Stop Shooting Yourself in the Foot: Three Common Practices that Undermine Fundraising

Stop Shooting Yourself in the Foot: Three Common Practices that Undermine Fundraising

This weeks’ post is about shooting yourself in the foot. And in each case, the cause is related to an overreaction to a complaint. Worse, sometimes the person complaining is someone internal to the organization and who therefore should know better.


Life Memberships (and other forms of “discount” memberships)

When I first started working for The Nature Conservancy, the organization offered Life Membership to people who contributed $1,000 or more. The logic was that membership came with a minimum gift of $15 and $1,000 therefore represented nearly 70 years’ worth. That same logic ignored the idea that there might be people out there who could and would give $1,000 every year.

In practice, two kinds of people gave Life Memberships: those who wanted to give $1,000 anyway, and for whom this was just the box on the form that was available. And others looking for a “deal.” I’ll never forget running a database search for $1,000 donors and finding three separate $1,000 donors living in one house! Amazing! So I called them to see if I could come out and visit to give them an update on several of our projects. Their Mom told me they were turning three in a few weeks – Grandma had given each of the triplets a Lifetime Membership in the Conservancy on their literal “birth” day. (They must be nearly 30 now – maybe it’s time to go back!)

Regardless – Lifetime Memberships aren’t necessary with donors who love you and can afford it, and they get in the way with the deal seekers. Unfortunately, TNC influenced scores of smaller land trusts, and I still find land trusts with Life memberships available – and most of them still cost $1,000.

If you already have this problem, don’t panic. You can simply eliminate the option from all of your materials. You can stop listing Life Members in the Annual Report. Definitely honor the commitments you have already made, but you don’t have to keep adding to the problem.

And don’t give people discounted memberships if they “buy” three years at once. Again – you’re shooting yourself in the foot. You WANT to visit members every year. You WANT to establish a relationship with your donors. And you need the annual money.

And if you are such a land trust, at least offer Lifetime Memberships that are appropriately priced – $5,000,000 for example. Write us a check for $5,000,000 and we won’t bother you for membership ever again.

Either way…..

Stop shooting yourself in the foot!



Buyer’s Remorse is a real phenomenon. People feel more comfortable doing something if they know other people who have done the same thing – bought that car, loved that beer, vacationed in that spot, supported that land trust. And the higher profile the other person, the better they feel about their own decision.

Translation: when a recognizable community leader makes a gift to your land trust – and especially if that gift is on the plus side of what most others typically give – it gets noticed in a positive way. It may be subtle, but others will measure what they give – and sometimes even whether they give at all – based on what the community leader did.

Capital campaigns are all built on this principle. If even one donor says yes to a $250,000 gift, it makes asking for $100,000 gifts easier. And the effect is multiplied if the first donor is well-known to the others. In this way, the first gift and giver lends credibility to the entire campaign.

This positive effect is completely lost if the first donor is Anonymous. In fact, I’ve even had the opposite reaction happen, where the rest of the community got suspicious when we wouldn’t reveal the name of a lead donor who asked to remain anonymous.

Now don’t get me wrong – if anyone asks to remain anonymous, you MUST honor that wish – always.

But don’t shoot yourself in the foot, either.

  • Don’t ask someone if they wish to remain anonymous on response cards.
  • Don’t list Anonymous as one of your donors in the Annual Report. (I see this all the time in Annual Reports: “Anonymous (3).” Just don’t.
  • DO ask permission of a donor wishing to remain anonymous to share their name with others who have made similar gifts. For example, you might ask a donor wishing to join your $1,000 donor club while remaining anonymous if they mind you sharing their name with others in the donor club. Often anonymous donors simply wish to avoid having their name printed in public.

One final point on Anonymity: No one should keep donor information from Board members. Board members ultimately have fiduciary responsibility for the organization, and there should be no secrets in this regard. You could announce that a donor wishes to remain anonymous and that therefore you will not be announcing their name at a time when it might be entered into the meeting minutes. Any Board member wishing to know can see you after the meeting. A donor who explicitly tells you that their gift is dependent on the board never knowing their identity should probably have their gift returned.

If you already have this problem, don’t panic. Simply stop offering Anonymity as an option for anyone. Stop making it easy for people to request, and stop giving people the idea.

Stop shooting yourself in the foot!


“No Trade” Clauses

It used to be commonplace to have like-minded organizations sharing mailing lists on a name-for-name basis. If I knew that a certain person supported the Audubon Society, for example, I could at least suspect that they would be a better candidate for TNC membership than someone randomly selected from the phone book.

In fact, getting a piece of mail is often how donors learn about organizations they end up supporting. They join one organization, and they get marketing information from another.

If you think about it, this is the way all marketing works. You get certain Facebook ads based on what your friends like. You get suggestions for new books or movies from Amazon based on what you bought from them last week. And you get catalogs in the mail based on what you have bought on-line, too.

Now this practice irritates some donors – we all know that. And those who get irritated sometimes call or write indicating their displeasure. We all know that, too. But when we take those few complaints and use them to justify never trading anyone’s name with other like-minded organizations, we shoot ourselves in the foot. We have removed one of the best ways of building our own organization.

Now again – just to be clear – you MUST HAVE a reasonable mechanism in your office to “suppress” donors not wishing to have their names traded. I also support not trading the names of your top donors – those giving $1,000 per year for example. But everyone else should be fair game.

So don’t tell people that you won’t ever sell or trade their names.

And in return, you’ll get to mail to other organizational lists, recruiting new members to your land trust who may not have found you any other way.

If you already have this problem, don’t panic. You can change your organizational policy, and then wait at least two years before trading with anyone.

Stop shooting yourself in the foot!





Photo by Ana Graves courtesy of

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1 Comment
  • Zach Shefska
    Posted at 07:12h, 07 February

    David, this is yet another fantastic reminder to “keep it simple stupid”. The principles you propose are simple, yet frequently overlooked! Great piece!