1980s Night

on in Fundraising

I went to a restaurant last week and lucked into “Mondays are 1980 Night.” The menu was considerably simpler, and prices were half – or less – of their modern-day equivalent.

It got me thinking about fundraising, circa the 1980’s. What’s radically different, and what remains the same.

Especially because many of the baby-boomers who are retiring from the nonprofit world now, got their start in the field – and founded nonprofits that are celebrating their 30th and 35th anniversaries – in the 1980’s.

Rereading some of the early texts on fundraising – Hank Russo, Carl Shaver – I’m struck by the continued emphasis on relationship building. Computer automation or not, that primary principle remains.

It’s amazing, actually, how many fundraising traditions began by hand in those days, and continue into the computerized era.

Old-computerReminders: We kept card files on our desks, in the 1980’s. “Put a donor’s name on each card, and sort them into months,” was the instruction I gave to neophyte fundraisers back then. The idea was, each month you’d pull out 6-10 donor cards and give them each a call. A hand-made tickler system.

Information: “Write down what you know,” was an early mantra. The idea was that if a donor called, you could stick a cue sheet in front of the ED’s nose as they were on the phone, so they knew to enquire about a donor’s new job or their mother-in-law’s failing health. Personalization, pre-automation.

Outreach: Phone etiquette, pre-answering machines, was paramount. The rule was to call between 6-9 pm and apologize for interrupting the family’s dinner (if you found yourself doing so); but at least you knew you were reaching someone at their home or office – not at a restaurant or some other random location.

Customization: Nonprofits were urged not to “Spray and Pray” – send the same grant proposal blind to 20 funders and hope that one hit the mark. Same advice as nowadays, but in those days customization meant retyping, so it was a real commitment to write a proposal that refocused on the needs of each and every funder.

Two big differences?

Data – it’s possible (and indeed, now expected) to know far far more about each donor prospect today. And, more of that data comes from research on the web, as opposed to old-fashioned shoe leather. In the old days, we talked to people who talked to people, and that’s how we knew who to ask and what to ask for. We still do this, but that process has to be backed up by realms of data or we risk looking unprepared.

Distance – In pre-cellphone days, when you went home you went home. Maybe you’d take a grant proposal with you to edit over the weekend, but you didn’t routinely stay connected through a home office-away-from-the-office like most of us do today.

Clearly, positives and negatives to that transformation.

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