As Halloween approaches, I’m reminded of my childhood years trick-or-treating. I was good at bringing home a huge haul of candy. And, I was also pretty good at collecting money.
Let me explain.
In elementary school, my teacher distributed UNICEF boxes to students. I think I was around 10-years-old when I received my first orange-and-black box. The colors of the box immediately caught my attention because they just happened to be our school colors.
When my teacher explained that UNICEF helps children in need around the world, my friends and I were revved-up to help by raising money from our neighbors.
Collecting for UNICEF was not my first fundraising experience, but it did teach me five valuable lessons that continue to serve me well all these many decades later:
To get, you have to ask.
As a kid, I knew I had two choices on Halloween; I could 1) sit at home and not have any candy, or 2) put on a costume, knock on doors, and ask for candy. Even as a 10-year-old, it didn’t take much effort to figure out that if I wanted to eat candy, I had to get off my rear-end, and go ask for it.
Well, the same principle applied to UNICEF. If I wanted to have money in my box to help kids in need when I returned to school, I’d have to ask for it.
I think you’ll agree that I discovered a pretty simple principle. But, if it’s so simple, why do so many development professionals avoid asking?
At one major, prestigious university medical school, the major gift officers would not get out from behind their desks to go visit prospective donors. Sure, they’d go on the road occasionally, but they never saw as many alumni as they could or should have. To solve the problem overnight, the head of advancement got rid of the offices. Yes, it was an extreme move. No, it was not a particularly elegant solution.
The thinking was that the major gift officers couldn’t hide in their offices if there were no offices. When they were on-campus, they could work in a bullpen to set appointments. Without an office or even a desk of their own, being on campus wasn’t very comfortable. So, some of the major gift officers quit while the others went out and started asking more people for donations. The school started raising much more money.
When my teacher distributed the UNICEF boxes, she explained what the organization would do with the money. Then, she asked us if we would agree to raise money to help kids in need. When we all agreed, the teacher added something else. She said that she wanted us to ask others to give only after we had donated first. She told us that we couldn’t expect others to support UNICEF if we weren’t willing to do so.
Peter Benoliel, Chairman-Emeritus of Quaker Chemical, is a generous philanthropist and recipient of the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning of Greater Philadelphia’s Legacy Award for Planned Giving Philanthropist. In my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing, I share five suggestions Benoliel offered to development professionals to help make them more effective. One of his suggestions was that “staff and volunteer fundraisers should be morally armed by making their own donation first.”
It was a great lesson to learn early. When I was standing in a neighbor’s doorway with my orange-and-black box, I was able to say something like, “I’ve donated what I can to UNICEF. Can you please give something to help needy kids, too?” There was no way an adult was going to say “No” to a little kid after that.
Tell the impact.
In addition to telling prospective donors that I had made my own gift, I also explained to them where our money was going. UNICEF made it easy. Along the sides of the box, the organization listed what a quarter, a dollar, etc., could buy. Back then, UNICEF was focused on hunger and malnutrition. I remember being stunned at how much food even a quarter could purchase for another child.
When I told my neighbors how far their money would go, they were just as surprised as me. Many times after I explained what the money would accomplish, instead of just making a preemptive gift of pocket change, donors would ask me to wait while they went back into the house for a wallet or pocketbook so that they could make a more substantial gift.
In my professional career, I never forgot what I learned from UNICEF when I was 10. I’ve almost always found that people are more willing to donate, and more willing to donate more, if I can be specific about the impact their gifts will make.
Keep the ask focused.
The idea of the Halloween UNICEF appeal was that children would take their collection box around with them when they went door-to-door asking for candy. But, my friends and I were worried. While we were altruistically motivated, we were also still just kids. We feared that some grown-ups might either give us candy or money. We lived in a lower-income area. Our fear was justified. To eliminate the risk and ensure we maximized our fundraising revenue and candy take, we decided to raise money for UNICEF the afternoon of the day before Halloween.
My friends and I were among the top fundraisers in our class. And, our candy haul was still massive.
Our fundraising success might have been because we were raising money hours before Mischief Night. But, we were good kids, and well known in the neighborhood. So, I think the real reason we were successful is that the adults we were talking with were not distracted by Halloween obligations. They were able to focus on what we were saying, and they were willing to give us enough time to make our case. In other words, they weren’t distracted, and we had sufficient time to tell them about UNICEF.
Sadly, I frequently see nonprofit organizations using a multiple-ask approach. I see donation lines on theater subscription order forms. I see membership renewal appeals that include an annual fund ask. I see capital campaign appeals that include an annual fund ask or vice versa. I see annual fund appeals that include a planned giving tag-on ask. The thinking is: This will save us time and money. You’ll notice that this is not donor-centered reasoning. It’s organization focused.
Generally, a double ask means that one ask or the other will be given less attention. It also means that the donor can easily become confused or annoyed. By focusing on one ask, and doing it well, you’ll generally enjoy greater success.
I didn’t have much while growing up. In good years, we were working class. In bad times, we were on food stamps. Yet, I was always aware that there were children far worse off than I ever was. When UNICEF came into my life, I was excited. I had a chance to help other kids who, for whatever reason, were in worse circumstances than I was. I could relate to the cause. I knew I could make a difference in a fellow child’s life.
As a 10-year-old, you don’t have a lot of power. But, through UNICEF, I had the power to provide life-saving nutrition. I think that’s a pretty amazing realization for anyone. For a 10-year-old, it’s mind-blowing. That passion gave my friends and me tremendous motivation to make an extra trip through our neighborhood. It gave us the energy to knock on more doors. And, it gave us a sense of excitement that was contagious.
Another one of Benoliel’s tips for development professionals was to be passionate. He’s right. If you’re not passionate about what you are raising money for, you won’t be as successful as you could be. So, if you’re not passionate, get passionate or get another job. Skills are important, but passion really does count for a great deal.
I thank Manor Elementary School (Pennsbury School District) for hosting the UNICEF program. I learned a great deal about civic responsibility, philanthropy, and fundraising. While many of the lessons I learned continue to serve me well, perhaps the greatest thing I learned is this:
Helping others feels really, really good. And, unlike eating lots of candy, it doesn’t come with a carb crash.
That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?