Fundraising lessons from Team Obama

Since starting this blog back in May, I have twice posted articles about Team Obama because I firmly believe that non-profit organizations can learn a lot from what our political fundraising cousins are doing on the other side of town. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t just mean that through careful observation non-profits will be able to steal all of their strategies and best practices. I also mean that we can learn from their mistakes.

For example, let’s look at what happened in my household just yesterday . . .

My phone rings. I answer it, and the person at the other end identifies herself as a someone working for an independent fundraising firm who is raising money “on behalf of” the Obama campaign.

Lesson #1: Think twice about farming out your fundraising to external firms. Keep it internal and recruit volunteers from your board of directors and the community to help solicit prospects and donors. There was nothing this woman could’ve done to prove to me over the telephone that she was actually representing the Obama campaign and not some kind of scam. Volunteers have more credibility than any staff person or hired gun.

Without getting into lots of boring political talk, let me just say that I explained to this solicitor that my partner and I won’t be making a direct contribution to Team Obama’s 2012 re-election efforts. Instead, we’ve decided to shift all of our political contributions to a national political action committee (PAC). I told her to go talk to them if she wants our money.

Lesson #2: My partner and I have changed our giving strategy because we feel powerless and unable to hold national politicians accountable to the things they promised (non-profit translation: the talking points from the campaign’s 2008 “case for support” that inspired us to give in the first place because we wanted to invest in that “impact agenda”). So, here is the lesson for non-profits . . . don’t make promises you cannot keep. Not only will it disenfranchise donors, but they might very well shift their charitable giving to third party funders like United Way in an attempt to attach more accountability to their contribution.

After explaining my position to the telephone solicitor three different ways, she started arguing with me. In the middle of her diatribe, she blurted out her solicitation: “Would you consider making a $5,000 contribution today?” I politely said no. She continued with her rant, and then blurted out “Would you consider making a $2,500 contribution today?” I politely said no and referenced all the reasons I gave 5 minutes earlier. Believe it or not, she continued onward and asked if I could just make an exception and contribute $250. Finally agitated, I firmly said that I wouldn’t even consider $25 and that she needs to go talk to the PAC I referenced earlier. I also asked her to update her donor database records so that I can stop getting these phone calls, emails and direct mail appeals.

By the way, this YouTube video does a nice job capturing what that phone conversation looked like. Check it out if you need a good chuckle today.  🙂   However, I think I just cast myself into the role of the “goat” in that video. Oh well!

Lesson #3: When a donor says “NO” there are two things you need to train your volunteer solicitors to do: 1) don’t argue with them and enter into a auction-like bidding war for their contribution and 2) shut-up, listen, take good mental notes, pass the info back along to staff, and enter the conversation into the donor database as a contact record. Hopefully, staff have developed good systems to address these kind of disenfranchised donors with intense cultivation and stewardship efforts before re-soliciting them in the future.

I used to think that United Way’s best days were behind them, but taking a step back and looking at my household’s new political giving strategy has me re-thinking this position. I suspect that if non-profits don’t start investing in measuring program outcomes and implementing an impact agenda, we might be looking at a time of re-birth for United Way.

What are your thoughts about third-party fundraisers and fund distributors like United Way? Am I way off base in my thinking? What about your thoughts on the three lessons I’ve highlighted? How do you train your volunteer solicitors to deal with donors like me? What systems do you have in place to secure donor conversations and react to a failed solicitation?

Please use the comment box below to weigh-in with your thoughts because we can all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847


  1. Sounds like this is a conversation that Obama should listen to personally. And then invite us to the White House for Dinner.

    Outcomes are very important to donors, take it from a donor who really cares about outcomes.

  2. Erik,
    You have much more patience than me. Telephone fundraising bites! When I receive phone call solicitations from politicians or from social service agencies, I ask them to send me their materials for my education. To date, I have not received a piece of literature. I will not donate to an organization that solicits via phone.

    1. Thanks, Danise! I typically do the same; however, one of my four contributions in 2008 was given over the phone; whereas the other three were done online. I guess that one mistake on my part bumped me into a different category in their donor database, which now means I get hammered from all sides.

      However, your comment reminds me of one organization that I worked with who did something interesting with the telephone solicitation phase of their annual campaign. Their volunteers made calls in the evening to their friends. If the person prospective donor offered to make the contribution over the phone, then they took the pledge immediately and sent an invoice the next morning. More oftentimes than not, the person said they’d think about contributing and requested more information. So, the volunteer took their email address and sent them more information immediately, and embedded in the email was a hyperlink to the agency’s online giving page on their website. If there wasn’t an online pledge made in a week or so, the same volunteer would follow-up with a call and ask the prospect if they had any questions regarding the material they were sent in the previous email. Again … the offer to take their pledge over the phone was extended or another hyperlink was emailed if the prospective donor indicated that they were ready to make a contribution and preferred to do so online.

      Just food for thought. I was intrigued by this approach because it blended different techniques and technologies. It also was very donor-centered because it was immediately responsive to the donor’s request for more information as well as sensitive to how they wanted to make their gift.

  3. I like the approach that you’ve described. It is much more personal and responsive as opposed to the cold calling approach used some organization. I’m all about personal giving to causes I hold dear to my heart.

  4. With over 15 years of experience directing annual, capital and estate planning campaigns for hundreds of not-for-profit organizations in 29 states I, have experienced the fruitfulness of outcome based campaigns.

    In most campaigns there is a place for most direct marketing strategies and techniques. As you so well emphasized donor centered campaigns can be immediately responsive to the prospect or donors desire for more information as well as responsive to how the prospect or donor wants to make a gift. If I’ve done my research I know the prospect or donors desires and their preference for how they want to make a gift.

    The concerns you addressed about the campaign highlights a critical need for communicator training. In our campaigns the launch is one evening and is limited to 300 calls. We have a ratio of 1 trainer to 7 communicators. After one evening we will have made the necessary changes and roll the campaign out. The plus of telemarketing is within hours or several days you have completed that aspect of the campaign.

    Very effective blog!

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