Fundraising through inspiration…or through fear?

Maybe I’m old-fashioned. I’ve always believed in, and preached the importance of, inspiring donors to give. I believe donors tend to give to causes in which they believe, and in which they are inspired to invest. And I believe donors invest in organizations that exhibit success in what they do, particularly when it comes to education. Powerful storytelling backed by verifiable data yield great returns. Connecting a donor’s passion with a cause’s needs and opportunities – without overstating results – lead to positive experiences for all.

Los Angeles Fund for Public Education billboard

One of the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education’s “Catastrophe” billboards

The top 20 fundraising colleges and universities, for example, are a mixed bag of public and private institutions. Some are large research institutions, others are smaller liberal arts colleges (though all on the list have large research components, and significant grant income in addition to alumni support). Aside from sharing the trait that they’ve effectively cultivated donors and stewarded their gifts for many years (in some cases centuries), they also share another trait: they all attract philanthropic support based on their ability to exhibit institutional excellence. They inspire donors to invest in their work and illustrate the positive impact that work ultimately has in the lives of their students, their communities, and the world.

L.A. Fund for Public Education poster

A corresponding poster from the L.A. Fund for Public Education

This past week I was driving around Los Angeles and saw billboards and posters like those pictured here, touting the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education. I was struck by the stark contrast of this fundraising campaign to those we tend to see in higher education and other nonprofit organizations. Obviously public education at the primary and secondary levels is a different animal from colleges and universities, public or private, so comparing this effort to those of the most successful fundraising efforts in higher education is not an “apples to apples” comparison. However, best practices are still best practices, whether you’re raising money for a private college, a public university, a grassroots nonprofit organization, or, in this case, the nation’s second-largest public school system, the Los Angeles Unified School District. And I’m not sure this effort to instill fear in the public inspires philanthropic support. Driving parents and other would-be supporters to give “or face catastrophe” is fear-based fundraising in its basest form. While this often works in political campaigns, both for raising campaign contributions and for driving voters to the polls, that’s very different from inspiring philanthropy.

LAUSD school buses feature some eye-catching messages as well.

LAUSD school buses feature some eye-catching messages as well.

I still believe in the old adage of “investing in excellence,” rather than this approach of “give or else!” One can talk about how children’s lives will be improved, how that impacts our communities, how important it is to our future, etc., but this campaign seems to driving home a very different message. The sky is falling! If YOU don’t give to us NOW, the world ends! And while there is ample data to support the notion that L.A. public schools (and public education in California in general) are in dire trouble, I’m not sure this approach will engage donors so much as it fans the flames of discontent.

I’ve always found another important element in any type of fundraising to be the old adage of “underpromise and overdeliver.” That was true in my days in marketing and business development in the private sector, and it’s true in fundraising for nonprofits. Overpromising, on the other hand, can yield disastrous results when donors become disillusioned with an organization’s impact once gifts are received. Bottom line: avoid hyperbole.

The L.A. Fund’s online donation page states the following:

“Your gift will ensure that every student in the nation’s second largest school system has a chance to succeed!”

This statement appears right above the online giving options, which start at $10. Will my gift of $10 really “ensure that every student in the nation’s second largest school system” benefits somehow?

L.A. Fund logo

Whether its current ad campaign succeeds or not, the L.A. Fund may be the best hope for schoolchildren of Los Angeles.

Talking about how important broad participation is for this campaign to succeed, encouraging gifts of any amount to assist our schools in providing opportunities for every child, making sure donors know that every dollar counts…those are messages that hold true. But my $10 gift won’t “ensure” anything for “every student.”

I’ll be curious to follow the fundraising effort to see how effective it is at generating philanthropic support. The current ad campaign (created by noted artist Barbara Kruger), while intentionally provocative, strikes me as much more of a political statement than a fundraising effort. It’s certainly a different approach to inspiring philanthropy.

For the sake of schoolchildren, families, and communities throughout LAUSD, both today and in the future, I hope the L.A. Fund is wildly successful in raising its stated goal of $200 million over five years to improve educational opportunities and outcomes. There may be no worthier cause in Los Angeles today than improving futures for children in the city’s public schools.

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About PaulLanning

Managing Partner, rpr Fundraising, LLC

4 Responses to “Fundraising through inspiration…or through fear?”


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