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The Pitchman: three fundraising lessons inspired by the legendary Ron Pompeil

The Pitchman: three fundraising lessons inspired by the legendary Ron Pompeil

‘ “You know, we’re going to hit a million dollars, just on the first hour,” one of the QVC guys said, and there was awe in his voice.’ He had been watching on his monitor, as ‘The Salesman of the Century’, Ron Pompeil completed his hour-long set selling his kitchen gadgets.

I read the extraordinary story of Pompeil’s life in The Pitchman, an article by Malcolm Gladwell for the New Yorker first published in October 2000.

I was intrigued by the larger than life story and influencing skill of this legendary ‘board-walk pitchman’. If you or a fundraiser you know is unhappy with their current ability to influence donors, then there is plenty we can learn from Ron.

I have trained or coached more than 5,000 fundraisers over the last decade, and noticed common areas where people usually fail to persuade – here are my three favourite ideas that we could borrow from Ron Pompeil.

1. Find and show the contrast


Before giving any detail about his product, Ron Pompeil always paints a picture of what is messy or arduous or time-consuming about carrying out the kitchen process if you don’t have his machine – “How many cut tomatoes like this? You stab it. You jab it. The juices run down your elbow…”

He understands, as every outstanding fundraiser understands, that you can’t just start talking about how fantastic your widget (or charitable service) is at scratching itches. For your widget or service to be appreciated, people must first tune into what the itch or problem is that your solution solves.

It probably sounds obvious to you that we should evoke the problem faced by our beneficiaries (or the corporate partner) before going into any detail about our solution. But ask yourself honestly, what you talk or write about at the start of your presentations and proposals. Is it really the problem that the money or partnership would solve (the all-powerful WHY)? Or is it actually your service or solution or fundraising idea (the rarely-motivating HOW)?

Please note, merely including a stat about the prevalence of a disease or problem does not count because it rarely makes people actually feel anything about the problem.

2. Certainty is persuasive

One of Ron’s lines is ‘I’m going to show you the most amazing slicing machine you machine you have ever seen in your life’.

One reason I initially struggled in my first fundraising job is that our managers were constantly telling us to ‘manage expectations’ to donors, which had the effect that I rarely came off the fence and sounded certain about anything.

People can tell if you’re truly focussed on helping them, or if you’re actually focussed on serving your own needs during this meeting. They can tell if you honestly think this proposal or your service will be great, or just quite good.

To win a corporate pitch, you have to be absolutely certain that if the company chooses you, their job will become easier and if they don’t choose you they’ll have missed out.

Meeting or telephoning a supporter, you have to be completely certain that your charity makes an amazing difference to those it serves. This comes across in your voice as well as in what you say. You cannot fake this with pumped up, artificial enthusiasm.

As any excellent actor will tell you, the best way to convey cast-iron conviction is for you to be truly convinced (ie not act convinced). The only way for you to do that is to spend time focussing on and feeling proof that what your charity does, works.

If right now you find this difficult, why not today schedule a chance to talk to someone who works with your beneficiaries (even if only by phone / skype)?

Why go to all this trouble? Because, as Tony Robbins advises ‘when there is rapport, the person who is most certain of something, over time, influences the other.’ And this means that more people will happily say YES to the fundraising opportunity you offer them.

3. Help them feel the evidence

‘Ron Pompeil’s gift was to make the ‘chop o matic’ the star of the show’. It’s never about him, it’s about bringing to life the power of the tool he is demonstrating.

The Prince's Trust's Tomorrow Store

The Prince’s Trust’s Tomorrow Store

I recently had the good fortune to talk to Rachel Case (Director, Regional Private Sector Fundraising) and Sally Anne Ashley, of The Princes Trust. Sally Anne manages Tomorrow’s Store, a fabulous shop which showcases products created by entrepreneurs who the charity has helped.

The purpose of the shop is to help entrepreneurs sell their work. But if you are a fundraiser for Princes Trust based in London, the shop also serves as an amazing flagship with which to help supporters to see the difference that Prince’s Trust is making. The moment Rachel brought me into the shop, my senses experienced the quality and careful craftsmanship in the products on those shelves. Any supporter would feel the impact of Princes Trust when they enter Tomorrow’s Store.

One of the most effective ways I ever saw charitable impact brought to life was by a charity that carries out eye operations in the developing world. By asking me to look through increasingly thicker folds of bubble wrap, she helped me associate to what life might be like if I lost my sight; and then (as I removed the wrap), have it restored.

When I give these two examples to fundraisers, I get one of two reactions. Some say ‘but we don’t have a shop and of course it would be easy if our charity was to do with blindness’. Others ask themselves, ‘even though we couldn’t use either of these, I wonder what we could do to bring to life some element of the Problem (aka the Before) or the Impact of our solution (The After).

Could you make five minutes now and explore how you could physically achieve this? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Rob Woods of Brightspot Fundraising –  – is an award-winning trainer and author who loves to help fundraisers raise more money, more easily.


Main photo: knife chopping garlic by Catalin Petolea on


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