A fundraising lesson in persistence and much more

university1I graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with my graduate degree in Urban Planning in 1994. In the summer immediately following graduation, I received my first fundraising appeal from the university. So, this story started almost 20 years ago, and it ended last night in an Applebee’s restaurant in Roswell, NM. In my opinion, there are lots and lots of little lessons throughout this story that every fundraiser should internalize.
I graduated at the height of the Chief Illiniwek controversy. For those of you who don’t know the story, it is akin to what the Washington Redskins are currently going through. It is simply a question of whether or not a sports team mascot can be a racist and insensitive symbol.
I came down on the side of the argument that “racial stereotypes dehumanize people“.
So, when my first fundraising letter came in the mail, I responded with a letter asking the university to stop soliciting me until the board of trustees addressed the Chief Illiniwek issue.
Believe it or not, the letters stopped.
university2Almost 13 years later, The Chief danced his last dance at a football or basketball game.
I couldn’t believe it when the fundraising letters started arriving in my mailbox again. Wow … 13 years later. I kinda thought they would’ve forgotten about me.
Not only did the letters start coming, but it felt like I got something every few months.
And then the phone calls started coming.
And then the email started coming.
I almost caved at first. After all, I kind of felt obligated to give to a fundraising solicitation that was 13 years in the making. Yet, I held off on making my first contribution. Our charitable giving budget was big back then and we had lots of charities we liked to support.
I decided that my alma mater would have to earn it just like the other charities did.
On September 17th of this year, I blogged about the Urban & Regional Planning Department at the University of Illinois and their 100th anniversary. I used their event to talk about how your agency should use anniversaries to engage donors as well as do some fundraising.
In that post, I shared some of the activities and communication strategies being employed by the university. I openly wondered if I would attend the big weekend celebration or make a contribution.
Fast forwarding to last night . . .
I am on the road for business and find myself in Roswell, NM. Across the street from my Holiday Inn Express is an Applebee’s restaurant, which is where I found myself for dinner eating alone and reading a white paper on monthly giving campaign best practices. (LOL . . . isn’t my life glamorous?)
While I’m on the road, I forward my home phone to my cell phone because I hate weeding through tons of voicemail upon returning from the road.
In the middle of my wedge salad, my phone rings. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered it anyway. Of course, it was a student from the university asking if I would like to make a contribution to contribute to a scholarship fund as a tribute to the Urban Planning Department’s 100th anniversary.
Six years of countless mail . . . a steady stream of email . . . and diligent phone calls from students . . . and it finally happened last night.
She asked me specifically for $300. I declined, but countered with my first $100 contribution to the University of Illinois. It is perhaps the hardest earned $100 contribution any non-profit organization has ever received.
Why last night? I have no idea. The spirit moved me? The ambiance of Applebee’s set the stage? The case for support language included support of a scholarship fund and had a tribute angle? Who knows!
I think this story is ripe with lessons for fundraising professions. Here are just a few

  • Persistence is an important element for a successful fundraising program
  • Donor databases (when used appropriately) are powerful tools
  • Multi-channel communication is the wave of the future (e.g. mail, email, phone, etc)
  • The case for support is important
  • What your agency does on the front line impacts donor perceptions (e.g. Chief Illiniwek impacted my charitable giving; whereas, bad press or not offering certain programs may impact your donors’ appetite for giving)

For the record, I am excited to now see how the university stewards its donors. Stay tuned!  😉
Are there other lessons that you see from this story. Please use the comment box below to share. We can all learn from each other.
Here’s to your health! (And congrats to the university for a job well done)
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC


  1. Erik: I have had a similar experience with my college, but with another origination. My college eliminated fraternities and while at college I had a tremendously positive fraternity experience. They also eliminated sororities, and likewise my wife had a great sorority experience. While the college has called annually to ask for their gift to which I have declined each and every year, the fraternity engaged me as a volunteer, asked for my input, made sure that I was communicated with in an ongoing sense, and then asked me for an annual gift to which I have responded positively each year (and have increased my giving into the major gift category). The difference between the two approaches? One just asked for money and from a sense of obligation. The other got me involved and then asked out of a sense of support. Which one works better for the donor as well as the organization?

    1. Thanks for weighing in with that story, Stephen. I LOVE IT!!! You have captured the difference between transactional fundraising and donor-centered fundraising in less space than most authors can do with pages and pages in a book. 😉 I hope to see you around here making comments more often. You’re a natural. 😉

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