10 Ways to Engage Your Community

For a local nonprofit, getting broad involvement with the community is critical. If your donor base is national or international in scope, this may not seem as necessary, but having a core of “neighbors” that support you with money and time can provide a much-needed injection (of cash or volunteer hours) when you’re expanding, testing a new idea or dealing with seasonal overload.

Potential donors from the community want to be affiliated with something that has high acceptance in their community, is a benefit to the community in terms of being a good corporate citizen and an employer that is recognized as stellar, and lets them connect with neighbors.

Following are 10 ways to engage your community — as donors, volunteers and “evangelists” for your cause.

  1. Solicit the adoption of a resolution supporting your nonprofit from your city council, county board of supervisors, labor and building trades councils, service clubs, and the chamber of commerce.
  2. Request a letter of support from the state assemblyperson and state senator whose districts includes your location (or locations). These are often “perfunctory,” but they can carry weight with some potential supporters. And, it never hurts to have your organization’s name known by officials who may have leads on government grants or who can help if you run into roadblocks with a new project.
  3. Invite key local elected officials to participate in an event. This can generate media and give you great quotes to use in your marketing.
  4. Get endorsements of the effectiveness of your program. Depending on the kind of work you do, these can include medical personnel, teachers, police or fire department workers, clergy members, or respected businesspeople. Use these endorsements on your website, in newsletters, in ads, etc. People want to join the winning team. Show that you are considered a winning team by people whose opinions others respect.
  5. Request that board members in the local community host events at their homes, businesses or restaurants for associates or neighbors to introduce them to the work of your nonprofit.
  6. Create a speakers’ bureau, and invite your local donors to join and tell your story to civic groups, church groups, parent groups at schools, etc. Provide talking points, a three- to five-minute video and leave behind brochures that they can use when they speak. Don’t expect them to make an “ask” — the brochure must include an opportunity to give.
  7. Solicit contributions from local businesses. Many will give small donations of money or product to local nonprofits. Then promote their support on your website, in ads, etc., showing that “everybody who is anybody” supports your cause. Again, it’s the “winning team” concept.
  8. Present your nonprofit to local college groups, and invite them to do a project to benefit your program. This is a great way to involve the younger generations in your cause.
  9. Sponsor community events that show you are a good community citizen. For example, buy a banner that hangs on Main St., decorate a tree for the annual holiday tree festival, pay for a brick in the downtown pedestrian mall — whatever is an option in your community. Whatever you do, publicize your involvement.
  10. Develop an advisory board — and promote it. These key people will attract others, helping you build a loyal group of volunteers to engage the community. Choose a name for your volunteer group that gives members a feeling of belonging and appreciation.

One of the keys to good community involvement is “never missing an opportunity.” If there are people willing to come alongside your nonprofit and help raise money or visibility, finding a way to support their enthusiasm (without investing a disproportionate amount of time and energy) can be a real win for your program. And an extra benefit — engaging the community is a great reason to get out from behind your desk on a beautiful afternoon.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

When ‘Simple’ Sizzles

I admit it — I’m a direct-mail addict. I have no intention of joining a 12-step program to find a “cure,” since I experience no guilt when my heartbeat quickens as the familiar white, red and blue truck pulls up to my mailbox. My happiest days are when the mail carrier can barely stuff all the mail in my mailbox.

In recent weeks, I have received stationery, note cards, address labels (of course), oversized envelopes … and a plain, white envelope.

This envelope came from a local hospital with whom my husband had a two-night stand earlier in the year. It was metered with nonprofit postage, and the return address was the hospital name and “Office of Philanthropy.” Since we had never donated to it, what could shout “donor acquisition” more loudly?

But, just in case it was a refund for overpaying for aspirin or whatever, I bypassed the recycling bin and gave it to my husband. He opened it, read it — and told me I had to read it, too. For, even to his non-fundraiser’s eyes, it was clear the letter copy was a winner. It began:

“Imagine that you are strolling through (name of town) on a pleasant evening. Suddenly a car comes out of nowhere. The rest is a blur.

