The popularity contest, how to fundraise for an unpopular cause

Last summer, we sent a survey to our audience and asked if there were any topics you’d like us to cover.  One reader asked, ‘How do I fundraise for an unpopular cause’.


Several months on, I’m now getting around to writing a response.


There is a narrative which persists across most non-profits I have worked in.  I’m going to hazard a guess it is heard in every single charity.  It goes something like this:


  • (Person working for homelessness charity) “Fundraising is so much harder here. People aren’t sympathetic.  I wish I was raising money for children with cancer.”


  • (Person working for environmental charity) “Fundraising is so much harder here, I wish I was raising money for a human cause like supporting homeless people.”


  • (Person working for small children’s cancer charity) “Fundraising would be so much easier if our charity was larger and more people had heard of us.”


  • (Person working for large children’s cancer charity) “Fundraising is so hard here because people don’t believe we really need the money.”


  • (Person working for NHS charity pre-March 2020) “This is such a difficult task because people believe we should be taxpayer funded”


  • (Person working for NHS charity post March) “Boom! This is easy.”


I started writing this piece with the intention of helping fundraisers who were working for ‘unpopular causes’.

But when I thought about it, I realised that (with probably a few exceptions – I await the email from the charity working to rehabilitate paedophiles…), there are actually very few ‘unpopular causes’.

We’re all going to know of reasons as to why our cause is easily labelled as ‘unpopular’.  This means also that we can all describe the things which make our work popular.

Here are some things we can do to address our own popularity complexes, whatever they may be.


  1. Listen to feedback following a rejection


It is important that we spend a lot of time describing the brilliant things we do and how we help others.  Recalling and recording the positive differences our charity makes in the world is incredibly important for recruiting and retaining donors.  It’s also motivating and enjoyable for the fundraiser.

I would argue that its equally useful to pre-empt the reasons why someone might not want to support your work.

Most of the time, you won’t have to guess at what these reasons are.  People you’ve approached but who haven’t given, will often tell you the answer.


Go back over rejections and analyse the data.


This feedback is essential for pre-empting what others might be thinking.  It gives you the chance to address these issues before you receive more rejections.

Useful for everyone, but a superpower for those who need to fundraise for an unpopular cause.

For example, a client of ours recently applied to a large, well known funder for a contribution towards a new arts centre in the rural west country.

They were told that the figures in their business plan were unrealistic and that they didn’t compare to similar projects the trust had funded.


The bid was rejected.


Luckily for them, the feedback was so specific, they were able to act upon it.


  • they asked us to review their business plan and to apply our expertise in budget setting for commercial enterprises to their project (ok, they asked Tony to do this, I wouldn’t have a clue…)
  • they asked us to benchmark the figures with similar organisations and to have the final plan reviewed by another colleague
  • they asked us to bring in colleagues with specialisms in the different operational areas they were planning to work in to further review the figures


A second application to the same trust yielded a donation of £40,000.


  1. Know the difference between ‘no’ and ‘not now’


They are not the same and knowing the difference is a key success factor in how to raise money for an unpopular cause.


  • No = closed door
  • Not now = open door


Knowing the difference will help you to segment and clean your data so that future approaches are more successful.


Examples of ‘not now’ feedback include:


  • We’ve run out of budget for the year
  • We’ve decided to focus on a different area for 2020
  • I’ve already selected my charities for this year
  • Someone else asked first
  • I’m helping a project at my child’s school
  • We weren’t sure about what exactly you do


Most of these reasons don’t feel like a resounding ‘no’.  Don’t exclude these people from future appeals.

Solid ‘no’s’ include:


  • We prefer to support smaller charities
  • I wanted a project local to where I live
  • We’re already committed for the foreseeable future to charities with whom we have a long-standing relationship
  • We disagree with they way you do X, Y, Z
  • Your fundraising spend is too high (urgh, I hate this one!)


As described in this article, a ‘no’ can often be a blessing as it gives you permission to focus on the ‘yeses’, the ‘maybes’ and the ‘not nows’.


  1. Be creative


Sometimes you have to be a little more creative in how you respond to feedback or how you pre-empt potential rejections in order to successfully fundraise for an unpopular cause.

For example, working for a large charity is not necessarily a barrier to receiving gifts from small local charitable trusts.

Try instead:


  • presenting a project based very close by to them
  • keeping the budget small so that they can be confident that their gift makes an impact
  • being transparent about the budget of the local team and how a potential gift would fit in (some general mythbusting about overall organisational finances / activities might also be useful here if you keep getting the same feedback)
  • being excited about the difference this particular gift will make, ideally during a pre-application phone call.


  1. Not everyone has to like you.


The truth is that there are no ‘unpopular causes’ and as such, no specific guide on ‘how to fundraise for an unpopular cause’.

It is also truth that not every cause will excite and inspire every single person.

Your role as a fundraiser is to find and attract those who do want to help and to look after them, nurture them and ensure that their involvement with your charity is as life affirming and positive as it can possibly be.


Focus intently on depth, not reach.


It is better to have ten people who completely get your work (perhaps they’ve benefitted themselves or a family member has used your services?) than to spend a fortune on Facebook ads trying to add thousands of randoms to your mailing list (though Facebook ads can be a useful recruitment tool IF you’re already working hard to inform and delight your existing donors).


  • Spend a little more time with those who are already supporting you. Can you commit to calling one more donor each day, just to thank them?
  • Work through your allocation and strike those off the list for whom you know deep down are not ever going to support you
  • Look through your diary and eliminate one meeting (replace it with a short written update) in favour of writing a card to a donor who has supported you over many, many years.


I’d love to know your thoughts on this post.

Do you believe you work for an unpopular cause?  What more could fundraisers in this position do to improve their chances of funding?



Email us, – we’d love to hear from you.


Thanks for reading,



Posted in Capital fundraising, Fundraising, Major gift fundraising, Trust fundraising.