October 25th, 2010 / 11:00 am
Behind the Scenes

Some Thoughts on Fundraising

This morning I backed three fantastic literary projects over at Kickstarter. I am a fundraiser by trade, and watching all those fundraising videos kind of raised my ire. All three of the fundraising campaigns I backed had huge problems with the structure, arguments, conception, and tone of their videos and accompanying text. I thought: Why can’t these people fundraise right? Then I thought: Because no one’s taught them. (To be clear: these three projects are all worth funding. Very worth funding. I urge you to back all three of them.)

The campaigns: The first is The Understanding Campaign, a soon-to-hopefully-be nonprofit which is being put together by Justin Sirois and Haneen Alshujairy to promote cultural empathy between Western and Arab cultures by teaching everyone in the world to read the word Fhm (pronounced Fuh’hem, it means “understanding”) in Arabic. (When I backed it, The Undertsanding Campaign had $6,047 of $10,000 pledged.)

The second is the Knee-Jerk Magazine campaign to raise funds for their first annual print issue.  Knee-Jerk is a Chicago-based online magazine, and their print issue is clocking in at over 200 pages. (When I backed it, Knee-Jerk had $515 of $1000 pledged.)

The third is a project to fund Pop Serial #2, the second issue of the literary bomb that is Stephen Tully Dierk’s editing genius on paper.  #1 was hand-bound with ribbon. #2, given all things go well, will be perfect-bound. (When I backed, Pop Serial had $160 of $1000 pledged.)

I backed all three of these projects because I think they’re all worthy. I backed them all at the same level ($15), and I strongly urge you to do so as well.

During the day I work as the Director of Resource Development at Growing Home, a nonprofit in Chicago.  I’m responsible for a budget that’s just under $1,000,000 this year, and should reach that much in 2011. I go to business lunches, write grants to foundations and to the federal government, and beg corporations for sponsorship. I regularly ask rich people to their face for donations of $10,000 or more.

I explain this because it makes me hopefully look less like a douchebag for what I’m about to do, which is to offer a list of fundraising concepts that the lit world desperately needs to understand.

What follows is a list of eight general concepts that might whet our communal appetite for getting good at fundraising. Fundraising isn’t hard, and the fact is: good fundraisers raise more funds.

1. Know your audience

Although a huge portion of the indie lit world is hard at work grading rhetoric and composition papers, when it comes to raising money for our pet projects, we can’t seem to remember to address our actual audience.

In the lit world of writer-editors, it’s easy: you’re addressing an audience of people almost exactly like yourself. Are you busy as hell? Make your pitch short. (The Knee-Jerk video is funny, but awful long. I skipped to the end and was glad to see Casey Bye had stopped doing that accent part of the way through.) Do you love good design? Make it look hot. Are you impressed by a general sense of pretension? Do  you like to have things no one else can have? Do you think fart jokes are funny? And so on. (It’s crucial to be honest here about what will actually be appealing to your audience, and what you hope will be appealing.)

A great example of a magazine totally ignoring its audience in a pitch (to disastrous results) was the “$10 Campaign” from Narrative Magazine. Who thought this – “Won’t you join us in awakening hearts and minds around the world to the power of literature?” – was going to work on the cynical minds of writers? Perhaps Narrative’s magically got an audience made up only of appliqued-Halloween-sweatshirt-wearing Hallmark-card-buyers, but I doubt it. HTMLGIANT’s own analysis of this fundraising campaign is here but can be summed up by the following comment: “A bowl of dicks.”

This campaign didn’t work because it came off as insulting, partially through its language, but also because its fundraising needs were so opaque. (See “Show me the money.”)

2. Churn and Retention

In fundraising, “churn” is the failure to create a long-term relationship with a donor (or supporter), and that donor’s replacement with a new donor. Retention is the opposite: the creation of a long-term relationship with a donor or supporter.

So: say you had 100 donors in 2009. In 2010, you also had 100 donors. 90 of those donors in 2010 were also donors in 2009. 10 of the 2010 donors were brand new. This means  you had a churn rate of 10% between 2009 and 2010: the 10 donors who gave in 2009 but not in 2010 disappeared. They churned.

Some churn is expected. Some churn is ok. Someone subscribed to your magazine but didn’t like it? They’ll opt out of a subscription for next year. Screw them anyway. Their taste was terrible.

