Fundraiser, What Are You Selling?

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.

Get to Know Your Donors

Ah, the perfect world: When we have plenty of money to do research and make decisions based on those well-education findings that provide a deep level of confidence. But most of us don’t live in the perfect world. In fact, we may only have money for the very basics—and donor research hardly fits that category in the minds of many non-fundraising decision-makers.

While “winning the lottery” and “find that pot of gold” are nice strategies to dream about, there are some more practical things you can do to get a better understanding of who your donors are—and they won’t require any more expenditure of your already stretched budget. Of course, none of these suggestions applies to every donor, which is why you need to use them all to get the best—albeit unscientific—representation possible.

Stop Looking in the Mirror
There is a good chance that your typical donor does not look (think or act) like you, especially if you are younger than 50 years of age. Yes, you’re heard and read this repeatedly, but the majority of donors do skew older. That’s not an indictment of younger people’s spending priorities or philanthropic tendencies; rather, it’s reality. When you are worrying about college loans, buying a house, putting braces on the kids and starting a college fund and a 401(k), making significant gifts to charity often is postponed. Once you have accomplished all those things and more, it’s easier to find disposable income that you can use any way you wish—and often, or at least some of that, goes to charity. Even if you are older, the mirror is still not an accurate reflection of your donors because the very fact that you are working at a nonprofit means that you have a different philanthropic understanding than others. This isn’t to say that you are better (or worse), but simply that you have an inside-out view of your cause rather than the view one gets when looking in from the outside.

Start Reading
What are your donors writing to you in letters and emails? Yes, some of them are angry rants and some are pure fluff, but if you make it a habit to read a random selection of written comments regularly, you can glean ideas that help you get a picture of a portion of your audience. What are they complaining about? While you don’t want to make a wholesale change based on three comments, if you start seeing something repeatedly, you may have found a place where a possibly quite simple change can pay off in terms of donor retention and giving. What are they praising? What makes them cry? What makes them feel proud? Those are the things you want to do more of.

Stop Catering to Insiders
In addition to not looking like you, your typical donor probably doesn’t look much like your leadership team of board members, either. After all, there’s a level of insider knowledge that few donors have—or want. While your appeal copy or e-newsletter may seem to your organization’s management team like “dumbing down” your amazing work, they are not the audience you need to communicate with. Your donors quite often don’t know what the acronyms mean or where a region where you work is located (if you aren’t local). Most of them won’t take the time to check online for the definition of “food insecurity,” “income eligible” or other terms we use that are accurate, but not donor-focused. Yes, we have to be true to the work we do and honoring to those we serve through our programs, but we also have to use appropriate terminology that a donor understands and can visualize in his or her head.

Start Talking
Answer calls from donors when you can. Call a few every week just to thank them for their donation and ask them what they love about your organization. It goes without saying that it is vital to talk to major donors and others who come to events. But call some of those who will never be at the gala or invited to an insider’s conference. These average donors can give you a window into the larger pool of donors who faithfully give. What do they enjoy reading about? What project especially speaks to them? What would they like to know more about? What makes them proud to be your donor?

You may have read about the recent study Temkin Group did to explore emotions consumers experience after taking a specific action. While this research related to consumers, Jeff Brooks noted that feeling excited, appreciated and happy leads to the greatest loyalty—and that certainly is applicable in fundraising, as well as consumer marketing. A thoughtful phone call that doesn’t ask for money, but strives to engage the donor and hear his or her thoughts about the organization is a great way to learn more about your donor—and to positively influence their excitement about the mission, their sense of being appreciated and their happiness about being a donor.

While this Stop-Start-Stop-Start plan makes no claim to be a replacement for scientific research, don’t give up when there is no budget for scientifically analyzing your donors and what makes them tic. Instead, pick up the phone or the written communication, put down the mirror and learn. No one donor represents the entirety of your donor file (well, I hope not!), but bit by bit, this old dog believes you will come to see what makes your donors special and how you can help them fall in love again and again with your cause.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Cultivating Donor Loyalty By Differentiating Your Nonprofit Brand

With the abundance of nonprofit organizations, it can be difficult for the average would-be donor to choose one over another. Frankly, it’s even difficult at times for staff and volunteers to differentiate.

