The Great Pumpkin and the Myth of the Unsolicited Donation

With Halloween just around the corner, one of my favorite holiday specials “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” will be on television once again. If you haven’t watched it in a while (or ever), I recommend you set aside some time for this classic. Not only is it great television, it contains an important life lesson for fundraisers.

For those of you who haven’t seen this gem — or don’t remember it — a good part of the story revolves around blanket-carrying Linus. Each Halloween, when all of his friends are pounding the pavement, going door-to-door for tricks or treats, Linus spends the night in the most sincere pumpkin patch he can find waiting for the Great Pumpkin. According to Linus, those children who truly believe in the Great Pumpkin will be showered with gifts and treats.

Charlie Brown’s younger sister Sally hears Linus’ tale, is swept up in the romance and spends a long, cold night in a pumpkin patch. Spoiler alert: the Great Pumpkin never shows and Sally has to wait a whole year for Halloween to come again.

So what’s this got to do with fundraising?

Sally isn’t the only person in the world who has fallen for the myth of the unsolicited gift — the ones that just fall out of the sky. In fact, it’s such an appealing tale that many of us have been trapped by its siren song. Here are a few common “Great Pumpkin” myths that we’ve seen — and what you can do to stay out of the field!

1. Reducing the number of fundraising asks to my higher dollar donors is a great way to move the donor relationship forward.

Many fundraisers believe that once a donor makes a gift at a higher threshold (be it $500 or $1,000), the way to advance that relationship is to mail them less. After all, the thinking goes, once they’ve given at this level they should no longer be treated as “direct mail” donors. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Asking these donors less means they give less — and in many cases — you will lose them altogether.

When a donor gives a larger gift than they have in the past, that’s your cue to spend more time and energy on that donor. Keep mailing them — it’s a great way to keep them informed of your work and how their gifts are making a difference. But don’t stop there — call them, visit them and invite them! They’ve let you know with their gift that they want to be more engaged. Give them every opportunity to do so!

2. The passionate activists I acquire online will naturally become donors.

The internet has given us a broad arena in which to acquire supporters — people who will gladly take actions like signing petitions, sending videos to their networks and using your hashtag. But getting these supporters to take the all-important action of making a gift is a challenge.

It takes a carefully constructed conversion strategy that begins with the very first action. What communications does a supporter get from the organization after their first action? At what point in their involvement with you have you asked them for a gift? And what type of gift are you asking for (one time or monthly)? Activists, like every other prospect, need to be asked to make a gift. Make sure you are asking the right people, at the right time, with the right offer.

3. Our next big gift is only one wealth screen away.

Data can be a powerful tool. It can also be a waste of time and money. Many organizations invest in wealth screening without an understanding of exactly what the data is that they are getting and without a plan as to how they are going to use the data once they have it. Some organizations, so overwhelmed with the sheer volume of data they’ve received, do nothing with it at all.

So be an educated consumer. Before you wealth screen your file, understand where the data comes from. Understand its limitations and potential. Know before you purchase how you plan to use this data in all aspects of your fundraising program. How might it enhance your direct mail efforts? What can it do to help you target planned giving prospects? How will your major donor fundraisers incorporate this information into their solicitations? All the data in the world doesn’t take the place of contacting donors — but it may help you to talk to the right ones.

And remember, your best data comes from what your donors tell YOU — what sorts of appeals do they give to? Have they called you to complain? What petitions have they signed? Make sure you are using this data well before seeking answers from outside sources.

4. My direct mail donors will automatically become planned giving donors.

Direct mail donors are great planned giving prospects. But if you don’t ask them to name your organization in their will or estate plans, most will remain just prospects. To develop a steady stream of planned giving income, you need to tell your donors about planned giving opportunities at your organization.

There are many ways to successfully market a planned giving program making use of communications that are already going to your donors — acknowledgements, welcome packages, newsletters (to name a few). Now is the time to put this plan in place. Conventional wisdom is that it takes about three years of planned giving marketing to start seeing real results — so don’t wait till next year!

The bottom line is this: there is no Great Pumpkin when it comes to fundraising. No silver bullet that will enable us to sit back and wait for the gifts to rain down upon us. Real fundraising success comes from a carefully designed and executed plan, based on organizational goals and realties.

Good luck — and Happy Halloween!

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