But it’s way easier to keep supporters than find new ones. Plus, all the fundraising research I’ve ever read shows that donors increase giving over their lifetime (lifetime = the length of time they’re affiliated with the organization). So: you make more money by reducing your churn rate, and you reduce your churn rate by maintaining good relationships with  your donors (or buyers).

Good relationships equal (practically): good customer service, subscription renewal reminders, etc.

3. Why people give

There are very few people who give donations out of the “goodness of their hearts.” I can think of literally one person who I know personally who consistently gives out of the goodness of her heart. It ain’t me.

Our real reasons for giving:

Because we want to assuage guilt

Because we’ve been promised something in return

Because we will (or think we will) receive social status or social capital

Because we want to belong to a social group

Because we want to “own” part of a brand (see above two reasons)

Because we are taught that giving will make us feel good, and we want to feel good

These reasons are okay! Don’t feel bad! It doesn’t matter! As a fundraiser, I have come to terms with the fact that I am basically tricking people into following the base instincts we all learned in middle school. Keep these reasons in mind when you craft your ask.

4. Salesmen don’t sell

Go in a store. There’s a salesman. She wants to make commission. She’s trying to sell you something. Pants, or electronics, or a chair, or a car. It’s fucking annoying.

Go in a different store. There’s a salesman. He wants to sell you something. A dress, or a shoe, or a house, or a computer. You feel fantastic.

What’s the difference? The second salesman isn’t selling you anything, because he’s realized that the best salesmen don’t bother to try and sell. Instead, they make you want.

Fundraising is salesmanship. At its worst, it’s hackey and fake and makes you roll your eyes or want to projectile vomit. At its best, it makes you feel like you! Have! The! Power! To! Change! The! World! And! Don’t! You! Want! That!

5. Rule of thirds

I can’t remember where I learned this from, so it’s possible I made it up, but it pretty much always works. This is a rule about how to structure your “ask” (aka your “pitch,” aka whatever letter or video or whatever you’re using to get the word out).

1/3 of your ask should be an explanation of what you need money for. This should include who you are and what you do.

1/3 of your ask should be an explanation of what you need and why you need it. Usually this is money, but sometimes it’s something else.

1/3 of your ask should be an explanation of why people should give you what you want. Sometimes this can be implicit. If you’re selling your brand, it’s implicit that people want to buy into your brand, for example. Sometimes this is an explanation of the premiums, or gifts, you’re offering, or an explanation of how totally fucked you’ll be if they don’t help. Here, appeal to one of the base reasons why people give.

6. Show me the money

Transparency! One of the main reasons the Narrative ask fell so flat was that the accounting behind it was totally opaque. They wanted $10 from EVERY reader to “sustain a lean staff of technicians, editors, and copyeditors, plus pay the authors, artists, and cartoonists who make every issue possible.” But how much does it actually cost to sustain that staff and pay those authors? If I gave $10 (which I did not), what tiny fraction of success could I call my own?

Although The Understanding Campaign is an extremely worthy cause, I’d like to see an actual accounting of what they’ll do with the $10,000 they’re likely to get. $10,000 is a not-insignifcant amount of money. Their campaign page says they want to apply for nonprofit status, which costs $750 for the IRS application,plus other incidentals tallying about $250 or so, at least in IL. But what are “cross-cultural, Arabic-English literary projects?”  I support them! But I’d be more likely to fund at a higher level if I knew exactly what I was supporting.

7. When you should ask for money

There are two types of money in most nonprofit operations. General operating costs, and program costs.

General operating costs (or gen op) are the “overhead” costs: electricity, stamps, paper napkins, toner for the copier, salaries for the administrative assistant and fundraising staff. The stuff you need to keep chugging along without doing anything special.

Program costs are just what they sound like: the costs for individual programs like going on tour, printing a special edition or issue, hosting a reading series, etc. The cool stuff, basically.

No one wants to pay for gen op. No one cares about gen op costs. They’re not interesting or sexy. Ask for money for programs, instead. If you can’t print your issue on subscriptions and elbow grease, you probably just shouldn’t print it.

