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Common Fundraising Mistakes Part 1

by Kimberly Reynolds

"There are no shortcuts to any place worth going." - Anonymous

Fundraising is both an art and a science. If your fundraising revenues are static or declining, your organization is probably making one or more of these common mistakes:

  • Lack of planning
  • Repeating the same old fundraiser
  • Not recruiting enough help
  • Low quality merchandise
  • Inadequate sales preparation
  • Poor support materials
  • No sales scripts
  • Weak internal communication
  • Lack of publicity
  • Continuous fundraising
  • Bad timing
  • No rewards
  • Poor rewards
  • Letting problems fester
  • Picking the wrong fundraiser

Lack of planning

Things haven't been thought through. Deadlines produce a crisis response. Nobody knows exactly what to do. Everything is a haphazard fire drill. Does any of this sound familiar?

Usually only a few people have the prior knowledge needed from the year before, so there's a bottleneck on information. That often produces the "suffering martyr syndrome" where the person in charge, who should have had everything planned well in advance, instead spends their time moaning about how overworked they are. Admit it, you know that person!

All of this can be avoided if the right preparations are made ahead of time. See the Section on Preparation for a host of valuable ideas.

Repeating the same fundraiser

The same old fundraiser is done over and over again because that's what you've always done. The roles and responsibilities are well known, so it's a safe comfortable solution. Unfortunately, your supporters are probably sick and tired of it. Your volunteers probably feel the same way.

The typical result is flat to declining total revenue, not to mention all the missed opportunities. Have you ever looked at your old records to see what the average customer sale and average profit per sale were several years ago? It's a good bet that there's been little change.

The root causes of this fundraising inertia are lack of knowledge, fear of change, unwillingness to upset the status quo, etc. If you will take the time to expand your knowledge base, then you will increase your success.

Remember that your goal should be to maximize your revenue and increase your net every year, not to maintain a breakeven position. After all, the items and services your funds raised purchase have definitely risen in price over the years! Even if it's just inflation, the things your funds will eventually buy get more expensive each year, so your net proceeds need to grow as well. Newer fundraising activities have come along that can increase your net results per customer by 25% or more.

Don't let your fundraising efforts achieve less than they could because they lack better direction. See the Section on Organization for more insights.

Not enough help

Overworking your core volunteer group is a recipe for disaster. Good people who are willing to help your cause at no cost are hard to find. Why chew them up and spit them out?

Increase your volunteer base by defining all the roles and responsibilities. You should have written descriptions of what's expected from each support role. Make sure that it includes an accurate estimate of the time that position requires. Break those volunteer time blocks into two, four, or eight-hour chunks. By defining how much time a support position requires, you increase the likelihood of a match with potential volunteers. Allow job sharing; that is, allow two people to sign up for one function and coordinate their own efforts.

Another way to avoid burning out your volunteers is to recruit for all positions at the beginning of the year. This requires having your master project plan for the year mapped out ahead of time. Offer signup sheets for this year's positions at your first group meeting. That's when people are the most receptive to the idea of pitching in, particularly if it's for a clearly defined amount of time.

Circulate flyers at every meeting for the remaining open positions. If necessary, include a call for additional help in your newsletter.

The Section titled The Basics is an excellent source of ideas.

Low quality merchandise

Sales are declining. Customers are saying no thanks all too often. Multiple unit sales are a rarity. Complaints are commonplace.

If these are happening to your organization, a wrong decision has been made somewhere along the line. Perhaps a higher profit percentage on every item sold sounded like a good idea. The result isn't higher net profits; it's lower sales. Those lower sales are coupled with disappointed clients. Your group's reputation is suffering.

Get rid of the junky stuff. Ask yourself if you or someone you know would pay those prices for similar quality goods at retail. If the answer is no, look for a new supplier before your support base erodes further. The idea is to buy at wholesale and sell at close to retail, not at twice retail.

For decision criteria, see the Section on Selecting the Right Fundraiser.

For supplier information, consult the Sections titled Supplier Profiles and Supplier Cross-Reference.

Inadequate sales preparation

Remember the very first fundraiser you participated in? Did you know everything you needed to know as a participant? Chances are that you didn't and that you did the best you could without much direction.

