I had an interesting discussion earlier this week with someone about “best practices” in fundraising. We both agreed that while some things are pretty well proven, others just don’t have a long enough track record to be as definitive.
For fundraisers who need to be both donor-oriented and bottom-line-oriented — how much income did this net? — it can be frustrating when we really don’t know but have to rely on a combination of our gut and what we’ve read (often written by people who don’t have all the answers, either).
Yes, there are great tools “out there” that can help us find answers, but budgets or timetables may not allow us the luxury of using them. And often, what we can get our hands on isn’t complete; for example, I receive a lot of mail that I can review for ideas — but does it work? I don’t know. (I do assume if a nonprofit sends the same letter out every January, for example, it works. Why would they remail something again and again that failed? But I can’t be sure …)
Here are some questions that have been haunting me lately.
1. Can digital income continue to grow on similar trajectories as it has been growing? It seems we budget each year for continual growth, and I read reports that by the year twenty-whatever, digital will be the big kahuna in fundraising. That may be true, but … can we really be totally sure? For now, smart fundraisers have to keep putting their budgets into multiple things. The horror stories of successful mail programs that were moved 100 percent online — and bombed — are real. In the absence of proof, I’d be hedging my bets.
2. Will all the “involved” supporters become financial supporters in time to help scrappy nonprofits gain a solid financial base? I am impressed when I see how many “Likes” nonprofit pages have. But are these truly committed people or people who (like me, at times) click “like” to please a closer friend? Is there a cost-effective way to turn thumbs-up clickers, petition-signers, movie viewers, etc., into cash-giving supporters? We all know that simply having followers and fans doesn’t pay bills. So, the wise fundraiser needs to stay focused on what is bringing in funding while keeping as vibrant a social media presence alive as is possible, given pressing priorities like salaries, rent and electricity.
3. In today’s environment, how can nonprofit organizations build for the future? Legislation, regulation and accepted practices are squeezing NPOs on the one side while donors demanding more effectiveness and less overhead are squeezing just as hard on the other side. Ignoring these external factors in hopes that they will just go away is naïve. For example, Congress continues to argue about reducing or eliminating the tax deduction for charitable giving for some tax payers. Yes, I know the argument: Donors give for purely altruistic reasons; they believe in your mission. But why do so many wait until Dec. 30 or 31 to give if tax deductions aren’t even a slight consideration? Knowing what’s brewing in terms of external forces that could impact your organization isn’t just a job for lobbyists and lawyers — fundraisers who hope to stay a step ahead need to pay attention, too.
4. How much time is expended (wasted) gathering information that isn’t being acted on? I recently heard about one nonprofit that is seriously researching 30+ firms to deliver a possible service. Other fundraisers invest their time (and vendors’ time) in exploring options that they know they will never really do — all in the name of due diligence. This is not a personal whine session. I just hate seeing so much time spent on the peripheral things instead of on getting to know current donors and building a deeper relationship; making sure your gift acknowledgment program is the best it can be in terms of meeting your donors’ expectations; focusing on strategizing for your present donor, your past donor and your potential donor — in short, staying focused on the donor who is the engine that drives fundraising success.
This old dog likes to think she knows a lot; after all, I’ve been in fundraising for more than 35 years. But it’s always changing — not just because of technology, but also because we depend on people, and people are not always predictable. What question or questions related to fundraising do you wish you had an answer for?
Takeaways for fundraisers: Stay focused on fundraising and your donors, no matter how “sexy” or “interesting” the latest rabbit trail looks. You can do both, but you should never lose focus on the goal — raising funds. Don’t scrap offline fundraising in favor of online fundraising. Instead, strive for balance, and accept that that will constantly shift. Pay attention to what’s happening outside your control. You may not be able to change it, but at least you can have some basic contingency plans for “what if.”
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.