Mayor Bloomberg finally relented to the angry protests — the 2012 New York Marathon was cancelled. The mayor had previously insisted that the marathon would go ahead and would “give people something to cheer about”. He even reassured that hosting the event would not, as critics had said, divert resources from the recovery effort for Hurricane Sandy.

Understandably, there was much to be angry about. Some felt it was not right that the mayor was worried about the marathon and returning to normal life when they were “still pulling bodies out of the water”.

With all this volatile public rage, it can be risky — even suicidal — for any business to run a promotion during this time. An angry mob is like a nervous snake — it will strike at anything that gets too close.

But we did just that at Maya’s Hope — raising over $1K in a week for a visit to an orphanage in Ukraine, in the wake of Sandy, without any drama. On the contrary, many people happily supported financially and in spirit, and wished our travelers well.

How can this be, when people all over the world crucified Mayor Bloomberg for doing anything other than helping Sandy victims?

1. Respect the thing that captured people’s hearts

Storm Sandy was global news. There was loss of life and property. It was serious. You couldn’t escape hearing about it anywhere. It was on everyone’s minds and in every conversation. It was what they call the big elephant in the room – there was no way you could ignore it. In any negotiation, there will be no progress unless the elephant is acknowledged and dealt with.

Instead of fighting against what’s taken roots in people’s hearts, it’s crucial to find yourself a position that can coexist with it. (Or better yet, take advantage of it.)

Then, you start with the elephant in the room. At the very least, acknowledge it. Many times, a nod of respect or endorsement goes a long way. One way you can start the conversation is by directing people to the various ways they can help Sandy victims.

2. There are people who also care about your cause

Once the elephant has been addressed, speak directly to those who want to help your cause. You can assume that those interested in helping the natural disaster victims are no longer watching.

The remaining people are those who have already done their part in the recovery effort, are ready to move on, or are also interested in your cause. People are amazing – we have the ability to care about more than one thing at once.

Your goal is not to divert people from the natural disaster to your cause. Your goal is to speak directly to those who want to hear more about your cause, despite the natural disaster.

3. Choose your words carefully

Avoid words the media is using to cover the recovery effort. (Or you will be hung for diverting money from the recovery effort, even if you aren’t.) Don’t call it a fundraiser. Calling it a fundraiser will instantly make people think, “Oh, they’re raising money for Sandy.” And when they discover you’re not, they will be outraged at your “selfishness”. (Even if there’s absolutely no connection.)

We explained that the visit to the orphanage was happening no matter what. We explained that this was part of the obligation to our sponsors as a non-profit organization, to keep tabs on the orphanage we work with, the caregivers we hired and how the children there are doing. The trip was a necessity, and the trip’s expenses were fully disclosed.

The proposition was simple: this is what Maya and another volunteer were going to pay out of their own pockets. The plane tickets were already bought. The train tickets were already bought. The accommodations were reserved. Everything was set.

We made it clear — this was not a fundraiser. It didn’t matter if people cared or not; if people complained or didn’t — they were going, and nothing was going to stop them.

Meanwhile, a web page with a donation form was presented to those who DID believe in what they were doing… those who DID care… those who saw the value and those who wanted to help out.

See the difference?

And it was the truth — all this was planned months in advance. It’s just happens that Mother Nature never cares about your plans.

There’s no need to spin stories — tell the complete and honest truth. If you don’t, no one will know.

4. Invest in a position that returns benefits long after the fundraiser is over

Our plan was to make as much noise as possible. There was no value in being timid. If money was raised, great! If not… GREAT – we get to tell an equally inspiring story — Maya and another volunteer went to visit an orphanage in Ukraine on their own dime.

It’s never just about the money. Every fundraiser should be a conversation firestarter, and a device to draw people to commit deeper in your mission.

With this approach, the people who donate will have a chance to reinforce their relationship and commitment, while those who don’t will notice the commotion, see other people donate (social proof), and discover that some kind of expedition is underway.

Set your campaigns up so that good outcome or bad, they always start a conversation you can build on.

5. Be valuable — put yourself in a position of service

Whenever in doubt, stop thinking about money. Instead, ask, “How may I be of service to my people?”

At Maya’s Hope, the question was, “With Hurricane Sandy in mind, and also having an obligation to our sponsors of the Ukrainian orphanage, how can we make the trip more valuable to our people?”

When stumped with a question like that, what better way to get the answer than to simply ask your people? And that’s what we did. We wanted to show people that we were at their service. We were their representatives. We were their eyes, hands and feet. We were visiting Ukraine on their behalf.

Instead of spamming people to DONATE PLEASE over and over, take advantage of 2-way communication.

E.g. we presented this message:
“We’ll be going on our trip to see the kids. What would you like us to show you? What would you like us to bring back? What would you like to know more about?”

When you put yourself in a position to serve, it makes people raise their hands, involves them and entices them to respond. And when they respond, it invokes reciprocity.

The key is starting the conversation by offering to give people value. It starts with you asking, “How may we serve you?”, instead of the selfish me me me me message of “Donate for our trip!”

With this position, the donations are simply a happy by-product of people appreciating your services offered.

Here’s the response we got (click for larger):

As you can see, now it wasn’t just one person’s trip. We invited everyone to be a part of the adventure.

A side-benefit of this is that we now have a good idea of what people would like to see, so we know exactly what to give. And by asking them to make requests, we commit them to look forward to the finished product (because it will contain something they asked for).

And that’s the same principle whether you’re selling information as a non-profit, or a product or service as a for-profit: it’s never about what you have or want to sell — find out what people want… and give it to them.

The powerful benefit of engaging people and inviting them to join your adventures every chance you get is this fact:

There are few better ways to spur people to action than showing them other people (like themselves) taking action, and good things being accomplished.

Lastly, no matter what you do, someone will hate you. When you stand for something, there will always be people who will be against what you stand for. But that doesn’t mean you should stop standing for it. Stand strong, and be true to yourself… it’s the only way you’ll attract your true friends and allies. And always speak from your heart.