Strength Training for Fundraisers
This list came about when a U.S. journal for fundraisers asked me to imagine I'd just started in a new job, with a clean slate and sufficient resources to set about transforming the donor-development function. It's included here to help anyone in an even vaguely similar situation. And to help me set out my philosophy of donor development.
These 12 strategies aren't the only things I'd do. They may not even be the most urgent things I'd do, or even the most important. But they are the things I'd do that I think would have the most lasting impact. They would make the most difference to converting my imaginary donor-development department from the under-funded, misunderstood appendage to the fundraising function that I found on joining the organization into the finely honed, high- earning core activity that I'd like to leave behind when, in the fullness of time, I move on to pastures new (you have to indulge me a little here, in this fantasy). Anyway, here we go.
1. I'd aspire to be the most learned fundraiser of my generation
Apart from studying the lessons of history and going to the best seminars and workshops, for the fundraising resource center that I'd set about creating I'd (at the very least) get hold of the 10 best books on fundraising — and make sure they don't gather dust on the resource center's shelves but really get used. Plus I'd subscribe to the best trade magazines and journals around. And I'd encourage my colleagues to set aside half an hour each day for "essential fundraising reading" (in their own time, preferably). I'd challenge them to try to get at least one new idea from this every day that will help keep us just a bit ahead of everyone else who's clamoring for our donors' funds. And once each month at least, I'd encourage them to visit a fundraising organization with which they've had no prior contact whatsoever. Or to call a fundraiser for advice, someone they've never spoken to before. I'd also suggest, each day, that they wave at someone they don't know. But that may be going too far.
2. I'd teach my colleagues in fundraising to make the 90-degree shift and aspire to be 15 minutes ahead
These two fundamental attitudes underpin the best approach to donor development. The first, making the 90-degree shift, involves putting myself firmly but clearly in the donors' shoes, seeing everything our organization does through our donors' eyes. It sounds uncomfortable and it's not easy, but nothing else comes close in helping us build mutually beneficial relationships with our donors. Imagine — instead of giving donors what we want them to have, when we make the 90-degree shift we can be sure to offer them only what they want to receive.
The second, aspiring to be 15 minutes ahead, means I would concentrate not on finding those rare, elusive, breakthrough ideas to advance our fundraising, but on implementing the myriad small but cumulatively significant ideas that are all around fundraisers today, almost waiting to be picked up. For I know that's how our fundraising is most likely to move fastest — not in a few risky, giant steps but in lots of sensible, even obvious, but demonstrably sound little ones.
Before focusing in any detail on the techniques and skills fundraisers need, I'd make sure my own thinking was right, and I'd encourage my colleagues to get their thinking right too. Before I'd unleash any of my well-meaning fundraising colleagues on our poor, unsuspecting donors who deserve so much better than they usually get, I'd ensure they start off with all the good habits fundraisers need to acquire. So I'd rigorously remind all my colleagues of the basic foundations of our profession, the essential values and approaches that underpin good fundraising. I wouldn't let them even talk to a donor until they'd passed muster on the basics.
3. I'd develop a culture of appropriate but high-quality donor service in our organization
I'd make sure we are always a pleasure to do business with. Tragically, nonprofits are not very good at customer service — and that is an understatement. We should perhaps reflect that customer service is like personal hygiene. Without it, your relationships won't even get started.
Not a savory thought. Yet experience tells me good, appropriate customer service is missing in most of my competitors (so providing it is just one more way we'd be 15 minutes ahead). As almost every "mystery shopping" test confirms, fundraisers are almost invariably rotten at customer service. In the past, most donors haven't expected anything better, but as customer expectations rise generally, that will change for nonprofits, for sure. To enhance the experience of being a donor to our nonprofit, our department would offer the most appropriate, most friendly, most efficient and most effective customer service to be found anywhere. All at a time that suits our donors rather than suits us. So our donors would like doing business with us. And they'd tell their friends.
I'd get all of our fundraisers used to saying thank you and welcome promptly and properly. Ours would be a nice place to be and to be in contact with.
4. I'd be very choosy
Fundraisers almost never have unlimited resources, so of necessity we have to be choosy. Nowadays, we need to be very selective in where we focus our attentions. So I'd concentrate our resources very finely. We can't build relationships with everyone, so we'd focus our energies and resources on those who really count. Remember, real donors are rare creatures. A real donor is someone who has shown a propensity to support your cause over time. People who have given just once, in my definition, are responders — not yet donors.
We'd aspire to ask fewer people for more money for better reasons. We'd set out to find the real donors, because we know real profit comes from real relationships with real donors.
5. I'd cut out all short-term thinking, including all hard-sell activities
Instead, we'd lay solid foundations for a secure and lasting future that's not driven by short-term targets or objectives. I'd start by searching out opportunities for mutual benefit. I'd lay down strategies to develop committed giving and bequest income. I'd banish all high-pressure activities and make sure that we don't sell to our donors but instead work with them and for them, as respected counselors and friends.
