The #Fundraising Secret for Success You Need to Know

What’s the secret to fundraising success?

Ice cream!

That’s right. Ice cream can help you achieve greater fundraising results. Really. I’m not just saying that because it’s August, and we’re setting new records for summer heat in Philadelphia. I know ice cream can help you because I saw first-hand what it has achieved for Smith College.

Let me explain.

This past Spring, my wife and I attended her class reunion at Smith. I enjoyed being with Lisa, and exploring the beautiful campus and the fun town of Northampton, Massachusetts. One of the highlights for me was seeing the College’s Gift Planning staff in action. Yes, I’m a bon-a-fide fundraising nerd, but you probably knew that already.

Sam Samuels, Christine Carr Hill, and Jeanette Wintjen staff the Smith College ice-cream stand during Reunion Weekend.

Sam Samuels, Christine Carr Hill, and Jeanette Wintjen staff the Smith College ice-cream stand during Reunion Weekend.

I’m not talking about seeing the staff in action at the mildly stuffy, but well presented, Grécourt Society reception for legacy donors. Instead, I’m referring to the ice-cream stand that the Gift Planning staff operated in the Smith College Campus Center one warm mid-day. As the staff served up the free tasty treats, they had a chance to interact with alumnae. When appropriate, the staff, wearing aprons and serving up the ice cream themselves, was able to casually explain what The Grécourt Society is, why legacy giving is important to Smith, and how alumnae can support the College with a planned gift. At the ice-cream stand, there was also a table of gift planning promotional material.

This was a great way to showcase gift planning in a friendly, pressure-free, guilt-free, fun environment. Sam Samuels, Director of Gift Planning, told me that the ice-cream stand not only allowed the staff to educate, cultivate, and thank people, it actually led to a number of planned-gift commitments during the reunion weekend.

Now, I’m not suggesting you go out and set up an ice-cream stand. However, if we examine why the ice-cream stand worked, there are some things you can learn that will help you reach your fundraising goals.

Here are five things you need to know:

1. KISS. In 1960, the US Navy noted the design principle “Keep it simple, Stupid!” That’s what we see with the ice-cream stand. The Smith staff did not over think it; however, they certainly did the planning necessary to make it work. But, the concept itself was simple. It wasn’t a fancy dinner or a posh reception to educate and cultivate prospects, though such events have their place. And Smith did some of those as well. However, this simple activity allowed the staff to reach a broader audience in a low-key fashion.

2. Lifestyle Enabling. The Smith staff put themselves in the shoes of their prospects and donors. In other words, they were donor centered when thinking about how to attract the attention of potential planned gift donors. Instead of trying to get donors to attend an estate-planning seminar (yawn), the staff thought about how to meet the needs and desires of the alumnae. Most folks like ice cream. So, the staff chose to do something that would meet alumnae where they were (in or near the Campus Center), and give them something they would likely want (a cool lunchtime treat on a warm day). The ice cream stand also harkened back to the days when, as students, they would meet up with friends for ice cream at the student center. In short, Smith helped the alumnae live the life they want. That’s what drew in the alumnae.

3. Reciprocity. By giving the alumnae something they wanted and would enjoy, Smith leveraged the principle of reciprocity: When you do something for someone else, they’ll be more willing to do something for you. In the case of Smith, giving people free ice cream made them more willing to have a conversation to learn more about philanthropic planning. Incidentally, researchers Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang have found that reciprocity is the leading generic-giving motivator as well as the leading motivation behind planned giving. For example, if your charity has helped someone (e.g., a hospital that saves the person’s life), that person will be more motivated to support the charity out of a sense of reciprocity.

4. Dopamine. Normally, I wouldn’t suggest drugging your prospects and donors. But, the fact that Smith served free ice cream seems innocent enough to me even though it triggered the production of dopamine and other pleasure chemicals in the brains of those who ate it. By giving someone something one finds pleasurable, he or she will be in a better mindset to listen to your presentation, and more likely to associate you and your presentation with that pleasant feeling. What could be better for a fundraiser than linking general fundraising or gift planning with pleasure?

5. Engagement. One reason for the success of the Smith ice-cream stand was that it gave staff the opportunity to engage with alumnae; the alumnae who care passionately enough about the College to return for a reunion weekend. And that engagement was warm, informal, fun, donor centered, and informative.

Smith College has shown that not all fundraising activities need to be serious and institutional. Planned Giving does not have to be funereal; you’re not an undertaker, for goodness sake. Fundraising should be fun, for you and the prospect/donor.