8. Stretch giving

“Stretch giving” is the trick of getting people to donate just barely beyond their preferred comfort zone. They want to give $10? Find a way to convince them to want to give $15, or better yet, $25. Anyone who can donate $500 can donate $1000. On Kickstarter, that means offering intermediate levels that seem manageably close together ($10, $25, $40) but that have increasingly awesome premiums attached. What you want is for someone to say, “For only $15 more, my

You can help people stretch by not giving too many options. (See: Paradox of choice)

Scroll down on this page to see a fantastic bit of analysis on Kickstarter projects that looks at pledge tiers and how to organize them. Channel people into “buckets” that make them stretch just beyond their means to get an extra cool premium. For an example of too many choices, check out the Pop Serial Kickstarter page. (I’ll make your choice easier: donate $25, but do it at the $10 level. You’ll get a copy of Pop Serial #2, and not have to read the rest of the confusing options.)

This is simple but powerful stuff, and using it will make our business interactions with each other less boring and irritating (Narrative, I’m looking at you), and make us all more likely to attract new supporters when our old ones churn away. We may as well take advantage of the research and analysis that’s available.

I’ve toyed with a few ideas of how to make myself useful. I do this stuff every day, all day, and I find it compelling. (There’s a reason I’m the managing editor of Artifice Magazine, and not the editor.) How can I help? Do y’all want another list? Or a panel on literary fundraising best practices? Help me help you.

(And if you’re a floundering lit nonprofit with the budget to hire me, I am of course, available to freelance.)

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  1. Margot

      Ampersand books is also looking to raise funds to offset about a third of the printing costs for the RE:Telling Anthology. A slew of fantastic premiums included at all levels of giving.


  2. Mike Meginnis

      This is really cool + useful. High fives, Rebekah.

  3. Roxane

      Thanks so much for writing this, Rebekah. I’ve been thinking about this issue for the past several days because I wonder about how sustainable an idea like Kickstarter is when every project you want to support is trying to crowdsource money for operating costs. You put forth a lot of great ideas here. We may come calling one of these days, Matt and I.

  4. Michael Filippone

      This is the most valuable article on this site. More please.

  5. Rebekah

      I checked out the Ampersand Kickstarter page, and I’d say that while the fundraising seems to be going pretty well ($610 of a $1,000 goal, with 50 days left to go), it’s not really taking advantage of the fundraising possibilities of Kickstarter.

      With only five backers, we can assume that the donations are fairly large, and so are coming from established supporters of either Ampersand or of the editor, William Walsh. I imagine that these backers would probably have donated if asked, even without the Kickstarter campaign.

      What Kickstarter is good for is establishing a broad base of low-level supporters – people who are buying into your project at the $5-50 level, and for whom a low level of initial support may turn into a long-term relationship of support for Ampersand.

      Additionally, I find it really interesting that the premiums are all directly related to Ampersand: either upcoming or current books or a copy of the anthology. Offering premiums from the back catalog doesn’t really open up an opportunity to bring in new supporters who do not necessarily know anything about Ampersand, since they’re essentially paying extra for a book they don’t know anything about. Kickstarter is the place to be wacky, and offer people experiences and/or things they couldn’t buy anyway. Premiums should be just that: premium.

      So: kudos to the strong support you’ve received, and I’m looking forward to the book drop at AWP, but I have to admit that this campaign doesn’t want to make me give, or even to learn more about Ampersand.

  6. Rebekah

      Thanks Michael!

  7. Rebekah

      A better use of this space for fundraising would be to say:

      “I’d like you to donate $10 to my Kickstarter campaign so you can get a copy of Pop Serial #2. I think readers of HTMLGIANT will enjoy it because it includes work by Tao Lin, Tao Lin, Tao Lin, and also Tao Lin!”

  8. Rebekah

      Cause I can’t even read that list of names it’s so dense.

  9. stephen

      thanks, rebekah. well how about this:

      it has TAO LIN







      and on and on. without exaggeration, i have too many big names to be concise

  10. stephen


      ok dont…mean… to be annoying. love yall! donate $10 it’s awesome

  11. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Something far wackier has just been added — contributors at the $75 level will receive a compact disc where they get to hear me butcher dance classics of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Good way to kill your cat, if the economy is making it difficult to continue feeding that pussy and you can’t find any friends willing to take it off your hands.

