Successful direct-response fundraising is harder than most people think. Sure, anyone — or any agency — with a creative idea can design a website, craft an e-mail, create a direct-mail letter or even produce a TV spot. Good ones can even give you goose bumps.
But the primary objective of direct-response fundraising is to acquire and cultivate donors to generate the maximum net income for nonprofit programs over the long haul.
Precious few direct-response fundraising campaigns these days accomplish that objective. Hence the budget problems of so many nonprofits — the cutbacks, the turnover in development staff and the lack of funds to accomplish the mission.
So what's the problem?
First, nonprofits have for too long ignored the importance of building their brands. But money has always been tight, so most nonprofits focused their limited marketing resources on fundraising.
In recent years, however, there has been an influx of marketing talent from the corporate world that has espoused the importance of brand building. And that's a giant leap forward … unless it's done in a vacuum with no understanding of or connection with the direct-response fundraising program.
Here's the rub: As an industry, we've been so successful at direct-response fundraising that we've made it look easy. As if all it takes is an idea, a channel and a tactic. As if it doesn't matter what you put on the website or in the direct-mail appeal.
So we've seen countless major nonprofit organizations launch beautiful new brand platforms that appear divorced from best fundraising practices. Many are feel-good campaigns based on the belief that people want to see success, not need. Happy children rather than suffering children. Accomplishment rather than problems. Empowerment rather than reality.
This might fit their new branding guidelines, but it hasn't proven effective at raising money. I contend that great branding always supports the mission of the organization: raising money to fund programs that will make the world better.
Great branding supports fundraising by creating an environment in which the fundraising works better. The best nonprofits understand that branding that doesn't support fundraising is not great branding. It's diversionary. And costly. We're actually seeing cases of budgets being shifted away from proven revenue-generating strategies in the "hope" that an unproven fundraising strategy will hit the jackpot. Which nonprofits can afford to do this?
But that's not the only way many nonprofits defeat their own purposes. I've actually heard nonprofit executives opine that "people just don't want to get so many letters," and based on that opinion rather than on testing, they've decided to reduce the amount of contact with donors.
Others have decided to cut costs by shifting printing and postage budgets into social media because they're convinced it's the next big thing. Still others have shifted their fundraising focus to the next generation: those in their 20s and 30s with hip, edgy marketing campaigns. And when the campaigns invariably fail to raise sufficient dollars, they excuse them by claiming that they're sowing seeds to develop donors of the future.
I wish we could raise more money with less mail. I wish we could raise more revenue and save money and trees by switching entirely to digital (I don't go anywhere without my iPad, and I can't go a day without connecting via Facebook). I wish the 20- and 30-somethings gave generously to hip campaigns.
But wishin' don't make it so.
What's the answer? How do we create successful direct-response fundraising programs?
We do need more focus on building our nonprofit brands. People can't give to you if they don't know you're there, and people won't give to you unless or until they're convinced of the importance of your work. But rather than building a brand in a vacuum, we need to design the brand campaigns to support fundraising.
We need to invest in expanding our media channels. The recently released Heart of the Donor research study found that the average donor checked out nonprofits primarily via their websites and gave gifts through four different channels last year. Successful nonprofits cannot be dependent on any single channel. Instead, we need integrated marketing campaigns with complementary messages through digital, mail, TV, events, radio, etc.
In our relentless pursuit of the next big idea, let's not ignore the best practices that have gotten us where we are today and, from what I can see, continue to sustain most successful nonprofits. So let's carefully test new ideas against our established controls to make sure they work as well in practice as they do in our heads.
Speaking of best practices, it's still all about audience, offer and creative. What does that mean? It means we have to target people who are most likely to actually give to our offer, through the media best suited to them. We need an offer that is urgent and compelling. And we need creative that breaks through the clutter to communicate the offer to the right people.
We need to meet people where they are. Not where we are. Make it easy for them to give to what they want to give to, rather than force-feeding them our priorities. If they want to give to save fuzzy animals or feed hungry kids, let's not begrudge the fact that they don't want to give to our great advocacy programs or our infrastructure. It's their money. Let's meet donors where THEY are, and thank them enthusiastically for their support as we educate them to even more ways they can make a significant difference by engaging with us.