Trends: In Your FACE!
More commonly called “canvassing” in the United States, face-to-face fundraising engages a younger donor base than more traditional media, with the average age of new donors between 32 and 33.
In a world of aging supporter bases, the ability to bring on board the next generations of donors, and get them engaged early, can be a significant plus for nonprofit fundraisers.
Of course, face-to-face is the same as any other medium. To do it right, you have to test, review and modify — with “test” being the maxim. As with other media, face-to-face fundraising won’t work for everybody. But where it does work, it can work exceptionally well.
The direct, personal appeal remains the most powerful fundraising technique. Done well, it offers the opportunity to engage with your potential donor on a much deeper level. The technique is clearly persuasive, as it’s employed every single day with major donors.
Some missions lend themselves more obviously to this approach than others: Greenpeace has had significant success in scores of countries with its impassioned environmental demands, and Children International has recruited approximately 70,000 new child sponsors in the United States. Both organizations have used Main Street, USA, as their office and been successful in doing so. Crucially, they have been able to translate their complex goals into a set of compelling arguments as to why you should give them your money.
Consider your mission: How do you communicate your key messages? More importantly, can you communicate those messages effectively, in 30 seconds, in a snow storm in Chicago? Or under an umbrella in Seattle? Why should people offer you financial support after a two-minute conversation?
Don’t assume that a big brand is a route to success or that a small organization will struggle. It’s about the ask. What do you want people to do, and why?
Outsourcing or in-house?
Both work. Any organization that ultimately seeks to recruit a high volume of donors (1,000+ in a year) should consider using a specialist agency to minimize its risk. Agencies will work on some sort of guaranteed-return basis, and you should break even on a project between 14 and 18 months out.
The role of the nonprofit becomes that of managing the agency, rather than managing the canvassing staff. A face-to-face fundraising operation on any scale is a highly people-focused enterprise.
If your expectations of your program are more limited, then you could consider running an in-house operation. This approach has had a certain amount of success in the United Kingdom, but the cautionary word is to ensure you do not over-extend your operation. If you do, you’ll lose much of the benefit of doing it in this way and take on all the risk.
The in-house approach especially suits organizations that have a physical location with foot traffic, such as museums or visitor centers, where the fundraising staff has access to almost exclusively warm leads.
Whichever route you choose, training is one of the pillars of success. If you retain an agency, then you should rely on it to carry out the professional training as well. If your messaging is not at the point where it is street-ready, the agency folks will help you.
Successful fundraising is built on delivering effective and timely training to fundraising staff. Even the friendliest of streets can be intimidating places, and having the support of knowledgeable training staff brings success more easily to fundraisers — even those who are experienced.
‘Onboarding’ the donors
This is the single most important part of face-to-face fundraising. You have made a personal plea to your new donors; you have explained why their support is essential; you even bothered to put someone on the street to talk to them. This should inform how you subsequently deal with your new donors, many of whom will have agreed to a one-time or recurring electronic funds transfer from their bank accounts.
I’ve seen charities take the wrong amount of money from donors; take it on the wrong day; take it twice, even three times; fail to talk to the donors ever again; or fail to take any money from the donor at all. Please do not do any of these things.
Make sure your new donors are at the center of your universe: Communicate with them effectively, thank them for their support, explain how they are making a difference, continue to communicate the need but balance it with the success that you’re having.
Nine months or so later, if you have done this well, you can telephone them and ask them to increase their gift. They’ll do this for you, and they already are used to you using verbal communication, as this was how they were introduced to you in the first place.
Crucially, do everything you can to meet your donors’ expectations.
Expectations — the donor
By engaging with donors on the street, you have established a level of expectation in their minds. But knowing that you have done so and defining what it is are two very different propositions.
When you go to the store and buy a washing machine, your expectation is that your clothes will go in grubby and come out clean. When you support a charity, you might have been attracted by the cause, a personal resonance, or the appealing doggy/children/whale on the marketing collateral.
As a nonprofit, making sure that the donor’s experience of you is consistent, and congruent with the manner in which they were acquired, is the most straightforward way of ensuring that you meet their expectations. This is especially true of face-to-face fundraising, where donors will feel that they’ve “met” you in person. If you disappoint them, they can very quickly fall out of love with you.
Expectations — you
If you embark on a face-to-face test, you can expect to receive a lot of new, younger donors quickly. You can expect them to be interested in you, demanding of you, inquisitive of what you’re doing with their money and far less tolerant of poor communication than previous generations.
You typically can expect up to 15 percent of donors to drop off before they give you any money. Don’t take it personally; there are just some people that don’t know how to say “no” to a fundraiser.
You also can expect to receive complaints from the public and perhaps some board members or donors who think that your brand is being demeaned in some way by this “panhandling,” who believe it is bogus or wish to tell you that it would never have been allowed in “their day.” Ask them for a donation.
You also can expect some “bleed” of your message. When you write copy, it’s perfect to the last phrase and semicolon. It’s a controlled medium, and you can be sure that you’re on-message.
When you undertake a face-to-face test, your fundraisers have been trained; they have their key points; and they have their prompt cards.
And they are human. They’ll get the countries in which you work slightly wrong. The percentage of monies that goes directly to projects will come out wonky, and they’ll get into conversations on the street that will have them signaling frantically to their team leader to rescue them.
But it works because they are human, because they can make a direct personal appeal on your behalf and because they are there in person to make the ask.
Did the test work?
Before you even launch a test, define your success criteria. This will provide you with tangible targets and, if you’re outsourcing, form the basis of your discussions with an agency. If you fall short of your success criteria, odds are that one or both of two things has happened:
- The recruitment of donors didn’t go as planned, the consequence of which is to increase the cost per donor. This can be because recruitment is slower than intended or the demographic that you have attracted is not what you thought it would be.
- You suffered from weaknesses in the onboarding of donors, resulting in less income than intended. This is easier to fix than the first; remember to have the donors at the center of your universe.
Having carried out a test, go ahead and review, and modify accordingly. Enough organizations have had success with this medium for it to be worthy of further examination.
Owen Watkins is the CEO of DialogueDirect Inc., a New York City-based fundraising consultancy that specializes in face-to-face fundraising.