‘Happily Ever After’ Is Possible

Last week I received an e-mail from a person working for a small nonprofit. She expressed the organization’s goals for growth and the steps it took to achieve them. But then, trouble erupted …

In this short e-mail, there were two statements that caused me to sit back and stew for a few days before I replied. First, despite a desire to grow and an understanding of a best practice, this organization wasn’t going to follow the advice because the executive director didn’t really like it. Secondly, the organization knows it needs to grow its donor base and is committed to doing that — but only if it breaks even from day one.

I read the same articles you do so I know there are exceptions to the rules. But generally, the reason a fundraising effort gets written up or featured in a webinar is because it is outstanding. If everyone was doing it, we wouldn’t bother reading about it.

These success stories are rare. We all want to be the hero or heroine in them. But reality is, well, reality. So why do we still think we can ignore the rules and live happily ever after?

Here’s another reality — those nonprofit fundraisers who work hard, follow the rules while trying like crazy to change them, use best practices while testing into better best practices, and refuse to accept growth goals that aren’t backed up by a budget and a commitment to do good fundraising are the ones who often have those breakthroughs, the ones who are featured in articles, win awards or at the very least, are proud of the work they do.

As you plan the last quarter of 2012 and look ahead to 2013’s fundraising calendar, here are some things to think about to improve your chances of “happily ever after.”

Put your best foot forward

When you sit down to write a letter or an e-appeal, you have (hopefully) identified your offer, you have a story that shows impact, and you may have a premium or a freemium. What do you lead with?

Go with the biggest draw to your target audience. If you have a great premium, advertise it on the envelope. But if it’s kind of tacky, downplay it. Why get prospective donors all excited about a “freebie,” only to let them down once they see what it is?

Same thing with your story. If it’s only average — “we helped and now things are a bit better, but still not great” — don’t lead with that. You can use it in the copy, but you want to be sure your envelope teaser (if any) and opening few paragraphs are fantastic. Sometimes the best thing you have is your offer. For example, if you have a true matching-gift challenge, that may be the best lead.

Practice what you preach

OK, here’s a “Well, duh!” Make sure you do what you tell your donors you do. Sounds pretty pedantic, doesn’t it? But if you struggle with every newsletter to find the stories that show results and back up what you raise money for, you need to ask if there is a disconnect between programming and fundraising.

Or it may be as simple as no one is taking the time to collect the stories from the programs that you raise money for. If that’s the case, you need to think about a new system to correct this. Donors want to know that they make a difference. The stories and photos we share are one of the best ways throughout the year to assure them they do.

Measure twice, cut once

Master carpenter Norm Abram gave this wise advice to home-improvement do-it-yourselfers, but it’s good advice for fundraisers, too. We’ve all heard how important testing is to our success. Finding that new best practice usually won’t happen without testing, tweaking and — sadly — some failures along the way.

Retesting your findings is the best way to avoid making a wholesale change based on results that were skewed by seasonality, current events, bad delivery on the part of the post office or any number of other factors that are outside our control.

Still looking for “happily ever after”? If you love your work and believe in the mission of the organization, you’re already well along the path to that wonderful place. But if you’re fighting the rules (or working for someone who insists you do), you may need more than a few verses of “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go” to bring a smile to your face.

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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