Once upon a time, when commiserating with a colleague about how much more difficult it is to raise funds to support the operating budget instead of designated projects, he looked at me with that all-wise, uber-experienced senior advancement professional gaze and said, “Lights, plumbing, HVAC, and salaries just aren’t sexy.”
“Well, duh. Now what am I supposed to do with that nugget of knowledge?” I remember thinking. Whatever in the world is one to do when faced with meeting a budget, a mission plan, or fund-raising goal that includes the basics of maintaining a structure and paying people do do certain tasks? Sure, there are plenty of academic articles, how-to guides, and collective wisdom gathered about this topic, but not a one of them changes the bottom line: People want to give to things that make a real difference.
In most folks’ reality, paying to keep the lights on, the toilets flushing, and the heating or air-conditioning pumping is just not connected to alleviating starvation, educating children, or sharing the gospel with a hurting world. Plus, if you’re a donor who is motivated by naming opportunities, having your little brass plaque on the new handicap-accessible restroom door or on the side of the enormous heat pump doesn’t carry the same cachet as adorning the new library door or funding a memorial garden.
Many donors also figure that salaries and benefits are not high priorities. Shouldn’t the regular offering or annual budget be sufficient to cover that? Why do we need to pay so much for those line items anyway? If you think about it, it makes some sense. I want to maximize my hard-earned giving dollars, too. I want them to be used responsibly and ethically and for the good of as many people as possible.
Although I still chafe a bit at connecting the notion of charitable giving with the idea of making it “sexy,” I understand what that fundraising professional was trying to get through my youthful idealistic head. You have to tell the story of why something or someone is worthy of support, and you must make a compelling argument for every last penny. Why does X, Y, or Z really matter?
For me, keeping the lights on, the plumbing in working order, and the staff paid a living wage are “sexy” because without a solid foundation the chances of long-term viability are pretty poor. HVAC may be a bit more negotiable depending on your locale, but the principle is the same. If you take care of the basics, you can do a lot more in the long run with your vision and mission. The unsung heroes and heroines in my mind are the folks who hear the stories, comprehend the need, understand the mission, and give where the need is greatest–even if that means their gift provides insurance for a staff member for one month so that he or she can be productive and effective without worry.
This means the bottom line, folks, is that we have to do an excellent job of making our case and telling our stories. Sloppy work, hastily constructed narratives, and sweeping assumptions won’t cut it. A story must be an irresistible one that draws us in. People want to give and make a difference. People are at the core generous; this I believe. It’s just that there are so many competing messages and claims out there, that we who lead and serve in faith-based and non-profit communities and programs have to find a way to stand out above the din of consumer culture and the busyness of daily life.
Tell your story. Tell it clearly and well. Keep it simple. Make sure you really believe in your cause and in why you’re doing what you are doing. And don’t forget to ask for what you need–even if it’s those precious dollars to fund the basics. Ask with expectation and without apology. If you do this well, and you’re on target, the results may surprise you–“sexy” or better yet, just plain good.
Photo: Julian Povey, donorstibet, and Alex Holyoake, Creative Commons. Thanks!