fundraising as extortion

Here’s a tragic, expensive fundraising mistake you can learn from.

In this week’s mail was a New Donor Direct Mail Acquisition kit from the nice folks at CARE. And it made me so mad I was stomping around the office for a couple of hours before I was calm enough to write.



Beautiful outer envelope.
If you can’t tell from the photo, it’s textured paper with nearly a fabricy feel. It very much conveys the feel of a rice bag (I’ve helped load bags just like this in Central America, very authentic.)

But notice the teaser.

Well, how nice. If I give a gift they’ll never bother me again. Hmmm. Not that I’ll solve the problem of world hunger. Not the joy and satisfaction of helping a hungry child or family. It’s the promise that if I pay them off, they won’t send me another appeal.


CARE 2(Click the image to view larger)Wow. There’s so much wrong about this I’m not sure where to begin.

It turns out their offer on the teaser isn’t exactly what I thought it was. Turns out if I give a gift and check off their preference box with my gift then I won’t hear from them again.



CARE 3(Click the image to view larger)

And of course, those of us in the business know that with a big organization like CARE, it might take a while for my preferences to really take effect . . . these things do take time with the big machines. Their disclaimer says 8-10 weeks. And you know when they admit to 8 to 10 weeks, it’s gonna be at least 12.

What’s good? It’s an engaging kit. The Outer Envelope is right on. Except for the Teaser which is nothing short of extortion. And it’s stupid, too.

The letter’s decent copy and makes a good organization-centric case…but, really, they’re keeping me focused on the extortion not how to change a life.

What’s bad? The teaser, of course, and more importantly, what the teaser clearly demonstrates is what the organization believes about fundraising, their cause and me the potential donor.

Here’s what this acquisition kit says:

Fundraising is Extortion. I know that’s harsh, but check out a definition of the word extortion. The key meaning seems to be: obtaining money (a donation) from a person (me, the prospective donor) through coercion (the threat that they will continue to bother me if I don’t give).

You may think that I’m pushing too hard on this but I have to tell you I’m so offended by this I’m hyperventilating. CARE has the opportunity to inspire me, and they chose what is not only a lazy strategy, but horrible strategy.

Hunger is Trivial. Recently, a client observed that I’m a misty-eyed optimist when it comes to fundraising and development. It’s true. I believe it’s a noble thing to help feed hungry children (or house people without homes or help people in need). I love helping donors understand how they can change a life, a family, a generation . . . change the world. It’s crazy, I know, but I really believe that. And it’s sad to see how clearly, CARE doesn’t seem to care. They shouldn’t even make their pitch about “hunger.” This is about about hungry people. It’s about children with names. It’s about individuals with a future.

Donors are Selfish. Maybe this bothers me more than anything else. Does CARE really think we donors really so vapid, selfish and stupid? What does CARE think we think? Are they living in the 1940’s?

Wow, Martha, we really oughta send CARE a check so that we can stop them sending us this direct mail.” Is that the conversation CARE wants people to have?


OK, Bill, we’re gonna help a child in Africa like this one not be hungry next year. We’re blessed, we can share and then these kids can have a chance at a good life.”

You may notice CARE is making the tragic, but common, mistake of not making this acquisition kit about how I can help a person. No story of the kind of person whose life is changed. No personal connection with someone I could feed. No names. No details. Only extortion and org-centric thinking.

CARE’s made it about me not getting any more direct mail . . . not changing a real person’s life. You can read more about that tragic strategy mistake here.

What are the fundraising lessons from this awful CARE direct mail kit?

1. Face your fundraising fear. If you don’t find fundraising noble and worthwhile do something else. There’s lots of work in the world, and I’ve watched too many people who don’t love it try. It never works. Find another job before you waste any more money, time and opportunities.

2. Focus your donors on a person. Most of us don’t have billions of dollars to throw around to solve big crisises or solve world-problems. We’re looking for how we can have impact in one person’s life. We want to know how we can make a difference with a person.

3. Fight any strategy that’s based in cynicism. Small thinking and cynicism will never ultimately win. Lift our eyes to the horizon. Cast a vision of hope. Paint a bright future. And tell us how we can do that. Then we will demand you communicate with us MORE not LESS.

What about you? Does this offend you like it did me? (I am calmer now). What do you think about my analysis? I really would enjoy knowing what you think even if you disagree.

And speaking of disagreeing, you might say, “Hey Thomas . . . but what happens if this is a very successful donor acquisition kit? What if like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, CARE gets a lot of attention and donors? If that happens, would that make this a great donor acquisition strategy?”


You might say, “Hey, that extortion teaser got you to open the envelope.” And that’s probably one of the ways that whoever designed this atrocity got it sold to CARE. It’s the “Get ‘em Into The Envelope At All Costs argument.”

Isn’t that a good thing?


Imagine through some bizarre circumstance they raised a lot of money with this mailing and had a bunch of new people raise their hands to become donors. What kind of donors would these people be? How valuable are donors whose primary motivation to give is to have the option to limit how often you communicate with them? How interested in your cause are they? How valuable will they be? How likely are you to cultivate a meaningful relationship with them if you begin with an extortion offer?

Nope. It’s a loser strategy. Period.

OK, now I’d love to hear what you think.


And if you’d like to see receive my shiny new eNewsletter on life, work and leadership. Please sign up here, I’d love to share the conversation with you.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

Picture of Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

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