Learn from the Titanic…or go down with the ship!

Learn from the Titanic…or sink!

The Unsinkable Boat


I remember when the movie “Titanic” came out and everybody was going to see it. My stock answer to “Have you seen IT yet?” was, No, I don’t need to watch it…I know how it ends…the boat sinks!” But eventually, after hearing about the tender love story, the amazing music and the body suit scene, I went. Alas, I was right… the boat sank!

The Titanic was the “unsinkable” ship. It had a double hull of 1” steel plates and 16 water-tight compartments sealed with massive doors that could be instantly triggered by a single electric switch on the bridge or automatically by electric water sensors. Even if four of those sixteen compartments were completely flooded, the ship would stay afloat. With all of that, even though the boat builders did not say so, the press of the day began to call the Titanic “unsinkable”.

There were major signs of over-confidence. Although the original design called for 32 life boats, the final decision was that those were too cluttered looking and the number was reduced to 20. Twenty life boats would accommodate 1128 passengers (at least those in First and Second Class) while the boat was designed to transport over 3500. Because of the way the first boats were loaded (couldn’t crowd those First Class folk), only @700 were saved and @1500 were lost. When it was determined that the boat was going to sink, some of the lower class floors were locked shut, giving the less wealthy zero opportunity to make it to the deck for even a chance of getting into a life boat.

Traveling in April, the route had Titanic going into northern waters even though there were known icebergs in the area. In fact, because the winter of 1912 had been mild, several of the major icebergs had pieces breaking off. There was a ‘crow’s nest’ with three pairs of lookouts changing shifts every two hours. On this particular night, however, the seas were completely calm, making it difficult to see water break against an iceberg. There was no moon that night, so it was extremely dark. For a smaller ship, it would have been reason for caution. But this was the Titanic.

Prior to the evening of the sinking, Titanic’s radio room had forwarded at least five “iceberg warnings” to the captain, who ignored them in favor of trying to arrive in New York a day early. As each of those five warnings was relayed, he chose to stay on course and at full speed. So, when the sixth warning came to the radio room, the operator, who was busy at the time, set it aside, reportedly putting it under a paper weight. After all, the captain had ignored five in a row. The radio operator’s failure, however, was to notice that this warning was for the exact area where they were.

There were 37 seconds between the time the “Iceberg Right Ahead” came from the Crow’s Nest and the slow motion collision began. The boat started the turn and engine reversal, but at 883 ft long (just slightly under the length of three football fields), 46,328 tons and over 35 feet of hull below the water line, it was too big, heavy and going too fast to adjust in time.

Six of those 16 water-tight compartments were flooded. Although all the doors were sealed and the 6th compartment pumps were able to keep up with the water, the ship was designed to survive four flooded compartments, not five. The collision was at 11:40. As soon as the damage assessment revealed the fifth flooded compartment, the captain knew (by midnight) the boat would sink, but even at that, the first only partially filled lifeboats were not lowered until 12:45 and the first distress rocket was fired at 12:50. Titanic sank at 2:20, nearly three hours after the collision. That is a long, slow, agonizing sinking.

Is Fundraising a Titanic business?


s stated on one of the Titanic sites I visited, the early 1900’s were a time of “prosperity, confidence and propriety”. If you’ve been in fundraising very long you probably have a time in mind of when prosperity, confidence and propriety were predominant in our business. When I was teaching in 1980, fundraising reps I worked with were wearing 3-pc suits and driving Mercedes and Volvos. They were making “boatloads” of commissions and the fundraising business continued to grow, with each company entering the business or splintering off from another trying to build a bigger, better, faster, more luxurious fundraising machine. The training class for the company I joined had over 100 people in it. As long as there were schools there would be the need and we had nothing to fear. While other businesses would have their tough times and, although fundraising might hit some turbulent waters, this business was “unsinkable”.