One of the first things I learned when I started in the nonprofit sector harkens back to the “kinder, gentler days” of the Jimmy Carter administration: Never differentiate your organization by putting down others that do similar work. We need to focus on what we do well, not what others do that we may think is not as good.

I still think that’s good advice, and I’m glad that the ugliness of a political campaign hasn’t seeped into our fundraising. (Can you just imagine how painful it would be if we all were on the attack all the time?) But, that kinder approach doesn’t eliminate the need to describe what makes your organization different to an often confused or indifferent donor society.

According to Biology Reference, differentiation “refers to the processes by which distinct cell types arise from precursor cells and become different from each other.” While I can’t explain that from a biological point of view, as a fundraiser, I see a good lesson for all of us in the field: your organization arose from a specific need and you address it in a way that you believe is different from what others are doing. (After all, if we are just doing the same thing in the same place for the same population, why do we need to be a separate organization?) Your organization is distinct because you serve a specific geographic area, focus on people with particular characteristics, offer a unique twist to the solution, or in some other way are a unique response to a problem.

That’s differentiation. And that’s what brand-agnostic donors need to understand if they are to develop a relationship with our organization, not just with a cause.

Masterful Marketing suggests three questions that a business should ask to begin the process of differentiating. These are easily adaptable to a nonprofit organization, and are a great place for a fundraiser to being the process of answering, “What about our organization is unique and will resonate with our donors?”

  1. What do your clients (the people you benefit) really appreciate about your service?
  2. Why are long-term clients (donors) still with you?
  3. What was one of the nicest things a client (donor) ever said about how you conduct business?

I think if you can answer those three questions, you are on the path to determining how you can show your supporters and prospects what makes you different from all the other organizations that also deal with Problem X. It’s that point of differentiation that may just break through brand apathy and help you journey toward a more committed, loyal donor base.

If you can instill a reaction in someone, you’re half-way to getting people to love what you do. Mundanity doesn’t come from products or services, it comes from the way they are talked about.  ABA | The Business Brand Agency

Originally published in npENGAGE.

Fundraising: Are You Open Minded?

Within the last week, I have received three three calendars in the mail. Two are from organizations I support with a small yearly gift. One is acquisition.

There’s no question that these packages stand out in the mailbox. In fact, they dwarf the No. 10 standard left window envelope in more ways than one. And I know calendars are good fundraising workhorses—for cultivation and acquisition.

In the last month, I have also received address labels, a nickel, a dime, a pocket planner, a bumper sticker, a membership card and a music CD—all freemiums from nonprofits hoping I will make a donation.

And then there are the premiums—items that will be sent to me after I give. A few are even more “lasting” than the water bottle or book—opportunities to have my name permanently displayed because of my generosity.

I am not bashing these offers—actually, it’s quite the opposite! As much as premiums and freemiums lend themselves to sneers from some fundraising purists, one fact remains: they work. Not every time, but sometimes.

For most of my career, I have focused on direct response fundraising. Oh, I’ve done just about everything else from campaigns to events, but direct response was what I really loved (probably because of the relatively fast gratification from seeing results as donations come in). But in recent years, direct response that is not online seems to have gone out of vogue. My students chuckle benevolently when I show the most enthusiasm when teaching the direct mail module. At major conferences, finding sessions on direct mail is like searching for a four-leaf clover. Direct mail practitioners like me often feel like dinosaurs that somehow missed the memo telling us to adapt or become extinct.

But there’s a reality for all of us: Fundraising success comes from having a balanced program and not relying too heavily on one or just a few fundraising methodologies. There is (or should be) room at the table for all of us, because the work we have to do matters.

