5 (More) Small Tips for Big Nonprofit Growth
Last month, we offered up five tips from the pros on how nonprofits can grow big and strong. Here are five more.
1. Listen to Your Donors
This is the big one—something so obvious that it’s often overlooked. Donors and supporters will tell you what’s working and not working, sometimes through feedback and always through behavior. “Your organization resonates with each and every supporter for one reason or another (or a hundred),” said Pamela Grow, fundraising consultant, author of “Simple Development Systems” and publisher of weekly email newsletter “The Grow Report.” “Explore those connections and take serious notes when it comes to the individual experiences sourced from your supporters. Plus, great stories are chock full of this stuff, so ultimately you can integrate your donors and their narratives into who you are. That’s an important thing to remember.”
Everyone knows listening to donors is essential, but too many organizations fail to act on what they learn. Don’t be content just having the data. Use it. Focus on what works, and make it a cornerstone of your growth strategy. “It’s all about knowing who your donors are, knowing how they expect to interact with you and testing everything you do,” explained Katie Bisbee, chief marketing officer for DonorsChoose.org, a New York nonprofit that helps public school teachers crowdfund for supplies and services they need. “While email, direct mail and phone calls might work for older donors, younger donors probably expect you to reach out via Snapchat or text message. So you first have to be honest about audience. Success really depends on how well you use your tools, not how many you have.”
Also, remember that donor needs change over time. Make listening and soliciting feedback an ongoing process, not a one-time deal, and adjust fundraising and marketing tactics as needed. “Listening to your donors, I think, is so critical,” said Susannah Schaefer, CEO of Smile Train. “I see that with even our donors and supporters who came to us through direct mail. How they communicate and want to be communicated to is changing—through email and different electronic channels. Whereas direct mail and mailing was the key way to raise awareness, it’s really changed. Some people don’t want the mail anymore. They want someone to reach out to them electronically through email. You have to be ahead of the curve.”
2. Diversify Your Fundraising Mix
Schaefer stressed this point, using Smile Train's direct mail efforts as an example. For most of its 16-year existence, the organization relied almost exclusively on direct mail for acquisition and retention. That was enough to build a strong base of supporters, but not enough for continued growth in a changing fundraising environment.
“Our donor base that was brought on early on, which was through direct mail, still responds to direct mail,” said Schaefer. “So it’s always going to be a part of our fundraising mix. But technology, the advancement of social media and the different touchpoints to reach out to people have changed so much since Smile Train was started, so we [needed] to have and develop a multipronged approach. We try to be as adaptable as possible. We have a young, energetic, very bright staff, and we try to always be ahead of the times.”
But, don’t get too far ahead. Lean on your strongest channels early, and scale your fundraising mix as you grow. “I’m a big fan of starting with one or two channels and mastering the heck out of them,” said Grow. “Because again, if you spread yourself too thin, you’re unlikely to achieve sustainable success.”
3. Don’t Over-Rely on Digital
Digital channels should absolutely make up some portion of your fundraising mix, but they’re generally not strong growth-drivers on their own. As long as they remain effective, use them in support of your main channels. But only invest in them heavily if the return on investment is there.
“Donors often aren’t making five-, six- and seven-figure donations via a website or social media,” said Bisbee. “Also, managing all of your digital channels can be expensive and time-consuming for a young nonprofit, with little ROI if not properly prioritized. The best nonprofits will still be those that know how to pound the pavement and build great relationships, which will give them the momentum to take their cause to the masses.
4. Be Wary of “Free”
There are plenty of free or low-cost tools out there that are great for nonprofits in their infancy. Buffer, Google Analytics, WordPress, Slack, etc.—all great, free tools with lifelong applications and value. But they should be stepping stones, not stopping points.
“Nonprofit organizations will make the choice of their database, web hosting company or email service provider solely on the basis of cost (usually ‘free’) instead of focusing on their needs and what will serve them best for growth,” said Grow. “And ‘free’ isn’t so in reality, because the absence of financial cost is at the expense of efficiency.”
5. Think Big
If you want to grow big, you’ve got to think big. That might sound like empty, rah-rah advice, but there’s something to be said for making your team and your donors feel like they’re involved in something big. Growth has to be part of your organizational mindset.
“Set ambitious goals and tell people about them,” said Bisbee. “Our donors and partners love to feel like they’re a part of something bigger. Also, it pushes our staff to work hard and focus on only those opportunities that will help us achieve our goals.”