Building a Better Vacuum

When I was growing up, we had a Hoover vacuum cleaner. It was big, it was heavy, and it didn’t work very well – that’s what I remember.

In the early 1990s, in the midst of rapid technological innovation and the rise of the global internet, a teacher from the United Kingdom named Jim Dyson got frustrated with his vacuum cleaner. In the midst of so much innovation, surely there was a way to build a better vacuum.

Dyson was able to invent a new vacuum cleaner that used cyclonic separation – and it was a huge improvement over existing vacuum cleaners. But then he tried to find investors. Imagine going into a bank to raise venture capital to start a vacuum cleaner business, while everyone else is trying to join the .com revolution! He ultimately couldn’t get anyone to invest in his business in the UK and wound up going all the way to Japan to find people interested in his vacuum.

As you know, Jim was successful. I don’t know about you, but we definitely have a Dyson vacuum cleaner at our house, and it works great! Last year alone, Dyson’s company, which has expanded into many other technologies, did $4.82 billion (USD) in sales, with a global workforce of over 12,000 employees.

It can be hard to trade in our usual way of looking of things. But as Dyson’s story attests, sometimes we simply need to do something familiar in a different way.

What does it mean to “build a better vacuum” in fundraising? We must start by asking better questions and rethinking our mindset. I have often said that fundraising is not that complicated; the formula for successful fundraising is simple. At the core, fundraising is about building relationships with individuals and inviting them to be a part of the mission and vision of your organization. But somehow the old, familiar ways of thinking about fundraising can sneak up on us.

This past week I met with a board of a small non-profit that does incredible work in our community. When the topic of fundraising came up, they did the equivalent of buying a Hoover vacuum. They started off with that all-too-familiar question:

“What are we going to do this year to raise money?”

At face value, this seems like a good question – but in reality, this is the wrong question for a board to be asking. Remember, fundraising is about relationships. It is invitational in nature. Having a strategy of “what to do” does not take the relational core of fundraising into account. The right question for a board or CEO of an organization to ask is:

“Who are the people we need to engage with to raise the money we need in order to accomplish our mission of changing lives?”

This question requires us not only to know the cost of changing lives, but also the peoplewho would like to partner with us to accomplish this mission. Your fundraising planning should start with the “who,” not the “what.”

We live in a world where Sears is bankrupt and Toys-R-Us closed. Meanwhile, Target is opening new stores and had a 13% growth in sales in 2018 – largely due to home goods  and toy sales! Whether it’s department stores or vacuum cleaners, it is possible to achieve success in rapidly changing times. We simply have to learn to ask the right questions. Asking the right questions will lead us to the right activities for our organizations. Start with the “who,” not the “what.”

Here’s another “who” question: “Who are the people that you (or your board) are already in relationship with that most resonate with the people you are serving in your organization?”

Let’s build a better vacuum.

PS. If you would like to hear more about this blog entry—then here is the link to my podcast where I talk more about this topic:

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