The Good, the Bad, and Missed Opportunities: a Fundraising Case Study

Fundraising August 25, 2009

Lori Halley

By Lori Halley

We know that it's key for non-profits to connect online activities with real-world actions, but the reverse is also true, as a door-to-door fundraising campaign reminded me last week. People need to be able to take action for your cause in a way that is comfortable and convenient for them. Limit their choices — lock your prospects in to a yes-or-no proposition — and you may miss out, not only on a one-time donation but on the chance to build an enduring donor relationship.

Here's the story:

Two young men appeared in a residential neighbourhood I was visiting recently, ringing doorbells for donations to a relatively well-known children’s charity. Door-to-door fundraising is much less common than it used to be, even just a few years ago — it’s increasingly difficult to catch busy families at home in daytime hours, volunteers are harder to recruit, and fewer non-profit budgets can stretch to hiring a team of canvassers — so I watched closely for almost 45 minutes as the canvassers worked the long city block.

This campaign got a lot right in terms of professionalism, efficiency, and building credibility and trust. For example:

Good: The canvassers were neatly dressed in white shirts and dark pants, very presentable in appearance, and polite in their manners.  It was clear that an effort had been made to match the cultural background and ethnicity of the neighborhood with the young men who were assigned to work it, and they had an efficient pattern worked out for covering the territory without missing a house or duplicating efforts.
Good: Each wore an official-looking laminated badge that was printed with the name of the charity, its logo, the name of the canvasser, and a statement that (for security reasons) cash donations were not accepted.
Good: Each canvasser had a clipboard to hold a printed form for recording donors’ names and addresses, a booklet of donation receipts pre-printed with the charity’s name and logo, and a brochure about the charity. They even had a couple of spare pens, just in case one ran out of ink.
Unfortunately, it missed the mark on some truly vital points:
Bad: The young men were fundraisers-for-hire, rather than active supporters of this particular cause — and it showed. They were able to deliver a quick slick pitch for the charity, but they had to flip madly through the charity’s brochure in search of answers to any specific questions about its programs and services.
Bad: Their indentification badges were on long lanyards around the necks of the canvassers, and hidden by their clipboards. There was no way for people to know, without opening the door, who these men were and what they were doing in the neighborhood.
Bad: Each canvasser had only one copy of the charity’s brochure — fastened with a string to the clipboard, presumably so it wouldn’t get lost — and the brochure was a thick one, at least 32 pages. Even with plenty of photographs, that is far too much material for any prospective donor to be expected to read while standing at the door.

But wait, there’s more —

As it happened, the fundraisers were up against an extra challenge. This neighborhood had recently been the target of several very aggressive (and possibly fraudulent) door-to-door sales campaigns. Now, naturally, the residents were highly suspicious of doorbell-ringing strangers.

From what I observed, the canvassers were met with a high proportion of closed doors; and those residents who did open their doors were clearly not inclined to pull out their checkbooks. In fact, in the three-quarters of an hour it took the two canvassers to work the block, I saw them collect only one donation. Enough to cover the cost of their wages? Maybe.

What changes might have helped the charity to open more doors?

  • If the canvassers had been local volunteers who were known, at least by sight, to the people of the neighborhood — though, admittedly, it’s tough to find enough reliable volunteers to carry out a door-to-door campaign;
  • If they had been dressed in slightly more casual or colorful clothes, to look less like door-to-door salesmen — but this can be a hard sell at the board level in more conservative organizations, and may not be practical with a team of hired fundraisers;
  • If their identification badges were not hidden, and could be read from a slightly greater distance than a foot away, or perhaps (see above) if they were dressed in bright T-shirts bearing the charity’s logo;
  • If the canvassers had been better briefed on the charity’s mission and programs, so they could answer their prospects’ questions with greater accuracy, ease, and confidence;
  • If they had had some kind of printed materials that they could give to people who might be interested in the cause but who were unwilling to donate at the door, or unable to donate at that particular time.

That last point, it strikes me, is a Really Big Roadblock. This fundraising campaign was so tightly focussed on door-to-door canvassing for on-the-spot donations, it failed to offer choices to prospective donors: Give now — if you’ve got your checkbook handy! — or don’t give at all.

Besides their single copy of the charity’s brochure, the canvassers had no printed material to leave behind with the “maybe later” folks. No pamphlet with a toll-free number. No business card giving a website address. No way for people to check the canvassers’ credentials, to get more information about the charity, or to make a donation by any other channel or payment method.

And if the door-to-door fundraisers had been able to direct people to a vanity URL or custom web page for the particular fundraising campaign, there’d have been a useful bonus — an easy, low-cost way for the charity to gauge the success of its door-to-door campaign in raising awareness as well as donations, not to mention a second chance to make their pitch.

As it was, when a door closed and the canvasser moved on to the next house, that was the end of the outreach effort — the end of a potential relationship, and the end of a chance for future donations.

A missed opportunity.

True, printed materials cost money — and every non-profit needs to keep a close eye on its spending. But in this case, the decision had already been made to outsource the door-to-door work to a professional fundraising firm. Could the charity have increased its return on that significant investment, just for the price of some business cards or one-page flyers?

I’d love to hear your comments on this particular case, and how your organization connects its offline and online fundraising efforts. What advice would you give to other non-profits planning to try a door-to-door fundraising campaign?

Additional Resources:

The Membership Growth Report:

Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

Get the report now!

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