Fundraisers should put an end to the hard sell, lay foundations for the future, and invest in and plan for the long term. The long-term nature of most fundraising should be made clear to all fundraisers when they join.
6. I'd switch our organization's contact paradigm from 'marketing' to 'communication'
Donors don't like to be sold to. They never did. Effective communications, we are reliably informed by research, build trust and confidence among our donors. And trust and confidence are the foundations of good relationship development. I'd make communication with our donors a dialogue, not a monologue. I'd recruit genuine experts with track records in effective communication. Our story would get told. And how!
I'd foster the lost art of storytelling and practice "experience" fundraising. Fundraising isn't about asking for money. It's about inspiring people to believe that they can make a difference — then helping them to make it. Fundraising is the inspiration business, and however much we may try to elevate and complicate it, at its heart it is little more than telling stories. I'd encourage all my fellow fundraisers to become master storytellers.
Most of the time donors can't be where our work is, to see for themselves the good work our organizations do. So we fundraisers need to be able to take them there in words and pictures, to paint images of our work so successfully in their minds that it's like the donors are almost there in person, experiencing it for themselves.
7. I'd make sure we only send effective, imaginative communications
The problem with most nonprofit communications is that they are dull. Given the abundance of colorful, dramatic, human-interest material with which nonprofits are blessed, this is a shocking admission. Yet sadly it's true. Fundraisers are prolific producers of printed and electronic communications, but the bulk of it is either tedious, vacuous, fit only for the rubbish bin or all three. Common weaknesses include too many words, limited skills in designing for readability and overemphasis on what the organization wants to say rather than on what the reader wants to read. If you think this is a little harsh, send off for the newsletters or annual reports of, say, 20 other prominent nonprofits and see if I'm wrong.
You can't write effectively without also seeing the reader, in your mind's eye at least. Communications is a bit like kissing. It takes two to do it properly. You should only send communications that help ensure your supporters:
✔ are entirely comfortable;
✔ will grow in their trust and confidence in you and your nonprofit organization;
✔ actually look forward to hearing from you;
✔ only hear about issues and subjects that truly interest them;
✔ give when you ask;
✔ feel they are benefiting from the relationship too.
It's important that fundraisers become more self-critical of what they produce so they only send creative and effective communications, that they save the money currently being wasted on inappropriate and poorly constructed publications by not sending them, thus avoiding inflicting unhelpful, unwelcome materials on our dear donors. To that end:
✔ Constantly measure donors' interest in and reactions to what they receive from you. Learn from this. Ask yourself whether or not your donors actually read what you send them.
✔ Never be dull, bland or unmoving. Communicate with passion. We have the best stories in the world to tell and the best reasons for telling them.
✔ Invest in good pictures and in people who can write compellingly, with power and passion.
✔ Design for readability.
✔ Send less, but better. Make sure what goes to donors is only good.
8. I'd make ours a listening and a hearing organization
In addition to training myself and my fundraising colleagues in how to provide appropriate yet highly professional levels of service and donor care, I'd make sure we know what our donors want and that we implement what they want us to do. I'd meet and talk to donors at every opportunity. I'd offer our donors a say in formulating our strategies. I'd encourage feedback, comments, questions and complaints. I'd regularly research our donors' views (and those of lapsed donors too), and I'd survey and measure their satisfaction.
For records I'd keep simple indices of these, which in time would become key performance indicators (or key donor indicators), the regular data I'd use to monitor and report on fundraising performance. I know I'd be ahead in this, because most fundraisers only measure their performance in terms of money received now.
In all their communications, fundraisers need to switch from monologue to dialogue. In addition to investing effort and resources into knowing and understanding their donors, they should make sure donors don't adopt a passive role but instead can readily become active participants who get as involved as possible (within their own levels of comfort). This can be achieved by offering donors genuinely interesting and worthwhile involvement opportunities, inviting donors to visit and see your work for themselves, so they really can get under your organization's skin and become not just participants but co-owners of your cause. To achieve this, you have to become a listening and hearing organization.
There are six keys to doing that:
✔ Train frontline personnel.
✔ Involve donors strategically.
✔ Encourage feedback, comments, questions, even complaints.
✔ Undertake regular research. Listen particularly to donors and to former supporters.
✔ Regularly survey donor satisfaction. Monitor and report on key indices.
✔ Don't just listen — really hear what your donors tell you, and act upon what you learn.
9. I'd work on strategies that build our donors' trust and confidence in us and our organization
This means that in addition to producing the best, most involving, most welcome communications in all practical formats, I'd try to make our communications into models of good stewardship. I'd publish "the standards we set for ourselves" in our annual report. I'd offer donors a charter that sets out clearly our commitment to them, explaining how we propose to be excellent stewards of the funds they entrust to our care. I'd include volunteers and other key supporters and constituents in this too, as well as donors.
