Fundraising Lessons from a Trapeze Class

2016 has been bit of a YOLO year for me.  It started with pursuing a long-time dream to take snowboarding lessons (I stayed on the board…and even bought a season pass for this year…), continued with a trapeze class, and will conclude with a polo lesson with a friend (I already ride horses). Friends and family know that I am not a risk-taker in the daredevil sense of the word.  Don’t get me wrong, I like to push boundaries and calculate chances but am not a thrill seeker for the adrenaline rush.  I’ve learned a lot this year going beyond my usual comfort zone and wanted to share an important lesson from my trapeze class. 

I should start by saying that I have a fear of heights and don’t like speed. So, a trapeze class was exactly the thing to face these fears. After making it up the wobbly ladder to the platform, getting harnessed in, and then propelling myself into the air (at a speed of probably 20 mph), I could hear my instructor’s voice but barely over the screaming in my head.  As he prompted me to cast my legs back and forth and then flip them onto the bar of the trapeze, I thought “are you kidding me? You want me to let go of this bar and hang upside down? No way!” The first few times, all I could do was swing at unbearable speed back and forth with a grimace and an occasional intentional swinging of my legs. As I was waiting for my turn to go again, my friend and I were talking and I told her that I just couldn’t figure out how to get myself to hang upside on that bar.  Very wisely, my friend, whom I’ve known for a little more than 10 years, said to me, “you just have to shut out the noise in your head and follow his instructions. Stop trying to control things. He’s telling you exactly what you need to do.” Sounds simple, right? 

My next turn, I did exactly that…I disregarded the noise in my head telling me all the reasons why I shouldn’t flip over.  As the instructor called each step, I followed and the next thing I knew, I was hanging upside down.  Over the screaming in my head, I could hear the cheers and applause from the rest of the class.

I share this story because as we step into the busiest time of the fundraising year, the noise around us intensifies.  Organizations feel mounting pressure to do everything they can to acquire new donors and reach fundraising goals. Donors get besieged by an increase in electronic and print communications from worthy nonprofits asking for support.  It’s easy to get distracted with new fundraising ideas and approaches in our attempt to raise even more revenue than ever before. We can lose sight of what really effective fundraising means…and it’s not just revenue.

Sustainable fundraising embodies a year-round dialogue with your donors not just limited to these last two to three months of the year.  The “year-end noise” can distract us from what’s really important-- engaging and retaining the donors you have so that they will continue to give to you. This is especially important to keep in mind when we know that organizations have been facing a negative growth in donors.  Every 100 new and recovered donors recruited was offset by 103 donors lost through attrition.  Penelope Burk, the guru of Donor-Centered Fundraising, found in her research that the number one reason donors stop supporting an organization is because they feel they are being “oversolicited.” With tight deadlines and many multichannel communications, it’s easy to get swept up in the transactional part of fundraising—getting those gifts in by December 31st. 

Having a written plan that maps out all you will be doing in terms of personal and broader donor outreach (stewardship and solicitations) is like my trapeze instructor’s voice—it should be your trusted roadmap that steadily guides you through the distractions and frenetic pace to reach year-end. 

Create a regular cadence of outreach that is built on themes of gratitude and generosity (of spirit, interest, and information) to retain your current donors and reengage lapsed ones.  Are your communications—e-newsletters, mailed and electronic solicitations, tweets, Facebook posts, and so on—bringing your donors closer to your work and inspiring them to more deeply commit to your mission without always asking for money? 

  • Share with your donors examples of impact and stories of transformation their gift has made possible.
  • Highlight what you were able to do because of the gifts you received from your donors.
  • Celebrate your donors and make them feel that their support made a difference in some way.

Then your solicitations will be natural extensions of the virtual dialogue you’ve created about the results your donors have helped you achieve and they will be more open to investing in you again.  

Barbara O'ReillyAnnual Fund