If Only Everyone Would Donate $10 We Can Meet Our Fundraising Goal … NOT

We have a $1000 goal. If only everyone would give $10 we can meet this goal!” I call this fantasy fundraising. Anyone one who has been involved in fundraising has heard this strategy voiced. You may have felt it at one time or another. It’s natural. If everyone contributes it would be much easier to raise the funds needed. But alas this is faulty thinking and not based in reality. It’s fantasy fundraising.

This view is worth unpacking as a means of understanding the nature of human choice and values in economic behavior especially as it relates to the nonprofit fundraising. Using math as a guiding principle one can say if a nonprofit business  had a goal of raising $100 and could get 100 donors to each give one dollar it would meet this goal. However what happens when one of the 100 potential donors does not give? When this happens the remaining donors have to make up the difference. Thus one non-donor changes the allocation needed from the remaining 99 donors to reach the goal. With each non-donor the donor apportionment increases. The unstated fact in this fundraising strategy is revealed by the “If only” modifier in the phrase “If only everyone would donate…”. This modifier points to elements which effect our economic behavior and reveals the faulty thinking with this strategy.

There are at least two elements that effect and drive our economic behavior. One  external  and the other internal. Externally, our economic behavior operates in the context of a free market system. An underlying an important principle of this free market system is that individuals can acquire and expend their capital or money according to personal choice (with of course certain legal and social limitations).  Adding to this freedom of choice is an internal element: the values which drive our acquisitions and expenditures. Most of our capital accumulation and expenditures are guided by what we consider important. These choices are limited only by  social and psychological conditions which may restrict the degree to which we are able to pursue our choices and values. For example, while we have a basic need for food, clothing and shelter the amount of capital or money we expend for each of these is determined not only by the amount of money we have but also by our values. Some will spend $15 for a hamburger while others will think it frivolous or ridiculous to pay for something you can get for 99 cents at McDonalds. Others are willing to pay $289 for a pair of dress pants. Others no more than $20. Do you shop for clothes at Brooks Brothers or TJ Max? Either way you get the point. This freedom and diversity of values means that we are all driven by economic equations which are not necessarily the same.

Fantasy fundraising assumes that everyone similarly values a specific nonprofit goal or mission. It is faulty thinking. This assumption does not match reality. Those who espouse this view are in fact projecting onto others their values. A strategy expecting others to give equally to the same charitable purpose violates the fundamental nature of our economic behavior. Such thinking assumes that others value the same economic/social end as you do. It further restricts their personal power of economic choice. Few like to be told what to do especially with their money.

Furthermore, a strategy to ask everyone to give at the same level doesn’t merely limit the idea and feeling of personal power. It also limits the potential amount which can be raised. Why? Because amongst the 100 you are asking to donate one dollar there exists not merely some who do not value the end for which you are asking them to donate. There also exists among these potential donors some who value the need to be met and have the capacity to give not one dollar but much more. Thus fantasy fundraising strategy fails on all fronts. You receive nothing from those who will not or cannot give no matter what your purpose and you receive far less from those who can give more! Bad thinking, bad strategy, bad results.

A better strategy is to match the values related to a organizational need with the values and capacity to give amongst your donors or potential donors. In so doing  you honor a donor’s economic freedom by inviting them to donate according to their values and capacity. By employing this strategy those who can give will give at their highest personal return and those who cannot will be able to say no without feeling unduly pressured to make a donation contrary to their capacity or values. You don’t lose them as supporters but merely as current donors. It’s a win-win strategy. Most importantly a need will be met through the creative value-driven exchange which is a defining aspect of the nonprofit enterprise. Reality not phantasy needs  to guide fundraising strategy.

JRR