But in direct mail or anything else, that doesn’t mean it’s open season for wanton spending. Instead:

  • Remember that net income matters … usually. Just looking at gross income can give you a false sense of success. What is left over once you deduct the cost of the activity from the income raised?
  • Have a clear outcome goal. There are times when net income doesn’t trump all; for example, when you are trying to secure new donors, you have to measure using that yardstick.
  • Measure everything. If a premium is working, what happens when you remove it? Does the package still net the same (or even more) dollars? Do you acquire fewer donors in acquisition with or without the freemium?
  • Don’t stop measuring when you’ve calculated initial results. Especially in acquisition, look at long-term value. Do donors acquired from a freemium mailing continue giving as well as those acquired with no freemium? Do donors who only give when there is a premium offer have a better long-term value than non-premium donors?
  • Don’t be a snob when it comes to fundraising methodologies. I admit, for quite a while, I refused to “spoil myself” by testing an address label acquisition package. Some of you may never consider giving direct mail a chance. Still others may think all events do is consume time with little net return. The reality is there are fundraising efforts that are an embarrassment to all of us in the field, and others that are a waste of money and time. But discarding the methodology because of some bad executions by others can keep you from maximizing your fundraising success.

I know there is ugly, misleading, manipulative, very bad direct mail out there. But there is also direct mail that is honest, moving, encouraging and welcomed by our constituents.

This old dog’s goal is to always strive for that—in direct mail and every other fundraising effort I work on. If that means I send out a freemium, that’s OK. If it’s a high-end proposal, that’s fine, too. If it’s an old method or something that we didn’t even imagine less than a decade ago, no problem—because a well-balanced program is the one that will deliver year after year and provide a solid foundation for our organizations.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Fundraisers: Prepare for the Next 503 Days

By my calculations, in 503 days, it will be over. No, not the world or even the Star Wars saga. What I am referring to is the 2016 presidential campaign. (For my non-U.S. readers, please indulge me this week. I’ll get back to more universal topics after this digression.)

Regardless of whom you support or what issues matter to you, one thing is true for every fundraiser: We’re going to have a lot more competition as first the primary season and then the general election race gears up. Political action committees are going to be vying for donated dollars, and with a crowded race, there will be many voices crying out for funding. On a lesser note, even Facebook will become less fun (in my opinion), as people try to sway my opinions by posting articles, photos, jabs and jokes. I shudder to even think about my Twitter feed.

Let me set the record straight—I care about the election, and I will consider issues and candidates, and I will vote. But I know from experience that we will need to work harder in the months leading up to a presidential election to capture the hearts (and donations) of supporters and prospects. So while there’s still time to plan for the onslaught, start fine-tuning your fundraising machine now so you aren’t left behind in the 2016 campaign trail dust.

Try out new acquisition strategies this fall and next spring so you have proven efforts to use in fall 2016. What will give you the best chance of breaking through the mailbox and inbox clutter? Sharpen your acquisition efforts, especially those that involve mail, email or phone, so your message will stand out in a crowd.

Stick to your message
A lot of issues are going to surface (and resurface) in the next 503 days. Whenever a message seems to be resonating with the American people, some nonprofits try to jump on the bandwagon, as it were. “Oh, oh! We can do that, too!” is the battle cry. At best, you end up with donations without programs to invest them in. At worst, you end up with confused donors who think you have abandoned what drew them to you in the first place. Refine your message, but don’t let it drift to mimic “everyone else.” Stick to your knitting, as the idiom goes.

Be interesting to your donor or prospect
Yes this applies every day, election or not. But unfortunately, some fundraisers are still talking to themselves. “We do this, we handle that, we’re taking care of it. . . .” Where do I, the donor, come into that sentence? Just as bad is meandering down Organizational Lane, forgetting that donors want some sizzle—they want to feel excited about supporting your cause, not hear about your operations. Always focus on what my gift will do. It may only be $10 or $50, but I still want it to matter—so prove to me that it does.

Additionally, fill your Facebook feed with posts that are uplifting, challenging, exciting, focused on your accomplishments and heartwarming—posts that are worth reading and sharing. Become the place for relevant posts that make followers proud to be affiliated with your nonprofit organization.

Stay in front of your donors
When “everyone” else is demanding attention, it’s tempting to cut back and figure you will catch up after the noise diminishes. But neglect can lead to attrition. What you really want are highly committed donors who will stand by you when everywhere they turn, a candidate is begging for their attention. To have highly committed donors in fall 2016, you need to invest in relationship building, beginning today. We all are exposed to hundreds, if not thousands, of marketing messages every day. The ones I pay attention to are the ones that matter to me. Make sure you matter to your donors by communicating with them just as if they were your best friend—because that’s what they really are.

