Important Fundraising Lessons I Learned From Rocket Science

June 28, 2019

Curing diseases. Ending starvation. Protecting our environment. Charities are taking on some of the biggest challenges of today’s world. As fundraisers, we’re responsible for generating revenues that fuel our organizations’ efforts in achieving these goals.

At times, it can appear daunting.

When that happens, I like to think back to December 21, 2015. Why? Well, on that day, a private sector company showed all of us how to tackle big, scary goals. I’m talking about this:

In the video, people can see the first time the SpaceX successfully lands a booster rocket after it had been used to launch its payload into space. Wait, don’t roll your eyes yet! At first glance, there appears to be little in common between our work as fundraisers and the aerospace industry. But take a peek beneath the hood of this achievement, and you’ll see some valuable lessons we can all apply.

Compared to literal rocket science, fundraising can seem a bit lacking in excitement. But while we don’t launch massive investments into the sky using carefully controlled explosions, there are a few ways we can all use SpaceX’s story in furthering our organization’s achievements. Below are the four most important takeaways I have from this story, which I use daily to shape my fundraising work.

1.  Clearly Know Your Goal

SpaceX’s goal isn’t to create rockets (or an orbital booster, in this case) that can safely land and be reused. It’s to establish a human colony on Mars. Everything they do supports that. In the next section, you’ll see how that goal leads directly to the rocket landing video above.

But the very first takeaway is the clarity with which the whole company operates. Each employee’s action taken is in alignment with the goal of establishing the colony on Mars. That’s it. Everything supports that singular focus.

Now think about your organization. What is your organization’s singular goal, it’s raison d’etre? This may be written out formally as your organization’s Mission.

Think for a moment: if someone was to ask you for this goal, would you be able to easily say it to them? Would you be able to distill the single most important thing your organization is trying to achieve into a single sentence?

If you can, awesome! You’re on your way to realizing that impactful change. If not, this is where your road starts. Only once this goal is clearly stated and internalized can you begin to craft a plan to get there, along with a fundraising plan to finance it. But if this part isn’t crystal clear, everything else will be just as murky.

2. Identify your obstacles

With your goal clearly in mind, the next step is to map out the obstacles you’re facing. After all, if there were no obstacles, this change would have been realized long ago and your organization’s singular goal wouldn’t exist!

Let’s look back at the rocket landing video to understand this. Why is a company with a singular goal of creating a Martian colony repeatedly trying to land an orbital booster? The answer is to overcome one of its (many) obstacles in achieving its singular goal.

There are too many obstacles to list in achieving SpaceX’s goals, so let’s focus on that day in December 2015. Why was landing that rocket so important?

Without getting too deep into the weeds of the aerospace industry, an obstacle identified by the team was the high cost of launching space missions. The per-passenger cost of spaceflight was simply too high to ever enable enough people to travel to Mars. No people, no colony. In order to achieve their singular goal, the cost of sending a single person to Mars would have to come down significantly.

Now let’s come back to your organization’s goal – what obstacles are standing in your way of achieving them? It’s helpful at this stage to be as specific as possible when defining the obstacle.

For instance, stating that the obstacle is ‘lack of funds to support our mission’ is vague and doesn’t provide a clear path forward. But an obstacle of ‘variance in annual fundraising revenues makes planning activities challenging’ are more effective. They point us in the right direction of how to solve the obstacle and make achieving our goal feasible.

3.  Establish your goal’s viability

With our goal firmly affixed in our mind and the obstacles in achieving the goal known, the next step is to overcome the obstacles and achieve our goal. This is started by hypothesizing potential solutions to the challenges presented by your obstacle.

We start in the hypothetical space here intentionally. If a solution isn’t hypothetically possible, then you can’t overcome the obstacle, and the goal is no longer feasible. If you reach a point with no potential solutions to the obstacles, then you must reimagine your goal.

Look at the SpaceX example and its obstacle of “space travel is too costly on a per-passenger basis”. During this time, one of the biggest truisms of the aerospace industry was that rockets were like plastic cups, single-use and disposable. This approach was a major contributor to the exorbitant cost of launching rockets.

The team hypothesized that the hardware used, such as the rockets, could be reused for multiple spaceflights. This would mean that the only new cost added each time they launched was the fuel.

It was a revolutionary change that required some serious effort and many tests (more on that below). But the booster landing in the video above is them proving it could be done and making their goal viable.

In our world of fundraising, let’s stick with the obstacle of significant variance in your organization’s annual revenues. You could hypothesize that it was due to dependence on major and planned gifts. While these would provide welcome boosts to your organization, a certain amount of predictable, expected revenue was needed to enable the mission team to deliver on its plans.

You could then take it even further and hypothesize that a certain amount of monthly giving revenue was needed to overcome this obstacle. Just like that, your obstacle has a potential solution, which you can then test and achieve.

There may be other solutions you can test, too. But as long as you have reasonable, hypothetical solutions you can explore, the goal remains viable. If no solutions emerge, then the obstacle cannot be overcome, and we must revisit our goal.

This is one of my biggest takeaways from this step in the process. All too often we see organizations running headlong into brick walls of their own making, tackling goals that are not viable. At times, a simple tweak to the goal would open up new pathways to them.

 4. Work the problem

At this point, we’re nearly there. The is clearly laid out, the obstacles blocking it are identified, and alternative solutions have been hypothesized to overcome them. Now the only thing left to do is test these hypotheses until they’re disproven or the obstacle is overcome.

It all sounds so simple. SpaceX shows that meaningful change is anything but. That booster landing followed multiple failed launches, crashes, and other setbacks. But the solution was never disproven, and the team was able to prove its goal viable on that fateful day in December.

In fundraising, we experience the same setbacks. You may have brilliant ideas on how to overcome your own fundraising obstacles that won’t pan out the way you expect. You’ll likely need to revise these ideas and test them multiple times before your hypothesis is disproven.

Yet, if we remain laser-focused on our organization’s singular goal and continue to chip away at the obstacles facing us in achieving it, we can get there.

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Ronen Tal

Ronen Tal

Fundraiser. Strategist. Data junkie. Traveler. Contingency planner. Rock climber. Amateur ramen chef.