It’s a mistake many do-gooders make at some point in their philanthropic lives: They come up with a fundraising idea that sounds like so much fun, they don’t stop to consider whether it’s worth the effort. Months later, they’re left with burned-out volunteers, disgruntled club members, and scant profits.
For me, this lesson came in the form of eight ceramic piggy banks. I was looking for ways my club could raise money for End Polio Now. A Rotarian from another club showed me a photo of the cherubic little pigs, and I fell in love. All we had to do was find some artists to paint them, then sell them and watch the dollars flow in. Easy, right? Like taking candy from a piglet.
It didn’t quite work out that way. After the fact, I asked fundraising consultant Lisa Sholley, a board member of the Washington State chapter of the Association for Fundraising Professionals, to help me figure out what went wrong – and how other Rotarians could avoid my missteps.
“In some ways, Rotarians are the ideal fundraisers, because they’re businesspeople,” Sholley says. “Think about it as if you were at work. You have to come up with the business plan. You have to do your due diligence.”
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, a good business plan should include a market analysis, a sales and promotion strategy, and financial projections. My piggy bank plan had none of those. My fundraising prep consisted of pricing out the pigs and asking for board approval. This was problematic for many reasons, but let’s start with my math.
I found my soccer-ball-size, gleaming white ceramic piggy banks through an online wholesaler and printed out photos to share with our board. The board approved the purchase, and a club member with a retail store agreed to process the transaction. I didn’t anticipate that the cost of shipping two large boxes of breakable goods would almost double the purchase price.
Ashamed to ask the club for more money, I covered the difference myself. No matter, I thought. We had our pigs, and they were glorious. I delivered one to our first volunteer artist, who ran his fingers across the shiny ceramic surface, frowned, and said, “The paint won’t stick to this.” He swiped one bright-blue brushstroke across the glazed underbelly and let it dry. Then he wiped it right off. I paid him to sand and prime all eight pigs. Our materials expenses had tripled.
Monetary costs aren’t the only factors to consider in a financial plan; volunteer hours count too. “You’ve got to look realistically at that, because these people have lives,” Sholley says. “They have families and jobs. Even if they’re retired, they still have stuff that they want to do other than this.”
Auctions, for instance, require an army of volunteers to solicit donations, prepare the items and venue, and promote and run the event. A typical auction demands “an absolute minimum” of 20 volunteers, according to The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising, a comprehensive handbook published by the consumer legal resource group Nolo.
My piggy bank plan wasn’t much less labor-intensive. Four club members recruited eight volunteer artists. Another managed the purchasing. One helped with press releases, and another set up the online sales site, which required assistance from the club treasurer. Including me, that’s 17 volunteers, not counting the many club members who “adopted” the painted pigs to show them off around town before the sale and collect donations of loose change.
The artists did beautiful work, but when the time came to sell, most of our club members were sick to death of pigs, and our community outreach efforts had fizzled. The total yield was $949, most of which came from Rotarians who would have donated to End Polio Now anyway.
You might wonder how I managed to persuade so many volunteers to join my pig brigade. The answer is simple: The Rotarians in my club are kind, generous people who wanted to support me. “When people have an idea, there’s a lot of ego behind that,” Sholley says. I suspect they didn’t want to hurt my feelings.
Rotary’s presidents-elect training seminars teach incoming club presidents that they should be open to suggestions from members. However, there’s a fine line between encouraging involvement and sanctioning silliness. Club leaders can ask members who have ideas to conduct a simple form of market research: getting feedback from potential donors. “People love to have their opinions solicited,” Sholley says. And this can shut down a bad idea quickly. “Be prepared for them to say, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.’”
I never bothered to ask anyone about the prospect of owning a painted pig. The fundraiser had worked for another club, so I figured it would work for ours. But every community is different, Sholley says. The piggy banks weren’t necessarily a bad idea, but they weren’t the right idea for us.
Rotarians love fundraising activities: merchandise sales, auctions, dinners, festivals, concerts, lectures, home tours, fun runs, golf tournaments. Many yield modest returns, yet we go back to them year after year. But they do serve another purpose: They bring attention to our work.
Instead of focusing on the short-term yield, Rotarians should think of fundraising events as a chance to talk about their club’s contributions to the community and the world. “The more opportunities you can give members to tell stories, the better,” Sholley says.
Let’s say you have a club member who just returned from a polio immunization trip in Nigeria. At your club’s next golf tournament, do you put him in a cart with other club members? Of course not. You pair him with a prospective member.
Here’s another scenario: Your club is about to hold its annual auction and dinner. How do you prep your members for the event? For starters, you make sure they’re familiar enough with your club’s service activities that when a member finds herself in a conversation with the parent of a high school student, she can talk about the club’s scholarship program and teacher grants.
And, finally, let’s imagine that you’ve hatched an elaborate scheme to sell lavishly painted piggy banks. Do you send club members into the community with a pig and a sales pitch? Nope. You tell them about End Polio Now. That way, even if the sales are disappointing, the event has served a higher purpose. The value of a new member or Rotary supporter is far greater than the price of a pig.
Yet we have to fund our service projects somehow. According to Sholley, the key to raising money is simple: Ask.
Researchers at Giving USA and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University found that 73 percent of nonprofit donations made in 2011 came from individuals. Any seasoned fundraiser will tell you that the direct ask is the most effective way to bring in contributions. Chances are, you’ve heard this before, yet you’ve still chosen to fundraise with events. That’s because most volunteer fundraisers would sooner donate a vital organ than ask someone for money.
At our first club meeting of this year, our new president asked for donations to her President’s Club. She raised $2,900 in less than five minutes. It was fun and effective and, for me, a humbling reminder that sometimes, the best fundraising ideas are the simplest.