Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The most successful fundraisers learn from beggars

by Dr. Stephen L. Goldstein

Successful fundraisers never think of themselves as mere beggars. The complete reverse! But as it turns out, the MOST successful beggars sound remarkably like highly effective fundraisers. An Associated Press article on panhandling by Adam Goldman opened the world of begging to me. Here are seven strategies from the streets that can benefit every nonprofit organization—from fundraiser to board member.

1. Tell the truth: Goldman identifies a subgroup of successful, New York City “truth-teller” beggars: “They don’t sell pirated movies or stolen candy. They don’t strum old guitars, blow into tarnished saxophones or screech country songs off key.” Their stories are real. In the words of one panhandler he interviewed, “Telling the truth will set you free.” For organizational fundraisers, telling the truth is sine qua non. And yet, how many times do nonprofits unfortunately obfuscate the compelling reality of their message by looking for some glitzy, Madison-Avenue way of making a pitch?From The Beggar’s Handbook by the pseudonymous M.T. Pockets, here are additional, choice bits of panhandler wisdom, which I’ve turned into strategies for successful fundraising:

2. Have a plan: “The successful beggar picks the time and place as much as he selects the person to approach. At all times, the successful beggar is aware, coherent, and in full control of the situation, even though his intended giver is usually not aware of this.” Would-be fundraisers who think they can send a cold letter or make a cold phone call to some well-known philanthropist and strike it rich should warm up to some good beggarly advice.

3. Use psychology: “When you look at someone as a potential giver, you have to ask yourself some questions. You cannot make assumptions . . . you have to ask yourself questions and get some concrete answers based upon observation and your experience. So choose an intended benefactor and size him or her up.”

4. Persist: “Just be sure to keep rejection in its proper perspective; everyone is rejected from time to time. Try, try again; even the people who once rejected you might give to you later on when your routine is more polished.” Learn to tell the difference between a No (We can’t give to your worthy project at this time) and No (Forget it!). Foundations and corporations often make donations at specified times of the year. Knowing their cycle of giving may be the key to your success.

5. Be creative: “Always experiment with new ideas and routines; discard those that don’t work and keep those that do.” Too often, fundraisers don’t know what they’re doing right. For example, few fundraising events are worth all the time and effort that goes into them—if volunteer and planning hours were figured into the mix of true costs.

6. Make your donor feel good: “The most successful business transactions are those that leave both parties happy after the transaction is complete.” Key word: both!

7. Be upbeat and thankful: In Street Sense, here's how George Siletti, who was homeless off and on for 25 years, advises beggars: “And most of all you should smile at the person and if money is given always say thank you or a kind word.” Fundraisers who haven’t mastered the art of giving genuine thanks will become beggars for real themselves!

Send your questions and comments to Stephen L. Goldstein at He is the author of the nationwide bestseller, 30 Days to Successful Fundraising.

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