Advice to my younger-fundraising-self about email usage


blog carnivalThis month DonorDreams is hosting the nationally acclaimed Nonprofit Blog Carnival, and this month’s theme is: “If you could go back in time and give your younger-fundraising-self one piece of advice, what would it be?” As I’ve done each of the last three year’s when I’ve hosted the carnival, I plan on focusing this month’s DonorDreams blog posts on the topic as a way to help inspire other non-profit bloggers to submit posts for consideration. The April 2016 Nonprofit Blog Carnival is scheduled to go live on Thursday, April 28, 2016.

Today’s time machine post involves a younger me who learned a valuable lesson about how not to use email. Enjoy!


emailAhhhh, yes. I remember this embarrassing lesson very well. It occurred in the late 1990s when I was a young Boy Scout professional who was responsible for membership management, district-wide programming, local unit support and fundraising for a small suburban district in the Northwest Chicago suburbs. It was the 20th Century and the idea of email was new and evolving as a way to communicate with non-profit volunteers.

As a young GenX non-profit professional, I took to email like a duck takes to water. At the time, I thought this technology must have been sent from heaven because it was a solution to all of my volunteer management.

  • Snail mail was too slow when it came to getting fundraising volunteers annual campaign progress reports
  • FAX transmissions were only available to some volunteers, if their office had a FAX machine, and it wasn’t always acceptable to send someone something “not business-related” to their workplace
  • Phone calls to check-in on fundraising volunteers took lots of time and the amount of “phone tag” was maddening
  • Face-to-face meetings were great for doing collaborative work (e.g. planning, prospect evaluation, prospect assignment, etc), but . . .  if the agenda didn’t seem important or substantive enough, and only included updates, then many people wouldn’t show up

So, it felt like email solved a lot of issues facing my younger-fundraising-self.

  • I sent out annual campaign update reports via email
  • I sent out meeting notices via email
  • I asked volunteers for information via email
  • I would even drop volunteers notes with reminders or requests via email

The more I used email, the more it felt like a “communications tool“. What I failed to understand was email is only an “information technology” tool.

email graphicTo better understand what I just said, I will use a simple analogy . . .

Email is akin to the the envelope that you put a letter into. It is a vehicle to deliver a letter, report, etc. Email is NOT akin to the actual letter that you place inside of an envelope.

If I could go back in time and give my younger-fundraising-self one piece of advice, it would be . . . DO NOT use email to have conversations with volunteers about things that are better done in-person or on the phone.

As I write these words, I am remembering an email I sent a volunteer. She was a great volunteer, but she and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on the need to start a second Cub Scout Pack at an elementary school to alleviate overcrowding at the existing unit. It got to the point where she simply stopped returning my calls, which is when I started sending emails.

I won’t go into details because they are embarrassing. As you can imagine:

  • I tried to be clear with my reasons, but I came across as lecturing
  • I referenced our previous discussions and tackled her objections, but I came across as confrontational
  • I explained how this impacted my annual performance plan, which made it personal and cast me in the role of a selfish person rather than a mission-focused professional

You get the picture. <sigh> It was your basic email nightmare. And a few minutes after clicking the send button, I then learned the “recall email” function on the 20th Century version of dial-up AOL was a joke and didn’t work the way I thought it did.

The volunteer didn’t receive the email very well. I can’t imagine that anyone would. While she didn’t respond, she did resign her volunteer position. She never spoke to me again, but she did share the story with any volunteer who would listen. She also spoke to my executive director and forwarded the email to him. <ouch>

To this day, I have a hard time telling this story. It was a painful lesson to learn, and I sometimes find myself re-learning the same lesson with friends when I become careless and thoughtless with email threads and forget that “tone” cannot be heard in emails.

terminator time travelSometimes, when I’m daydreaming, I imagine myself in a time machine going back to 1999 to have a serious conversation about email usage with my younger-fundraising-self. I also sometimes wonder if it would be helpful to take a page out of the Arnold Shwarzenegger Terminator movies by traveling back in time to sabotage the work of the person who created email.  😉

Do you have a story/experience with email that you’d be willing to share? Are there tips or guidelines you personally use to guide your decision-making around email vs. phone vs. meeting? If so, then please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences. Why? Because we can all learn from each other.

(Note: You might also want to check out a post titled “Email vs. Phone Call vs. Face-to-Face” on the Leader Impact blog and all of the great links to other online articles embedded in that post.)


If you are a non-profit blogger who wants to participate in this month’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival and submit a post for consideration on this month’s carnival theme, click here to read the “call for submissions” post I published last week. It should answer all of your questions and clearly explain how to submit your entry. If not, then simply email me and I’ll be happy to help.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
www.thehealthynonprofit.com 
erik@thehealthynonprofit.com
http://twitter.com/#!/eanderson847
http://www.facebook.com/eanderson847
http://www.linkedin.com/in/erikanderson847

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About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on April 12, 2016, in nonprofit, technology, volunteers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. One time many years ago I sent an e-mail by mistake to someone in a “heat of the moment” situation. My advice to my younger self —- NEVER, NEVER, NEVER send an e-mail that complains about another person. Let me repeat — NEVER. E-mail eliminates TONE, RELATIONSHIPS, and DIRECT PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS. My advice to my younger me? Spend more time in-person with people and less with letters, e-mails, and other one way communications. A two way, in-person dialogue ALWAYS works better. And have more fun along the way — don’t be so serious all the time. As Sgt. Hulka said in “Stripes” to the really serious guy in boot camp, “Lighten up, Francis!”

  1. Pingback: April Nonprofit Blog Carnival: Advice to your younger-fundraising-self | DonorDreams Blog

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