Fundraisers Have No ‘Summer Slump’

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 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.

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.

Random Fundraising Resources and Thoughts

I’ve been ruminating on some random fundraising issues this week, perhaps because I have been in my car more than usual. While each is worth mentioning, none fills a full column, so here’s a compilation of some “news you can use,” as it were.

Learn from others. I’ve been reading “Cases in Nonprofit Management: A Hands-On Approach to Problem Solving” for a class I’ll be teaching in the summer. This 2017 publication by Pat Libby and Laura Deitrick reads like a novel in the sense that the cases are presented as narrative, but the topics feel like they are right off the pages of a fundraising news report. The book includes cases covering the board of directors, strategic decision-making, grant-making and 11 other relevant topics.

While you may not want to sit down and read this book cover-to-cover (it can get depressing after a while if several of the cases strike too close to home), but it is a helpful way to direct your thinking if you are facing a similar situation or want to avoid getting into one. The questions at the end of each case are a great tool for a nonprofit leader, board member or fundraiser wrestling with similar situations (or hoping to avoid them altogether).

Measure what matters. I was recently talking with someone who was feeling a bit overwhelmed with a robust software program that can do just about everything, if you only have the time to figure it all out. For fundraisers, if we have the flashiest donor management system or one that is lacking, it can still be difficult to sort through the options to determine what numbers to study to be able to set actionable goals for measuring success.

The “donorCentrics Index of Direct Marketing Fundraising” from Target Analytics looks at results from large nonprofits and reports on key measurements. While you may not see any logic in comparing your smaller organizations to the gargantuan members of our sector, the report is a goldmine when it comes to knowing what to measure. If you focus on the eight they include in their publically available report and add in total revenue and number of gifts (breaking it out between new and recurring donors, if possible, and fine-tuning it a bit further to consider average gifts, gifts per donor and revenue per donor), you will have a goldmine of information that puts stepping stones in front of you for determining where you need to go to make significant improvements. You’ll need to determine priorities, of course, as trying to do too much not only can lead to competing goals but can lead to despair.

Start out right. Throughout my career, I purchased books from time to time that I felt would be go-to references for the future. Like you perhaps, my employers had no money to build a library for me, so every book or magazine (this was before free online newsletters) had to be more than the latest publishing flash-in-the-pan. I still have the first book I purchased; it shows its age and is definitely outdated, but it reminds me that, when starting in fundraising, having a foundation based on the knowledge of those who have already done it is essential.

That’s the reason I worked with Stanley Weinstein to update “The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management” (fourth edition). I have owned a copy of that book for more than 20 years and, while I have never begun a fundraising program from the ground up, I’ve dog-eared its pages checking out best practices, advice for a new (to me) process or ideas to consider when I wanted to change something to (hopefully) make it better.

Live out thankfulness. Earlier this year, Boomerang reported on their study of closings in emails and found that the most effective closings (in descending order) were thanks in advance, thanks and thank you. It’s easy to see the common thread here—saying “Thank you”! Other studies have been published with variations on this same theme, and it’s hard to argue that a simple thanks is more than just an addition to your word count.

Many fundraisers write “thank you” notes and letter (both for mass distribution and one-on-one to a donor), and it can get incredibly routine. Sara Algoe, PhD, from the University of North Carolina has published multiple times on her research on gratitude, including the Find-Remind-Bind theory of gratitude. In brief, this states that expressing gratitude not only helps you create relationships, but also helps those relationships flourish.

Learn from others. Measure what matters. Start out right. Live out thankfulness. This old dog knows that it takes more than these four things to be a successful and fulfilled fundraiser, but this isn’t a bad place to begin for anyone new to the profession or looking to hit the reset button on his or her career in the nonprofit sector.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Data: A Fundraiser’s Friend and Partner

These are good times to be a fundraiser if you are a data junkie. More and more service providers are issuing studies based on their client base, and the accessibility of online survey tools makes it possible for numerous reports to be developed on trends in our profession. Understanding data is critical for managing a cost-effective fundraising program, so having access to so many reports can be a windfall—but it can also be overwhelming.