This old dog promises that I won’t spend the next 503 days talking about the election. But I did see a campaign sign already today that reminded me that before too long, we’ll have that much more competing with our fundraising messages. So let’s use the next several months to sharpen our skills and our tools, and make sure the real winner at the end of 2016 is the mission we work every day to advance.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

When Fundraisers Lose Control

While I am grateful that I am not experiencing the cold and snowy weather that is affecting so much of the U.S. these days, every news report I see or hear reminds me that weather is one of the totally uncontrollable factors of our lives. And for fundraisers, it can be a disaster in more ways than one as weather can cancel an event, delay a mailing, interfere with a key meeting with a major donor — in short, wreak havoc with our carefully made plans.

But weather isn’t alone. Natural disasters, sporting events, terrorist threats, elections, labor strikes, unexpected illness — all these and more can prevent success when it comes to fundraising.

A few years back, I was at an afternoon event that was a major fundraiser for a nonprofit. The emcee thanked everyone for coming — especially when there was a football game between two area rivals taking place at that very moment. Of course, that led to many attendees surreptitiously pulling out their smartphones so scores could be checked. Just like that, a well-intentioned remark hijacked the attention of the potential funders.

When things are out of our control, when no amount of planning and tenacious attention to a schedule can keep them from happening, fundraising activities can be hijacked. People miss events when a traffic jam makes the roads impassable. Mail languishes on a dock when bad weather gets in the way of the post office’s unofficial motto that “neither snow nor rain …” While no one can plan around every potential problem noted above because by their very nature these problems are unpredictable, there are ways to help ensure that funds continue to flow even when everything else seems to have shut down.

Never rely on one source of income. By now, you’ve hopefully gotten the message: Multichannel is king. But when planning for a big event (for example) consumes all your energy, it’s tempting to postpone other fundraising activities. Make sure you are still talking to your donors, building relationships, providing response mechanisms, placing current information in front of your market — in short, keeping your multichannel program smoothly operating.

Don’t rely on a single person. When all else fails, at least you still have your website, right? But what if you need to make a quick change, or you want to tweak your donation page to mention current needs given a weather-related situation, for example? If only one person can make that change, you better hope he or she is immune to every disease, hates time off and can work remotely from anywhere. Far better than relying on this super-employee, know everyone who can make the updates, how to reach them and who to call next if one isn’t available. Your online presence is too important to not insist on cross-training.

Schedule your acquisition activities carefully. While you can’t guarantee that nothing will go wrong, mailing your one acquisition appeal a year during the snowiest month in your region may be a gamble. An event that is designed to attract new donors that happens on the same day as the “big game” may not be exciting enough to overcome the halftime show. While some things are hard to plan around, other events that drain people’s attention are scheduled well in advance. Pay attention to what is going on around you, and try to limit the competition for people’s attention when you are hoping to show them why your organization is worthy of their support.

Monitor delivery of mail. Make sure every mailing you send out is “seeded” with names and addresses of people who will report to you when it is delivered. There are also services likeU.S. Monitor that you can contract with to provide seed names and monitor delivery to these decoys. Knowing when your mailing was received — not just mailed — can prevent a lot of stress when income seems to be coming in more slowly than anticipated and can tell you if another form of communication would be wise. For example, if a mailing is delayed to one region, can you quickly send an email?

While looking for fundraising videos to share in a class I am teaching, I found one from a small zoo somewhere in the Midwest. It wasn’t fancy, but the message was clear: We’ve had a massive snowstorm, you can’t get out to visit us but our animals still need food, so please go online and make a donation. I don’t know if it worked, but I salute that nonprofit for not ceding control to the weather gremlins. This old dog knows that there is much we can’t control — but having “Plan B” in place can save the day, or at least make it less devastating for our fundraising.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

A Tale of 4 Acquisition Efforts

In the past week, I have received four acquisition mailings (see the above slides). Two are from animal-rescue organizations that mail nationwide (Best Friends Animal Society and North Shore Animal League), and two are for local humanitarian groups (Union Rescue Mission and Los Angeles Mission).

