Fundraising with Food for Life

Priyavrata Dasa

The following article is an extract taken from the newly-published 'Food for Life Manual', written by Priyavrata Dasa and published by ISKCON Communications. It is a useful resource for anyone interested in Food for Life and covers all aspects of this preaching and welfare programme.

The first thing to know about fundraising is that it begins with fundraising; this means learning how to cultivate long-lasting friendships. We do this by being honest, respectful, humble and tolerant. Unless we can demonstrate these qualities, we can't expect to gain the full support and reciprocation of the public. Therefore, before you get carried away with how much money your temple could make from a Food for Life programme, it is important to understand the need to be honest.

Srila Prabhupada was particularly insistent that money collected for food relief programmes be utilised for those programmes. He felt that if everything we did was above suspicion, we would see an amazing amount of public appreciation and financial support for our Food for Life programme. Practically, this means that fundraising will no longer be required; donations will literally pour in because everyone likes to give, especially to a cause that they have faith in and know will utilise their donation properly.

Therefore, our first concern should be to develop long-lasting friendships, by demonstrating true Vaisnava qualities and also by seeing everyone with whom we come into contact as potential Krsna bhaktas.

Building a reputation is essential for fundraising

A good reputation is essential in fundraising, as people are not going to give to any organisation that doesn't have one. In order to attain this, we have to get rid of any bad reputation we may have, through re-education, improving communications, erasing misconceptions, practising what we preach, and maybe even changing our strategies.

A good example of this is the Salvation Army. Most people are unaware that this is a splinter group of the Methodist Church. In the early nineteenth century, the Army was out on the streets banging drums and blowing horns with a true evangelistic spirit. However, their sincere attempts to glorify God with music and song were not appreciated; in fact, they were ridiculed by the public, beaten and practically forced off the streets. Does this sound familiar? They decided, therefore, to adjust their strategy by incorporating a welfare service into their programme, specifically, feeding and clothing the poor in times of war. The result was immediate acceptance by the public and a wonderful reputation which is still flourishing today. In fact, their reputation is so strong that the words 'welfare' and caring' are practically synonymous with the Salvation Army.

How we did it in Australia

Some of you may be familiar with the history of the Australian yatra. When Krsna consciousness began there devotees were subject to persecution, both from the public and the media. In 1980, however, Sixty Minutes, Australia's most popular social affairs television programme, featured a story on the 'Children of Krsna', and ISKCON's reputation changed literally overnight. Taking advantage of this, the Australian leaders embarked upon a major propaganda campaign, producing two colour magazine inserts which were put into all the country's leading newspapers. This was followed by a bus party that visited every major town in Australia, distributing books and free prasadam, as well as promoting the cause of the oppressed devotees in the Soviet Union (which culminated in the production of a record by Prahlada Dasa entitled Mr Gorbachev, Set Them Free). As a result of all this, the movement was favourably reported in every single newspaper, television news broadcast and radio show in Australia!

Alongside the Soviet campaign, Hare Krsna Food for Life also began to prosper. Started in 1978 from the Kings Cross temple, this programme achieved national recognition in the mid eighties when it was seen as a practical solution to a major social problem. At that time, Australia was experiencing an unprecedented rise in unemployment and inflation, and thousands of people were struggling to make ends meet. Food for Life was seen as a positive input from ISKCON. One well-known social reformer, Revd. Ted Noffs, commented during a 1986 television interview: 'I think that the Hare Krsnas will fulfil the role that the Salvation Amy fulfilled in the nineteenth century ... it's not just a hand-out, it's a hand-out with something else - human compassion - and it gives welfare a human face.'

In addition to these successful welfare campaigns, the Australia devotees also utilised Food for Life to cultivate leading government officials, by encouraging them to endorse the programme and even practically engaging them in serving meals. This pro-active preaching, together with a more mature approach to street activities (such as the cessation of unlawful fundraising techniques), means that today the devotees experience a healthy reputation all over Australia and New Zealand. This respectability has helped ISKCON gain, to date, in excess of three hundred thousand dollars in grants from the federal government and private foundations.


According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, 'Truthfulness is the last leg of religion'. Srila Prabhupada himself said that that we become adored for our honesty. In a letter to Rupanuga in January 1975, he wrote: 'Regarding the controversy about book distribution techniques, you are right. Our occupation must be honest. Everyone should adore our members as honest. If we do something which is deteriorating to the popular sentiments of the public in favour of our movement, that is not good. Somehow or other we should not become unpopular in the public eye. These dishonest methods must be stopped. It is hampering our reputation all over the world. Money collected for feeding people in India should be collected under the name ISKCON Food Relief. Not any other name. And every farthing of that money must be sent to India, or better yet, buy food grains there and ship them here and we will distribute. But every farthing collected for that purpose must be used for that purpose.'