While I am a big proponent of reading everything you can in order to stay current in the field and trigger new ideas and approaches, I know that the challenge with benchmarking data is that sometimes it’s just too far removed from your reality to be helpful. For example, a study of the fundraising investment habits of nonprofits raising multiple millions of dollars may be difficult to translate to the nonprofit raising less than $100,000. This doesn’t mean we can’t learn from these reports, but we have to be careful to consider the context and adapt as needed to our own reality.

Benchmarking is defined as evaluating something compared to a standard. In other words, you can benchmark against an industry standard, the standard of organizations similar to your own or even simply against yourself. And for smaller organizations, that latter benchmarking initially may be the best use of limited time.

English author Terry Pratchett expanded on the old proverb about the importance of knowing where you’ve been to inform where you’re going when he said:

“If you do not know where you come from, you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.”

In my experience, this is certainly true in fundraising. I confess there have been times when I was living out the humorous quote, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m making good time!”

So, what’s a good way to approach the fantastic (and seemingly never-ending) supply of reports that provide benchmarks for fundraising? Here are my suggestions.

1. Read them with an eye for learning what typical trends are in the industry among organizations that may or may not be similar to yours. This is more than a “misery loves company” exercise. You will be better prepared for the challenges you may not yet be experiencing, but more importantly, you’ll get ideas on what you should measure.

2. Measure what matters. In my opinion, too often the problem with statistics is that there are simply too many of them. We press a button and pages and pages of reports come out, but we’re too busy to really pay attention to their messages to us. Instead of setting yourself up for perpetually being behind, commit to monitoring some key statistics that will help you rather quickly determine the health of your fundraising program and where you can improve. At a very minimum, look at these key measurements:

• Overall attrition (and conversely, retention) rate. It’s hard to know how to respond to a problem if you don’t know what the problem is. Industry-wide, the attrition rate is about 46 percent, according to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project. That’s good to know, but it’s critical to know your organization’s retention rate. That’s the first step to strategically discovering ways to improve retention.

• Net annual growth in the number of active donors. You’re going to lose donors organically through death, disinterest, change in financial circumstances, etc. Replacing those donors is necessary for maintaining your current position; increasing your total number of donors is essential for growth.

• Cost per acquired donor and second gift rate by source. It’s great to acquire new donors, but you have to do it in a way that is both cost-effective and beneficial in the long-term. Just because an activity brings in 500 new donors doesn’t make it a success if your cost to acquire those 500 names was unreasonable and only a handful ever give again. Names are not your goal; loyal donors are.

• Lifetime (or long-term) donor value by source. Over a period of time—lifetime if your numbers are accurate, or as many years as you can confidently trust your data—what sources produce donors who are the most valuable to your organization? This is an important measurement to make sure you are investing in truly productive fundraising programs, not simply “what you’ve always done” or activities your organization likes, but can’t really make profitable.

• Net value of each individual activity. When you are allocating your budget, you should invest more in activities that have the highest net value while testing smaller amounts in potential “rising stars.” Be sure to take into consideration staff costs. An activity that raises a lot of money, but consumes inordinate amounts of human resources may not be the best investment (or you may need to brainstorm ways to make it less labor-intensive or scale it back). It’s easy to fall in love with an activity or gravitate to something because “everyone else is doing it.” But strong fundraising programs are led by people with an eye always on the bottom line.

3. Set strategy based on what is working for your organization and where you see potential based on the experiences of others. If you know that overall retention industry-wide is 46 percent and that your retention is 40 percent, for example, set a goal to move your retention to the industry norm. Then strategically plan for how you are going to get there over a reasonable amount of time. Continually measure your progress against your goal. The only true failure is to not invest in strategic efforts to improve a benchmark. You can’t force your donors to do what you want, but you also can’t expect them to change their behavior if you aren’t testing new strategies to encourage them to do so.

