Innovation in Fundraising: Why? How? What? When? (Part 4)
This is part four in a four-part series on innovation in fundraising. View part one here, part two here and part three here.
In part one, we looked at the nature of innovation in fundraising, and whether same/old fundraising is a problem. Especially when what’s innovative today changes and evolves at the pace of lightning. What seemed new yesterday seems quaint, clunky or just plain "old hat" boring today. How much should you care, and why?
In part two, we unpacked the popular notion that, by its very nature, "change is good," considering how this may be true—or not—for nonprofits.
In part three, we got down to brass tacks and looked at what you need to do. I made an assumption you want to attract/sustain donor loyalty; then looked at questions you must ask and answer to change with intention—sensibly and strategically—based upon attaining this desired outcome.
Today, in the final part, we’ll dig deeper into when innovation makes sense. When does it really have value? I’ll be suggesting three additional questions for you to consider prior to adopting a new idea. And I’ll offer you a whole new set of tools to help you arrive at answers.
Before we get to more questions and tools, let’s talk a bit about value. I’ve been saying over and over again that I don’t believe in change merely for the sake of it. Where’s the value in that?
Why not begin with finding what you do value?
Think about this for a minute. I’ll wait.
Were you thinking things like "peace," "justice," "integrity," "respect," "spirit," "wisdom," "learning," "equality" and so forth? Those are the values nonprofits tend to wear on their sleeves. They’re good values, and they’re important. They go to the heart and soul of your mission. And they’re what your donors care about too. But let’s dig deeper.
Fundraising, at base, is all about the value-for-value exchange. Your donor gives you something of value (time/money) and you give back something of value (usually an intangible like a feeling of belonging, or a sense of purpose). People who share the values your organization enacts are those who become your donors.
So far, so good. Now what’s the most valuable thing your organization could possibly have to further your mission?
If you’re going to innovate, you should be innovating in that direction—toward great value. So, it’s an important question. And I’m going to suggest an answer.
The most valuable thing you could possibly have is loyal donors. Everything else follows from that.
And this being the case, you should be putting the lion’s share of your energy as a fundraiser and nonprofit marketer toward providing value to donors. Because if you do that, your donors will reciprocate.
Reciprocity is a deep-seated principle that governs much of human interaction. The energy and commitment you dedicate to the success of others (in this case, helping donors attain their dreams and fulfill their deepest values through you), will come back to you as those donors, in turn, become committed to your success.
So don’t innovate to stay on the cutting-edge of the current zeitgeist. I’m willing to stipulate that you’re cool. So stop worrying so much about looking cool.
Innovate if it enables you to provide more value to your supporters.
That’s how you’ll be cool. That’s how you’ll build real donor loyalty. And that’s how you’ll stay in business and help to move the world toward a better place.
In part three, we looked at tools that help you drive and sustain donor commitment over time. Today, we’ll look at tools that help you become of value to donors in the first place.
Whenever you’re considering a change in fundraising or marketing strategy, consider how well your new idea helps you reach your donor acquisition, retention and upgrading goals.
1. What about this idea incorporates key elements of an effective fundraising offer?
Let me begin with a bias. I don’t think any fundraising offer is effective if it’s a one-shot deal. In other words, if the offer is tied to buying a T-shirt, or a dinner, or anything else the donor wants regardless of the cause for which they’re purchasing it, then it’s not really fundraising. It’s a product sale.
You definitely don’t want to innovate away from fundraising.
Let’s take a little side trip into the art and science of what constitutes an effective fundraising offer.
One of my favorite gurus in this regard is Jeff Brooks, who wrote "The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand." In it he outlines the "Seven Elements of a Fundraising Offer"–also known as your "call to action." This is important stuff, because if your innovative idea incorporates few to none of these elements, it should be a non-starter.
For example, let’s say a member of your board suggests you do a golf tournament, because they attended one for another nonprofit and it "raised lots of money." I use this example, because in my experience the thing that golf tourney attendees care about most is—you guessed it—golf! So you’ll have to work hard to incorporate elements of an effective, relevant fundraising offer that will have legs with these folks. It’s doable, but you have to work at it consciously.
In brief, an effective fundraising offer must convey:
- A problem. It must connect with what the donor cares about in order to draw them in and keep them interested.
- A solution. Simple results folks can visualize as a consequence of what you’ve asked them to do.
- Cost. It must have a clear and upfront goal.
- Urgency. It must give a reason to do this now.
- Donor context. The donor is the hero, not you.
- Donor benefits. It must answer the "WIFM" question.
- Emotion. It must connect with the heart, not the head.
