Never Stop Asking Why

Ah, childhood! The simplicity, the joy of discovering something new every day, the determination of asking why instead of simply accepting things as “the way it is.”

That latter is a childhood trait that we need to rediscover if we are serious about improving our fundraising ability.

After all, much of what we do in fundraising can become autopilot. If it’s a newsletter, we need five articles and seven photos. If it’s an e-appeal, we need an offer that is $40 or $50. If it’s a dinner event, we need a video presentation and chicken …

But do we? What if, instead of simply going with the flow, we started asking why? I certainly am not suggesting that by asking why we’ll throw everything out and start over. After all, that would mean years of learning and making mistakes were wasted. Expertise gained from doing, not just talking about doing, would be ignored. And, bottom line, money would be wasted.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t ask why. It simply means that we have to be willing to listen to the answer and then ask ourselves if it makes sense or if it’s just based on unsubstantiated personal opinions, outdated research or sheer laziness that refuses to look for alternatives lest they take more effort.

Here are some things worth asking why about:

1. Why are we excluding donors from all mail when they just say they are receiving too much mail? Frankly, there’s no excuse for determining that a donor either gets all the mail or none of the mail. There are nearly unlimited options between those two extremes. Create alternative options for mail that you can offer donors (if they call) or put into place using a step-down approach if they write in.

How does this work? Suppose a donor writes, “I get too much mail!” So, you look and see that she is getting all your direct-mail letters, all your e-appeals, all your newsletters and all your other mailings. A logical step down — and a reasonable response to the donor’s complaint — is to reduce direct mail to quarterly, but continue the balance of the mail.

Of course, your alternatives vary by how often you mail, but the point is don’t have just two options — all or none. Create intermediate steps in between, and find the right balance for each dissatisfied donor. Removing a donor from all mailings sort of solves the problem, but it creates a whole new one — a donor who never hears from you so he or she stops giving. That’s like cutting off your head to stop a runny nose.

2. Why are we including this content in our newsletter? Do donors care about it?
There are things that get into newsletters (more than other pieces, I think) that serve no other purpose than to make someone on staff happy. Yes, that’s harsh — but I’ve seen it far too often. Worse, the person we are appeasing may have left long ago, but the wasted real estate on non-donor-centric copy lives forever.

If you can, ask your donors what they enjoy about your newsletter. What do they want to see more of? Less of? Then use that input to make your newsletter more focused on the donor and less about the organization. At a minimum, ask, “What is the goal of the newsletter?” Then question if each article helps accomplish that goal. (If the newsletter has many goals, that’s another problem to address. A newsletter that has to do everything usually does nothing well, in my opinion.) Your bottom line will thank you when you seriously ask why in evaluating a newsletter.

3. Why do we mail and email as often/as infrequently as we do? The email schedule is often more thought out because it’s a newer addition to most fundraising plans, but direct mail has often been around for years, even decades if your organization has existed that long. How often you mail may have been determined long before you automated your mailings, and the frequency depended on how often you could get volunteers in to hand-stuff the mailings! Or you may have mailed more frequently because you didn’t have the ability to see what mailings were producing so you just mailed more to hopefully capture every opportunity.

That was all fine back in the days of Cheshire labels, hand insertion, letters typed on a Selectric typewriter and low donor expectations. (Yep, I’m an old dog — and if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you aren’t!) But there is no excuse for not mailing/emailing smart, which could be more often or less often, depending on your current practice.

For any of these questions, “mailing/emailing smart” may mean you change nothing; what you are doing is just right. But not asking is the mistake that’s too easy to make when we’re busy, launching a new initiative, juggling the entire development department on our shoulders, dealing with turnover and new leadership, or any of the challenges we can face over the course of a nonprofit career.

This old dog challenges you to ask why from time to time. Don’t just settle for “the way we’ve always done it,” but don’t throw things out before you (1) have determined they don’t work or (2) have a plan ready to launch immediately that looks more promising than the old way of doing things. Otherwise, you may find yourself asking, “Why, oh why, did I do that?!!”

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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