Get your fundraising unstuck

Christmas appeal deadline looming, anyone? Mary Anne Plummer asks whether you’re feeling stuck when you should be flying…


Get your fundraising unstuckYou’re bored. Your team is bored. The board is bored. Your latest appeal doesn’t feel much different from the one before or the one you did this time last year. You want your fundraising to stand out, cut through and raise wedges of money. I get it.

Here are some ideas for getting out of this mindset. They’re a collective effort from the six-person creative team at Pareto Fundraising. We know how it feels to be stuck – and the need to get unstuck on time, on budget and within challenging parameters.

1 Strip it back

Simplicity is one of the hardest things to achieve in creative execution, so you’ll have to work really hard at it. But if you do it right, simplicity is powerful, beautiful and action-inspiring. Simplicity makes it easy for a supporter to take the action you want them to take.

I’ve been told, “We aren’t respecting our donors’ intelligence if we don’t tell them x, y and z.” But I think we lack respect if we assume donors need or want to know every little detail. And let’s face it, too many of our ‘what to include’ decisions are made for the benefit (or to avoid conflict with) people who are not the donor.

2 Get out of the middle of the road

Nobody looks at the middle of the road – we all pay attention to the stuff on the sides. It’s the stuff on the fringes that gets the most attention and generates most conversation. The middle of the road is where you are most likely to get run over. Have a point of view, say something deliberately challenging and be upfront about the fact you are trying to prompt a response.

3 Tone

Have one and know what it is. Make it consistent. If your fundraising looks and sounds like everyone else’s, you can differentiate by working harder than them at your tone. If you have some swanky brand character description like ‘confident, friendly, inspiring’, think about (or hire some help with working out) how that translates into actual communication with supporters.   

4 Failure and barriers

Talk about them. They are the grist in the mill of life and storytelling. If you don’t have problems to be solved and barriers in the way of solving them, your charity has no reason to exist and your donors won’t have anything to respond to.

There is absolutely a place to talk about how fabulous and effective you are. But if you stop talking about challenges, or get the need/response/feedback balance wrong, you’re likely selling donors a big fib. No challenge equals no tension, no mission. No failure equals no shared humanity, no humility and no credibility.

5 Funny

So you know how someone saying something funny can change the mood in an instant? Humour reminds us of how human we all are. It’s also universally likable – and unexpected – from a charity. So, go on, be brave and share something funny with your supporters. They will remember you and probably like you heaps better.

6 Hunt down the most fascinating part of the story

We, as fundraisers, get some amazing stories. But even we can become blasé about them. So if you’re feeling a bit bogged down, put some energy into getting even more out of your stories.

Fish for interesting content and angles, ask questions you don’t usually ask, dig around for visual material that goes beyond photographs. Search for all that is fascinating and share it with your supporters. You will add colour and authenticity to your work, you’ll create more complete and relatable characters in your mission story, and you’ll set your fundraising apart.

7 You want fresh? Be fresh

Years ago at Award School (a boot camp for advertising industry creatives), an industry ‘Grand Poohbah’ advised an auditorium of advertising wannabes to not have big nights, drink too much alcohol or take drugs.

That was a disappointment to many in the audience who wanted to make it in advertising precisely so they could indulge in big, boozy nights etc. But Grand Poohbah had a good point. It’s so much harder to do great work and have fresh ideas if you’re wrung out, acidic and sleep-deprived. But if you create the right conditions and choose the right inputs, your outputs will reflect that.

8 “If this were a feature film, I would…”

Try to get your head out of: This is just another fundraising appeal and I’m limited by bla and bla and bla. Give yourself permission to be big and ambitious and lofty.

How would you make your story into a box office hit? What aspects would you highlight and bring out? Where would the tension be? Where are the heroics and/or unexpected moments? What would make it memorable?

Chances are, someone (or a panel of people) will pressure you to make your ideas smaller. But if you start out big, they will have more work to do to drag you into mediocrity, right?

9 Look for extreme contrasts and highlight or emphasise them

It’s a fast, effective way to make a point. Your contrasts don’t just have to be before and after, either. Try clear/unclear, here/there, with/without, us/them…

10 Read a kid’s book and learn from it

Lots of people think they could write a children’s book, but it’s among the most difficult of all genres to get published. Kids are incredibly discerning consumers of stories. They spot fakery and try-hardery a mile off. They’re bored unless the content is genius. They’re unashamedly all about themselves. They don’t care what anyone else thinks about the stuff they like and respond to. All of which means successful kids’ books must be incredibly good. If you can identify and replicate what makes a good book for kids, you’ll win over your adult supporters easily.

11 Tell someone who doesn’t care

Get a fresh pair of eyes and ears involved – someone who knows nothing about the hundreds of things you’ve been told you have to say/can’t say. Don’t ask them to critique your work, simply observe their reactions. This could give you insights into:

•    how compelling your story is (if they’re not interested in your story, you either need a better one or you need to tell it better)

•    which aspects of your story/appeal/ideas are engaging for an actual human (take these and make more of them).

12 Don’t be like Floyd

The inspiration for this article came from a wonderful kids’ book called Stuck by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins). It’s about Floyd, a little boy who gets his kite stuck in a tree and tries to knock it down by throwing an increasingly ludicrous array of items at it.

There’s a great moment near the end where Floyd is suddenly struck by inspiration. Aha! He leaves the page and comes back with a saw. He tests the teeth of it on the tree trunk, and looks up at his kite in anticipation… Then he lobs the saw up into the branches. Where, of course, it gets… stuck.


Mary Anne Plummer

Mary Anne is Creative Director at Pareto Fundraising where she helps charities to create powerful fundraising communications. She also spent nine years writing copy for the corporate sector at some of Australia’s best- known advertising agencies.