Learning how to fund-raise from other non-profits

7:54 pm freesoftware, gnome, marketing

More and more we’re seeing organisations outside the free software world  try to learn the lessons of our success, and integrate “open source” practices into their organisation.

Whether it’s companies adopting transparency and other cluetrain or pinko marketing strategies, proprietary software development companies integrating standard free software practices, or one of the other areas where “crowdsourcing” has become the cool new thing, it’s obvious hat we have gotten some things right, some of the time, and it is definitely worth learning the right lessons from projects like Linux, Mozilla, GNOME, or Wikipedia, and trying to reproduce the magic elsewhere.

Sometimes this feels like the cargo cults in the Pacific Islands, trying to make airplanes land as their ancestors saw 60 years ago, by building airstrips and imitation airplanes. But at least they’re trying to figure out what makes our communities successful.

But are we learning enough lessons from others? It seems to me like we’re charging head first like sharecroppers into undiscovered country, only to find that we’ve run into a highly advanced civilisation.

As developers, we’ve invented our own brand of everything, from scratch. We figure out how to run conferences, or raise money from people who like what we do, when these are not new problems.

This isn’t new in IT. The entire learned history of typography got thrown out the window more or less, because with the advent of WYSIWYG editors and the web, everyone has complete control of their authoring tools and Comic Sans is shipped by default, and if I need to reduce the margins to get the letter to fit on one page then by golly I will.

Merchandising and recruitment of new star talent are more examples of things that some other organisations are pretty good at.

So – as an open question – are we learning the lessons from the past which we should be learning, or is it too attractive to think that what we’re doing is so new that every problem we encounter needs a new solution?

One example of a place where there is a wealth of experience out there is convincing people to give money to a cause they believe in. There are dozens of organisations that do this well – humanitarian organisations, political lobbyists, political parties, universities – the list goes on.

Can we figure out how GNOME is like them, and learn the lessons from their fundraising campaigns?

A typical fundraising drive for an organisation like this has three main steps:

  1. Get a list of potential donors
  2. Convince them that you are doing good
  3. Find a pressure point or argument which will convince them to donate

If you look at a mailing for Médecins Sans Frontières for example, you see all of these points in action. Find potential donors – through sign-up campaigns, former donor drives, referrals. Send them a mail package, with a newsletter outlining good work, but with just enough bad news (new conflicts, new refugees, unfinished projects) and artwork (a smiling nurse taking care of a village vs a child ill from a curable illness) to show that money given to MSF will do good, and the need has never been greater.

Your response rate may be small – perhaps only 1% – but that’s enough.

Whether we’re talking about lobby groups, political parties or humanitarian agencies, the same strategies come into play – construct big databases of potential donors, and get them riled up about the thing they’re passionate about being endangered – show them the shining light of all the good work your organisation does, and then drive the sale home by making it really easy to give money or sign up.

University fundraising is an interesting case – and in fact, GNOME’s fundraising model ressembles it now. Your primary source of donations is alumni, people who have been through the university, like receiving updates every year, maybe a class-mate just became a professor, maybe a friend’s daughter got a prize in the annual awards ceremony, maybe a club or association you were in had a good year? And then you leverage the affection with the flip side of the coin – the need, the things we’d like to do better, the project we’re fundraising for which will allow us to do great work.

All of these organisations invest heavily in direct mailing, in building and maintaining databases of supporters, and in monetising them. I recently read a book by a direct mailing copywriter called “My First 40 Years in Junk Mail” and it opened my eyes to what works in that world – and also gave some ideas on the kinds of strategies maybe the GNOME Foundation should be adopting.

The first step  is building and maintaining a list of GNOME fans and supporters, by any means possible, and ensuring that they are made aware of what we’re up to and what we’d like to do. And, of course, continuing to build great products.

2 Responses

  1. prokoudine Says:

    The first step is building and maintaining a list of GNOME fans and supporters, by any means possible, and ensuring that they are made aware of what we’re up to and what we’d like to do.

    This is what they did in a camp for disabled children in USA where I worked back in 2001: every summer there was a day when people who donated money visited the camp to see what’s changed, whether kids like everything and so on.

    What you are saying basically could be rephrased to “have return customers” :) Only instead of customers we are talking about a different thing :)

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