Despite prayers for an easy solution from board members worldwide, this perennial favorite doesn’t raise money, studies find
“We need to raise awareness!” demands the board chair.
“If only we had more visibility in our community,” laments the ED, “our fundraising problems would be over.”
Chasing “increased visibility” is a well-meant remedy. Boards and bosses love the idea. It seems like such an obvious, reasonable and easy solution. “If our little charity were better known, we’d be rolling in dough.”
Well, maybe that happens if you’re a global celebrity like Mother Teresa. Or Oprah features you on her show. Or you’re the beneficiary of some viral gimmick, as the ALS Association was in 2014 with the Ice Bucket Challenge. Or you’re willing to spend $2 million for a Hollywood-quality ad and splash it over everything from TV to streetcar wraps, as the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto did in 2016, to launch a $1.3 billion capital campaign.
But that’s not you, is it?
Let’s say you get a little jolt of local visibility. Let’s say a local newspaper … or an online local news service … or the big local talk-radio personality notices your organization’s work for one news cycle.
What happens next?
Maybe two people contact you. If the talk-show person included a strong call to action, maybe ten people contact you. Maybe nobody contacts you. Likely nobody contacts you.
Chasing “awareness” is a waste of time, experts say
Up first: Jeff Brooks, from his blog, Future Fundraising Now.
“Some ‘marketing experts’ would have you believe fundraising is a two-step process: First you must make prospective donors ‘aware’ of your organization, then you can ask them to give.”
Jeff is senior creative director at one of America’s most successful direct mail fundraising firms.
“Two-step fundraising is a colossal waste of money. You basically double your cost and get nothing in return. The truth is, if you have limited resources, there’s almost no way you can justify spending them on awareness campaigns. For the awareness campaign to be worthwhile, it would have to improve fundraising by 67%. If you’ve been in fundraising for more than a couple of years, you know how unlikely that is. The reality is that most awareness campaigns make no measurable difference for fundraising campaigns.”
Up second: Tobin Aldrich, who, among other achievements, led World Wildlife Fund UK to new fundraising heights.
He wrote in his blog, “…one of those counter-intuitive things about fundraising is that people don’t actually have to have heard about your charity before [they’ll] respond to a fundraising ask. I’ve lost count of the times I’m been told by smart, senior people with a marketing background in some famous company that the first thing <insert name of non-profit here> must do is get our name out or raise awareness of the cause. Only then should we start asking for money. So let’s start with a big awareness raising campaign (hey, maybe we could get an ad agency to do it for free!)
“Sorry but that’s bollocks basically. The first thing any non-profit should do is fundraise. When you fundraise you tell people about your cause, you make them care about it and they give you money as a result. And do you know what, you raise money and awareness too. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Up last: Ireland’s Ask Direct founder, Damian O’Broin. He ran a real-world test.
Results? If your charity spent £500,000 on competent direct mail fundraising, you brought in 4,000 gifts. If your charity put £200,000 into awareness with the other £300,000 put into direct mail fundraising, you brought in 3,000 gifts: 25% fewer. Why would anyone do that?
In sum: “Raising awareness” is a loser’s priority.
“Raising awareness” is a passive, wait-and-see, hope-and-pray approach to fundraising. Non-specialists love it. Lazy people love it. Board members who want to be helpful love it. Board members who want to put off their fundraising duties as long as possible love it.
REAL fundraising is proactive: “Let’s get to work, people! Get out there and ask!”
PS: Of course, there are exceptions. RARE exceptions. Every once in awhile, somebody gets it right — they successfully place a bunch of stories, bringing a problem to the community’s attention through the media, and donations roll in. It happens, but it’s not dependable. Raising awareness is not an activity of first resort in fundraising; it’s a supporting activity at best. I wrote this article to kill the high spirits of those who hope that raising money has any easy solution.