There are definite similarities with some of the mailings — three of the four have four-color outer envelopes, two use No. 10 non-standard window envelopes and both local agencies have a price point on the envelope.

But there are definite differences, again evident from the outer envelopes. The Los Angeles Mission uses the small format, and North Shore Animal League encloses premiums (although I don’t see them through the oversized window). Best Friends affixes “live” stickers to the oversized outer envelope, and Union Rescue Mission is the only one not using an indicia.

But get past the envelope (which only a small percentage of recipients of acquisition seem to do, judging by response rates), and the differences really show up. I like a lot about all four of these mailings. But, there are some things that stood out to me when I opened the envelopes to see the “heart” of the appeal that could hurt response (in my opinion) or at least not help it.

I admit I am taking a risk here — all of these appear to be some level of a control mailing since I have gotten them (or very similar ones) before, so they clearly “work” (however that is defined at the respective organizations). But “control” does not equal “perfect,” as even the best copywriters will tell you. The unsuspecting nonprofit that picks up an idea from another agency without asking if it really seems like the best option risks a colossal fundraising flop.

So here’s where I’d want to make some changes or at least test an option or two before I adopted these practices at another nonprofit.

The ask isn’t consistent
Best Friends tells me that “$25 spays or neuters a dog” and suggests I join “at the $25 level.” Yet, the reply form starts at $12. I feel like I am being let off the hook! I have no idea what $12 does, but it sure is a bargain. North Shore Animal League asks for a gift of $20 or more but starts at $15 on the reply form. The bottom line (to me) is to look at donors acquired at a lower level and determine if (when) they become profitable for your organization. If the answer is “never” or too far into the future to be sustainable, don’t ask on the reply form for a lower gift than you need to make an acquisition effort pay off over time.

The text isn’t as easy to read as it could be
North Shore Animal League uses an easy-to-read serif font, but it doesn’t indent paragraphs. As a result, the front page of the letter looks like a pretty heavy block of type that may imply “tough read” to some. Yet, there is plenty of room left on the back page. Adding indentation and breaking the longer paragraphs (especially the first one) into two would make the letter easier to read, and using bolding or other type elements would make the letter more appealing to a scanner (human, not electronic).

The Los Angeles Mission uses a sans-serif font that is lightweight and gets a bit lost in the striped background. Again, this is probably a control package and has been tested into. But for this old dog, it’s hard to read — not impossible, but I’m not sure I really want to bother. With the small format, space it very limited. But I wonder if we could do a better job of making the copy in that limited space more readable.

Inserts have an important role to play
All four of these acquisition packages included inserts. And all of them were positive additions (in my opinion). As stated earlier, North Shore Animal League includes a sheet of address labels and stickers. Best Friends had a fold-out brochure about a “day in the life” of one of its rescued dogs. The photos really were worth a thousand words (at least to this dog lover).

The mailings from Union Rescue Mission and the Los Angeles Mission both included “bouncebacks” — small cards I could sign that would be placed on the trays of people who receive meals at Thanksgiving. These involvement devices are a great way to engage the reader.

I’ve definitely gone out on a limb here, criticizing things that may have been proved to be the very best tactic ever. But if you take nothing else away, remember this: When it comes to our own mailings, we can be blind. We assume everyone “gets it.” We are sure they read the letter word for word, interact with the inserts, and immediately go to the reply form and make their gifts.

But in those dark hours when sleep eludes us, we realize the truth: Many recipients don’t even open the envelope. So if we can only work on making one thing better, that’s where we have to start.

TAKEAWAY: Look at the slides of the four mailings I’ve talked about here. Which one shouts out to you, “Open me!”? What can you take away from that realization that can impact your organization’s own mailing envelope?

This old dog looks at a lot of envelopes that come in my mail; most leave little impression on me. (If you’re not getting any mail, you’re missing out on great fodder for learning! You may want to take a look at Who’s Mailing What!, or start donating — give to get [mail, that is])! When I do open an envelope, I want to quickly grasp what it is I am being “offered” — what problem can I solve if I send a gift? Are you answering that question for your reader?

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.