Fundraising lessons from unlikely successes, failures and faster horses

publication date: Mar 8, 2016
author/source: Lucy Gower

Lucy GowerHave you ever written something off as a failure that then went on to be a huge success?

History is littered with stories of unlikely and unexpected successes.

  • The Beatles were turned down by Decca records in 1962 because they thought guitar music was ‘on the way out.’
  • JK Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript was turned down by 12 different publishers before being picked up by Bloomsbury.
  • Walt Disney was apparently fired from a newspaper because he ‘lacked imagination and had no original ideas.’

History is also littered with stories of unexpected failure. I’ve listed some in my blog – If you don’t succeed destroy the evidence so no one knows you tried, although my favourite failure, from which we can learn is the epic fail of New Coke. 

In 1985 in response to its declining market share and the increasing popularity of its key rival Pepsi, Coca-Cola launched ‘New Coke’.

At the time Pepsi’s advertising campaigns were based around asking the public if they could taste the difference between Pepsi and Coke. They could - and they said they preferred the taste of Pepsi.

In response Coke developed a new sweeter tasting formula.  After conducting over 200,000 taste tests, which according to the tasters not only tasted better than the old Coke, but also tasted better than Pepsi, New Coke was ready for launch.

However on 23 April 1985 when New Coke was launched and old Coke was taken out of circulation - it was a disaster. Coke’s customers were horrified that their Coke had been changed. On July 11, Coca-Cola withdrew New Coke and old Coke was reinstated.

What happened?

“We did not understand the deep emotions of so many of our customers for Coca-Cola,” said company President Donald R. Keough. 

Coca-Cola were fighting a taste battle with Pepsi and in doing so completely missed the point. They failed to understand the value of brand loyalty and the heritage of their customers. 

What can fundraisers learn from this eclectic collection of successes and failures?

With all the above examples there is one common success factor. The audience decided.

  • Once people heard the Beatles play, they decided that guitar music was very much on the way in.
  • It was the 8-year-old daughter of the editor at Bloomsbury who fell in love with the Harry Potter story and insisted that her dad pay attention.
  • Walt Disney shared his imagination, children and adults flocked to cinemas to see his films and then later to Disneyland to meet the characters.
  • Coke did ask their customers what they thought, but because they didn’t really understand them, they asked them the wrong question.

The most successful innovators focus on the audience that they are innovating for. The most successful fundraisers do exactly the same thing.  They really get to know and understand their supporters, campaigners, donors, volunteers, beneficiaries. Whoever it is they exist to serve.

The more we understand the needs of our audience, the greater our ability to develop communications, campaigns, products and services that meet their needs - or better still - delight them.

There is a fine art to understanding your audiences.  Henry Ford said “If you ask people what they want they ask for a faster horse” because what people tell you they want, and what they actually want are not necessarily the same thing.

Great innovators and fundraisers find ways to quickly and cheaply test ideas, products and services with their audiences in a live environment to see what they really do, rather than just asking them if they would like a faster horse or not. This is also a good way to reduce risk because you get to test small, learn and adapt rather than risk launching one big expensive failure.

Putting your audience at the centre of your campaigns and understanding their needs isn’t just about relationship fundraising. It also makes good business sense.

In the next blog I’ll share some secrets to help you cheaply and quickly get to understand your audience.

Lucy Gower is a trainer and coach specialising in innovation. She led the first innovation team at UK children’s charity NSPCC and it was there that Lucy realized that you can have the best ideas, processes and technology, but if you don’t have the right people working together then even the best ideas will fail. Since leaving the NSPCC in 2012 Lucy has worked with over 50 organisations including Amnesty, Cystic Fibrosis Trust, Nesta, The Children’s Society and Greenpeace.

Lucy is also author of The Innovation Workout, a blogger and conference speaker, and is often seen on Twitter @lucyinnovation


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