So, if you’re running a golf tournament, an ice bucket challenge or anything else, you must assure there’s more to your strategy than the short-term donor benefits of winning a trophy or looking cool to their friends.
Ask yourself if those involved will understand the problem they’re addressing and the solution they’re making possible. Will they understand the scope of the need so they know how much their $75 entrance fee or their $15 online donation will contribute to making a difference? Will they be able to relate a story about someone their participation helped? Or will this be just a one-time transaction for them?
2. What about this idea runs contrary to what we know inspires giving?
Look again at the key elements of an effective fundraising offer. Also, consider the drivers of donor commitment and loyalty we reviewed in part three. How does this idea you’re considering shape up?
Let’s look at the element of emotion as an example. Research has shown that stories inspire people and drive response. Facts actually depress response. So, if you’re putting up street banners that say, "One in four people don’t get enough to eat" that might not be as effective as banners with compelling photos of sad-eyed children saying, "Please, I’m hungry."
Let’s look at the element of cost as another example. Consider the difference between these three scenarios at the supermarket checkout:
- You’re offered the opportunity to donate any amount in a jar at the counter.
- You’re offered the opportunity to add $1 to your total at the conclusion of your transaction.
- There are cards, with photos, that suggest different amounts: $1 gives Jimmy breakfast; $3 gives Susie three meals; $10 gives the Jones family Sunday dinner.
Can you imagine which of these scenarios will inspire the greatest giving?
3. What about this idea could be tweaked to incorporate more key offer elements?
The more cylinders on which your offer can run, the better. The problem with a lot of so-called innovation is that the idea trumps the purpose. Always go back to the purpose.
Whenever I work with an organization coming to me with a new idea they want to implement, the first question I ask them is “Why that idea?” Close to 100 percent of the time we’ll find either (1) a better idea to accomplish their purpose, or (2) ways to embellish their idea to give it more of the juice it needs to assure success.
Don’t just grab an idea and run with it.
Not until you’ve done your due diligence and walked that idea, systematically, through a framework that helps you evaluate its likelihood to help you achieve your desired outcomes.
Final words: Joe Jenkins closes his provocative article—the one that got me started on this four-part reflective journey—by concluding that the social benefit sector does, indeed, need innovation:
Not just by writing the word in our strategies, but by embracing innovation systematically—creating the structures, resources and cultures necessary to truly innovate, which means trustees and directors need to stop asking "where’s our ice bucket challenge?" and instead be asking "what are we doing differently?" Leaders need to establish the conditions in which innovation is possible. But we also all have a responsibility at every level to challenge ourselves to continuously refresh our communications. We need the new faces in our sector to be challenging the status quo not being indoctrinated into it.
I agree wholeheartedly with the part about being systematic. And about creating cultures where new ideas are given space to blossom. And about asking ourselves what others are doing differently that we might want to consider adopting too—because, after thoughtful consideration, we believe it will work for us as well.
What I don’t cotton to is the notion we should "innovate away from each other."
If the fact that everyone is doing street fundraising, peer-to-peer campaigns, crowdfunding or whatever strategy is currently in vogue makes that "status quo" and, ipso facto "bad," then I have to disagree.
Copying someone else’s idea—when it’s a good one—is not showing lack of creativity.
It’s showing openness to new ideas, and the wisdom to adapt it to meet one’s own purposes.
Example: Imagine you’re an MLB player. You want to improve your swing. So you study the very best batters. And you figure out one thing they’re doing that you don’t do. Then you emulate it. In your own unique way. You don’t invent it; you reinvent it.
Incremental, adaptive innovation is smart.
It’s doable. And it has the power to make an enormous difference. Here’s a piece of advice from Wall Street legend Richard Menschel:
At the end of each week, spend a few minutes reviewing the things you did that went well, and the things that did not work. Then commit, each week, to make one concrete change to improve the things that didn’t work. Develop this as a habit, and you will be amazed at its power and impact.
That’s the type of innovation I can easily get behind.
I’m not suggesting that you never swing for the fences. I’m merely suggesting that you don’t define innovation that way. Breakthrough ideas can be great. But so can already good ideas, thoughtfully improved upon.
When considering why, how, what and when to innovate in your nonprofit, remember this:
There’s a lot of power in small improvements, consistently executed, that you build upon over time.
If you like craft fairs, baseball games, art openings, vocal and guitar, and political conversation, you’ll like to hang out with Claire Axelrad. Claire, J.D., CFRE, will inspire you through her philosophy of philanthropy, not fundraising. After a 30-year development career that earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award, Claire left the trenches to begin her coaching/teaching practice, Clairification. Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, She’ll be your guide, so you can be your donor’s guide on their philanthropic journey. A member of the California State Bar and graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco.