June 15, 2024
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Ever wonder where the expression “a flash in the pan” came from?

Grammar Monster online explains the phrase’s origin:

The term derives from the time of early flintlock muskets. When a musketeer pulled the trigger, often the flint would ignite the gunpowder in the lock-pan, causing a flash, but this would fail to set off the main charge. The flash in the pan would look impressive, but it would have no effect, i.e., the musket ball would not be fired.

To be exact, the Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a thing or person whose sudden but brief success is not repeated or repeatable,” as in “our start to the season was just a flash in the pan.

Star of stage and screen, Julie Andrews, once said, “I thought it was all a flash in the pan. It wasn’t until Broadway came along that I felt I had really made it.”

You only need to go as far as the local gym to see a flash in the pan, notably after Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Many people who resolve to exercise after the gluttony of the holidays disappear after a day or two; sometimes after a week.

Here are other real-life examples of flashes in the pan:

  1. One-hit wonder songs like “Macarena.” In 1996, the Spanish Latin pop and dance duo Los Del Rio released what became the highest-grossing Spanish party song. A video clip that accompanied the song showed the dance moves to the song, which became a phenomenon across the globe. But that was the extent of the artists’ success.
  2. There were many one-hit wonders in major league sports. One well-known baseball athlete who became a flash in the pan was Mark Fidrych, nicknamed “The Bird” for his quirky antics on the mound. His career started with great promise in 1976 with the Detroit Tigers. He earned a 19-9 record, led the major leagues with a 2.34 ERA, started the All-Star Game and was named the American League’s “Rookie of the Year.” Injuries soon derailed his career and his fame faded.
  3. Most everyone is familiar with the Apple iPhone or with any of the series of Android smartphones. But how many remember the Amazon Fire Phone launched in July 2014? It started with huge potential and was Jeff Bezos’ first foray into the smartphone business. But after mixed reviews, they dropped it in August 2015. As you can see, not everything Bezos touches turns into gold.

There is a valuable lesson to be learned from these initial successes and later flops. A flash in the pan is something that has a strong start but quickly fails. In fundraising, every so often, good ideas are like lint or particles in the air that turn to dust. One key to successful fundraising is to develop and implement methods that give consistent and continuous results. The so-called “one-and-done” techniques do not last and are anything but steady and recurrent.

An online blog post from “7-Figure Fundraising,” titled “Avoiding the One-and-Done Donor,” captures this idea wonderfully. In 2014, the “Ice Bucket Challenge” went viral on social media. The idea was simple. According to the story, “The idea was that someone would ‘tag’ you to film yourself dumping a bucket of ice and water over your head to raise awareness for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Over 17 million people participated and more than $113 million in donations collected from the campaign – a tremendous success by any standard.” So, what’s wrong with that? Sounds uncomplicated, right?

Not really.

The story goes on: “But the effect didn’t last. Almost all of the Ice Bucket Challenge givers were single-gift donors. In fact, the year after the Ice Bucket Challenge, donations to the ALS Association dropped from $113 million to $21 million. Despite being wildly successful for a moment in time, the ice bucket challenge ended as a flash in the pan marketing stunt and not an effective fundraising strategy resulting in long-term, committed donors.”

What do we learn from short-lived campaigns and project fundraising? They might be profitable at the moment, but don’t always work as effective long-term strategies. So, what should a nonprofit do to land on terra firma in the long run?

The answer is straightforward: Engage your donors with your goals and vision for the future. One-off projects may work in the short term; however, to achieve fundraising success, you often need a long-term strategy that re-engages your donors and keeps them in the fold. This holds especially true for major gift donors who should become the “bread and butter” of your fundraising program.

The American actor and film star, Skylar Astin, once declared, “I want longevity. I don’t want to be a flash in the pan. I want to continue to do good work and projects that inspire me, and if I can have fun while doing it, that’s the dream.” Wise words every fundraiser should adopt as their own.


Norman B. Gildin is the author of the popular book on nonprofit fundraising “Learn From My Experiences.” He is the President of Strategic Fundraising Group, whose singular mission is to assist nonprofits to raise critical funds for their organization. His website is www.normangildin.com.

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