I invite you to check out my article on The Non-Profit Fundraising Digest and while you are there, check out the other great resources on that site:
Blackbaud has published a terrific new — and free — eBook, npEXPERTS 2017 – Fundraising Matters: Building a Culture of Philanthropy. My article, “A Fundraiser’s Secret Weapon: Program Colleagues,” begins on page 23.
Use this link to download your own copy – and remember, it’s free!
For many nonprofits, fundraising energy becomes sluggish as the temperatures rise. It may not be prime event season, donors may be too busy for a visit, mailing an appeal letter might be put off until fall, and online efforts take a back seat to vacation and “summer hours.”
While the challenges of raising funds in the summer are real in many cases, it’s not an excuse to coast for eight or more weeks. After all, summer is followed rather quickly by what is typically the most important quarter for fundraising—and that annual occurrence, Dec. 31.
So while vacations and enjoying the warmer activities should not be neglected, neither should fundraising. In fact, there are some great things to focus on before Labor Day, especially if you want to achieve your annual goals and have a spectacular year-end.
Review and revise (as needed) your appeal plan for October through December. Are there groups of donors you’re neglecting? Do you have a great plan in place for reactivating lapsed donors and just maybe getting some people on that big list of non-donors to take the plunge and give? Do you have in your schedule time to work on a request that arrives in-home in early January, asking monthly automatic donors to consider upgrading? Do you have enough time built in to get all the e-appeals and letters you want to send out in November and December done—not simply “somehow,” but with the best copy and graphics possible to capture attention and move donors to respond? Do you have some clear offers that you can build into reasons to give?
Review your online giving portal to make sure it’s donor-focused and robust enough to handle even more responses. Online giving is going to increase each year (in most cases), so what was “just fine” last year may now be inadequate. Don’t wait until your system crashes to find that out. Use some downtime now to make sure it’s ready for what you anticipate will be your best year-end online giving response ever.
Figure out what you want to learn before year-end to be a better fundraiser—and get started. Whether it’s the book you want to read, the course you want to take or the mentor you want to secure, use the summer to move that dream forward. We’re all extra busy in the fall, so ask more seasoned fundraisers for advice or recommendations when they have more bandwidth to help you.
Take a risk. Summer is also a great time to try a fundraising skill that is new to you. Whether it’s writing a newsletter article, meeting with a donor, researching foundations, planning a new event—or whatever else—use your time to explore new possibilities. You may just find a previously unknown talent that makes you an even better fundraiser.
Talk to your donors. Pick up the phone and make some calls—not just once, but every week. Thank your donors. Tell them how much they mean to your organization. Let them know if programs that will be launched or expanded in the fall. Build their excitement—and deepen a friendship at the same time.
Send me an email if you have a question you’d like me to tackle. I can’t answer everything since I’m still on a journey of learning, too, but I’m always looking for “felt needs” to discuss in this column. So if your summer reflections lead you to wonder about something related to fundraising (especially direct response and operations), contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. While I can’t promise you fame and fortune, if I use your question you will get a mention in “Old Dog Fundraising”!
Regardless of how you spend your summer, this old dog hopes it’s a great prelude to your best fall ever. After all, the work we do as fundraisers builds on what we’ve done in the past, so make every minute count—and don’t forget to have fun, too!
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.
I was speaking recently with Dave Goetz of CZ Strategy, and our conversation turned to challenges facing nonprofit organizations. When he asked what I thought was the biggest challenge fundraisers had to deal with, I didn’t answer with the usual suspects (e.g. declining donor loyalty or retaining staff), instead pointed to a lack of differentiation by the nonprofit itself. How can you “sell” something that feels about as unique as generic white bread?
I’ve moaned about this before, but the challenge remains: In a quest not to shut anyone out as a potential donor, we instead become “OK” to all people, but the “absolute best” to very few or none.
If you want to be unique in the world of organizations that are tackling the same overarching problem as your organization does, ask yourself these questions:
1. What one positive attribute do I want our donor or prospect to know about us that few or no one else can claim?
For example, do you work with a specific market segment or have a solution that is yours alone? Do you have a true expert on your team, or are you the only partner with acknowledged experts?
In sales, this is called the “Unique Selling Proposition.” As a fundraiser, think of it as the unique story of your organization—the one thing you can say that will make person want to become your donor.
2. Are we consistently proclaiming that unique story everywhere?
It’s not enough to have a great website and a cool video if you aren’t saying what it is that makes your story unique. Make it crystal clear why you are different—and yes, better—than all the others that are doing what can be perceived as “the same thing” to a casual observer.
3. Am I focusing enough energy on making sure our donors and advocates know what it is that makes us unique, or am I assuming they “get it,” instead of focusing on the currently skeptical or disinterested?
Do you proactively offer supporters a regular diet of “proof,” or do you expect them to go find it on their own?
