Stomach Trouble: How Much Should You Trust Your Gut?

“The days of launching a major fundraising program based on gut instinct are over.”

After reading that comment recently, I immediately felt a bit sick to my stomach. After all, my “gut” has served me well over the last few decades. No, I haven’t always gotten it right, but I’ve had a couple big wins and a lot of midsized victories.

But, let’s face it. The failures (and I’ve had some) are costly. That’s money forever lost to programs for our nonprofits. And, our failures often make it harder to get budget to try again. (Fundraising flops live forever. Fundraising victories are too soon forgotten.)

So, if you don’t have the budget for the kind of wonderful research that is available now to raise the odds that a fundraising campaign launch will succeed, and you have to resort to depending heavily on your gut, what can you do to mitigate your risk?

Step 1: Appetizer — Read and listen to what others have learned through research
We are all suffering from information overload in this day and age of the Internet, webinars, electronic publications and conferences. But there are some great “must-reads” if you are hoping to learn from the examples of other nonprofits.

This newsletter is a great place to begin; Today in Fundraisingoften highlights the latest reports from reliable sources. And that’s a key word: reliable. Always look at the source of the information.

Check the date on any research you find, as well. Things have dramatically changed in the nonprofit community in the last five years or so. Learnings from the mid-2000s are likely to be less useful than post-recession epiphanies.

Bottom line: There is no shortcut or simple Google search. But dig deep, and see what you can uncover and learn from.

Step 2: Main Course — Study your own numbers over and over again
What worked in the last 12 to 18 months? What failed? Now, ask yourself honestly what factors may have influenced those results. After all, a mailing that was fabulous in December did have the benefit of year end that a February mailing lacks. Your e-mail campaign that aligned with a current news story gets a great lift that can be hard to replicate.

Take a few minutes to pat yourself on the back, and then tear into everything. Did you have a great story, a simple yet profound offer (i.e., feed a child for $5 a week) or another “hook” that positively skewed your results? Was a lousy response the result of poorly written copy or a vague offer? This isn’t the stuff you write about on your annual self-evaluation; instead, it’s an honest review that you do to help your gut function more successfully in the near future.

Step 3: Dessert — Be careful who you listen to
OK, this one is hard — and the wrong choice can stick with you longer than that hot fudge sundae. But the fact is, your board chair, senior management team and CEO may or may not have a real clue about what your donors want and will respond to. Sometimes you have to play nice, but don’t sacrifice your entire budget for a month or an activity on what your CEO thinks (unless he or she has a basis for that belief). Too often, we think donors are just like us, but we forget that they know much less and (sadly) think about our nonprofit less often than we do. We mustn’t make assumptions and start at a level that is beyond their ken.

You may be able to test an idea that was handed down from on high, but be careful about risking it all on an idea that is based only on the gut of someone who hasn’t immersed him- or herself in the current research (step 1) and results (step 2). You may not only miss the mark on your fundraising, but it could cost you professionally, as well.

Once you’ve read, listened to experts (or at least experienced colleagues), studied your findings and weighed options, go with your gut. At least by that point, you’ve got more driving your intestinal decision-making tool than a stale doughnut.

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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