Fundraisers, Don’t Ignore the Competition

Today’s mail wasn’t bad — no bills, three catalogs, a handwritten note from friend … and six fundraising letters. (At least in my household, rumors of direct mail’s demise aren’t getting much traction.) Four of these were acquisition appeals, and two were cultivation. Not a bad haul for a direct-mail junkie.

There was one thing all six appeals — and the catalogs, the handwritten note and the grocery store ads — had in common: All were competing for my attention. And on top of all that messaging from charities, I also heard a radio commercial this morning from one and saw a billboard on the highway for another. When time is limited (and isn’t it always?), some things get set aside, but a lot goes right into the recycling bin — literally or figuratively.

What is the fate of your message?
I’ve often heard this comment: “Oh, our donors love us so they wouldn’t ignore our mail” (or call, visit or email). But given attrition rates in the average nonprofit, I dare say some ignoring is taking place.

To break through and have a chance of getting your donor’s attention — and her donation — takes more than a great offer. Sorry, but there are thousands, even tens of thousands, of good offers out there. Many align with my thinking politically, religiously, environmentally, locally, internationally, compassionately (and a whole bunch of other adverbs).

But that doesn’t equal a gift, especially in the cluttered fundraising climate of the last quarter of the year.

Take a realistic look at your fundraising
More and more, I am sensing that fundraisers are living the dream — and in this case, that’s not good. Instead of looking at the numbers to see trends that are portents of bad news, we report on what’s good. Instead of asking donors what they think, we decide they think what we want them to think. Instead of accepting that our donors are not totally loyal to us, we assume they love us and will stand by us, no matter what.

Maybe it’s a result of the Great Recession and a realization that jobs are uncertain, or it’s an offshoot of the “if we aren’t happy, we’ll find someone else who promises us happiness” tendency of some nonprofits. But too often we’re not honest about our fundraising expectations and results. And by doing the same things over and over, we only perpetuate the problem.

Start by looking at what else is demanding your donors’ attention.
Whatever your donors are thinking about right this minute, there’s a good chance it isn’t your cause. But you can affect that — and probably are with some of your donors. The warm, personal touches we lavish on our major donors are really about building relationships. But we need to build better relationships with all our donors, regardless of their giving levels. And we can do it without spending any more!

First, look at your thank-you program. Are your messages sincere? Are they personal? Or do they read like the recorded message you get when you call the electric company? You know the type — bureaucratic, fake sincerity, repetitive. Instead, invest the same amount of time in writing sincere messages of appreciation. Update them with current information that shows your organization is still moving forward, showing progress. Even your “canned” thank-you should sound warm and sincere, and be refreshed monthly.

Second, read your direct-mail and e-appeal copy out load. Does the message sound like a conversation you are having with a friend, or does it sound like a scholarly article? Yes, many of us are raising funds for serious causes; we don’t want to be flippant about cancer, behavioral health disorders, threatened species or starving people. But a passionate conversation does not equal superficial. It is sincere but approachable by the average donor who isn’t an expert but wants to make a difference.

Third, ask yourself if all your communications to your donors are carrying their weight. If your donors don’t expect something interesting and informative every time they open a letter, email, newsletter or any other communication from you, they may stop bothering. There are no “casual” communications with a donor. Each one is building a relationship that can lead to donations or trigger a relationship rift that can’t be overcome.

Be your own worst critic
This old dog knows how easy it is to “fall in love” with what I write or a strategy I develop. It’s painful to tear apart my own words or admit that something I birthed just doesn’t work. But there is too much competition for my donor’s attention and dollars to make fundraising a narcissistic exercise. Who is your competition, and what are your competitors doing — and how are you going to rise above that and get you message across?

That’s every fundraiser’s challenge — at year-end and all year long.

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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