“Your spouse calls 911, an ambulance is there in a flash. Sirens blaring, you are rushed to (name of hospital), which has been serving you and your family for generations.

“But this time, you are turned away.”

This package couldn’t have been more simple (although it did include a four-color reply form that did a great job of restating the offer). But good copy worked. It asked me to imagine something that was all too easy to relate to. How many of us haven’t heard the squeal of brakes and realized that an accident had just been avoided? And, it put me in a locale (the local downtown area) I knew well.

It didn’t ask me to imagine that I’d gone days without food while walking in search of water. It didn’t make me feel guilty that I wasn’t doing more to help end (fill in the blank).

Don’t get me wrong — I love colorful envelopes (the better to get opened, my dear). In fact, I would test the hospital letter in a few other envelopes if anyone asked for my opinion.

But “simple” got this potential donor inside the envelope and then grabbed me with letter copy that was irresistibly about “me.” Two other letters received in recent days from local charities apparently forgot that the letter was about me (the potential donor), not the organizations that sent them. One opened the letter by saying, “The XYZ Foundation is kicking off its 2011 Annual Fund Drive in your area, and we are hoping you can offer your help today.”

The second came from a public TV station: “At XXXX, we’re proud to rise to the challenge of providing you with the outstanding programs you expect.” Sorry, but neither of those opening lines made me feel very involved in the problem the charity was addressing. In fact, sounds like they had it all under control …

Let’s face it — fundraising is personal. What I like, you may not. But this time, the plain envelope containing fantastic letter copy grabbed my emotions more than the thick envelope overflowing with premiums and an underwhelming letter.

Sometimes the sizzle is in the simple.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Is it Worth the Risk?

Let’s face it — none of us is too excited about “a possibility of incurring loss or misfortune.” That’s one of the definitions for “risk” found online.

For those of us who have worked for nonprofits — especially small and mid-sized NPOs — we may have another definition, based on previous bad experience: “something avoided at all cost.”

And yet, like any company, a nonprofit constantly takes risks. Hiring, renting space, launching a PR campaign — life in a nonprofit is full of risk. Except oftentimes, in fundraising. Why is that?

Frequently, the argument goes like this: “We’re gambling with our donors’ money. Every cent spent on fundraising could have been invested in program. If a campaign fails, money is forever gone that could have been invested in direct services to our beneficiaries.”

We also often have a misguided idea that “everyone else” knows what they are doing. So we can look at what is already being done that we aren’t doing, and assume that is the only answer instead of asking if there’s something better that hasn’t been tried yet.

Thirdly, fundraising often generates more embarrassment amongst members of the board and management than programs or operations; they are afraid they will look like beggars to their friends and colleagues. Hence, there is more scrutiny and pressure not to fail.

Finally, too often we don’t have the structure to evaluate and extract learnings; we’re always on to the next thing.

The critical challenge is to create an environment where identifying visionary risks worth taking is simplified, and taking those risks (even failing at times) is acceptable. The following process can help you establish that new culture.

  1. Allow your overhead rate to increase one percent (assuming it is at an acceptable level), and invest that money in a fundraising innovation fund.
  2. Defend every new idea to be considered for funding out of the fundraising innovation fund with a short, written summary of the concept, potential audience, budget, timeline to implement, and expected outcomes. Don’t turn this into a burdensome process; you want to move forward with great ideas that have potential — not process the life out of every new idea.
  3. One negative should never be enough to kill an idea — no matter who casts that vote. On the other hand, if an idea seems doomed to fail, everyone must let it go.
  4. Don’t launch too many innovative ideas at once. This leads to chaos and makes it difficult to manage the innovation.
  5. If an idea fails — and some will (that’s why it’s called “risk”) — the burial must be decisive. The innovation can’t be allowed to continue on life-support. Failure doesn’t mean you didn’t try hard enough. It just means the idea didn’t work.
  6. Every innovation must have a final evaluation — even if it failed, there may be successes that can be turned into a winning program. At the very least, there are lessons to learn about what not to do next time.

