You Get What You Give: How A Potato Salad Can Teach You To Run A Good Donation Drive

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I had a friend who wanted very badly to go overseas.  Sadly, I can’t remember why she wanted to go overseas – we’ll get to that – but what I do remember was her disastrous donation drive.
She set up an Indiegogo account – a.k.a., “The place we go when we’re pretty sure a Kickstarter would fail” – and set up various tiers of rewards if she got enough money to go overseas: little tiny things like postcards, et al.  And what I remember was that the tier pattern went something like this:

  • $30 – I will write you a personalized Tweet when I am in Czechoslovakia.

That’s where I started to feel a bit… insulted?  Overlooked?  Taken for granted?  Not a good feeling when I’m being asked to reach into my wallet.
As a writer, for me, being paid six cents a word – a word – is called “professional rates,” meaning it’s what the top-tier markets get.  And this campaign designed to induce me to give my friend money was giving them Tweet-rights of two cents per letter.
And I Tweet a lot.  I know how much time I spend composing a very thoughtful Tweet, which is at best three minutes.  So what my friend was saying to me, quite literally, was, “I think three minutes of my time is worth several hours of your paycheck while I relax on the beach in foreign lands.”
Already I was feeling a little dazed here.  And then I got to the next tier, which was something like:

  • $50 – I will allow you access to the personalized blog where I detail my trip to Czechoslovakia.

That’s when I thought, oh, no, no, you’re doing it all wrong.  My friend was thinking entirely about what she wanted, the trip, and how much work each tier would be for her, then pricing them accordinglyWhich is the wrong way to look at it.
Here’s the secret to every donation drive – and keep in mind, I’ve run quite a few – the donation drives are never about what you want.
Every donation drive is about how you make the donator feel.
That’s actually true of every piece of written communication, but is especially true when you’re asking people to give you money.  When you do a donation drive, you are not trying to go to Czechoslovakia – you are trying to make a total stranger feel excited about getting you to Czechoslovakia.  And as such, your entire focus must be answering the question, “Why would someone who doesn’t know me feel wonderful about helping me to go on this trip?”
The whole reason I’m writing this now is because there is an infamous Kickstarter for potato salad – literally, the entire point was “If this funds, I will make myself some potato salad” – and it is, as of this morning, it is funded at $37,500 with 24 days left to go.  And I had several baffled sick friends saying, “I held a donation drive to pay off my crippling doctor’s bills and stalled out at $150, and this guy gets thousands for a goddamned potato salad?”
Yes.  Because potato salad guy actually seemed like fun.  It was goofy to even ask for such a thing, and funny, and people felt like “Hey, a guy like this I feel good about throwing away $1 to.”  In other words, “He provided me with $1 worth of amusement.”  And several thousand people joined in.
And watch carefully, my friends, as to how he reacted when all this escalated: did he hunker down when his stretch goals were made?  Hell no.  When this started to go viral, the dude said, “Well, hell, if people want this, I will throw a potato salad party,” and threw open a call for anyone in the area to come on down to Columbus and make some potato salad with him and dance around in the joy of potato salad.  The potato salad guy sounds like a fun time!  Hell, he’s in Columbus, I am damn tempted to go down for his potato salad fiesta.
The question is, did your donation drive provide $1 worth of entertainment?
Look, I’ve raised somewhere in the range of $5,000-$10,000 for Rebecca Alison Meyer, my goddaughter who died of brain cancer a month ago.  And that’s not nearly as celebratory fun as a potato salad party, but the reason I was so successful – as people have told me time and time again, sometimes to my chagrin – is that “You made Rebecca come alive for me.”  Being a writer, I tugged on your heartstrings to feel empathy for a beautiful spitfire of a girl that you’d never met, and so many of you donated to CureSearch for Cancer in her name.
I hesitate to use the term “entertainment” for such an awful travesty, but the point is people felt good either way about donating.  They felt like it was worth their money, emotionally.  And too many people, like my friend, get caught up on the tiers of rewards, thinking, “What can I churn out?” and forgetting that the rewards are merely another way of making people feel more excited about donating.
And when I see these medical donation drives, what I see is often a relentless stew of pain: “I’m miserable and broke and have to buy duct tape to hold in my shattered skull.  If you donate $5, well, it won’t actually make a dent in this mountain of medical debt I have, it’s all hopeless really, but if you’ll let me weep on you for some time I’ll send you a postcard to remind you exactly how little of a difference you made.”
Then they get no traction.
No, man, if I was poor enough to need funding to, say, buy myself some new glasses, I would ask this simple question: “Why would people feel good about giving me money to buy glasses?”  And by proxy, “What could I tell them to make them feel empathy – to make them go, ‘Aw, man, I’ll feel happy if this balding dude in Cleveland gets his glasses’?”
And I’d think, “Well, I have all these books I want to read.”  And I’d start making a list of all the books I’m excited about reading but can’t, but could if you helped me, then talk about these upcoming books and the very specific reasons I’m excited about reading them – going on about my love of, say, Jo Walton or Stephen King or Robert Bennett – and make you feel excited with me.
And then I’d say, “Why, I’d be so grateful if you helped me with these glasses, for $30 I’ll buy a book that you love and read it and tell you all the lovely things about it!”
Would that work?  I don’t know.  But I do know it’d work better than, “I’m broke and I need glasses, give me the cash.”
The lesson about Kickstarter or Indiegogo or any donation drive is that you get what you give.  My friend shouldn’t have made her blog a $50 tier – the blog access should have been for donation $1, the lowest possible level, telling people, “If you sign up in any way, I will let you into my world and tell you of all the wonders I find in Czechoslovakia.”  As it is, honestly, I don’t remember why my friend wanted to go to Czechoslovakia, which is a sign of how badly the drive was presented to me – she was my friend, I cared about her, and I couldn’t tell you what it meant to her aside from a thrusting hand in my face.
And, of course, her donation drive didn’t get anywhere.  What happened was what happened with most of the donation drives: her close friends gave what they could, a handful of acquaintances pitched it, and it stopped there because if you didn’t know my friend, well, this donation page would not have told you a darned thing about her.  She was very sad, even if she was resistant to changing her donation page because she’d worked so hard on it.
The lesson: be the potato salad.  Even if you’re sick and life is terrible, find a way to get people invested in your journey.  Give them only things that make them feel more invested in your journey.  Make them feel triumph when you succeed, and I can’t guarantee you’ll get potato salad money, but you’ll get more than you would have.  For sure.
(And if you’re looking for a good couple to donate to, may I suggest helping my friends Jeff and Tracy Spangler?  It couldn’t hurt.)


