The Slow and Boring Path
About six years ago, the Lance Armstrong Foundation introduced an odd little item to the world: a bright yellow silicone wristband with its "Livestrong" slogan on it. Then the Lance Armstrong celebrity mojo combined with a teen fad. A mind-bending 70 million wristbands were sold. It was a genuine blowout that rocketed a small nonprofit to the highest levels of awareness.
It's what nonprofits dream of: a simple, powerful effort utterly changing the game, pole-vaulting you past decades of hard work — the fast and sexy path to success.
No wonder a sort of wristband fever struck the nonprofit community. Pretty much every development director started crying, "Get me a wristband!"
The first copy-cat wristband probably sold pretty well. And the second. But by the time charity No. 50 rolled out its wristband, the magic was gone. It wasn't that cool anymore, and the market was saturated with wristbands anyway. Wristbands are no longer fast and sexy. They're a mainstay of the unoriginal and ineffective path.
Everyone wants a breakthrough. Every nonprofit wants to leapfrog into the dominating position it knows it deserves. Everyone wants to travel the fast and sexy path. But breakthroughs are rare. You can try all your life and never get one — which is exactly the experience of nearly everyone. In fact, counting on the fast and sexy path for your marketing and fundraising is a lot like counting on the lottery for your personal finances.
Fortunately, there's another path to success, and it usually works — the slow and boring path.
It doesn't sound like as much fun as the fast and sexy path, but it's a lot more likely to get your organization where you need it to go. And there's a wonderful secret for those who follow the slow and boring path.
Here's how you stay on the slow and boring path …
Meet your deadlines
The No. 1 reason nonprofits fail to raise enough funds is painfully simple: They don't get around to raising funds. They don't get around to it because effective fundraising is hard work with a lot of moving parts, all of which have to be done right and at the right times.
Projects collapse when deadlines are blown — or, more often, not set in the first place. An environment without deadlines is one where the laziest, most disorganized or least engaged people set the pace. The cost in lost opportunity can be catastrophic.
There's an uninteresting solution: Set reasonable deadlines, and then fanatically keep them.
Do the math
Do you know your response rates down to the second decimal point? Do you track average gift, net income per thousand, ROI? Can you see how the numbers interact with each other like an intricate ballet?
Good fundraising decisions come from staring at spreadsheets, asking pedestrian questions and internalizing a mass of quantitative facts. I doubt a spreadsheet will ever win an award — spreadsheets are just too slow and boring. But there's a lot of good stuff hiding in those little cells. The more you know and understand the math, the more good things you'll be able to make happen.
Know postal regulations
It doesn't matter how great your work is if you've flubbed a barcode, made your kit a billionth of an ounce over allowed weight or gone outside the permissible aspect ratio for an envelope. Pedestrian stuff like that can mean your work never gets mailed.
Don't let something like that happen. Be a conversant postal nerd — or hire someone who is.
Note that I'm assuming you are using direct mail to raise funds. That's also part of the slow and boring path. Corny, old-fashioned, totally unsexy direct mail is still the lifeblood of fundraising. Don't let the fact that it's old hat chase you away from the single most powerful donor-engagement tool in existence.
Understand the e-mail environment
Did you know the phrase "extra inches" can get you in the spam can? It's pretty obvious why. It's one of hundreds of perfectly legit phrases that spam-bots might zap — killing your chances of reaching your online donors.
E-mailing is surrounded with oddball things like that, plus a changing technology landscape. It's even more difficult than understanding the USPS — at least the USPS puts its rules in writing. Different e-mail experts have different rules, and what was a safe bet yesterday might not work today. Keep your eyes open, and be flexible — watch the environment and read everything you can about it.
Say thank you
We've all heard the donor who said, "You don't have to send me a thank-you letter. Save the money." He's lying. He wants to be thanked, even if he doesn't realize it. If you fail to thank him, he'll stop giving.
Make thanking donors a priority. Thank them promptly (the sooner after the gift, the better). Thank them creatively and emotionally. Put at least as much thought into thanking as you do into asking.
And not just your donors. Thank everyone. Your vendors, partners and colleagues. Thanking them might not seem like a big deal, but it adds dollars to your bottom line — and likely years to your life.
Be a cheapskate
Half the battle in fundraising is keeping costs in line with results. You can get incredible results but still end up failing because your costs erased your results. In fundraising, a penny saved truly is a penny earned.
You have to be nerdy to be effectively cheap. You have to know a lot of vendors — including their strengths and weaknesses — and keep up with changes in technology that can raise or lower costs. The more you know about this boring stuff, the better cheapskate you can be.
Then again, you can't cut your way to growth. Cutting everything is part of the dumb and destructive path.
Try, try again
Too many nonprofits try to engineer failure out of their fundraising. Thing is, if you aren't failing, you aren't moving forward. An effective fundraising program always tries new things — big ideas, small ideas, money-saving ideas, even dumb ideas that need to be put to rest.
The slow and boring trick is to fail well — fail in ways that yield good learnings without betting the farm on unproven ideas. You do that by rigorously testing. Start with a clear hypothesis, make sure you select the right groups for the test and the control — and then put a lot of brainpower into analyzing the results.
The slow and boring secret
Now the secret: When you faithfully walk the slow and boring path, you increase your chances for exciting breakthroughs. The slow and boring path puts you in fertile situations where you can take advantage of rare opportunities. Give it a try. Then stick with it for a few years. I think you'll be happy. FS