their status quo is. In today’s mail was one of four fundraising appeals per year that I receive from a national nonprofit. A nonprofit, I might add, that I haven’t given to in 11 years. I won’t mention the nonprofit’s name because they are a great organization doing important work. I don’t fault their mission or their execution, but I do take issue with their inability to effectively analyze their fundraising activities.

Nonprofits no longer have the luxury of doing what they have always done, simply because they have always done it. Now more than ever, nonprofits need to take a step back and determine when they should invest limited resources in an activity and when they should not.

I made a $50 donation to the local chapter of a national nonprofit when I lived in Washington DC in 1998. A few weeks after my initial donation I started receiving a new appeal from them every two weeks. I found it a bit annoying, but still believed in the organization. So the next  year I made another donation. When the appeals continued to come several times a month, month after month, I became increasingly frustrated. I decided the following year that my money was better spent on an organization that used their resources more effectively. However, this nonprofit wasn’t willing to let me go.

For the next two years I continued to receive the same number of appeals, but they stepped up the barrage by including small gifts as an incentive for me to donate. They would sometimes include 4-color brochures about additional gifts I would receive if I gave at certain levels. Aside from the fact that “buying” my donation was completely distasteful to me, I was appalled that they were spending so much money trying to get a small donation from me.

Three years after my last donation to this nonprofit they slowed their appeals, but I was still receiving at least 4 letters per year. To this day, and after 3 moves and 2 new cities, that rate of appeals continues, often with expensive brochures and token gifts included. Today I received the second quarter appeal for 2011 from them. It is appalling to me that they have wasted so much time, energy and resources on me when I clearly demonstrated, 11 years ago, that I was no longer interested.

The sad part is not that they spent all of my donation and more on trying to get more money out of me, as opposed to working toward their mission or building their organization. The truly sad part is that I could have easily become a lifelong donor, perhaps even a major one. To this day I still believe in and admire the work they do. But the fact that they can’t figure out how to raise money effectively completely turns me off. And I don’t think they even realize what they are doing to their donor base. They have demonstrated no interest in getting to know me as a donor or recognizing when I clearly tell them how to treat me.

The nonprofits that are going to attract and retain donors who provide the long-term financial sustainability necessary for achieving real social impact are those that are:

  • Constantly evaluating the ROI on their revenue-generating activities and abandoning low return activities
  • Getting to know their donors and communicating and interacting with them in a way that meets the donors needs and interests
  • Connecting their revenue-generating activities to their mission, not to gimmicks and gifts
  • Expanding into new distribution channels (social media, e-marketing, friend-raisers) instead of relying on what they have always done to acquire donors
  • Continually improving, constantly pushing themselves to get better, more effective and more efficient

I doubt that my nonprofit stalker has found long-term financial sustainability and really, it’s little wonder why.

Photo Credit: BJ Carter

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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2 Comments to When Fundraising Goes Wrong, Really Wrong

May 18, 2011

There’s a compelling article about this in a recent edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. They cite studies – I believe conducted by Penelope Burke – that find that donors are more turned off by repeat solicitations. Not a surprise to those of us who have been subject to this. I’m amazed that in this time, with electronic media and an emphasis on knowing donors, and eliminating waste, huge nonprofits continue this kind of ineffective mail campaign!

Nell Edgington
May 19, 2011

Jennifer, I completely agree with you. The revolution in technology offers nonprofits so many more effective and cheaper ways to connect with donors, it is shocking that nonprofits like my stalker nonprofit haven’t embraced the opportunity.

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