The Known Unknowns (101 Fundraising)

[This article has been published previously on 101fundraising – Crowdblog on Fundraising]

Donald Rumsfeld said, “There are known knowns – These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns – That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know.”

I don’t make a habit of quoting Donald Rumsfeld but that was a phrase that keeps coming to mind over the last few months here in Ireland. You see, fundraisers (or at least some fundraisers) are taking a battering. Two big charity scandals resulted in Board resignations and disappearing CEOs and we’re all feeling the effects in some shape or form.

Public surveys (and yes, I know the problem with public surveys) keep telling us that trust for the sector as a whole has fallen and people are now less inclined to donate. Some charities said their Christmas income was down a whopping 40% because of the scandals. Monthly donors cancelled across the board.

The charities that have fared the best are the ones with a strong base of regular donors and the ones that reacted quickly. Some charities were pro-active with a clear, strong message to distance themselves, while others were ready with excellent responses.

Some – completely uninvolved – just made a mess of it. The media and donors reached out to them for reassurance…and they didn’t give it. And I was left wondering, why were they so unprepared?

A scandal in the sector is a known unknown. You don’t know when it will hit or who will be involved, but as long as humans remain human you know it will happen. So shouldn’t you have a reasonable idea of what you’ll do to protect your fundraising? It depends on the specifics, but are you prepared to update your website, write a FAQ for your staff and volunteers, or pick up the phone to every single person on your database?

In the same way an emergency appeal will prompt you to reach out to your supporters, any sector emergency can give you an opportunity to reach out to your supporters and strengthen that relationship.

There are other known unknowns.

Every January we see a spike in cancellations from regular monthly donors. The whole sector does. Money is tight after Christmas and a percentage of donors decide to make a change.

Usually that’s because donors see monthly giving as a switch: it’s either on or it’s off. They usually don’t consider the other options, like taking a break for a month or reducing their gift amount. They don’t consider these because we don’t offer them.

Shouldn’t you be pre-empting these January spikes by engaging with your donors? By empathising…by treating them like adults…you can find an option that leaves them happier and keeps them giving. I’ve seen organisations reach out to donors and offer them a break in January and it’s resulted in higher income.

Much has been written on the reasons your donors leave you: your content’s not engaging enough, not enough updates, not personal enough, not emotional enough, etc. But you also need to look at the ‘macro’ reasons – I think there are 3 types:

1. Organisational
These are unique to your charity – your own mission will suffer. As a fundraiser, pretty much all of your time is spent ensuring these won’t happen. Just this month we saw the UK’s Trussell Trust handle an attack from the Daily Mail beautifully, with some help from the public.

2. Sectoral
All charities suffer – people lose trust in the sector as a whole or cancel their donation as a knee-jerk reaction. You’re usually talking about a scandal. You’re not involved, but your fundraising is probably going to suffer – or at least change.

3. Universal
Every organisation and business gets hit – we see it every January and we see it when there’s a particularly bad budget announced. When the whole country feels the pinch then we all look at where our money is going and decide who is going to get the chop.

So are you ready for a storm? You don’t need to live your fundraising life in fear, but you should be prepared. Have what you can in place.

Things will always take us by surprise, but the known unknowns…you can do something about them.


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