The Nonprofit Complexity Conundrum
Many nonprofit organizations launch to address a specific and urgent problem. Over time, that compelling problem and the solution put forth define the organization and its brand.
For decades, CARE shipped CARE packages to help poor families around the globe. Rescue missions offered soup, soap and salvation to hungry, hurting, homeless people. World Vision provided sponsored children with food, shelter, and access to medical care and education.
But it doesn't stop there. As the program people of nonprofits dig in to the challenge, they usually discover that the problem is more complex than originally thought — as is a real, lasting solution.
CARE learned that any real solution to poverty in the developing world hinged on empowering women. Rescue missions began offering full rehabilitation programs, GED high-school equivalency and job training. World Vision saw child sponsorship alone as simplistic and designed a sophisticated and effective program for sustainable community development.
In fact, I suggest that the programmatic side of most, if not all, nonprofits is becoming inexorably more and more complex.
It stands to reason that nonprofits want their brands to reflect the increasing complexity of their programs. In fact, they're rightly proud if it! They're not providing a Band-Aid; they're designing complex programs to make lasting differences. Hence most branding is becoming inexorably more and more complex.
So while program and branding grow in complexity, what about direct-response fundraising messages and offers? Must they get more and more complex to mirror program and brand? That's the temptation. And that's the direction sometimes given by those who are more in touch with (and proud of) the program side than experts in the direct-response fundraising side of the equation.
The rub is that clear, simple, urgent, emotional offers generate better results in direct-response fundraising than complex, complicated, long-term offers.
CARE was absolutely right that long-term solutions to poverty in the developing world hinge on empowering women. Rescue missions were right to offer expanded programs beyond "three hots and a cot." World Vision was right to create sustainable community-development programs in partnership with the people it seeks to serve.
While 100 percent right programmatically, they soon found that their direct-response donors are less likely to support the more complex programs.
It's like I tell my teenage daughters when they're convinced they have the right of way while driving. They may be right, but I don't want them to be dead right.
We see the nonprofit tug of war between simple and complex everywhere:
- Feed a hungry family versus advocacy to end poverty
- Emergency survival pack versus empowerment and education
- Disaster response versus preparedness and prevention
- Rescuing animals versus lobbying to prevent global warming
Direct-response donors care about both sides of the issue, but they generally don't respond as well to the complex offers. Their behavior tells us they want a simple problem and a simple solution. And whether our program people or boards of directors agree or not, if we want to maximize revenue to make a positive impact on the world, we need to meet the donors where they are with simple, urgent, emotional offers.
Fortunately, there are places in fundraising for more complex offers. While acquisition efforts require simplicity, over time your cultivation programs can educate many (but not all) of your donors to the complexity of the need — and of your programmatic solution. And complex, long-term solutions can work very well in major-donor development where you have the opportunity to explain the complexity of the problem/solution face-to-face and to dialogue about options and how a major gift can have longer-term impact.
But in the direct-response fundraising world, the wise leader recognizes the Nonprofit Complexity Conundrum and finds ways to keep direct-response offers clear, compelling, emotional and simple, as programs continue to get more and more complex.