6 Baby Steps to Transition to a Full Direct-Response Fundraising Program
I was talking a few days ago to a seasoned fundraiser who is having difficulty moving a nonprofit from “the way we’ve always done it” in terms of fundraising to a more stable base that includes a core direct-response program. The goal is to build a program that targets people who will consistently donate $35, $100, $250 or more through monthly pledges, e-appeals and direct mail — and in general, provide the not-as-sexy funding that bridges the time between one grant, major gift or bequest to the next.
This fundraiser said to me that one thing he had learned is he needed to let the organizational leadership take baby steps first rather than insist on them immediately from zero to 100 in the organization's fundraising. Yes, this meant giving up some strategies that fundraisers know increase response, but it also meant that he could start the process toward gaining acceptance of those very practices rather than insisting it has to be all or nothing.
While I hate to see best practices ignored (after all, who of us wants to leave money on the table?), this fundraiser was right: He had to teach the organization to take baby steps before he could get them to embrace the full-out fundraising marathon. Sound familiar? If so, here are some baby steps that can help you ease the transition to a full-out direct-response program that is supported from the top down.
Baby step 1
Talk about “you” the donor, not “us” the organization. Whether it’s an appeal, a newsletter or a thank-you note, show the donor that he or she is important to the success of your mission. Let donors share in the success and see how important they are to future progress. Celebrate the partnership you’re building with the donor.
Baby step 2
Talk to the donor. This goes hand-in-hand with the first baby step. Stay away (as much as possible) from acronyms, technical terms and explanations that leave a donor confused instead of enthusiastic about your work. This truly isn’t “dumbing down” your organization’s work; it’s finding ways to communicate the complexity in language your target audience will understand.
Baby step 3
Make it visually compelling. A full page or screen of long paragraphs, narrow margins and nothing to break up the content doesn’t cry out to be read. Use color, underlining and boldface, wider margins, indentation, and other visual features to make copy feel like an easy read. It’s not “assigned reading,” so we have to make sure it’s desirable reading. And make your photos large enough to communicate a message. A room full of people tends to look like a blob when shrunk to six square inches.
Baby step 4
Ask for a donation. This is one battle where too much compromise is deadly, at least to your success in direct response. You may not be able to begin by inserting a reply card and a reply envelope, having a link to a landing page, and making the ask prominent throughout the copy. You may have to tone back a bit, but don’t give up on this too easily. Address concerns without totally capitulating. People give when they are asked. It may be an uphill battle, but this should be the one hill on which you stand firm.
Baby step 5
Communicate regularly. Are you hearing, “But we sent them a letter three months ago and an e-news last month …”? Explain the importance of remaining top-of-mind for your donors when they have disposable income and an inclination to make charitable gifts. Talk about the value to the organization of donors who give multiple times throughout the year. Explain that you are building relationships, not simply soliciting transactions.
Baby step 6
Have a follow-up plan for new donors. Even if you aren’t actively engaged in donor acquisition, you’re going to get some new donors simply just by luck if nothing else. Put a dynamite strategy in place to get the second gift, the third gift and future giving that deepens the donor’s relationship with you. Armed with this success and facts about your own list growth (or decline), become an evangelist for intentional donor acquisition.
I admit it — if you follow these six steps you won’t have a model fundraising program in place. But beating your head against the wall until you finally give up isn’t a good solution, either. Start small and make sure everyone on the team knows about the successes and sees the positive notes and emails you receive from donors. Be the best cheerleader for fundraising.
Forgive this old dog for quoting Mark Twain (yet again), but he just had a way of saying things so succinctly. His advice is a great takeaway for us all: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” And if that means a few baby steps before you can run, there’s no better day than today to get moving.