Transparent accountability isn't just a duty, it's an opportunity. Demonstrable good governance and open, proactive accountability will be hallmarks of the successful fundraising organization of the future. Increasingly, donors expect nonprofits to be fully accountable and will come to demand ever more evidence of efficient and effective governance. But it will pay if you don't wait for donors to ask. Demonstrate your good stewardship and commitment to full accountability at every opportunity. Invite and encourage comments and questions. That alone will reassure your donors.
Fundraisers have to champion accountability and take it to their donors. The media are always happy to exploit any hint of poor management or inefficiency from nonprofits, and the public is only too prepared to follow where journalists lead. Yet fundraisers usually have nothing to hide and lots to be proud of. Generally nonprofits do a lot better than the public thinks they do. We need to illustrate our effectiveness and efficiency clearly and to strongly champion them, rather than trying to keep our heads down and hoping questions will just go away. So I'd tell those in the development department to:
✔ Invite donors to ask questions. Make it easy for them.
✔ Show donors "their files." Offer them online access to their accounts and to any other information that's held on them.
✔ Promote your organization as financially prudent and well-run (make sure first that it is). Invite your donors to come and see for themselves.
✔ Make available, to those donors that wish to have them, details of your financial systems, risk and impact assessment procedures, and other techniques and systems of good governance. Circulate key audiences (staff, volunteers and donors who ask for them) with details of what happens at your board meetings, including full minutes (editing out anything of a genuinely sensitive or confidential nature, i.e., a disciplinary procedure). Many organizations now post highlights of board meetings on their intranets or websites. Donors, I am sure, will approve.
10. I'd focus on the major motivations that attracted our donors to our cause in the first place
Most organizations have access to several motivations. Often these are quite different from each other and from those that can be accessed by other organizations. After I had identified all of the main motivations that apply in my organization, I'd make sure everyone else knows about them too. Then I'd build strategies addressing these motivations and blend them into our future communications.
For example, a nonprofit serving children with disabilities may have donors who are there because of professional connections, or because they feel sympathy or pity for the children, maybe they have family members with this condition, or are angry that more isn't being done and so on. Creatively addressing these fundamental, yet very different and distinctive, motivations ensures our donors get more from their support of our cause. When this happens, I'm confident our fundraising results will rocket.
11. I'd have our donor database properly profiled at least once each year
We need to know our donor file inside out so we can make sure we have the most useful information on our donors, what they are doing and what they are thinking. This information has to be available to us at all times and in ways we can easily access. Very often organizations have lots of information on their donors but don't know how to access it, or what to do when they have it, e.g., lifetime giving (a donor's giving total to date) and lifetime value (what a donor will give you in his or her lifetime). I'd use this process to identify the real donors hidden within our file, so we could aim to ask fewer people for more money for better reasons. We would then combine this empirical information with all the other research data we have gathered to ensure that we are doing all we can to optimize and grow all our donors' lifetime values.
12. I'd offer donors and other supporters the chance to choose when and how often they hear from us and what they might want to hear about
Which do you think would work best? If we send our donors what we want them to have, or what they are willing and happy, or at least prepared, to receive? It's the 90-degree shift again. Donors are always more responsive if what we send them is what they want to receive. We'd aspire to only send donors what interests them and what they're most likely to respond to.
Giving donors the right choices enables us to segment our donor file not just by the two traditional levels of segmentation — demographic characteristics and past behavior — but by choice, the third level. We would continually ask our donors what they want and do our best to deliver it.
Giving customers choices has become known as permission marketing. A few far-sighted nonprofits have been practicing it for years and getting exceptional results. Nowhere is permission marketing more appropriate than for nonprofit fundraisers.
Our approach to fundraising communication would be driven by what interests and involves our donors. Giving donors choices is a perfect example of the 90-degree shift. Having made our organization and its offerings as interesting, appropriate and involving as possible, I'd be confident that donors would safely, reliably choose for themselves the level of closeness and the content that would most suit their interests in and capacities for involvement with our cause.
When this strategy starts to work, I'd try introducing other choices for our donors, so they can in effect choose their own personal communications programs. I know the technology that makes this possible is getting better and cheaper all the time. And I know donors give much more regularly and more happily if they feel their wishes are taken into account. So this is another area where we'd be able to be 15 minutes ahead.
Then with this and all the other learnings I've gathered from the points in this list I'd structure a fundraising strategy that employs the best of current techniques and practices, focusing on fundraising that motivates rather than discourages my donors.
(This "Top Tips" list is an extract from "The Zen of Fundraising" by Ken Burnett, published by Jossey-Bass. Find the expanded version of this article and scores of other great fundraising-related articles on the SOFII website. Or look for three more tips in the May 10 edition of FS' daily e-letter, Today in Fundraising.) FS
Ken Burnett is a globally renowned author, lecturer and consultant on fundraising, marketing and communications for nonprofit organizations, as well as a founder of the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration. Reach him at email@example.com.