Just about every seasoned fundraiser has a story or two about an activity that basically sucked the life out of him or her. A recent article in this publication focused on events and their tendency to overconsume a fundraiser’s time and under-produce net income. But the reality is any fundraising activity can end in disaster: a mailing that is delivered late (or not at all). A website redesign that goes way over budget and still lacks an easy-to-use donation page. An event that is poorly attended. Even wasting hours in meetings to decide on the new copy machine or corporate logo.
While even the best-laid plans can still fail from time to time, when you are evaluating any fundraising option — or something else that will consume time that could be spent building relationships with donors — there are some steps you can take to minimize the risk that the project ends up being a case history for fundraising disaster.
Always have a clear goal. What does this activity need to accomplish? It may be a monetary goal, better recognition in the community, access to endorsements, appreciation for volunteers or any number of things. Being clear on the goal can help you decide how much time to invest and whether or not that activity is a good choice. A goal that is so out of touch with reality sets your nonprofit up for failure and has the potential to drive staff away. The time to adjust the goal or cancel the activity is before you’ve invested so much time in it that you feel you have to go on and try everything possible to make it work.
Let your “raw materials” drive some of your strategy. If you have a strong group of loyal donors with as-yet-untapped potential and an engaged board willing to approach contacts, you can possibly forgo some mass marketing efforts. But if you are just starting out and have little or nothing to work with, an activity that reaches a large number of potential supporters may give you the foundation you need to move toward a true major donor program. Be sure you have realistic expectations and a solid follow-up plan; for example, many participants in an “a-thon” are only participating because it sounds fun or they “owe” a favor to a friend. Expect that, but also identify those who have potential to continue giving (because of a genuine interest in your cause), and focus on cultivating them.
Know your audience — or admit your strategy is for reaching a new audience. If your goal is to reach more baby boomers, you’ll focus on different fundraising activities and messages than if you what to reach people in their 20s or in their 70s. Whether you send a letter, host an event, do a Twitter andFacebook campaign, or go in another direction entirely will impact who participates. Choosing the wrong fundraising activity for the audience can make success impossible.
Take a broader view when measuring a major donor officer’s impact. One struggle that fundraisers often face is, “Who gets the credit?” Few donors — even those who are being personally cultivated by a fundraiser on your team — live in a hermetically sealed world. They may read your mail, attend events, browse your website, get receipts — in short, interact with you in multiple ways. Our multichannel world requires a different way of measuring impact; otherwise, you risk donors being caught in the middle of your internal politics. Change how you measure results — for example, since your major-gifts officer began focusing on this donor, has his/her total giving to the organization increased? You need to adapt this to your organization and find a way to evaluate every activity fairly, but silo-ing fundraising activities (and donor response) is courting trouble.
Listen to opinions of experienced fundraisers, but weigh them with your own reality. Let’s face it — when this old dog writes a post, I write from my experience, prejudices and opinions. It’s not perfect advice for everyone. I wish there was a simple formula for fundraising: 5 of these + 2 of those = success. In the absence of that, every fundraiser must constantly read, ask “what is?” questions, test and learn, and sift through the vast amount of information available and adapt it to his or her own situation.
Direct mail legend Jerry Huntsinger once wrote that small nonprofit organizations that want to succeed don’t say, “That stuff won’t work for us.” Instead they say, “Let’s make it work for us because we don’t have any other choices.” That’s great advice for us all.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.