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A Tribute to Rube Goldberg

January 2012
By: Ron Haas

Rube Goldberg was a genius who devised incredibly complex solutions for simple tasks. His inventions were a series of chain reactions usually built with everyday parts like pulleys, ropes, gears, boots, bouncing balls, bows and arrows, springs, oscillating fans, and live animals. These contraptions had practical names: "Tooth Paste Squeezer," "Postage On Envelopes," "Way To Add Hair To Head," "Putting Cat Out At Night," and maybe one that has fundraising implications, "Loosen Up A Tightwad."

His comic strips included humorous instructions to describe his inventions. For example in "No More Over Sleeping" he writes, "When sun comes up, magnifying glass (A), burns hole in paper bag (B), dropping water into ladle (C), and lifting gate (D), which allows heavy ball (E) to roll down chute (F), rope (G) lifts bed (H) into vertical position and drops you into your shoes (I)."

Rube never intended to build the machines he drew, but his cartoons continue to inspire high school and college students. Each year aspiring young inventors compete to bring his imagination to life. Rube Goldberg machines and their creators often appear on late night television shows and instantly become YouTube hits.

But what can Rube Goldberg teach us about fundraising? Some people think of fundraising as an elaborate machine with all sorts of moving parts, so they spend their time mapping out steps to move donors from "Glad to meet you" to "Would you please give us $1,000,000?" They believe that you can toss your donor base into the hopper and the machine will shake out dollars. Here are three strategies that can quickly become fundraising contraptions.

Designing the Perfect Brochure

Your organization needs at least two printed fundraising pieces, a) a general brochure that explains your mission and impact, and b) a case statement or leadership proposal that outlines your need and solicits a gift. The general brochure is for everyone; the leadership proposal is a tool you share in a personal visit with donors. Brochures are effective tools to tell your story, but designing a "perfect" brochure is a trap. You can wordsmith your document to death with revision after revision. Aim for the best possible document, but don't let the process become so mired down in edits that you miss deadlines.

Brochure paralysis is annoying when you are trying to print a general informational brochure, but it is a fatal error when you need a personal solicitation piece immediately for a donor visit. Many major donors aren't impressed by the $5 brochure you created to ask them for a gift. Some will even question why you spent so much money. Many are entrepreneurs who scribbled out their business plan on a napkin over lunch. Don't fixate on creating a masterpiece.

Sometimes we can fall into the trap of believing that a fancy brochure raises money. On a recent project, I helped an organization create a leadership proposal. The photographs we chose were perfect, the copy was compelling, our charts were clear, and the ask was straightforward. The very first donor visit yielded a $250,000 gift. When I asked the ministry leader how he used the leadership proposal in the conversation, he said, "Oh, I gave it to them after they said 'yes.'" These donors were long-time friends and he realized that his relationship was more important than a piece of paper.

Liking Social Fundraising

No doubt, a well-meaning person has already suggested that your ministry must dive into social fundraising. Every non-profit organization needs an up-to-date website to tell its story. But what about search engine optimization, the ability to make a donation online, e-blasts, LinkedIn, podcasts, texting donations, blogging, offering an RSS feed, mobile apps, and, of course, Facebook and Twitter? Technology is wonderful, but technology can be a trap. You must evaluate each opportunity carefully to avoid investing dollars and time in strategies that might be cool, but are not effective fundraising tools.

The Internet is full of anecdotal stories of successful fundraising efforts driven by social media, but the real problem with social fundraising is converting a one-time gift into a long-term donor. Donors who give online but never receive any direct communication from that non-profit probably won't give again — and certainly not give larger gifts. Social media is better suited for raising awareness about your organization than for direct fundraising.

A more effective use of time and resources is to focus on building relationships with donors and moving them up the donor pyramid. Evaluate each social fundraising idea through the 80/20 grid. Since 80 percent of your gift income will come from 20 percent of your donors, focus your efforts on how to engage your top donors.

Chasing the Foundation Rainbow

One complicated solution that ministries often consider is to establish their own charitable foundation. Many colleges, universities, and larger non-profits believe that donors are more inclined to give to a foundation than to give directly to their organization. Because a foundation is a separate 501(c)(3) organization, donors may have more confidence that independent foundation board members will not be tempted to misuse endowment funds to bail out the organization. But if the main reason you want to form a foundation is to add another layer of accountability, your organization might have a bigger credibility problem than a foundation can solve.


Foundations provide a platform to promote planned giving by presenting an image of fiscal integrity. Donors believe they can trust foundations to guide them through the maze of estate planning options. Most foundations take on an investment role to manage the charitable trusts in their care. Foundation directors can become coaches for donors who want to leave a faith legacy for their family.

One advantage of setting up a foundation is that board members can focus on fundraising. Ministry board members are concerned about every aspect of the organization from program to personnel to future vision, but foundation board members only need to think about how they can promote the ministry to its constituency and the community. Choosing the right foundation board members is essential. Don't recruit individuals who believe that their primary responsibility is to manage the money you already have. Find board members who understand that their number one job is to help you raise more money.

A foundation may provide additional tools for an organization to engage their donors, but it costs time and money to create and maintain a foundation. A non-profit organization can promote planned giving without the structure of a foundation. Donors do not automatically give just because you use the word "foundation." In reality, a foundation is just an empty bucket. You still need to tell your story, cultivate relationships, and ask donors to be generous. Before you build a foundation machine, consider the advantages and disadvantages. There is no magic bucket of gold at the end of the foundation rainbow.

Some systems-focused ministry leaders try to build the perfect fundraising machine with fancy brochures, social media, or even a foundation. Unfortunately, all these moving parts don't necessarily raise more money. Consider the opportunity costs of spending time on the wrong strategies. What can Rube Goldberg teach us about fundraising? One simple lesson: Don't build a machine, build relationships.

Ron Haas is vice president of The Timothy Group in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which advances Christian organizations by implementing fundraising and capacity building strategies through vision, experience, and leadership ( During his career, Haas has gained significant ministry fundraising experience, including serving as vice president for institutional advancement at Faith Baptist Bible College in Ankeny, Iowa. He can be reached at

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