When the competition got tougher, we just cranked it up a notch and raised the profit percentage. When our competitors matched our offers, we would add services or prizes or guarantees. Being the greedy first-class, Mercedes-types we are, we just turned to our suppliers and demanded better pricing. As more suppliers put out to sea, they were eager to oblige us. But then, they needed to be profitable too, so they came up with ways to help themselves:

  • To make up for the higher mark-ups, they would decrease size and lower quality.
  • Smaller size products meant more could go into a ‘case’ (or master case).
  • If they put more products in a brochure, we would have to buy more (disguised as offering more to the consumer).
  • One way to increase items was to sell us the concept of “ensembles”; i.e. same design on multiple items. Ensembles often take an entire page.       
  • Keep the same products but make minor changes to the design so the distributor couldn’t carry over product. Examples:
    • The white angel one year becomes the gold tipped winged angel the next
    • Holographic “Trees” paper is replaced with Holographic “Stars”
    • Red foil Christmas becomes Gold foil Christmas with same design
    • Votive candles become smaller Tea light Candles
    • Cheese becomes Cheese Snack
    • Chocolates come with fewer nuts and in smaller ounces
    • Magazine voucher subscriptions go to less than a year
  • Bigger pictures (fewer items per page times more items = more pages)
  • Bigger, oversized pages for even bigger pictures of smaller products
  • The “Early Buy” game becomes a bigger thing. (Remember when you only needed to pre-order 50%?).

Each year, we First Class distributors and the Propriety-minded Vendors go to the trade show to find and show what is “new and different”. The game hasn’t changed much.

  • Gummy Bears become worms or fish, change colors or go from sweet to sour
  • The round tin is replaced with the rectangle tin
  • The stopwatch prize adds a talking feature – or a radio – or something useless
  • Gift boxes go from metal or wood to cardboard – and come empty
  • Gift bags are too small for gifts
  • In general, get less for more
  • Brochure covers are textured, or have extra colors, or are die cut, etc.

Perhaps this would be a good time to remind you of a phrase that comes up, more often now in politics than anything else, to address those currently in office who are “doing things” as “re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic”. What does that mean? Commonly, it refers to the pointlessness of rearranging the deck chairs while the boat is sinking; doing something cosmetic when the real problem is much larger.

What are we (YOU) doing?

  1. Listening to warning signals and making speed and course adjustments accordingly?
  2. Waiting to hear “Iceberg Right Ahead” before changing course?
  3. Rearranging Titanic deck chairs as the propeller is coming up out of the water?

Are we continuing to sail at Full Speed Ahead, trying to get our boat to come in a day earlier, while there are iceberg warnings coming in on the radio? Are we counting on that double hull or those sixteen water-tight compartments?

Are we ignoring that end-customer who is telling us our products are getting cheaper and more expensive at the same time just because we know we’re on course, on schedule and unsinkable? Are we blaming the lower participation rate on everything and everybody else? Watch out for those icebergs.

Do we continue to fault each of the failing suppliers and distributors while we stay the course that they were on? Have we noticed that there are insufficient lifeboats to save everybody on the ship? Evolutionists will tell you that it is all about ‘survival of the fittest’. The class-oriented society of the early 1900’s ensured that all First and Second Class patrons could get to a lifeboat while the Third Class people could not. Even though the ‘order’ was to put women and children in the boats first, there were more First Class men saved than Third Class women and children. Do we have our priorities right?

Possible warning heeding and course adjusting

  • Give back some of the mark-up in exchange for higher quality, more useful products, reasonably priced.
  • Drop the mega shoppers in favor of domestically produced product with fewer opportunities for back-orders and substitutions.
  • Look for different products; i.e. frozen, magazines, jewelry, gadgets.
  • Consider new marketing strategies – email, direct mail, telesales, internet.
  • Consider the pricing strategies of the Home Depot, Wal-mart type retailers vs the mom/pop local shops —- check out the parking lots and then consider if you’re willing to incorporate new thinking in how you structure your program.

Full speed ahead ‘til the iceberg is sighted

  • Good luck!
  • Change the dates on last year’s cover letters
  • Repeat the same prize program
  • Offer the same profit percentages and services
  • If this school gets mad, there’s another one down the street

Rearranging Deck Chairs

 Thanks for reading,


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