Cover Story: The Art and Science of Fundraising
There’s a gleam in Vaneeda Bennett’s eye that borders on mischievous and a lingering quality to her laugh that makes you wonder what she’s up to. What she’s been up to — for the past nine years, at least — is a major upheaval of the thinking in the development office at the American Diabetes Association. An upheaval that’s lead to a 100 percent cumulative increase across four development areas at the national, Virginia-based organization over the past eight years.
The folks who work with Bennett, the ADA’s chief development officer, call her a “powerhouse,” a one-woman show who single-handedly spearheaded the growth. (The numbers, by the way, read like this: Over the past five years, ADA experienced a 35 percent increase in direct mail contributions; 65 percent in major gifts; 100 percent in corporate support; and 38 percent in special events.)
Still, Bennett is quick to point out that she’s more of an orchestra leader who surrounds herself with the best “musicians” she can find. She throws the pros together in the pit, waves her baton and waits to hear the music.
“I set the direction and strategy, but not in isolation,” she says. “It would be stupid to do it in isolation. My staff is a bunch of pros; I make it a point to hire people who I believe are better than I am. Experts in their field. The synergy is incredible.”
She’s also a painter. (This one’s no metaphor; Bennett’s office walls are adorned with her watercolors). As such, she acknowledges that for all the metrics and analytics that can be applied to it, fundraising is, at its heart, a fine art rife with subtleties and ironically delicate shades that hit hardest when they’re the least obvious.
“Fundraising is an art that doesn’t turn its back to scientific principals,” Bennett says. “If you don’t make X number of calls, you’re not going to get results. If you don’t have X number of prospects, you’re not going to reach your goal. But it’s an art because you can’t treat everyone the same.”
And to that, ultimately, is what Bennett herself attributes the phenomenal growth of both her department and the donations it brings in.
A new approach
A petite dynamo of a woman, her personality underscored by the bright-red business suit she’s wearing on the day of this interview, Bennett leans in for emphasis to declare that “the days of mass marketing are over.”
Like many nonprofits in the new millennium, the ADA has taken a more donor-centric approach to development. And while the idea smacks of warm fuzzies and soft-focus, “let’s get together over a wine spritzer” attitudes, under Bennett the relationship-building ideal has taken a decidedly hardcore spin. The ADA development staff tracks every interaction it has with donors and prospective donors, and nothing is left to chance.
ADA uses the popular Moves Management® concept developed by the Institute for Charitable Giving to trace each donor or donor prospect’s involvement with the organization, from interest to giving to upgrading. Bennett’s philosophy: The organization-wide capture and sharing of information must be “consistent and systematic.”
“As of this year, we’re all on one database; everyone has the same kind of information,” Bennett says. “It’s a very managed strategy; we can see on one file how many times an individual is touched by ADA and have one picture of what our constituent does.
“It’s not rhetoric; we measure this. We all collect and share information for the good of the donor and the organization,” she adds.
Elly Brtva, managing director of individual giving, explains that the Moves Management concept makes it easier for all segments of the development department to work together in cultivating donors.
“ADA has made a major investment in hardware and software to support its fundraising efforts,” she says. “Our system is the best to track and understand donors and how they impact every part of the organization — whether it’s buying a diabetes book, supporting our advocacy efforts, participating in School Walk for Diabetes or giving a direct mail gift.
“We’re better able to steward our donors, thanks to this system,” she adds.
Starting at the beginning
Tracking donor activity through Moves Management means that cultivation begins on the direct mail level, with the very first response to a package. No matter how a person responds — whether he sends a check or visits the Web site and indicates that he has an interest in diabetes research — no matter how small a blip he creates on the radar screen, the team takes notice. Bennett paints a picture of a well-orchestrated strategic pas-de-duex, with the local and national teams working together to get to know him and figure out the best way to draw him in further.
An example: A donor responds to a direct mail package by sending a $20 check and indicating in the return questionnaire that someone in her household has diabetes. Immediately, the staff sends that person information about the disease and its management, as well as about the ADA Web site.
If the donor then goes to the site and enters her ZIP code, she gets information about what the local chapter is doing in her community, as well as an opportunity to get involved. If she does volunteer, the more intense cultivation begins on the local level, with volunteers speaking with her about additional involvement and giving opportunities.
