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Beware Publicity When Raising Big Gifts

by David Lansdowne

Don't expect publicity to raise money. It doesn't, at least most of the time.

The reasons are simple. To raise substantial money you must ask people in person, regardless of any well-placed stories. Secondly, most campaigns depend on a relatively small number of major donors - about 10 percent of the prospects - whose decision to give won't be much influenced by the media.

In fact, since it can be effective to solicit top prospects before your campaign goes public - in effect treating these special few as insiders - publicity in the early stages can actually work against you.

If it has a role in your campaign, publicity is simply to announce the drive, explain its purpose, and provide progress reports from time to time.

Those who rely on press releases and feature stories to raise funds tend either to be novices or people who aren't committed in the first place. They hope the media can do their work for them, and when this doesn't happen, they blame the failure not on themselves but on the lack of exposure.

Consider a publicity drive only if one of the following applies:

  • If you're using an event to raise money and need to sell a great number of tickets.
  • If your project benefits the general public, such as the refurbishing of a community park.
  • If you're in a small town.
  • If you're persuaded that publicity will stimulate your leadership to work harder.
  • If you have a number of big donors who would like the attention.
  • If you have a poor image.
  • If you've already raised most of your goal and want to stimulate your campaign workers to complete their calls.

But even when any of these scenarios apply, remember that publicity is always an adjunct measure; the real action involves people asking people in person.

The same goes for special events

When volunteers convene and the subject of raising money arises, often someone will suggest holding a dinner dance, gala, road race, or similar event. It usually sounds like a good idea, especially since selling tickets is a lot less threatening than eyeballing someone for a contribution.

But just as it's easy to get excited over a fashionable ball, it's easy as well to overlook the total costs associated with a special event. Before long, these expenses can exceed 50 percent of the revenue (as compared with five to 20 percent for major gifts campaigns).

Even when you're diligent and get a good number of products and services donated, still you'll need to pay for things such as a banquet hall, greens fees, and catering. Factor in printing, flowers, decorations, music, perhaps even travel and lodging, and the costs can become prohibitive.

Consuming as they do an extensive amount of time and resources, special events cannot match the cost-effectiveness of a person-to-person campaign.

In fact, in terms of the relative effectiveness of various fund raising methods, Henry Rosso, founder of The Fund Raising School, ranks special events near the bottom, behind team soliciting, one-on-one soliciting, soliciting by personal letter with a follow-up telephone call, and a personal telephone call by a peer with a follow-up letter.

Granted, there are sound reasons for holding an event: calling attention to your organization, educating and inspiring your current leaders and donors, attracting some new, potential leaders, and uncovering hidden constituents.

But before you go the events route, make sure you've planned well, you've allowed adequate preparation time, you have a realistic budget, ample numbers of people to work, and the know-how to get your event enough publicity.

And, yes, make sure you keep one important principle in mind: that your income should exceed your expenses.

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About the Author:

This article is excerpted from David Lansdowne’s book, Fund Raising Realities Every Board Member Must Face (Revised Ed.), published by Emerson & Church. For more information about the book, visit or call 508-359-0019.

David Lansdowne, author of The Relentlessly Practical Guide to Raising Serious Money, has spent his professional life in the nonprofit sector, serving in development and administrative positions for educational, cultural, and health organizations throughout the United States.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission of the publisher, Emerson & Church.

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