Weathering the storm: How to talk about financial trouble

May 22, 2018

This morning, a friend and colleague sent me a sample mailing from a brand-name UK charity that he found interesting. I read it over and sort of sighed under my breath…“here we go again”.

Now, this particular letter was from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – or RNLI as it is commonly known in Britain. Now, you may have never heard of these guys, but they are a big deal in England. They’re one of the most successful and best-known charities in the country, and I have always been very impressed with the quality of their fundraising campaigns – except this one.

This letter happened to be about legacy gifts, but it made a mistake that I see in many annual appeals as well. The letter basically explains to the reader that RNLI’s legacy revenues have been dropping lately. It then asks the reader to consider making a bequest to help make up the long-term shortfall.

Now, here’s the problem…

When I first started studying the art and science of fundraising three decades ago, I came across a wonderful quote from a respected U.S. fundraising guru named Sy Seymour.  He said simply “The institution has no needs.”

What he meant is that fundraisers can’t afford to think like finance officers. We MUST always think like donors. In the case of the RNLI, the issue ISN’T that organizational revenues are dropping and that budgets are being squeezed. The issue IS that, without increased donations, people whose boats have capsized at sea might not get rescued in time – and they may drown!

Now, take a few seconds and ask yourself. Which image is more compelling to you? A clerk poring over excel budget spreadsheets? Or a retired couple in life jackets bobbing around in a rough, grey sea with no sight of land?

I’m sure you get the idea.

Now, some people say that you should never try to raise money on the fact that you’re in financial trouble. They say that it’s a negative message, and that it lacks vision and hope.

I disagree…

I think you SHOULD aggressively raise funds when you’re in financial distress. But, you should keep your message about the cause that matters to your donor (people stranded at sea) and your mission (rescuing those people and bringing them back to safety).

So, if at some point in the future, you find yourself in the position where you need to raise money to get your organization out of a rough financial patch, just remember this little choice…

Spreadsheet or stormy seas?

 If you keep your message focused on your cause and mission, your loyal donors will respond generously – and feel good about the opportunity to help you when you need it most.

Good luck!

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Fraser Green

Fraser Green

Former political campaigner and current fundraising strategist with a knack for understanding how audiences will react to messages.