We should strictly adhere to this essential religious principle of truthfulness, not only for the sake of purity but as a way to enhance our reputation and qualify ourselves as worthy recipients of the public's donations.

The 'half hen' logic

There is a story of a man who had a chicken but who was only interested in getting the egg. He didn't want the trouble of feeding the chicken, therefore he foolishly concluded that the best thing to do would be to cut off the chicken's head! Thus he would still have the benefit of the egg but not the worry of feeding the chicken.

Srila Prabhupada often gave this analogy to condemn the mayavadis who are only willing to accept those parts of the Bhagavad-gita that suit their arguments. This same analogy could be applied to Food for Life management. In other words, we must be willing to put in the same amount to the programme that we wish to take out. Unfortunately, many of these programmes are still managed using the 'half-hen' ethos, with the result that they are being exploited and mismanaged, both legally and ethically. As Srila Prabhupada said, 'we should be adored for our honesty.'

Why people donate

There are three major reasons why a person will give in charity to one organisation, but not another:

The mission: They believe the cause is worthy of support, the vast majority of people appreciating the benefits of feeding the needy.

Food for Life scores high on this point. However, because people also want a vision of a better future, our mission must be clearly defined and include a proposed solution to the problem of hunger.

The quality of people involved: The people in charge of the charity are viewed as being of good character, are seen to practise what they preach and are considered to be committed to the mission.

Food for Life would benefit from improvement in this area. We need to have better qualified devotees representing the programme both in terms of fundraising and cooking; after all, they are meant to be ambassadors for our movement and as such, we as a Society, are being judged on their behaviour. There is a common saying amongst devotees in the United States: 'Food for Life for me and my wife'. This may sound humorous but the implications of this avaisnava behaviour could be disastrous for our movement. Unless we can demonstrate honesty and perfect character, we cannot expect widespread support for the programme. In this respect, there should be as much encouragement from our leaders for devotees engaged in Food for Life as there is for book distributors. These devotees should also be consulted when determining strategies and directions for the programme - after all, they are the ones who see the problems and results of food distribution, and their opinion should therefore be valued.

The financial stability of the organisation: the person sees the charity as accountable and trusts them to spend their donation properly.

This is another area in which we need to improve. We cannot expect people to blindly donate their money without the assurance of accountability. All successful non profit-making organisations spend a large percentage of their time and energy in demonstrating this quality. One of the more obvious ways of doing this is by sending regular newsletters to donors outlining progress of current projects, highlighting future developments, and providing a detailed income and expenditure report.

The fact is, if we wish to get large donations, we must be willing to literally open our books to the public, who are more likely to support an organisation which is seen as professional and honest, run by dedicated and highly regarded staff.

The right, right method

One logical and practical rule of fundraising is the 'right' method: we should ask the right person in the right way, at the right time, for the right amount, in the right place and through the right person, For example, if you ask a little old lady on the street for a one million dollar donation, you'll get nothing, and if you ask a millionaire on the street for a dollar , you'll still get nothing. Not only because such a small donation is an embarrassment to the latter, but it's also neither the right place nor the right way to request money from him; rich people don't make large donations on street corners. Instead, a meeting should be arranged - at which prasadam is served - where detailed information can be provided on the programme and how the donor can invest in it. Referring back to the 'half-hen' theory, we can only expect to get back what we are willing to put in. Of course, in order to obtain such a meeting in the first place, it is necessary to go through the right person. This means we should be recommended by an individual or organisation respected by our potential donor.

The Pyramid

The science of fundraising can best be understood in terms of a pyramid. The bottom layer represents the unlimited potential donors for a Food for Life programme: this is known as 'the universe'. Every organisation has their own universe, consisting of all the people who have ever come into contact with them. For us, this means contacts made via book distribution, restaurant customers, attendees of Sunday feasts, temple visitors, relatives of devotees, etc. The idea is to bring these contacts to the first level of the pyramid - getting them to donate to Food for Life. Naturally the percentage of first-time donors will be less than the initial universe. The second level represents those who make a second donation or who renew their commitment, which again will be a smaller percentage. The third level consists of people who regularly give to the programme, but whose donations are sporadic and who have no firm commitment. The fourth level is those people who have made a concrete commitment and make regular large donations. The top layer (or peak) of the pyramid consists of those who are willing to donate their life savings to the organisation; these people often start at the bottom of the pyramid and slowly work their way up over a long period of time. They represent the smallest percentage of donors but their donations are the largest. In fact, it is said that eighty per cent of all donations come from twenty per cent of donors - namely, the top two levels of the pyramid. It is therefore logical that eighty percent of fundraising efforts should be concentrated on this twenty per cent of donors. The idea is to gradually bring people to higher and higher levels of the pyramid, and this requires patience and long-term vision.

