“Fearless Fundraising” is a series on church and non-profit fundraising by Charles LaFond, a consultant, spiritual companion and master potter living on a farm in New Mexico. Charles is the author of many books including Fearless Church Fundraising, Fearless Major Gifts: Inspiring Meaning-making and now, Note to Self. For hundreds of free model documents, videos and Icons for use in fundraising go to fearlesschurchfundraising.com
Were you to ask me what the most powerful tool in fundraising is, I would be quick to say that it is the living room visit. Real, human, meandering conversation and connection over an hour or two (usually two) with a donor or prospective donor is the most powerful tool that exists in fundraising. It is often also the least used despite it being the oldest and most effective. I have seen too many campaigns crash and burn to simply die from a lack of generosity from the fundraiser to the prospective donors.
In non-profits and Christian churches, the value of a human visit should be rather, well, obvious. I mean what is the incarnation if it is not a human visit bringing good news and (usually) a request for action? If Jesus can make the trip here (not an easy one, may I add) then perhaps you and I can visit our donors and prospects to ask for pledges and gifts and will-inclusions. But I digress, because what really interests me is the SECOND most powerful tool in fundraising: the hand-written note.
This image is one of the alcoves in the Hotel Andaluz here in Albuquerque. It was the very first hotel built by the Hilton hotel magnate and has the most wonderful food and lobby. The hotel stands only a couple of blocks from my office and I frequently go there to write notes. The outside left wall of the lobby is lined by these marvelous little alcoves, each one in a completely different design. This cobalt blue Moroccan alcove is my favorite. Each one has a phone, a USB port, curtains if you want to have a meeting and access to tasty treats in the restaurant. It is also a favorite place to meet the Boomer Generation (not fans of living room visits, but big fans of office visits). However office visits are distracting to the donor, so I invite them to the Hotel Andaluz for their Manchego Cheese on fig jam and toast with coffee! Yum.
In these silent alcoves I write dozens of notes each week. A thank you note to a person who attended a meeting. A thank you note for someone who called me with a suggestion. A thank you note for a gift sent (also a formal thank-you letter but more personal.) A thank you note for connecting me to a mutual friend who might be willing to make a pledge. A Thank you note for a hosted visit. The list goes on.
The thing about the living room visit and the personal note is that each requires a sacrifice from the visitor and the writer. And donors notice the sacrifice. They notice the self-offering, in just the same way we notice it of God in Advent – The Word as anticipated and welcomed visitor.
Many would-be fundraisers I know say that they are far too busy to visit people over and over again to talk to them of mission and mission-investment. What I notice is that they waste time all the time…just not in that way. What is REALLY going on is that they just do not want to engage a donor or a prospect because they either feel smarmy – like a used car salesman manipulating a sale, or they feel afraid of possible human connection, vulnerability, and rejection.
This first fear is only true if you ARE a manipulator; and probably you are not. Fundraising is sales. Not into sales? Then do not get involved in ordained ministry or fundraising. There are other jobs you could do. Movie star, toll collector, President, prison guard, night janitor. There is a long list. The second fear is a human fear which simply needs the emotional intelligence to power through.
You will find, over time that the personal connection is not only easy but delightful and the molten core of mission and of ministry. Keeping a distance from people in your parish or your non-profit; or thinking “they will come to me” is not only very possibly diagnosable as pathological narcissism but is also about as effective as showering in a rain coat.
The personal hand written note is a very powerful tool and is a form of a gift. Here are some tips you may already know:
- Use simple, nice, cottony, ivory blank card-stock or paper. People find it soothing. You can simply write “Thank you” on the black cover of a tent card but images, pithy slogans, artwork and hallmark cards often confuse messages. And do not use your church or non-profit logo and by-lines in pre-printed cards and envelopes. Keep it personal. Keep it blue ink. Make an effort.
- Use blue ink or any color other than black or red. Blues tend also to be soothing and easy to read.
- Always begin letters with “you” rather than “I.”
- Never thank people for giving to “the church” or ‘The foundation” or “the (name) non-profit agency. Instead, thank them for giving to the MISSION of that agency, and mention an example or two or tell a brief story of success…
- Use paper or a larger tent card, smaller ones are going to force a small print of your hand and make it harder to read (and write!).
- Use an off-site location for self-discipline. If you write these notes at home or at the office, there will be people and things which keep trying to coax you away to something “more productive” or at least more “urgent” (not more important) and …
- If your clergy or staff are, in part at least, being paid to raise money, then “help” them by exposing their lack of visits and letters by simply measuring them. What gets measured, gets done. Or hold yourself to your own measured goals.
There are no magic rules for length or content of these notes but your gut will tell you if the note is too brief (he is lazy) or too long (he is trying to ask without asking.) I usually go with an opening sentence, two middle ones in a second paragraph, and one or two closing sentences in a final paragraph (the human eye enjoys the segments of a paragraph…it’s why we use them.”)
And lastly, if you have terrible handwriting (and you are not just using that as an excuse to get out of a boring task) then buy printable note paper (Avery has some nice cards and templates,) write the letter WITHOUT any salutation (ie; “Dear John;”) but leaving a big space for one and print the letter on a computer printer. Then use a nice blue ink pen to write the “Dear John” and the “(your name)” after “sincerely” in blue ink. The donor will like the hand-written salutation and signature but will appreciate the legibility of the note.
The most important thing to do is to set your own goals for how many notes you will write a week (sometimes more when gifts come in) and then go off site and write them. I find that if I set a goal of 20 per week (4 per day on average) it takes me one minute and twenty seconds to write each note (I timed it!) or 30 minutes per week. When I sit down to write, I can only think of a few notes to write, but once I begin, other names come to mind quickly and easily as the minutes of work unfold.
The letters we read in church are, well, letters. One person, writing encouragement to another person, is an ancient and good tradition and one does wonder to what email and texting will lead us as a society of humans. I like the feel of a good pen, the color of an azure ink and the rough texture of cotton-laid paper. Also the creativity of going to the post office to choose a beautiful and meaningful stamp-sheet.
Sure. It’s a bit retro. But so are root-beer floats and I like them too!