When you create an environment where smart people can take smart risks, you open your nonprofit up to finding the next winning program to raise even more money. A side benefit may be reducing staff turnover, as a learning environment is highly appealing to top performers. And, you’ll likely broaden your pool of donors as new ideas often tap into different donor groups.

So take a chance — but only after you have determined that your idea has a decent chance of succeeding based on what you know today, and what you can predict about tomorrow with solid analysis and experience.

Originally posted at Nonprofit Pro.

There Must Be 50 Ways …

… to net more dollars — even in the worst economic times.

Remember the story of the boy in Holland who noticed a hole in the dike? Fearing a leak could flood the entire town, he shoved his finger into the hole, potentially avoiding a major disaster.

As fundraisers, our challenge is not unlike that boy’s. Every day, we look for leaks — places where we’re not maximizing our investment, little holes that, if left unplugged, can cause our donors to abandon us and our income to plummet.

In today’s economy, it’s even more critical to not miss any opportunity. To that end, here are 50 possible leaks you can plug today.

General fundraising
1. Test everything — including what you read in this article — and only make changes that improve net income. Don’t simply react to the economy or change because “everyone else is doing it.”

2. Look for untapped opportunities; direct mail should be your core source of income, with radio, TV, face-to-face, planned giving and online fundraising bringing in the balance.

3. Question everything. What are you doing because it makes you (or a board member) feel good and not because it raises money? Now is the time to make tough calls and eliminate things that drain your budget without increasing income.

4. Offer choices when donors say, “You mail too much!” Have step-down options — rather than “all or nothing” — that reduce direct mail to quarterly, semiannually or annually. Be sure to schedule when to contact donors with mail restrictions, so they aren’t forgotten.

5. Call and thank former monthly donors; just saying a simple “thank you for all you’ve done” can encourage former donors to start giving again.

6. Acknowledge milestones. Call and thank donors who give over a number of years or reach a certain accumulated giving threshold. Showing genuine appreciation is an unbeatable retention strategy.

7. Look for your trouble spots, and develop strategies to address them. For example, when are ongoing donors most likely to stop giving? At one organization we work with, it was after three years of giving, so we began a recognition program at that point and saw amazing improvement in retention.

8. If you rely on premiums for donations, think continuity. A desire to receive the entire series can encourage ongoing giving.

9. When donors call, start building a relationship by letting them tell you the reason they called before you ask them to verify your computer records. Especially if a donor calls in to vent, making him jump through your hoops first only adds to his frustration.

10. When you make a mistake that affects donors, the best strategy for dealing with it is to simply say, “I’m sorry.” For example, a nonprofit I support
double-charged a donation to my bank account; the woman I spoke to was so genuinely sorry I told her to keep the extra gift.

11. Get receipts out quickly — in days, not weeks. Donors want to be assured you received their gifts, you’re using them wisely and you’re grateful.

12. Write custom copy for first-time donors, special offers and major programs, if possible. “One size fits all” seldom works for T-shirts or receipt copy.

13. Don’t let donor remorse set in; include stories that show how effective you are in using donations.

14. Encourage repeat giving by enclosing an easy-to-use coupon and a return envelope. A three-part receipt — letter, receipt and return form — is a proven strategy for increasing additional gifts.

15. Maximize your First Class postage costs by adding inserts on giving opportunities, planned giving, special events, etc.

16. For gifts larger than a predetermined level, mail a very personal, closed-face letter one week after the receipt to reaffirm your gratitude. Don’t include any reply device. You’re strengthening the relationship; additional giving will follow.

17. In each article, show how you achieved results, but gently remind the reader that the job is not yet done and you still need her help.

18. Repeat those opportunities on the reply form so it’s easy for the donor to designate a gift to meet each specific need.

19. Put your newsletter in an envelope with a loose reply form and reply envelope; the extra cost usually is much less than the additional income you’ll receive.

20. Save money without sacrificing quality or interest. For example, a No. 10 envelope with a large window on the nonaddress side allows you to use the same envelope for every issue and creates interest when a compelling photo shows through.