Even if data isn’t your passion, it’s becoming increasingly critical for a fundraising program that is cost-effective for the long haul. But this old dog reminds you to not allow yourself to get so focused on the benchmark reports of others that you neglect establishing your own benchmarks for your organization and then using them to set strategies to stimulate positive change.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Finding Passion in Your Fundraising Staff

As an instructor at two universities, I have the opportunity to share my passion for fundraising to many people each year. My experiences and learnings often come from experience rather than from a textbook because when I started in this field, there weren’t training programs. But after teaching more than a few dozen classes, I have found that one thing I can’t instill in students is passion. If taking the course is just about fulfilling a requirement—a means to an end—it’s hard to turn the interest from “the grade” to the joy offered from working as a fundraiser.

Some of the things that I see in students with passion are the same things we should look for in employees, if our goal is to find people who spend their career (or at least more than a year or two) fundraising for our organization and to grow as a professional as they help grow our income.

Passionate fundraisers ask questions. From the first day (and even during the initial interview), look for people who ask questions. “Why” is no longer something to dread. When a passionate student or employee asks “why,” there is a genuine desire to understand and possibly challenge our traditions to find something better. People who ask questions also make you a better instructor or leader because you may need to do some research to find the answer. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know, but I will find out and let you know.”

Passionate fundraisers stay current with trends and news. I regularly have students find a news article related to fundraising and share it with the class and talk about how they can apply the information to their work as a fundraiser. My goal is two-fold: Introduce students to reputable sources and get them in the habit of practicing lifelong learning on the job. People who aren’t learning new things and having their assumptions challenged can develop “root rot” that quickly kills any potential for growth.

Passionate fundraisers worry more about what works than what they want. I wish we didn’t have to spend money to raise money; I wish people just naturally realized what a great job we do because they give; and I wish people knew that, of course, we are thankful for their giving. But a passionate fundraiser knows that making the experience great for the donor—not simply efficient (or inexpensive) for the organization—is what makes our fundraising effective. “I don’t like it” is never said unless it is followed by “But it’s not about me. How will it resonate with our target audience?”

Passionate fundraisers go beyond the basic assignment. The best kind of fundraiser on the team is the person who knows what the end goal is and is never satisfied with just checking an item off a list. Instead, he or she wants to know more than the minimum and do more than “just enough.” A passionate fundraiser doesn’t need to be managed every step of the way; instead, they take the assignment and exceed your expectations. James C. Collins, author of “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t” wrote, “The moment you feel the need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake.”

Passionate fundraisers are genuinely excited about fundraising. Every day, we have three broad categories of things we do: Things we have to do, things we like to do and things we are absolutely passionate about doing. I have never had a job where I loved doing everything all the time. But when you are excited about what you do, you understand there are things that aren’t as much fun, but they are part of what leads to success overall. If a student or an employee is clearly just marking time, working just for the grade or the paycheck, the “things they have to do” will quickly break them down. But when they’re passionate, even the mundane task feels easier because it’s part of what makes achieving our passion possible.

This old dog knows that hiring and training a new team member is not easy (or cheap). So watch for the signs of passion and never settle for a “good enough” employee. The cost is not only wasted time and opportunity, but it can also cost you those who are passionate. Again quoting Collins:

“Letting the wrong people hang around is unfair to all the right people, as they inevitably find themselves compensating for the inadequacies of the wrong people. Worse, it can drive away the best people. Strong performers are intrinsically motivated by performance, and when they see their efforts impeded by carrying extra weight, they eventually become frustrated.”

Originally published in NonProfitPRO.

