(With a little help from Gene Simmons)
I’ve worked on dozens of fundraising campaigns, for various churches, non-profits and educational foundations. I’ve helped raise millions of dollars for causes that I thought worthy of the effort. Each one, reaching it’s targeted goal. These successes have taught me a lot about what motivates folks to contribute to your vision, both the fundraising team and to those that break out their checkbooks. The best, and most inspirational lesson in fundraising for me, came from the most unlikely person and place, and I thought I’d share his wisdom with you…
Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice
I rarely watched it (I presume with Trump’s Presidential campaign, that it’s in re-runs now), but I happened to stumble across the show a few years ago when Gene Simmons, the demonic rock star from the band KISS, was a contestant. True to the format of the show, the men were pitted against the women in a contest to promote something with one of the “stars” from the losing team getting fired at the end of the show. In this particular episode, Donald gave each team the task of simply selling hot dogs at Times Square (with a charitable organization getting the proceeds) — most revenue wins and the members of the team spared from being “fired!” The cameras capture all of the drama between cast members as they plan, prep, work and scheme the event, ensuring that we watch and boost the show’s ratings.
The women were lead by Omarosa, a take-charge gal who’s “famous for being famous”. The men were lead by C-list actor Stephen Baldwin — apparently Celebrity Apprentice has to dig pretty deep for its talent. I digress. Which celeb was on which team was not important, but the approach that each team took, turned out to be a great exercise in succeeding or failing at fundraising.
The ladies turned to an oldie, but goodie… “America, hot dogs and sex”. How could the quintessential American food, sold by attractive women go wrong? “Exposing more cleavage” seemed to be at the heart of their strategy. Be big. Be bold. Be fun. Be sexy. Who wouldn’t want to buy a hot dog from a voluptuous woman on a hot Summer day? It works. Kind of.
Meanwhile, the men were struggling to come up with an angle of their own. They even came up with a cool team name — Team Hydra — you know, the scary Greek mythological beast? Given enough time, they’d probably have made awesome t-shirts to wear to make themselves feel even more special. But that’s not especially a good plan for fundraising. It forgets what the purpose was in the first place. The purpose was NOT to sell the most hot dogs… but to make the most money. Period. That was the goal.
As they argued about what marketing message they needed to deliver to beat the girls, a booming voice yelled a choice curse word from an adjoining room in the hotel suite they were in, “Shut the f*** up!”
Gene Simmons had a plan… and a moment of clarity.
He got on the phone, called a few of his celebrity friends and asked them one very simple question, “Could you swing down to Times Square tomorrow and buy a hot dog for $10,000 for my charity?”
They said, yes.
While Omarosa and the female contestants sold individual hot dogs like, well, hot dogs, they raised about $10,000 at the end of the day. Pretty good. Team Hydra, on the other hand, took in over $50,000. You see, to successfully fundraise, you need to get big donors on board first. It’s that simple… and crucially important.
Gene Simmons: Rock star. Fundraising guru.
When you set out the thermometer that gets displayed on the street, you should have it over half-full to begin with (if not more), because you sought out your strongest contributors first; getting them to understand your mission. Once done, the final goal is almost assured because the little guys, like you and me, will contribute en masse because everyone wants to be part of a winning cause. By allowing everyone to see the apparent success of the cause at the start, the smaller contributors will be motivated to help you see the achievement toward your final goal.