Seven inspiring ideas for fundraising from Japan

Apr 03, 2022

Seven inspiring ideas for fundraising from Japan

Japan is known overseas for many things: folding paper into complex shapes, raw fish, agile old people, dangerously sharp swords, large nearly-naked men wrestling, and ornate tea-making ceremonies.

Ideas from Japan have spread to every corner of the world and have been wrangled into relevance to inform every practice, from housekeeping to leadership, and even motorcycle maintenance.

So, let’s wrangle some Japanese ideas and observations into relevance for fundraising.

Ikigai (生きがい)

Efficient and effective modern fundraising is about understanding and delivering value to donors so that we can deliver value for our causes. It demands focus and effort, which is at the core of ikigai: the focused actions that deliver purpose in our lives.

For many of the new and reluctant fundraisers I work with, the world can seem full of people who might fund our work or nonprofit. It’s an overwhelming view!

However, in reality, the opposite is usually true. There are zero natural donors in the world for our project or nonprofit; no one who should fund our work and there are no donors waiting to throw funding at us (in spite of what the crowdfunding platforms tell us).

Instead, we must work to create donors, and we must build our funding tribe, one donor at a time.

To do this, we paint our picture of the future, we find people and organisations who share our worldview, and who therefore might value our work. We present them with powerful value propositions; promises to deliver the impact and change they are seeking, in return for them funding us. Then we deliver what we promised.

This approach demands we focus our time and effort on our most likely groups of donors, we work hard to understand what they value about our work and why. Like ikigai, this approach also demands action, that we are bold, we get out there to communicate our ideas and their impact.

Wabisabi (わびさび)

Wabisabi is about finding beauty in imperfection, whether in ikebana (flower arranging), the sadō (tea ceremony), within our bodies as we age, or in fundraising.

None of us are perfect fundraisers. We’re all on a personal journey from bad fundraiser (where we all start) to good fundraiser (where we all aim to be). We all have gaps and holes in our experience, we’ve all made mistakes and taken backwards steps.

Wabisabi teaches us to embrace the imperfections in our experience and practice, to understand the bounds of our fundraising expertise and to fill in our gaps, whether by learning from our own experiences or those of others, to become good fundraisers.

For us perfectionists, imperfect fundraising can be difficult. We fret because our success is directly linked to how much impact our organisations can have and to how many people’s lives can be transformed. It can feel like our projects and causes will sail or sink based on the outcome of one application, one wrong word, or a donation decision. It can feel like we can never do enough, so we work ourselves into the ground and we waste our time chasing something that is ultimately unnecessary.

In this sense, wabisabi can help us to keep perspective. To accept the imperfections of our practice, to embrace the beauty and impact of our whole effort rather than just one moment, and to know that that good enough, is, well, good enough.

Kintsugi (金継ぎ)

Kintsugi is one form of wabisabi, it means golden joinery. This is the art of fixing broken pottery with gold-dusted lacquer. Kintsugi accepts that the ceramic will never be the same again, and instead of rebuilding and trying to disguise the cracks, it creates something new, something of equal (if not greater beauty).

I’ve broken my fair share of pots and donor partnerships. I’ve also spent a lot of time and effort trying to put them back together again to make them look the same as they did, and often failed.

I’ve learned that if a funding partnership does break, there is always hope. However, repairing them means first accepting that it is broken, that it will never be the same, and to honestly reflect on why.

Then, instead of recreating it, we build something new from the pieces, we put in extra effort to create something equally beautiful, but different.

Unmei kyodotai (運命共同体)

Japanese society is held together by powerful social norms built on principles of cooperation and collective responsibility. So whether it’s time to tidy the neighbourhood, to plant sugarcane, to harvest, to rebuild a community centre, everyone arrives with their tools and gets to it. This is unmei kyodotai in action, the belief that individual well-being is maximised within a group.

Like planting and harvesting sugarcane, fundraising is a team sport. It’s more effective, more efficient, and more enjoyable when everyone is involved, in whatever way they can be. Whether it’s how the security guard greets visitors, how a trustee speaks at an event, or how well we target our scarce fundraising resources to greatest effect.

And when success does come, it’s not your success, nor mine, it comes to us all, it is genuinely ours, and it tastes all the sweeter for it.

Ma () - make space for different donors to thrive

Japanese culture is deeply rooted in Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. These have donating at their core.

The bright orange torii gates of Fushimi Inari make up one of mainland Japan’s most recognisable Shinto sites. Every one of the gates relates to a donation and each speaks to different characters of donors and the different values they hold when making donations. Some of the gates are enormous, some stand in prominent places, some frame beautiful scenes, some are modestly hidden away in quiet corners. However, all of the gates are placed by the monks, the final decision is always theirs.

These remind us that donors all value different things and with creativity, it is always possible to engage and accommodate a wide variety of donor values on the hillside of our nonprofit.

This is the Japanese concept of ma (間), the space between things that gives them form and allows them to grow and thrive.

Okunoin Shrine (奥の院): the perfect donation

Earlier this year, I was visited the ancient Buddhist town of Koyasan (between national lockdowns). It was shrine heaven for me, shrine hell for two small children.

The Okunoin Buddhist shrine complex is stunning, it has more than 10,000 donated lanterns hanging in Tarodo Lantern Hall.

For me, there is no better representation of a perfect donation and perfect partnership.

Making a (metaphorical) lantern donation to an organisation speaks to a deep trust and requires nothing in return.

A lantern donation says: “Here is my contribution, I trust you to use it wisely, to move forward and light the future”.

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Before he moved to Auckland, Craig spent four years living in Okinawa, Japan.

He is one of the most world’s most globally-experienced fundraisers: during the past 26 years he has worked with donors, fundraisers and nonprofits in more than 100 countries - from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, Palestine to Peru, Myanmar to Monaco and lots of places in between.

Craig has a Masters in Development Studies from London’s SOAS, is a Fellow of London’s Royal Geographical Society, and once cycled from London in the UK to Cape Town in South Africa. 

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