Say 'thank you'

Although it is important to spend a large amount of time with regular donors, this does not mean that you neglect the other eighty per cent. Everyone's contribution should be appreciated. We have to be patient and be prepared to spend a long time cultivating people over many years. The tendency has been to get as much from people in the shortest possible time and never worry about them again - no thanks, no recognition and no sensitivity. However, another important rule of fundraising is to say 'thank you' at least seven times! Everyone likes to be appreciated so thank donors personally; write them a 'thank you' letter; give them a certificate of recognition; print their name in your temple newsletter; send a card on their birthday; give them prasadam. If you do this, people will give again and again, and gradually rise up to the top levels of the pyramid.

Working smarter, not harder

We need to start working smarter, not harder, which means doing things in a systematic and professional manner. Every temple should collect a database of contacts and start using them; in other words, get them working for us. We're supposed to represent the brahminical culture, the intelligence of society. It is our responsibility to engage people in Krsna's service. For example, say you need to package ten thousand burfis for a weekend programme. Instead of engaging ten brahmacaris in a day's labour, it would be much smarter to ring up all your contacts and ask whether they would like to do a little devotional service for Krsna. This is what it means to be resourceful, and a brahmana is a most resourceful person!

Foundation membership

A good way to create a steady financial basis for your programme to approach friends, family, business contacts, etc. to become a Food for Life foundation member. A suggested price range might be: five hundred dollars per year (gold member), two hundred and fifty dollars a year (silver member), and one hundred and eight dollars a year (Prabhupada member). Members could pay this money as a lump sum or in instalments. The membership package could include: a special framed certificate of appreciation; a membership card; some of Prabhupada's books; a Krsna poster; regular newsletter, and prasada. The newsletter can be in a two-page format, giving a short report on the progress of the programme, future plans, a story, financial report and list of new members. This sharing of information and honesty will be much appreciated.

The programme is similar to Life Membership, but a little more affordable. However, we shouldn't fall into the same trap of promising too many benefits as with Life Membership - better to give what you can practically afford. The most important thing to offer members is truthfulness - tell them the spiritual benefits of investing in this important welfare project.

Fundraising products

Whenever we go shopping, we are guaranteed to see some type of fundraising confectionery displayed at the counter. There is no reason, therefore, why Food for Life should not have its own line of Fundraising products. It may only be a packet of cookies or small plastic bags of burfi, but you will be surprised at the response. Last year, one confectionery company in England made twenty million pounds from a single chocolate bar! In Australia, a group of devotees developed a chewy fruit and nut confection which they called 'Bliss Bar'. These bliss bars are offered to the Deities at the Melbourne temple and have been steadily selling for over ten years. Indeed, for at least three to four years, the bars were exclusively used on all flights of an Australian airline.

Our famous Hare Krsna cookbooks are literally overflowing with delicious and unique sweets and savoury snacks. Unfortunately, very few devotees have attempted to pursue this huge potential. Those that have are not always successful, due partly to impatience and attempting to expand sales too quickly. However, there are also success stories.

When fundraising with prasadam, an extra ingredient can be added - the sales angle. You can make it clear that all - or almost all - profits go towards feeding the needy. It is a well-known fact that as much as seventy per cent of profits raised during fundraising drives are swallowed up by administration. In Australia, the law states that no more than fifty per cent of charitable donations can be legally justified for covering administrative costs. However, just because it is legally justifiable, doesn't mean to say it is acceptable in the eyes of the public. Therefore we should ensure that the majority of profits obtained from fundraising confectionery will go towards furthering the aims of Food for Life rather than its administration or management. H. H. Mukunda Goswami has put forward the excellent suggestion that the exact percentage of profits we intend to use in feeding the needy is advertised on confectionary packets so the public can see for themselves how their money is being spent.


This is an easy method of raising small amounts of money, but unfortunately, is one which is most often abused by devotees. Temples need to be extremely vigilant in stamping out unauthorised collecting in the name of Food for Life. Devotees undertaking this form of fundraising should be issued with an identification badge, with a recent and happy photo of themselves and if necessary, carry a permit from the local authorities and/or Charity Commission permitting them to collect public donations in the street.

The procedure itself is very simple. The clipboard contains a newspaper article on one side and sheet of paper with columns headed 'name', 'address' and 'amount', on the other. Not only will this encourage prospective donors to give, seeing that others have done before them, but it is also a good way of collecting names and addresses for the programme database.

The beggar image

There is a danger, of course, that clipboard fundraising may been seen as begging by the public and will not be appreciated if it gets to the point of saturation, i.e. devotees are seen asking for donations at the same place every day. Things became so bad in Australia at one stage, that devotees could barely appear on the streets without being arrested and imprisoned. This type of fundraising is therefore best kept to the minimum and we should, wherever possible, use methods that demonstrate to the public how ISKCON devotees are independent and productive members of the community. As Srila Prabhupada put it: 'We are not dependent on anyone's contribution, we are dependent on Krsna.'