A common mistake is to have no written instructions or inadequate instructions given to your sales team. Don't expect people to know all the selling "to-do's" without adequate direction. Many volunteers could be new recruits or have served a different function for a past fundraiser.

The results of inadequate sales preparation are costly. You'll end up with missed opportunities, order confusion, lost payments, mistakes on order sheets, and many others that all cost either time or money to fix.

Be sure to take the time to do it right and you'll save in the long run. Read the Section on Preparation for more tips.

Poor support materials

Having poor support materials is another problem. Usually these are obtained from a supplier and shown to each prospective supporter. The quality of that presentation material is a reflection of your organization. Don't settle for brochures that make your group look bad.

If necessary, create additional sales materials in-house and supplement what your sellers have available to them. For example, if your group is selling discount shopping cards for $10 each and the accompanying brochure doesn't really get the message across, create a flyer with large print emphasizing the savings generated.

Here's a sample flyer for a BUDS discount card:

Be our BUD for only $10 and save up to $600!

  • Use it once - Save $2
  • Use it once at each merchant - Save $30
  • Use it year round with no limits - Save up to $600

Check out these great deals:

  • Free large drink with taco.
  • Two-for-one pizza DELIVERED!
  • Save $2 on two kid's meals

Saving with our BUD's Card is the way to go!

Having a flyer that the prospective supporter can read gets the message across much quicker than your sales team can say it. That way, the entire message comes through visually and your sales rate jumps.

For a more in-depth review, see the Section on Sales Techniques.

No sales script

Not having a written sales presentation is another big mistake. In many fundraisers, a child is one of the primary sales channels. Why would you expect a youngster to be a natural salesperson? Having been in sales for more than a dozen years myself, I can tell you with confidence that advance preparation is a mandatory requirement for success.

Write out one or two sales scripts that focus on your organization's specific need and properly present offering. Distribute those scripts to your team along with written instructions on practicing within the family, how to build a prospect list, etc. If you think your group has this area mastered, select any seller at random and have them give you their sales pitch. I can guarantee that you'll be surprised.

A boy of about 14 appeared on my doorstep one evening. Shoulders hunched over, he mumbled his pitch to his shoes, which could barely be seen beneath his drooping pants. Less than a week later, another boy came to my door for the same reason. He looked me in the eye, gave me two sentences about his purpose, and asked for my help.

To which one did I contribute? Okay, both of them, but not everyone is a softie like me, but I did contribute more to the second visitor. Work on sales pitch delivery!

I've included a couple of sample sales scripts in this book along with detailed information on sales preparation. Read the Section on Sales Scripts for complete coverage of this topic.

Weak internal communication

This manifests itself in many ways and severely hampers your fundraising efforts. Not giving clear direction to your volunteers and your sellers equals a lack-luster performance.

Here are some examples:

There are no individual or sub-group goals given at the start of your drive. The group's specific goal isn't communicated clearly to the sellers. Your message isn't getting across to buyers. No feedback is given to your participants or to your supporters about the results. Nobody knows how well the fundraiser did or whether it was worth the effort.

These kind of communication problems create a strong drag on profits. Revisit how your group passes along information. Design a system with multiple paths of communication. Eliminate bottlenecks in the flow of information. Leverage your website as a great source of specific data on everything your group is doing.

All of these topics and more are covered in the Section on Communication.

Lack of publicity

Advertising works. That's why you see so much of it. Put it to work for your organization by getting the word out in every possible fashion. Use flyers, posters, signs, media contacts, etc. When was the last time your group sent out a press release?

Publicity increases community awareness of your non-profit organization and pays untold dividends. It will motivate additional participation, increase your volunteer pool, provide feedback, and give a method for communicating results.

See the Section on Publicity for more detailed information.

This article is continued here: Common Fundraising Mistakes Part 2

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About the Author:

Kimberly Reynolds is the author of Fundraising Success and the "web mistress" of She brings a high-powered background to the fundraising arena, including a dozen years of sales experience with Dell and Cisco Systems.

Her book, Fundraising Success, is packed with powerful tips that are guaranteed to boost your group's results. Kimberly focuses on helping schools, churches, and youth sports groups by providing event ideas and advice on organizational techniques.

Visit her website,, and discover some easy ways to help your group.

This chapter from the book, Fundraising Success! by Kimberly Reynolds, is reprinted with permission.

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