“It started with a nationwide direct mail acquisition, and now they’re back home where they live, meeting with local folks in volunteer-to-volunteer interactions,” Bennett explains.
And through it all, Moves Management keeps an eye on the progress so that donors are suspended in that comfy fundraising Xanadu between neglect and overkill. The tracking system lets the staff learn what the donor needs.
“Every move depends on the one before. The donor is directing us in a certain way - if we listen to him,” Bennett explains, sharing the story of a woman who gave $1,000 in response to a direct mail package but who made it clear that she didn’t want to be bothered with phone calls or home visits and wasn’t interested in volunteer opportunities.
What to do in a situation like that? Easy, Bennett says — back off.
“Our donors tell us which way to take them,” she adds.
Once a donor jumps into the major-gifts category, however, the brakes go on and the group meets to plan very specific strategies.
“Once someone becomes a major donor, everything stops,” Bennett says. “The strategy has to be managed and highly personalized. At that point, that person has been touched by ADA in many different ways, and if it’s a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, we could lose them.”
Passing the baton
Every step of the way, the manager of each department within the development office knows that it pays to know when it’s time to hand off one of the department’s donors or prospects to another department.
It’s safe to assume that many organizations experience some level of internal competition, with managers on one giving level reluctant to share their files with the rest of the team. But sharing not only is encouraged at ADA, it’s expected.
As managing director of direct marketing, Joanne DelGiorno is the person who most often turns over her hard-earned donor names.
“The direct response marketing department has objectives to meet to make sure that we’re cultivating donors to move up the pyramid so we can pass them up to the next level of major gifts,” she explains. “We have a comfort level with doing that because we know that the major-gift staff would handle them with a personalized touch that we couldn’t give them using direct response techniques.
“At ADA, each department within the development office shares in the success of each other’s efforts, and we all benefit when a donor is happy as a result of our combined efforts,” she adds.
Bennett paraphrases New York Sen. Hilary Clinton, saying that it “takes a village” to cultivate a donor.
“Our [giving] pyramid is very fluid; people come in and out of it in all kinds of ways,” she says. “When Joanne hands off her donors, she’s doing her job. If I see an opportunity to connect with a donor on the local level, then shame on me for not telling the local office — and vice versa.”
‘Synergy’ in action
Rounding out Bennett’s current regime are three other managing directors in addition to Brtva and DelGiorno: Nancy Stinson, corporate development; Peter Knockstead, special events; and Joe Herget, strategic marketing.
“Synergy” is a word that pops up often when talking to these folks about their jobs, and it’s apparent that Bennett’s enthusiasm has spilled over onto her managers.
“ADA has a supportive senior management team that believes in and practices the core values of the organization,” Brtva says. “I’ve never seen an organization and its leaders believe in the philosophy of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ Senior leaders have gone out of their way to make staff, from all levels, feel welcome and we are encouraged to strive for excellence.”
More succinctly, Brtva says, “You can’t hear the enthusiasm on paper, but every day I say that I have the most awesome job in the world.”
There seems to be no getting around the influence that Bennett has had on development at ADA. Thoughts from some of her staff:
“The growth of the development office can be attributed to the vision Vaneeda had for a system that allowed every area of development to benefit from moving a donor up the giving pyramid,” DelGiorno says. “As the development office has grown, so have our synergies with one another.”
And from Brtva: “Vaneeda has brought a core group of professionals together who collaborate and strengthen one another. She’s the kind of leader that breeds excellence and determination in finding a cure for diabetes. She practices what she preaches. Our growth should be directly related to her leadership and vision about donor-focused fundraising.”
Despite their titles, Bennett says, each of her managers — every employee, as a matter of fact — understands that his or her job description includes a few very basic matters. Cutting through the clutter of specifics, they boil down to all cultivation, all the time, and prospecting for warm leads — folks who already have an interest in the organization, as exhibited through volunteering for an ADA event or providing information via the Web site.
“There’s room for [all nonprofit organizations] but, obviously, you have to find the people who are interested in what you have to offer,” she says. “Once you find that unique individual who fits with you, you don’t want to lose him. It took a lot of time, energy and resources to find him.
