‘From this distance they couldn’t hit an ele…’

This second selected chapter is taken from the long-awaited 2nd edition of The Porcupine Principle, the bestselling fundraising book by Jonathan de Bernhardt Wood who is Director of Giving for the Church of England. This chapter is available to read for one week.

One of my lifetime ambitions is to write a book based on people’s last words. It is a good indication of a warped mind, I freely admit, but I think it would make a corking read. What do you think yours would be? What would you like them to be? My suspicion is that General John Sedgwick did not anticipate that his last words would be ‘from this distance they couldn’t hit an ele …’1 He was responding to the increasingly alarmed requests of his troops to open fire on the rapidly advancing enemy in the American Civil War. His logic, reasonably sound, was that if they were too far away, then the bullets would just be wasted, as they had little chance of hitting the intended target. Better to save them for when they could actually do the job they were meant for. Unfortunately for him, the enemy was a far better judge of distance than he was. 

Being able to judge distance is an essential part of being a fundraiser. If you get a group of people together and tell them they must raise, say, £1,000, one of the first ideas that people normally come up with is writing to companies, particularly local retailers for some reason. It is part of our knee-jerk reaction to having to ask people for money – a perfectly sensible way of trying to avoid the embarrassment of actually talking about money face to face. Unfortunately, indiscriminately bombarding high-street businesses with a request rarely works. Any reasonably sized company will get stacks of these requests every week, and the vast majority will be unsuccessful.  

There are many reasons why this rarely works. Partly, it is because companies genuinely do not have the money; the high street particularly is a brutal place to try and make any kind of money. Partly, it is because they do not want to be seen to be encouraging these kinds of requests. Partly, it is because they have not really thought through the idea of charitable giving as part of their raison d’être. Back in the day, I was chatting to a senior partner in a very large law firm, who admitted that ‘social responsibility’ was a bit odd for them, frankly, and they couldn’t see how it fitted. I will resist the obvious jokes about solicitors here. It’s true that generally companies are more savvy about these things than they used to be, but it is still often peripheral to the activities and workings of the company. 

However, the big reason why writing to companies does not work is because it takes much more than this to persuade people to hand money over. Such an approach presumes that office staff in large companies are sitting at their desks debating among themselves as to whom they could go and give money to. Of course life is not like this. If they are debating anything, they are debating who is going to be evicted from I’m a Celebrity. If people don’t have a giving reflex, and they normally don’t, then giving is a predetermined action, and furthermore a predetermined action they would prefer not to make. 

A written communication (be it letter, email or whatever) is far too removed and distant; the communication needs to be much closer in order to work. A good rule of thumb is never to ask for money until you can see the whites of the person’s eyes. That is not always possible, but it should be in most cases. Giving is a simple process made complex by our confused morality. It is a subject we instinctively shun. As fundraisers, we need to find a way to reassure people, to enable them to overcome their natural reticence to think on these things. That is very difficult to do by letter and much easier when face to face. 

This reality conforms to the eternal truth that the harder something is, the more effective it will be. Writing indiscriminately to any company you can think of asking them for money is like chucking a pot of paint on a wall and expecting it to look as if it has been professionally decorated. It would be great if decorating really were this easy, but it’s not, and neither is fundraising. Fundraising takes time and care – just like decorating does – and, to stretch the metaphor a bit, it can’t be done easily at a distance.  

Asking someone for money when they are standing in front of you, or indeed sitting, costs a lot of emotional energy and courage. You are behaving atypically, after all, but then it is much more likely to work. Only by ‘whites of their eyes’ fundraising do you pick up on all that non-verbal stuff that is so important when shaping your request. If they are in front of you, people do not have to tell you to get lost for you to realise that they do not like the cut of your jib. The avoidance of eye contact, the crossed arms or legs (or both), the smack on the head – all these are subtle ways of telling you that you are going about it the wrong way. This gives you a chance to change tack, to back off and to explain things in a different way. It also (very importantly) gives you the chance to show that this really matters to you, and people love that. People want to be inspired, to be part of something big, and the best way of doing that is by telling them. 

If the whole idea makes you squeamish, I have a suggestion for you. Do not see your job as fundraising, but as fundasking. You are not forcing anyone to do anything but just asking them whether they would. As you know, to ask for something is not the same thing as to demand something. If you demand something, there is normally a lot of shouting, perhaps even the stamping of feet, and much manipulation and bullying, often with some form of threat thrown in. Some people do fundraise in this way, regrettably. However, if you ask for something, it tends to be asked in a gentle tone; it is a request that does give the opportunity for a yes or a no answer, and it is normally sprinkled with politeness. Is that not a more comfortable prospect? My favourite line is to say something like ‘In order to fund our [fill in your project details here], I need to find 20 people to give £5 a month and I wondered whether you might be one of them? If you can’t help, that’s absolutely fine, but I hope you don’t mind my asking. Thanks.’ Better? 

The Porcupine Principle will be published in May 2024, pre-order your copy here.