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Three Fundraising Mistakes You Don't Have to Make

January 3, 2019

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“Only he who has traveled the road knows where the holes are deep.” So goes the ancient Chinese proverb. And of course there’s loads of truth in it, especially when it comes to creative strategy for fundraising—a road with plenty of potholes to cause problems.


So, in the interests of sharing some knowledge of the highway ahead and helping others avoid some typical newbie mistakes, here are three lessons I learned the hard way.



The client, a publisher of an inspirational/religious newsletter, wanted a mailing to persuade donors to give in order to distribute their newsletter to hospitals, churches, and other similar organizations. All in all, a good cause and an acceptable platform for an appeal.


We’d had success with a previous appeal for this client, so this time we wanted something really out of the box. We brainstormed until we were sure we had “it.”


Since the issues of the newsletter are passed around to various people at the hospitals and other places where it’s distributed, our idea was this: create a faux issue of the newsletter, complete with handwriting, doodles, coffee mug rings, and dog ears. And inside that faux issue would be the letter exhorting donors to give in order to distribute newsletters for people to read—much like the sample they were holding in their hands.


We had a great time putting this mailing together. It sure seemed creative. But when donors received it, they apparently didn’t appreciate our creativity as much as we did. The response was underwhelming. Either the donors were completely baffled by what they were looking at, or they thought that the whole thing was too cute by half. In the end, the idea was just too convoluted to really connect.


Lesson learned: Cleverness is often mistaken for creativity. The best creative concepts—the ones that work—usually aren’t flashy. They’re often simple, direct ideas donors grasp immediately and see real value in. The real power is in simplicity.



The client was a well-known social services charity. One of its local chapters wanted a mailing to send to a specific audience—one they had tried to reach before without much success.


The purpose of the mailing was to persuade donors to give in order to provide the charity’s social services to people in need in their community. In that way, it was similar to many other appeals for this client that we’d done previously.


For this one, though, we wanted something different. We knew there’d be an appeal letter, naturally. But somehow that didn’t seem like enough. So we got a meeting together to talk things over. In that discussion, somebody piped up and said, “What about putting in a notepad?” To which the group said, “Sure.” Since that seemed to go over well, somebody else said, “What about a bookmark? People like to get those.” Again, heads nodded. Then, the group-think took over, and the thing just started feeding