As you probably know if you know me IRL, or if you comment on one of the blogs where I’ve accidentally commented using my other WordPress account, I’m in the midst of planning a major fundraising campaign.  I’ve done my share of Girl Scout cookie sales and “buy a goat for an impoverished child” programs*, but this is on another level: We’ve crunched the numbers and we may need to raise as much as $45,000.  That means stepping up my game.

Before you get worried, no, I’m not begging for donations (yet); I just want to talk about fundraising and how it’s done.  Specifically, how it’s done wrong.  I find that there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors surrounding fundraising, especially church and school fundraising.  Sometimes it’s confusion.  Sometimes it’s hard to label it as anything other than deception.  But either way, it’s unhealthy and it leads both to inefficient fundraising and to a less healthy community.

My church recently had a youth event from which the church treasurer triumphantly announced that they had raised $220 for the youth ministry.  I asked him later whether that was net or gross.  Gross, it turned out.  The event had actually cost in excess of $500.  But he assured me that church people would probably donate to cover the difference, so he was hoping to break even.

I understand why, after a fundraiser, one would prefer to announce “we made $200” rather than “we lost $300,” but to me, this feels flat-out deceptive.  The pretense is that the church is raising money from the community, but in reality, the money from the community didn’t even cover costs, so all the money that the youth program gained came straight from church members.  When you account for how many church members also paid to attend the event (self and Doad included), we probably spent some $400 to give the youth $200.  We could have given them the money directly and they would have ended up with twice as much.

Many, if not most, fundraising events are like this.  From bake sales selling store-bought items to galas where the per-head cost exceeds the ticket price, all too often the organization is effectively just earning money by taking it from the volunteers.  This is unfair to volunteers, who are contributing massive labor value and deserve to get a good return on it.

At the end of the day, small organizations with a high ratio of volunteer resources per budget–churches and schools–can get away with this kind of fuzzy fundraising math because the church members/parents can and will pick up the difference.  But as fundraising goals get higher and higher, the inadequacy of this model and the need for real, efficient fundraising become apparent.

In fairness, there are many reasons for a charity to hold an event besides fundraising.  Raising awareness, recruiting volunteers, and creating a positive presence in the community are all legitimate goals for an event.  Some missions trip organizations** require you to fundraise even if you could pay for the trip out-of-pocket, because the goal is not to raise money, the goal is to let people know you’re going.  There is even room for expensive, inefficient events (eg, kickoff parties) within well-managed, effective fundraising campaigns.  Fair enough, but if money isn’t the goal, that should be made clear to everyone from the beginning.

Now that I’m shooting for goals in the thousands, not the hundreds, I literally can’t afford to fall short and make up the difference out of pocket.  My campaign needs to be focused, efficient, and above all, smart.  Am I up to it?  We’ll find out.

Have you ever done successful fundraising?  What worked well or poorly for you?

*Which, incidentally, are terrible.

**Those are also terrible.


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