The trouble with “sexy” fundraising trends

A person with long, brown curly hair wearing black holding out a one dollar bill, photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In the past few years, I’ve noticed nonprofit leaders using an uncomfortable turn of phrase more and more: “make it sexy.” “We have to make our programs sexy.” “We have more money in our budget than we expected, let’s make sure we find someplace sexy for it to go.” “Make it sexy, we need to make a splash.” 

Sexiness, as nonprofit folks use the idea, seems to be about a “bigger is better” mentality—which is understandable. What nonprofit wouldn’t want to dazzle supporters through immensity, to go viral and raise millions of dollars or prove that a program adds millions in value? The assumption is that nonprofits must alchemically transform pennies into an avalanche of dollars, and that those dollars must be 100 percent dedicated to supporting the people served by the nonprofit. 

The trouble is, very few nonprofits actually work at dazzlingly gigantic scales — and none of them have zero administrative costs. But under the pressure to be “sexy,” too many otherwise ethical organizations minimize their overhead and exaggerate their impact. The impulse is understandable, but perilous. Exaggeration, even “sexy” exaggeration, is never a solid way to build trust. And every single mission-driven organization, no matter how big or small, runs on trust.  

A cautionary tale 

A few years ago, a communications professional from a food bank scheduled a strategy session with me to discuss an upcoming campaign. This is a common occurrence; we have offered free strategy sessions to our clients since I started working for CommitChange in 2014. (You can schedule yours right here!) But this session went much differently from the norm. 

This nonprofit leader, you see, was being forced to lie.. 

As we began, I explained that I could help her put together a campaign page, and talk over how to structure giving levels and storytelling aspects of the campaign. But it gradually emerged that she wasn’t wrestling with inexperience or a lack of ideas, but with a subtly unethical demand from their corporate marketing partner. 

This partner had approached the food bank about running a special campaign to market to their customers and employees. It seemed like a win-win:The food bank would provide the fundraising platform (CommitChange), and the company would provide promotional assets (logos, promotional designs, and videos) pro bono. 

Soon, the communications professional was sent a package of content to look over. At first, it looked great. Many of the points in the campaign copy were true, focusing on the food bank’s ability to work directly with suppliers to keep down costs, and the importance of donating money instead of food to support their work. But there was a problem: the giving level copy was wildly exaggerated. It made claims like, “For $5, you can support a family of four with meals for a week,” and “Keep a household fed for $1/day.” It sounded too good to be true because, obviously, it was.

My advice to the communications professional from the food bank was to work with the company to make revisions—but the nonprofit’s leadership didn’t want to rock the boat or miss out on the funds they knew would flow in from the campaign. “It’s not true,” the comms person told me unhappily, “but when I brought this up with our contact at the company, they said they needed the campaign to be ‘sexy,’ and they’ll only partner with us on this if we use the graphics and copy they provided.”

For me, this session was a learning moment. In my own work as a media specialist for nonprofits, and as a journalist before that, I knew how important it was to package materials so others could use them, whether it was a media kit or messaging in a press release. If they had provided their marketing partner with a fundraising guide with clear messaging and talking points, they may have avoided this entire dilemma.

How to run a successful campaign honestly 

Because it’s so easy to fall into exaggeration, it’s a good practice for every nonprofit or social enterprise to provide clear, specific, and truthful guidelines and messaging for all your fundraising campaigns, especially if someone else will be running them on your behalf. That includes guidelines for video and photo assets and ethical considerations that could come up around using images of the people you serve. If we want to lead with our values, we need a clear understanding of what our guiding principles are and the scenarios in which we are likely to be tested. 

The problem, of course, is that whether you’re an executive director, a development professional, or a communications specialist wearing more than one hat, there’s never enough time in the day to finish the work that’s already on your plate—and the situations that pop up during any fundraising campaign are always made up of multiple shades of gray. Fudging a data point here, minimizing an expense there, and soon you’ve left your own values far behind in the process of raising money for them.

This is why it’s a great value to invest your time in seeking out professional ethics guidance, like that found through the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Community-Centric Fundraising, specialized mentorship programs, and events like the Nonprofit Dev Summit. In order to grow as fundraising professionals, we need spaces to learn and discover new models of navigating issues as they come up. 

At CommitChange, our strategy sessions most often revolve around digital fundraising, but if you ever have questions about applying your values to your work in the nonprofit space or in regards to technology, please do reach out to me at Raising money to make the world better is nuanced and complicated, and I love helping our customers puzzle out how to do that with integrity and joy. 

The trouble with “sexy” fundraising trends

by Wendy Bolm, CommitChange Product Lead