Fundraising Lessons From Haiti

More years ago than I care to consider, when I was fairly new to development, some institution similar to mine received a humongous gift.  Within days, my voice mailbox and my inbox (this was—if you can imagine—before email) were filled with board members and my boss’s exhortations for me to go out and do the same thing. I would have loved to, but while there were similarities in our institutions, the circumstances surrounding the getting of a gift that size were very institution (theirs, not mine) specific.

So, when Howard Dean raised his profile via the web, and then Barack Obama raised enormous amounts of money using social networking, my clients, and I am sure your organizations, all wanted to climb on that bandwagon.  And now, with donations made via texting for Haiti in the millions, you just know where some nonprofits are going to head.

I’m not, let me hasten to add, against any of this.  I think that nonprofits have to get a web and social networking presence, and I think they should make donating as easy as possible for every potential donor.  However, there needs to be an understanding that all these methods are just that—channels by which people can support an organization or cause in which they have an interest.

It’s that last clause that matters.  Fundraising is still about relationships.  The Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, many other nonprofits were able to mobilize supporters not because they have cell phones or computers, but because there was immediacy, urgency and—most of all—a national platform which got the word out.

Most of us don’t have that.  We have to create ways to connect with likely donors and we have to convince them that our cause is important and necessary.

That’s not so easy.  Think about Haiti.  This earthquake certainly has been horrific, but life in Haiti has been pretty hard for a very long time.  How many of us even considered making donations to make life better for Haitians?  It’s not that we didn’t care, but it just wasn’t at the top of our priority list.  Indeed, for most of us, if we thought about Haiti it was fleeting.  Fleeting thoughts do not generally translate into action.

As your nonprofit scrambles to get on the social networking bandwagon, don’t ignore the basics of fundraising.  An e-solicitation won’t by itself do any better than a direct mail appeal.  Both depend on the quality of your list and the effectiveness of your message.

Messages are something many nonprofits have not yet figured out.  Indeed, as Nancy Schwartz notes in her blog ( nonprofits “are doing an inadequate job of connecting with their key audiences and characterize their primary messages – intended to motivate donors, volunteers and advocacy – as poorly targeted, difficult to remember and uninspiring.”  If that’s you, no amount of tweeting, texting, or whatever else you are doing will get your donors to respond.

Janet Levine consults with nonprofit organizations on issues of resource development and governance.  Find out more at  While there check out my classes in grantwriting and fundraising.  Get the knowledge you need to increase your effectiveness at