What’s a Little Guy to Do?

I regularly walk in a neighborhood where the garden sheds are larger than my house. I have a cat; they have horses. Even an occasional llama. The lawns are immaculate, and the views are expansive.

The walk is good exercise and a chance to think about what I’m working on, what I’m reading or just what I’m wondering about. And it also gives me new ideas — flowers for our garden, trees I don’t recognize and want to look up, and occasional decorating ideas. Even though I’m just a little guy who lives down the foothills from these homes, I benefit from peeking behind the curtains (that’s figuratively, not literally) to get new ideas.

If you work at or raise funds for a small to midsized nonprofit, you may sometimes get frustrated when you read the ads or case studies talking about successful programs that raised millions, brought in tens of thousands of new donors or got press coverage on CNN. As you’re thinking about 2014 (yes, it’s only 40 days away), you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed, wondering what you can do to get just a little bit bigger slice of the philanthropic pie. So, here are a few ideas for making the next 40 days matter in terms of maximizing your nonprofit’s success in the new year.

Know your numbers
Everywhere I turn, it seems, I’m reading another article about declining retention rates. It’s a problem, and ignoring it won’t make it go away. Donor attrition is like weight gain; you don’t gain 15 pounds overnight, and you don’t lose 15 percent of your donor file overnight, either. So right now, vow to figure out your attrition rate the day the last donation for 2013 is posted in your computer system. You may have an automatic report in your software, or you may have to figure it out manually.

There’s a lot more you should calculate, but this is the bare minimum. After all, it’s hard to know what to fix if you don’t figure out the symptoms.

In the spirit of thanksgiving to you for reading this column, for the next seven days you can download the simple spreadsheet I’ve developed to calculate attrition and some other key stats. It’s not fancy, but it works. And it’s free. Download it by going to my website and click on “Resources” on the left side. Then click on the nice big prompt.

Know what others are doing
Right now is the time to invest in 2014 by giving year-end donations to successful nonprofits you want to emulate in the new year. While you won’t benefit from copying their mail and e-mail, you will benefit from reviewing it and learning from it. Also pay attention to their receipting processes, their online and offline communications, and their use of newsletters. What should you be incorporating?

Another opportunity is to subscribe to Who’s Mailing What!Yes, it costs money. But I strongly advocate that quality tools that help us raise more money are worth investing in. Spend wisely and 2014 may be your best fundraising year ever.

Know your donors
January is a good time to invite your supporters to complete a short survey. A few well-thought-out questions can help you talk to them effectively the remaining 11 months of the year. Avoid slanted questions like, “Do you think we send you too much mail?” Instead, ask what kinds of articles they most enjoy in your newsletter and how often they view the video clips you include in your e-mail, for example.

Also, spend a few hours for a few days answering calls from donors or reading their letters and e-mails if you don’t regularly do that. Raw, unfiltered feedback can give you insights that reading summary reports will never provide.

Quite a while ago, direct-mail fundraising guru Jerry Huntsinger wrote an article titled, “16 Ways Small Organizations Can Compete.” Probably 30-plus years later, 95 percent of what he wrote is still relevant (just add online). His first point was, “They follow the basic fundraising principles that apply to any marketing situation, large or small. They plan and execute a systematic mailing program that gives the donor adequate opportunity to respond to their appeals.”

What’s the little guy to do? This old dog has found that it’s just sound fundraising. Jump into 2014 armed with some facts (your numbers, what others are doing and what your donors think), and that knowledge with basic fundraising principles and a systematic plan — and you’re on the right path to what could be your best fundraising year ever.

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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