4. Does what makes us different really make sense to someone who has only a peripheral knowledge of our organization, or are we indirectly demanding they work hard to figure it out?
We can’t expect our supporters to sift through stacks of data to understand a technical nuance; we have to find a way to make it understandable to a layperson.
5. Why does our unique story matter?
Can we point to changes that are a result of those successes? Do we measure our impact and communicate that in donor-friendly language, or are we still trying to figure out what exactly it is that we accomplished and hoping we have enough smoke and mirrors to appease the donors?
While creating your unique story depends on your programs, your results and your dreams, it begins with your mission. What is the driving force of your organization? What makes people get up and go to work for your nonprofit? Dan Heath, co-author of Made to Stick, gives us a straightforward recipe for mission statement success in his short video, “How to Create a Mission Statement that Doesn’t Suck.” As a fundraiser, you may not be able to change the mission statement, even if it is terrible. It’s what you’ve got and you have to deal with is. So then what?
Figure out your unique story, even if it doesn’t embrace every aspect of your mission. (It needs to have an obvious relationship to the mission, though it might be a sub-point, not the entire thing.) Start telling that story every chance you get—in letters and newsletters, in presentations and one-on-one. Feel free to say, “While XYZ organization does many things, I am truly passionate about ______. Why? Because I have seen how it is changing lives/history/etc.”
Make that unique story your entrée into people’s hearts and wallets. Once you’ve “hooked” them on your organization, they might want to know more. Just like consumers can still like and use Tide, if they don’t know about or use Swiffer (both brands of the same company), your donors can love your unique story and be loyal to you without embracing every aspect of your organization’s work.
Sure, you might offend a colleague if you aren’t giving every part of the program equal billing. But this old dog reminds you that your job is to raise money to carry out the work of the entire organization. If a donor starts paying attention when you talk about X instead of Y, go with it. If you don’t, you may never get a chance to tell them about the great attributes of Y if you lost them before they even felt a connection to one thing you do.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.
I’ve been debating (with myself) lately about the difference between knowing fundraising and doing fundraising. This internal conflict came up as a result of a class I am helping develop. Although I have taught university-level courses in fundraising and nonprofit management, I still consider myself a fundraising practitioner, not an academic, so that’s the lens through which I view this discussion.
Given that when I started in fundraising, there were few courses, no Internet or webinars and only a small offering of books and publications. I first learned fundraising through (referred in Wikipedia terms to as) “the School of Hard Knocks”—the “(sometimes painful) education one gets from life’s usually negative experiences.” I’ve occasionally mentioned the first fundraising book I ever bought: “The Art of Asking: How to Solicit Philanthropic Gifts” by Paul Schneiter. At that time, that book cost me princely sum of $7.95.
We’ve come a long way as a profession since then, but the question remains (at least for me): Is it better to know fundraising or do fundraising?
As with many of these types of questions, I am convinced that the answer is both. Learning is done best when there is context. It would be difficult to understand the difference between stick shift and automatic and why routine maintenance matters for safe driving before you have learned to drive. By the same token, it’s difficult to understand the nuances of asking for money unless you understand the vehicle in which that ask will be delivered—in person, via a letter, at an event, etc.
I gravitate toward certain aspects of fundraising, because I have tried them and found a measure of success and enjoyment as a result. I tend to avoid or at least minimize my role in other aspects of fundraising, because I have tried them and found less fulfillment (for me and the cause). That’s neither an indictment of the method nor me—it’s a matter of where my skills and interests are best served. As a result, the fundraising methods I enjoy most are the ones I dig into in terms of gaining more knowledge.
A challenge comes if you have never tried some fundraising method. You may be an untapped major gift cultivation superstar in your organization, but if you never actually do it, you’ll never know that. So sometimes we have to take a chance and try, hopefully in a situation where someone else can mentor us who is exceptional in that skill.
Your organization may provide opportunities for you to increase your hands-on skills, or you may have to look at volunteer experiences to get a chance to experience new skills. Either way, expect to have to do your homework and get input on best practices; don’t assume you can go in cold and start “winging it,” because the outcome matters too much to not prepare for success.
It can also help to read an overview of fundraising to get a broader feel for the mechanics of a technique. An old edition of “The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management” by Stanley Weinstein was a guide for me for years, and that’s why I was honored to work with Stanley on the latest edition, available here. You will also want to choose a few authors whose content regularly resonates with your needs and keep an eye out for their new posts, publication and articles.
So back to where I began: Should you know or do fundraising? This old dog recommends you increase your knowing by adding to your knowledge, and then expand your doing based on what you are learning and where you think you have affinity and ability. You may find your fundraising passion in an unexpected place if you’re willing to keep learning and trying.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.