So, if you want to be a more successful fundraising professional, remember ice cream. Then, whatever you do to promote giving, remember to keep it simple, consider how you can enable the lifestyle of those you’re cultivating, think of what you can give to or do for people to engender a spirit of reciprocity, bring pleasure to folks so they associate you and your cause with a positive feeling, and get out from behind your desk or pick up the phone and engage prospects and donors.

Fundraising is not begging. It’s a sophisticated process that inspires people and helps them meet their philanthropic aspirations by matching them with a need of your organization and the people it serves.

Sometimes, that means putting on an apron instead of a suit. The Gift Planning staff at Smith College gets it. Do you? What fun things does your organization do to engage prospects and donors?

For additional reading about engagement and putting the fun in fundraising, checkout:

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

6 Comments to “The #Fundraising Secret for Success You Need to Know”

  1. And the concept focused on life and life stories, not death and taxes.

    Nice job, Michael!

    • Greg, thanks for sharing your thoughts. When it comes to planned giving, many fundraisers mistakenly believe it’s largely about death and taxes. However, one of the things I love about gift planning is that death and taxes are far less important than life, legacy, and making a difference.

      I appreciate the kind feedback.

  2. Also, it isn’t for fundraising – but the Boston Police just added an ice cream truck to their fleet – as part of a community building initiative where they give out free hoodsie cups at events like national night out.

    Ice cream works to start conversations!

  3. I hope they were scooping Herrell’s ice cream from downtown Northampton.

  4. Since graduation is the same weekend as one of the reunion weekends, this is part of the graduation program as well. When I graduated from Smith several years ago, the students thought it was a bit morbid that they were trying to incentivize planned giving with free ice cream when we were about to graduate! Nevertheless, Smith is a fundraising powerhouse with a successful multi-pronged approach. I now work in Annual Giving for a much smaller women’s college, and I envy their resources!

    • Felicia, thank you for telling me about your experience. Your comment about the student reaction to the free ice cream offer made me chuckle; it’s yet another example of how some college students seem to go out of their way to find things to be offended by. I fail to understand how anyone could find free ice cream to be “morbid”; however, I recognize that we’re all entitled to our opinions. It would just be nice if recent college graduates would choose to think about what Smith was doing rather than choosing to react emotionally. The reality is that Smith was not offering free ice cream to “incentivize” people to make a planned gift. Do recent college graduates really think that a scoop of vanilla is all it takes to get someone to give? Good grief! The only thing that the free ice cream offer does is provide an opportunity for casual engagement where planned giving can be discussed informally without any pressure. It’s also an opportunity for alumnae to meet the staff. If the recent graduates had taken advantage of that opportunity, they would have learned that not all planned gifts are Charitable Bequests; many types of planned gifts involve current donations made during the donor’s life and, therefore, don’t have anything to do with death; what’s morbid about that?

      Another point that students at Smith should consider is the fact that 60 percent receive some sort of financial aid, a significant portion of that made possible thanks to planned giving. For that matter Smith itself exists thanks to a substantial bequest from Sophia Smith. In other words, some students were only able to attend Smith College because of planned giving. How morbid is that?

      I know you get it. I’m just frustrated that more folks choose to respond with emotion rather than with thought. As my wife says, we would hope that recent college graduates would have obtained the ability to think things through and that their reaction would be: “Hey, what a great way to meet the staff in a fun, casual setting.”

      Yes, Smith is fortunate to have the resources necessary to invest in a successful development effort. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the College from leaving money on the table. There’s still more Smith can do and more it can do better, just like any nonprofit. I also need to point out that I have never talked to a fundraising professional who felt their budget was large enough. That’s not surprising. There’s always something more we can do if we have the resources. When resources are thin, we just need to be a bit more creative.

      Many years ago, I worked with a small science museum. The Director of Membership used an IBM XT computer. To put that in perspective, any smartphone today has more computing power than that old desktop computer did. She also had a miniscule marketing budget. By comparison, the much larger science museum across the street had a sophisticated mainframe computer system and large marketing budget. Despite being at a disadvantage from a technology and budget standpoint, the smaller museum was able to build a membership base that was substantially larger than the bigger museum. The smaller museum was successful because it was more nimble, more willing to test fresh tactics, more willing to think creatively about member benefits, and more willing to market in innovative ways.

      Being creative and looking for meaningful ways to build trust leads to fundraising success. Sometimes, that might begin with a scoop of ice cream.

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