21. Survey donors to find out which regular articles they enjoy. Eliminate the ones that aren’t popular, and use the space for articles that better resonate with your audience.

Direct mail
22. Test frequency; don’t let donors forget you. You probably can add a mailing (or two) and net more dollars.

23. Nothing says “junk mail” quite like an indicia. Test a live, bulk-rate stamp; it adds only a small amount to your production costs but could significantly lift response and net income. For higher-end donors, test a First Class commemorative stamp.

24. Develop a monthly giving program; donors who are committed to give monthly are your most loyal donors and usually stay with you even in tough economic times.

25. Reuse winning packages. Donors don’t remember the appeals you sent a year ago. Freshen up the copy as needed.

26. The outer envelope serves two purposes: to hold the contents together and to get opened. Teasers, closed-face, live stamps, four-color, hand-addressing all work sometimes, but not always. Test!

Major donors
27. Be sure you aren’t neglecting your major donors. Too often, they are moved out of the direct-mail file for “special treatment” that never really happens.

28. Rethink donor clubs. Don’t hesitate to cancel them if they aren’t improving net income. Reabsorb the members into your main mailstream, but honor their commitment with closed-face envelopes, personal letters, etc.

29. Find the contact methodology that meets the donor’s needs and is most likely to result in continued partnership. For example, a major donor to an organization we work with sent $50,000 every January when she received the direct-mail piece with a matching-grant offer. Instead of a visit, the representative started calling her to give her a “heads-up” that the mailing was on the way.

Planned giving
30. Promote planned giving in your receipts. A simple insert can spark interest and bring in leads.

31. Ask participants for endorsements you can print. We all like additional confirmation from people just like us.

32. Test before including planned-giving messages in fundraising appeals. Sending mixed messages could hurt response.

New donors
33. Thank them with special receipts. Be as warm and welcoming as possible, and reaffirm that supporting you was a wise decision.

34. If possible, have a separate welcome mailing. It’s another opportunity to say “thank you” and provide information about your charity.

35. Consider a small, mission-appropriate premium (a bookmark, for example) for donors who give second gifts within 60 days. Promote this with a small insert in the first receipt.

36. Receipt the first gift, no matter how small.

37. At a predetermined threshold, call just to say “thank you.”

Lapsed donors
38. Test sending a postcard with a special need. Make the front of it colorful and exciting. Drive responses online or to a toll-free number.

39. Survey to find out why they stopped giving. Use the information to improve your program.

40. Be aggressive; start re-upping before they lapse. Calls and letters reminding them it’s been almost a year since they last gave are proven ways to keep donors from lapsing.

41. Monitor the results of all lapsed efforts, and know when to stop. At some point, move them into an acquisition-only file.

42. Love your control. No one else is bored with it. Don’t discard it unless it’s no longer working and you have something else consistently working better.

43. Test a variety of outer envelopes with the same package content. If your envelope isn’t getting opened, it doesn’t matter how great the contents are.

44. Mail acquisitions to your prospects and deeply lapsed donors. It’s a low-cost way to activate them.

45. If you rent lists, remail the names that show up on multiple lists (with permission from the list owners) a few weeks later. These are usually the most responsive names.

46. Have one person — with solid fundraising experience — own your total e-mail experience. Don’t let everyone in the company dictate when and what to e-mail.

47. Avoid the temptation to over-e-mail. If your e-mails start to feel like spam, you’ll become a permanent resident of the “deleted items” file.

48. Maximize your Web site for search engines; learn how by going online and searching for “SEO” and “SEM.”

49. Promote reasons to go to your Web site in your newsletters, receipts and other communications.

50. Make sure online giving is secure, easy to find and easy to use. Printing and mailing a form is not a substitute for secure online giving.

In good times or bad, always be looking for leaks you can plug. Several small improvements in your fundraising program can add up to significantly more net income — and greater opportunities to carry out your important work.


Originally published at NonProfit Pro.