“So you never quit acquiring donors,” she adds. “You have to keep the pipeline full. Cultivation and stewardship are 100 percent of all staff job descriptions. That and prospecting for warm leads, which don’t carry the same high price tag as cold lists.”
Bennett projects an easy charm but can barely contain herself when asked to sit for an hours-long interview. Hers is a palpable energy that makes it easy to see how she could have effected such a tremendous change in fundraising philosophy and results at ADA, where she took over in 1995 as vice president of development. Her post was elevated as the department grew, in large part, by her own design.
When Bennett took over, the department basically was limited to direct mail and planned giving. She segued into major gifts in 1997, bringing in around $1.5 million, with a staff of two and no prospecting file to speak of.
Today, Major Gifts is responsible for $11 million of ADA’s annual $155 million in contributions. It joins Planned Giving to make up the Individual Giving Department for a total of $30 million. Direct Marketing brings in $47 million; Special Events, $43 million; and Corporate Development $18 million. Another 45 million comes in from fees for paid products such as ADA journals.
The strategic marketing department, Bennett explains, is the “enabler” and helps the other departments work more efficiently through market research and analysis, branding, and product/event “tweaking.”
Bennett demurs in the face of glowing comments from her staff but will admit her part in dragging the ADA into the new breed of approaches to fundraising: aggressive, scientific and at the same time highly personalized.
“Not too long before I came, the organization didn’t raise money, it accepted it,” she explains. “I tried to look at the bigger picture. Fundraising became a high priority.
“You can send direct mail pieces, go after major gifts, ask someone to put you in their will or take part in a walk,” she says. “We came to see that the same person can do all these things and be happy to do them. But it takes some organization. It’s no good to send gift-annuity or planned-giving pieces to a 45-year-old; there are more efficient uses of fundraising time and energy.”
Pulling the pieces together
Without a comprehensive plan back then, what there was of the development office was very fragmented. The result: Prime opportunities for cultivation and upgrading were falling between the cracks. For example, no one was following up with direct mail once someone took part in an event such as the annual Walk for Diabetes or the Tour de Cure bike ride.
Another big change in approach came in the area of corporate philanthropy. Bennett is quick to point out the companies and foundations are, more than anything, groups of individuals who 1) are making decisions regarding philanthropy for the organization and 2) might also be looking for ways to participate on an individual level — as part of a team on one of ADA’s annual walks, for example.
“We used to go into a company and say, ‘Here’s what you do … buy a table at one of our galas.’ Now we go in and have a discovery meeting to find out what the corporation is trying to do. There’s no laundry list; we let them help us build what their program will look like,” she says, adding, “It’s a win/win situation. Hopefully, it’ll be a win/win/win situation, where the constituency will benefit.”
It’s all part of the trend that seems to be taking hold in nonprofit organizations these days: donor as friend or, at the very least, as partner in furthering the mission.
Diabetes isn’t as much of a hot-topic disease as, say, AIDS or breast cancer, but people who have it or are close to someone who does know how debilitating it can be. And that can lead to donors who are passionate in their support. To support that passion, it pays to make donors feel like they’re a part of ADA’s work.
Bennett explains that ADA supporters “want to rid the world of diabetes.”
“People become so passionate when they see someone they love suffer,” she adds.
Today’s donors are savvy and well read, and they hold organizations accountable for the money they raise and for mission fulfillment. According to Brtva, responding to donors’ needs for information and a sense of accomplishment in return for their investment is key to fundraising success.
“Refining our stewardship efforts so that donors renew and increase their gifts continues to be utmost in our minds,” she says. “Our diabetes research funding already is by far the most responsive to donors and their interests. It’s keeping them informed and excited in a systematic way that shows them that they’ve make a solid investment in ADA.”
The changes at ADA have gone a long way toward building a solid program for the future — a future that those involved agree will continue to focus on aggressive, systematic relationship building based on even more widespread and sophisticated tracking of interactions and information, as well as heavy personalization.
“The future of development at ADA [lies in] knowing as much about our customer as possible,” DelGiorno says. “Once we’re armed with complete knowledge of our customers, it enables us to maximize the experience for the individual as well as ADA.”