      I agree the description on the kickstarter page could do a better job introducing this anthology to the uninitiated. W/ all of its texts derived from existing cultural products — both pop and classic — (at one point Bill Walsh was referring to it as an anthology of “literary fan fiction”) — everything from the Odyssey to Madonna — it is likely to be accessible to a broad range of smart and interesting readers.

      I recently learned a good way to get your non-writer friends to buy shit is to call them smart and interesting. Say, “As a smart and interesting person, I thought this might be up your alley.” And then they’re all like, “Ooh, I’m going to buy this just because you called me smart and interesting.”

  12. Rebekah


      –Appeal to the cool kids//merge your brand with the brand of your writers
      –Be annoying (v effective)
      –Ask for what you want

  13. Rebekah


      –Appeal to the cool kids//merge your brand with the brand of your writers
      –Be annoying (v effective)
      –Ask for what you want

  14. Justin Sirois

      Ditto (Michael). And thank you, Rebekah!!! We do have plans for the money IF Kickstarter succeeds — hopefully teaming up with the Iraqi Student Project. More soon. Fhm!

  15. Tadd Adcox

      As a smart and interesting person, you might want to know that I just boned your dad.

  16. Joelwcoggins

      Very nice post. I don’t do any fundraising and this is still very good info to know. Thanks.

  17. davis

      great post, rebekah

  18. Blake Butler

      you ripped this. thank you.

  19. stephen

      thank you, rebekah =) nice post. i like your style

  20. Tim Jones-Yelvington
  21. stephen

      thank you, tim :) i like your style, too.

  22. stephen

      Pop Serial #2 features these contributors:

      Tao Lin, Noah Cicero, Heather Christle, Sam Pink, Daniel Bailey, Brandon Scott Gorrell, Kendra Grant Malone, Matthew Savoca, Ben Brooks, Brandi Wells, Prathna Lor, Audun Mortensen, Frank Hinton, Miles Ross, Megan Boyle, Michael Inscoe, Jordan Castro, Ana C., Cassandra Troyan, Cody Troyan, Brittany Wallace, Feng Sun Chen, Carrie Lorig, Rebecca Olson, David Fishkind, Andrew James Weatherhead, Erik Stinson, Richard Chiem, Shannon Peil, Brett Gallagher, Ben Rosamond, and Steve Roggenbuck

      Art by Aidan Koch, Mallory Whitten, Sara Drake, Lyra Hill, Ryan Manning, Philip Tseng, Van Jazmin, Elizabeth Arnold, Tracy Brannstrom, Mrinalini Kannan

  23. Rebekah

      A better use of this space for fundraising would be to say:

      “I’d like you to donate $10 to my Kickstarter campaign so you can get a copy of Pop Serial #2. I think readers of HTMLGIANT will enjoy it because it includes work by Tao Lin, Tao Lin, Tao Lin, and also Tao Lin!”

  24. Rebekah

      Cause I can’t even read that list of names it’s so dense.

  25. stephen

      thanks, rebekah. well how about this:

      it has TAO LIN







      and on and on. without exaggeration, i have too many big names to be concise

  26. stephen


      ok dont…mean… to be annoying. love yall! donate $10 it’s awesome

  27. stephen


  28. Rebekah


      –Appeal to the cool kids//merge your brand with the brand of your writers
      –Be annoying (v effective)
      –Ask for what you want

  29. Rebekah

      Is BSG Battlestar Galactica? I hope so. I’ll donate more if it is.

  30. stephen

      is being annoying actually effective? seriously asking. actually, i know the answer to that, i think. being annoying is good for promotion, right? within limits, or something? idk…

  31. stephen

      is having 5 teenagers in your magazine a selling point? seems sweet to me. originally the cover was supposed to look like Tiger Beat

  32. stephen

      damn, i have 6 teenagers.

  33. stephen

      BSG fracking is Battlestar Galactica.

  34. Rebekah

      On HTMLGIANT, I’d say being annoying is an effective fundraising technique, if the annoyance is a large # of posts in a row. Other types of being annoying would be not effective.


  35. davis

      great post, rebekah

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  37. Caleb Powell

      Very good article. I know this applies to mainly lit mags, but I’ve always thought a contest offering contributor copies is a great way to raise funds. 100 people sending in $15 minus the cost of the issues and postage for the mag, the entrant gets to check out the mag and maybe get published. It’s a win-win.