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Is the Fear of Failure Hurting Your Fundraising?

Fear is a powerful thing. The fear of failure is something that most people struggle with. No one wants to fail. It is part of our culture to want to succeed. But when succeeding means not trying hard enough or setting your goals too low, we have a problem.

I was never an athletic kid, but my parents decided that we were going to learn to ski as a family. Clumsy me at 12 years old is on top of a mountain with a ski instructor, terrified of falling and getting hurt. That’s when the instructor said something to me that I have never forgotten. “If you’re not falling down, you’re not trying hard enough. You won’t get better if you don’t fall.” I was lucky to have parents that reinforced this message. My mom would always tell me “Just ask, what’s the worst that can happen? Someone says no? It’s not the end of the world.”

This is a message that we can apply to so many aspects of our lives, but especially to our fundraising. As fundraisers, so much responsibility rests on our shoulders. We are responsible for raising the money that runs the nonprofit that saves the dogs, children, rain forest, homeless, etc. The bottom line is if we don’t deliver, someone suffers.

What I saw at my organization and other nonprofits, was that fundraisers were asking for just enough money to survive. Let me be clear, fundraising is hard work. Just because you want to raise $100,000, doesn’t mean that you have the donor base right now to do so. I can tell you with certainty if you don’t try you won’t fail, but you also won’t raise any money.

As a fundraising professional I understand that you don’t want to put on your resume that you organized a fundraiser with a goal of $50,000 but only raised $40,000. That doesn’t sound good. You don’t want your boss to be disappointed or worse think you’re not good at your job. Let’s stop right there and find out how you are setting your fundraising goals. Is your goal based on your need or what you think you can raise? What if you had only set your goal at $15,000 because that’s what you raised at the last year’s gala and you knew you could do it? Would you still have ended up with $40,000? The answer is no you wouldn’t have raised the $40,000 and here’s why.

We need to understand the power of the “fundraising goal.” People want to help you accomplish something, help you reach your goal. Once you’ve reached your goal that excitement fades away. People will start to think, “They’ve already reached their goal that’s nice. I’ll donate later or another time.” Or “They raised all the money they needed, I’ll send in a donation to an organization that really needs it.” As fundraisers, we know the need is never ending. You always need more funding because there is always someone else to help. But the public doesn’t know that, unless we tell them. So stop selling yourself short with a safe fundraising goal. Let me illustrate my point with a few examples from my fundraising experience.

Each Christmas the organization I volunteer with gives away thousands of boxes of food. They usually order 500 hams. As you can imagine 500 hams costs a lot of money, and money is something we as nonprofits are constantly trying to raise. I received a call one day from the program manager, where he informed me that while we normally order 500 hams, I could get us donated hams this year. He only ordered 100 hams for that Christmas. He needed 400 hams donated by Christmas Eve. No pressure there. If I failed 400 families wouldn’t have Christmas dinner! I had never tried to get donations of hams before. Instead of saying I can’t do this, I tried. I wasn’t successful immediately, but I kept trying different things. And I did it! I got those 400 hams donated in time for Christmas.

Right before the winter of 2015’s infamous Polar Vortex, my community had a homeless crisis on its hands. For years chronically homeless individuals had been congregating in a heated parking garage to stay warm. This parking garage had just hired security and told the homeless they had to go. Go where? It’s almost winter and the other shelters are full! The week of Christmas, I was working with the Executive Director of the shelter and we decided we just needed to raise money on our own to shelter these people. That’s what we did, but we didn’t set our sights high enough. We are a small group and we had never raised significant amounts of money. We set a goal of raising $60,000 to purchase a home that we could use to shelter these people. I set up a Go Fund Me, because at the time we didn’t even have a nice website where we could collect donations. I put up the goal of $60,000 and the money started coming in. Then it happened. We got a check for $60,000. Within 3 days we had surpassed our goal! I raised our goal to $90,000 then again to $120,000. Between Go Fund Me and offline donations we ended up raising about $100,000. The lesson here is this: I didn’t set the goal high enough the first time. Once people knew we were at our goal the donations stopped coming in. The public didn’t like that we had changed our goal twice. They felt we were being greedy. If we had set our sights higher from the beginning, we could have hit $120,000 or maybe even more.

Last summer I was put in charge of creating a fundraiser for the House of Mercy. The previous summer fundraiser had raised about $20,000 selling car raffle tickets. I was trying to come up with an idea for a summer fundraiser that would raise more money with a lot less effort on our part. I came up with the idea of throwing a birthday party for our Executive Director. It was a milestone year for her. She was turning 80 years young, celebrating being a Sister of Mercy for 60 years and she had been running the House of Mercy for 30 years. In honor of this, I wanted to raise $80,000 for her 80th birthday. But when I told people this they said “Whoa! $80,000 we can’t do that. We’ve never raised that kind of money. Let’s set the goal at $20,000. We think we can do that.” Everyone fought with me to lower the goal but I persisted. I had just learned my mistake of not setting the goal high enough in my winter fundraiser. We did it! The birthday campaign raised over $106,000.

Every day I have to challenge myself to work harder, be bolder, take that new Salesforce certification test, or raise more money. It pays off. Everything I try is not successful and I still fall down. But I’m ok with that, because I know if I’m not falling, I’m not trying hard enough.

Do you feel pressured to set safe fundraising goals? Does the fear of failure keep you from trying new things in fundraising? We all need a mentor in our life that pushes us to do better, to do more. If you don’t have a mentor, seek out someone you admire and ask them if they would mentor you. My mentor is an 80 year old Catholic nun named Sister Grace Miller, who runs a homeless shelter in the poorest neighborhood of Rochester. She gets arrested for protesting social injustices and challenges the system at every turn. She is the bravest person I know. She can’t teach me anything related to Salesforce and she’s not a professional fundraiser, but she’s taught me never to be afraid to try and that’s something I can apply to every aspect of my life.

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