Have you had a day when you just felt like there had to be a better career to pursue than fundraising? I know I have. Fortunately, those days have been far outnumbered by those days when I feel honored to do the work I do. But sometimes, they pile up and lead to starting the process of finding a new fundraising position, leaving the field all together or something in between. And this results in a big loss to the nonprofit community because when a fundraiser leaves, he or she takes away passion and experience. Sure, you can always replace Person A with Person B, but unless Person A was a bad hire to begin with, it’s going to take time for the replacement to learn the organizational nuances, personalities and programs well enough to think on the spot and become a passionate advocate for your fundraising program.
The statistics are well-known about longevity in fundraising, and they aren’t encouraging. The study titled “UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising” provided insight into challenges with filling key development roles and a lack of stability among fundraisers. The prior year, Penelope Burke found that average tenure of a fundraiser at a job was 16 months, and direct and indirect costs of finding a replacement were greater than $127,000. The “2016 Compensation and Benefits Report” from the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) was a bit more optimistic, finding that their respondents reported that the average number of years the stayed at an employer was 3.9.
OK, that’s the somewhat sorry state of the industry in terms of job longevity, but what about you? What if you are finding that being a fundraiser is no longer the exciting experience that it used to be, but instead is a daily slog to meet goals and keep your head above water? What can you do to regain the joy of the job?
First, ignore the statistics. (Yeah, I just gave you some, but do as I say, not as I do!) Thomas Campbell, ACFRE, has worked at DeSales University since 1988—29 years! I never met Campbell, but he’s inspiring to me. In a 2012 article on the AFP website, Campbell said, “I’ve gotten to see this university grow and expand before my very eyes… Knowing that I’ve been a part of that—that our fundraising efforts have helped to build something real and compelling—it’s an amazing feeling.” Who do you know who has stayed in a position, growing into more and more responsibility? Maybe he or she hasn’t come close to Campbell’s nearly 30 years, but what makes them stay? Is there anything you can take away from a conversation with that person that could help you carve out a better role for yourself—without leaving?
Next, be honest with your manager. Too often, annual reviews are rote or even nonexistent. Instead of waiting for your next formal review and hoping it gets beyond generalities, set up a meeting to discuss your future at that organization. Be honest about what you enjoy and where you feel you have made the greatest contribution. Don’t threaten, but explain that you want to grow professionally and that you would like to work with your manager to explore ways you can do that for both your own benefit and the benefit of the organization. The response you get to that conversation will give you a big clue as to whether or not you are in a place to grow or a place where you will stagnate. If it’s clearly the latter, you have a decision to make.
Finally, take charge of your own future. Stop waiting for your employer to invest in you and instead, find an article or a webinar online that covers a new-to-you skill. Volunteer somewhere to learn a new skill or see if you’ll enjoy a different aspect of fundraising. Take a course. And don’t feel the only career path is the one that moves up toward major gifts or foundations or another “higher end” form of fundraising—unless that interests you. As a direct response practitioner, I have occasionally had people ask why I never “advanced” into major gifts. The honest reason? I find it boring. I’ve done pretty much every aspect of fundraising, but I love direct response. Sure, it’s not the aspiration of many fundraisers, but it makes me happy. Figure out what you absolutely love, then become the very best at it you can.
I admit that, on occasion, I get frustrated in my work. It’s not always perfect. But every day, I strive to do something I love, even if it isn’t the most profitable thing I do all day. I write an article, read an article that just looks competing to me, I talk to someone who is also passionate about fundraising and (I admit it) I even look back at some things I’ve done that make me especially proud of how I have invested the last 38 years of my life. Unlike Thomas Campbell, I haven’t stayed at one place (my longest tenure was about 14 years), but I have done a lot of work that I am proud of and that I believe has made a difference.
This old dog knows that when it comes time to transition into a former fundraiser, I’ll look back and laugh about many things, shake my head over a few, but I’ll mostly feel joy that I was able to make a difference—albeit small—in a few corners of the world. How about you? Are you working today because it brings you joy, or is it just a job? I encourage you, if it’s the latter, start today to take steps toward rediscovering the joy—and the fun—of fundraising.
Originally published in Nonprofit Pro.
I love this letter. It makes me feel so good about what we do!” Have you had that reaction after writing or when reviewing a direct mail appeal or e-appeal? The pride you feel at what your organization is doing is almost overwhelming. “Wow! We are amazing,” you think.
If that’s what you long for when you write or edit an appeal, this article is not for you. Really?! Yes, because there is one important thing everyone involved in the process of creating a fundraising appeal has to remember: You are not the target audience. What you think or feel doesn’t matter. What matters is what the person being asked to make a donation thinks and feels. Will he or she respond because of that appeal, or will the carefully written words and cutting-edge design go straight into the recycling bin?
What’s the reason?
