Not Winning: Facing up to Banana Peels and Uphill Boulders in Fundraising

One of my favorite writers, Nora Ephron, told a story once about slipping on a banana peel in public. She said that if people watch you slip and you try to play it off, they're laughing at you, but, if you tell the story of how you slipped, they're laughing with you. I choose to tell the story of how I slipped. And of course, the eternal optimist in me gleans to the wisdom of the woman who is Why Harry, Met Sally.

As a fundraiser, you'll have good days, great days, and a lot of tough days in between. It truly is the nature of the beast of begging for what you believe in.

A year ago we took on the challenge of trying to raise money in the developing world for a meaningful cause. There are women who deserve high quality health care in Zambia. They deserve a hospital that is not in a state of disrepair. So, we decided to work with a great team of people to try and build one.

Carrying the Capital Boulder Uphill

About three months ago I started feeling like we were moving a boulder uphill. Raising money to construct a hospital or a building with a good case and a strong donor base is usually a no brainer for me. I've done it more than a few times in my career and been lucky to be a part of some fundraising teams that knew how to run great capital campaigns. It's especially hard when our other fundraising projects are going so well. This particular project was beginning to feel very different, and I was losing more sleep than usual thinking about how to fix it.

How It's Typically "Done"

I've been grappling with the difference for the last several months. The difference isn't the case, or the initial targeted donor base. It's the lack of a tangible thing that most people can wrap their heads around. It took this year of carting the boulder on my back to figure it out. Most funding for global projects such as what we are proposing starts with a movement. Examples of this can be found in most international NGO's who hedge their fundraising on the infomercials we insomniacs are all too familiar with in the dead of night. They raise money through heart wrenching evangelistic appeals that reach into the bank accounts each month of good people who see needy children and families in foreign lands they just can't let go hungry or be sick on TV, so they call in their $1.83 a week with thousands of others guilt ridden folks and voila, there it is, they become a loyal donor to a village in Cambodia they'll likely never see. Month over month, year over year, these donors are a part of a large movement of the NGO that spends money on call centers and direct mail to retain and increase their giving. Admittedly, that's not my "kind" of fundraising. I believe that this project can be supported with some strong foundation and individual funding, through cultivation of the right types of donors who are engaged in charting the course for women and children's health in Africa. This takes time, and patience.

Starting our own "Movement" and Sticking With It

There's no happy ending here yet, but as I push the Boulder, I know that it will take an even stronger team of believers to move it with us than I've ever been a part of. First off, we have to start by openly combatting some of the stereotypes placed by westerners on life in Zambia and the developing world. I even needed to be educated on that. Second, we should be prepared, and prepare our volunteers and staff to answer the tough questions about the long term plan for sustainability of a project like this in a place most of them have never visited and will likely never go. Next, we should be very well versed in the geography of the country and history of the country itself, and the potential of the project to impact the population we intend to serve. 

Getting one on one meetings with people who are interested enough to dip their toe in the water in something as complicated and game-changing as building a quality health care facility with ties to a top notch US teaching hospital requires total preparedness and a great story, ready to be told, and engaged to the fullest. 

The Peel

We've learned a lot pushing this boulder up this hill this last year. The good news is that it feels lighter even though we aren't winning right now, we know we will because what we are working for is right. And right always, ultimately, wins in the end.