Friday, November 11, 2011

A lesson in good fundraising and a story about a walk in the mountains

After spending about a week doing charity work in the Kathmandu and the Terai Region of Nepal I had a few days for rest, writing and reflection in a touristy mountain village called Nagarkot.

It was the festival weekend of Diwali and sitting on the balcony of my little mountain hut I could hear singing and music below. I wanted to visit the villages and see the people. So Ram, the host of my hotel (which is so remote you have to pay cash and it does not have a website) drew me this map.

This map follows a trail that is essentially straight down and took me past a small cheese factory, a school and through several villages. My final destination was a village called Baluwa Pati.

The trail was a narrow local one and along the way I saw many children in their uniforms heading up the mountain to school.
First there were teenagers obviously having to go all the way up to Nagarkot. They greeted me with a polite “Namaste” and some snickers. At times I felt like some of them were secretly laughing at me, a silly lone western women who was likely to get lost on their small trails. But they were polite and a few even posed for pictures.

A little further down, past the small school in the mountain side were younger children. Their “NAMASTE’s” were all in capital letters - enthusiastic and very excited. These children gladly stopped to have their picture taken. Some of them even practiced their English with a shy and quiet “good morning”.

It was a perfect walk, all downhill, warm but not hot.I loved seeing all the people, their homes carved into the side of the mountain, carrying on with normal morning chores like dishes, laundry and feeding livestock. 
Eventually my interactions with the children changed. Those who weren’t at school, were still happy to have their photograph taken. The only difference is after I took the photo, instead of ‘namaste’ (good morning) or “dahanyavad” (thank you) they said: “Rupies?… one rupee?” and they followed me with their hand stretched out. At first I didn’t know what was happening. I was still experiencing the euphoria of a pleasant walk down a mountain. Then I figured it out. The expected exchange after a photograph, was a reward. After several refusals of a rupee solicitation, the asks were automatically downgraded to “chocolate?” and then “crayons?”

When I look at the amazing photos I've collected I think back and wonder if perhaps it was a fair exchange and if I should have paid for the photos. But at the time being repeatedly solicited was getting annoying. I began to dislike the mountain people of Nepal and wished to be back in the Terai region. (I also became angry at every westerner before me who taught these children to beg. But that is a topic for another blog.)

I started to see these adorable little people as annoying urchins. I stopped making eye contact, didn’t bother with my camera and there was no way anyone was going to get a rupee!  

THIS…I thought to myself, is probably EXACTLY what donor fatigue feels like.

I finally reached Baluwa Pati. A nice little place. It had more buildings than the other villages. There was also a store and a school. I had obviously reached the source of the Diwali music and the party from the night before. But, my mood to become absorbed in local culture was ruined. I just wanted to get back to the sanctuary of my quiet little off the grid room. It was then that I turned around for the first time to look up toward Nagarkot. SHIT! To reach my hotel, which I could almost see, I would need a rocket ship. It turns out that a “leisurely” walk in Nepal comes at a very high cost. There aren't any photos of this dark moment.

Then I saw the motorcycle. It was red. It was shiny. It was brand new. It appeared to be the only vehicle in the village! I needed to find the owner and beg him for a ride. I started to ask who owned the bike. No one seemed to know. No one seemed to understand. The driver was not to be found. The entire village was now surfacing, but no one spoke English and no one knew who owned this bike.

Some young men stopped their gambling to approach me. They saw that I was obviously in over my head and gestured to a rundown truck behind a building and said, “3,000 rupees.” This felt too much like extortion. I would walk up! They followed for a while and I suddenly felt very vulnerable.

Enter Prakash, a boy of 15 years old.

Prakash noticed that I was unsure of my route. He saw that I wanted to get away from the gambling men. He saw that I was tired and alone in a foreign land. He saw that I was physically weak. He also knew that I had rupees in my backpack.

Prakash was polite, spoke my language and was well groomed. Further, Prakash offered me something I needed - assistance getting back to Nagarkot and the safety of having a guide.

We did have to walk. But we walked slowly, we talked along the way. He was confident with our route. Prakash also fed me bits of information along the way - like he was an orphan and how difficult it was to stay in school. He was patient with my slow pace and very gracious about the fact that I did not share the little water I had left. I made a choice to trust him.

Two hours into our walk I told Prakash that I would give him 300 rupees to thank him. He told me that with 500 he could get a new school uniform. At this I smiled with admiration. Not because I believed him but because Prakash is probably the very best fundraiser I had ever met. I gave him 500 rupees and told him I could manage the rest on my own. He then skipped up the mountain and out of site.

For the rest of that uphill climb, I thought about the donor journey and what motivates people to give. I was solicited about a dozen times by people who just seemed to feel they deserved my money because I had it and they didn’t. This wore me down and made me grumpy. Prakash offered me a service, moved at my pace, slowly shared information and earned my financial support. Support that I gave willingly with no solicitation – AND then he upgraded me with a very specific ask!

So dear reader, I hope that you will also think about whether you are truly EARNING the support of your donors through good service or just demanding a donation because you feel your charity deserves it. I will always remember what it feels like to be treated like an ATM and will always remember Prakash's skills as one of the very best donor centred fundraisers I have ever met.

And yes eventually I did make it back to Nagarkot.

Thank you for spending sooo much time here today,


  1. Love this post so much! Thank you for writing it. It was exactly what I needed.
    All the best!

  2. So glad you found it useful Mercedes. Thank you for reading it. K

  3. Kimberley - very well told, and illustrated too. I bet this would make an inspiring workshop or plenary, and that other fundraisers would benefit from your story.

  4. Thank you Reiner and Howard.

    Howard, A plenary would be so fun. All invitations welcome! Honestly I thought this post was too personal and week on the fundraising type stuff. Glad folks seem to find it useful.

    Hoping to get to London this year. Would be good to see you again.

  5. That's a great post Kimberley. I love how this wasn't about the money, and I don't think it is for donors either. It's about how and when you ask, and talking about impact too. I think when we step out of our little fundraising bubble we see these things so clearly. Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. What a lovely story! I've been reading fundraising blogs all morning and was frankly, a little full. I'd have enjoyed this post even if it hadn't been about fundraising. That it had lessons for fundraisers was a nice bonus. Thanks

  7. Thanks for you comment Conor. As you point out - fundraising is NOT about money at all. You know as well I do if you focus on relationships - $ follows!

    Thanks also to you Bharati. I look forward to meeting you one day. Had a great meeting with Anup Tiwari and Rati Mishra in Delhi on my home. Perhaps we will meet next time?

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