  1. Jerilynn
    Jul 8, 2014

    You and I had this convo before, and I thank you again. If I ever get past my roadblock on asking strangers on the internet for money, I will follow this advice, and pester you for suggestions.

  2. Tracy Spangler
    Jul 8, 2014

    Dear Ferrett,
    I awoke this morning to my husband who had tears in his eyes, saying not only had you provided us a lesson in fundraising, but had again, been so kind as to mention our fundraiser, which then received an immediate donation. I want to thank you with all my heart.
    I am acting on your advice, and am looking forward to getting started again with items I can make- homemade natural body and home products, (that at least my family members say they like) that will be my gift to anyone that donates. It is only right, when asking people to open their wallets that they get something in return- you are absolutely correct, and in my pain and fear I had forgotten this. I felt shame in asking, but I did not think of what I could do for those that helped us. I’m afraid I’ve lost much of my ability to amuse or be fun and funny like the potato salad guy, but I can create and share natural care products, made with much research and love.
    Thank you so much Ferrett. Your words could not have come at a better time- as of this morning I got word that my liver is toxifying after years of medications prescribed to dull some of the raging pain deep in my ear. It’s easy to get lost inside my world of suffering and forget everyone else. Thanks for the much needed wake up call. I wish we could have supported Becca’s fundraiser, but please know we are always here if you need a friend. You have been such an amazing friend to us. Many thanks and hugs.

  3. Mark D
    Jul 9, 2014

    Nice essay, really good point. Just one nitpick: Czechoslovakia split up somewhere in the early nineties into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.


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