Before writing even “Dear Mrs. Smith,” ask yourself why. Why should anyone bother supporting this cause? What is it that is so different that it makes a contribution to your cause a far better investment than the same gift being given to another organization that sounds about the same to the reader?
Some people write a brief case statement for each appeal or rely on the case statement that was written for a specific campaign or annual fund drive. Other writers are less formal, but they take the time to jot down a few notes that say why they think donors will want to give to this need. At the very least, before you begin writing, answer these questions, “Why us? Why now? What will a gift do?”
Who’s Reading It?
Whether you are writing a letter that will go in the mail or an appeal that is being sent electronically, knowing who you are writing to is essential. And that isn’t a generic “donor file.” A fundraising letter has been called a conversation in print, so you have to write as if you are sitting in the home of a supporter, sipping iced tea and talking about your program—not lecturing, educating or trying too hard to impress.
To accomplish this conversation, what do you need to know? You need to know that one person to whom you are writing. For many nonprofits, that’s an older woman. So visualize her. Give her a name. Love her like you would a favorite aunt.
But never write your regular appeal letter to the person you wish were your donor. Find other ways to reach that person—ways that are specifically designed to attract an audience that is different from what you currently have. You can’t expect your current donor to twist like a pretzel to become your vision of an ideal donor. It’s just not worth the bother to her.
Stay on Message
Once you now know the reason you’re writing and to whom you are writing, you can begin the actual writing. One of your biggest challenges is to always make the letter about “you” (the reader), not “us” (the organization). Tell a story that is so compelling the reader sees himself or herself right in the scene. Their passions are ignited as they realize that the problem is big, but they can do something to fix it. You aren’t promising miracles, but you are showing the promise of what the reader can make possible.
Appeals are not something most people really want to read. In fact, I can’t recall an appeal letter ever being on the New York Times’ bestseller list. But a well-written appeal can raise significant money—and that happens when we don’t confuse it with a college essay.
Generally, well-written appeals use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. They never include a multi-syllabic word when a single syllable will do. They use decent grammar, but they aren’t afraid to break rules like, “Never start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’” They include enough commas to be readable, but not so many that the end result is a sea of commas floating across a page.
Good appeal writing isn’t afraid to repeat itself, because a good appeal writer realizes that most readers won’t read word-for-word, line-by-line. They will scan and pick out ideas here and there. So by rephrasing the key points in a way that keeps it interesting, we increase the potential that our most important points will be communicated.
That’s also why we use indented paragraphs, underlining, bolding and paragraphs that are short (even one word). We are always thinking, “How can I make this easier for my reader to comprehend?” We choose a font that is appropriate for our audience, even if it isn’t part of our branding guidelines. We recognize that donors tend to skew to the older end of the spectrum (after all, a criteria for donating is having disposable income), so we don’t make them work too hard by using a small font size.
Tell the Story
Storytelling is big news in communications today, but the truth is, storytelling isn’t a fad. It’s a long-standing, proven means to connect with people and help them relate to an abstract concept or a condition that they have never personally experienced. What absolutely shocked you when you learned about the problem you are writing about? What person or event brought tears to your eyes or a lump to your throat? That’s the story to tell to engage your reader.
If you struggle to tell a story, remember these three things:
1. A good story gives your reader enough detail to feel part of the action, but only enough so she can paint a picture in her own mind.
2. A good story has compelling sound bites, which are often the words of the person whose story you are telling.
3. A good story leaves the reader wanting to help you write more good stories.
Good Copywriting Needs Better Editing
Once you have written your appeal, set it aside for long enough that you’ve forgotten what it says. That’s essential—you want to read it later through the eyes of your target audience.
Editing is tough, because you are willingly tearing apart your own work. There’s a good chance that if you’re honest in your editing, many of the words or sentences that you are proudest of will have to go. That’s because those often lack the necessary criteria of being conversational. How do you find those problematic words? Read your copy out loud. There’s a good chance that when you stumble in your reading, your reader will also stumble.
Remember that your goal isn’t to win a literary prize; it’s to raise money for your worthy cause. So rewrite until you can give your donors the message that is easy for them to read, understand and connect with.
Don’t Forget the Supporting Cast
When writing an envelope teaser or email subject line, the No. 1 question to ask is, “Does it help the envelope or email get opened?” While it would be great if we could always mail in a hand-addressed, closed-face envelope with a first-class stamp, that’s not reality. Nor is timing our e-appeal to arrive when our donor isn’t distracted by a million other things. So we have to be sure the first copy they confront breaks through the clutter of daily living.
We also can’t neglect the reply form, landing page and donation form. There’s still time to lose a donor when they get to that piece—and conversely, there’s still a chance to change their minds and get them to say “Yes!” So don’t save the response copy for the last minute; give it the attention it deserves.
Do you want to write appeal letters and emails that raise money? Then get started. That’s how you’ll write the appeal your donors and prospects actually want to read.
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.