Donor Behavior: They Love Us, They Love Us Not

When it concerns donors, too many fundraisers say the same two things: “But our donors love us!” and “Our donors are different.” The first is said when the fundraiser either doesn’t know or doesn’t believe the sorry state of donor retention overall or specifically for his or her organization. The latter is said when confronted with evidence about donor behavior that makes the fundraiser squirm. After all, wouldn’t an effective fundraiser have loyal donors that will stick around through thick and thin?

But regardless of what we think about our donors and their love for us, knowing some facts can help us make the decisions that lead to more loyal donors. A recent study released by Fidelity Charitable, called “The Future of Philanthropy,” provided some of those facts that cast light on what donors think about nonprofit organizations.

Why donors give: For half of the donors surveyed, giving, as a value, was motivation to donate. However, six in 10 donate because the cause is important to them.

What donors believe: Although only 17 percent of those surveyed believe that philanthropy can solve the problems they care most deeply about, 94 percent are at least somewhat optimistic. That leaves only 6 percent who are not convinced that philanthropic causes will ever have an impact on developing cures for diseases, solving the hunger crisis, providing health care or other causes that are priorities with donors. Of the Baby Boomers surveyed, 15 percent are very optimistic and 78 percent are somewhat optimistic. But Millennials are even more hopeful—29 percent are very optimistic and 68 percent are somewhat optimistic.

What donors think about us (the nonprofit community) and them (in terms of donating): Nearly half the Millennials (47 percent) believe nonprofit organizations have the potential to solve society’s problems in the future; only four in 10 (39 percent) of Baby Boomers agree with that statement. Additionally, “more than four in 10 donors believe individuals should do more to fund solutions, and half believe individual donors should maintain their support at current levels.”

I encourage you to download this report; it’s only 24 pages and well worth reading. But whether you read it or not, here are two takeaways that can challenge your thinking in the coming days.

1. People give because the cause is important to them.That implies that it’s the cause that matters, but not necessarily the organization centered on that cause. In other words, many donors love the causes we address, but may be more ambivalent about one particular organization as opposed to another.

So how do we develop donors who love our organization, as well as our cause, and who are convinced our organization is the best choice for solving the needs they care about? It seems to me that it boils down to one of today’s buzzwords: transparency. We must never be too busy or too tight on budget to make sure our donors know what happened because they gave. The stories we tell and the photos we share are essential to giving a donor a reason to believe our organization matters, not just the cause that we—and many, many others—are addressing.

It also requires genuine gratitude that shows a donor he or she is a valued partner, not just a transaction. Saying “thank you” can be automated using a computer-generated receipt or an auto-response for an online gift. But really showing the donor we’re thankful takes serious effort and a genuine belief that without the donor, our work would not be possible.

2. People also give because they have faith that maybe someday, in some small way, the problems they care about will be solved—or at the least reduced—because they gave.So in addition to saying “thank you” and sharing photos and stories that tug at the heartstrings, we need to provide facts.

For many organizations, the annual report has gone the way of the dinosaur, or at that least been relegated to a webpage about three dropdown menus removed from the home page. Producing the annual report was often the one thing that required us to ferret out the facts. So how many people did we feed? What progress did we make toward finding a cure? What can we point to that shows the impact our health clinic had on a community?

Truth be told, it was a pain to get all these facts together. It required reading grant applications and reports, and pleading with colleagues to provide the answers. But the end result was proof positive that our work had an impact, all bound in one report and (often) delivered right to the donor’s mailbox. I’m not against progress—but I am suggesting that we need to take what was good about the traditional annual report and marry it with what is awesome about today’s communication vehicles to deliver this important value to our donors because the only thing worse than never pulling together all that proof is pulling it together but not making it accessible so the donor can ingest it.

This old dog encourages you to check out Fidelity Charitable’s report and ask yourself, “So now what do I do differently as a result of reading this report?” You will be a truly effective fundraiser when you build lasting relationships with donors who love your cause—and love your organization for doing such a good job addressing it.

Originally published in NonProfitPRO.