Avoiding Potholes

OK, I’ll be honest — a lot of the best practices in fundraising aren’t the stuff that makes for good conversation at a high school reunion. In fact, saying you work in fundraising can lead to the raised eyebrow and “ohhhhh …” said in that skeptical tone of voice. It seems everyone has an opinion about fundraising, and some of those opinions aren’t very favorable.

In any business that involves putting a product out in public, there are critics. When Apple or Starbucks introduces the latest innovation from their research and development teams, the press showers us with commentary, sometimes scathing. Friends and family have opinions, good and bad. Let Facebookmake a change, and you’ll read posts about it for days.

It’s no different with our fundraising. Host an event, mail a letter or post a video on YouTube, and you’re going to get comments — good and bad. While some criticism is constructive and we can learn from it, jerking back and forth every time we hear a complaint or suggestion more likely only leads to whiplash. Instead, we need to slow down, evaluate and then proceed carefully.

As a fundraiser, here are some potholes along the way to avoid.

How much is too much?

The age-old question about how often to contact a donor won’t be answered in this column — mainly because there is no one right answer. How often you communicate with your donors should be a decision based on what experience has taught you (i.e., your net income) and how well you can make your message sound fresh time and time again.

The challenge is that donors, board members and staff aren’t shy about stating opinions, and that sometimes leads to overreaction. As I see it, the real problem is that frequently, a nonprofit insists on a less aggressive contact schedule, only to drop in “just one more” on a whim. “Isn’t this cool? We could do this, too …” is not a good reason to communicate with your donors. Instead, do you have something to say that donors need to hear? Keep your schedule flexible enough to make a last-minute change — but make sure it’s really worth doing.

Avoid ‘us, too!’

One of the things I remember my dad saying when I was growing up in Chicago is, “Just because everyone else is jumping in Lake Michigan, should you jump in Lake Michigan?” (Sound familiar?!) As a kid, my response (usually unspoken) wasn’t always what my dad was after. But as I’ve grown older (and a bit wiser, I hope), I keep seeing examples of fundraising that seems to be based solely on a desire to “jump in” just because a lot of other nonprofits (usually larger) already have.

That’s fine, as long as the methodology or message you want to appropriate for your own organization actually aligns with your mission. Some formats make perfect sense for one nonprofit but are too much of a stretch for others. The same is true for messaging.

Figure out what you do better than anyone else — and then do that. Being small and unable to differentiate your organization from the larger competition isn’t a good thing. Being small but having a clear differentiation that you proclaim over and over can be a great thing. Tell your donors repeatedly why you are different and what you do better. As Jack Trout, founder and president of Trout & Partners, said, “Differentiate or die.”

Don’t over-design your message into oblivion
I love a good design — be it on a website, in a direct-mail appeal, or in an e-appeal or e-newsletter. What I hate is when the design trumps the messaging.

Go back to basics — who is your audience? If your target donor is over 40, design for someone over 40. Skip the reverse type, the photos that are “artsy” instead of emotive, complicated packaging and graphics that leave the viewer wondering where to focus. Your job is to drive home an incredibly clear message: There is need. We have a solution. Your donation will make that solution possible.

I am probably in the age range of the target donor population for many nonprofits. I don’t have “one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel,” as the saying goes. But I do get frustrated when the nutritional information on food packaging is printed so small I can’t read it without finding a pair of the dreaded “dime store readers.” You may think I’m crotchety, but remember: I am also a donor. If your design drives me away from the message, I will become someone else’s donor.

Potholes can lead our donors away from our message — and rob us of much-needed revenue. Try to avoid these three as you navigate your fall fundraising schedule.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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