Be a Smart Small Fundraiser
In a recent article, I stated that direct response “is — or should be — an important tool of almost every fundraising program at every nonprofit.” While the concept of fundraising via e-appeals and mail may sound so last century, I assure you it is an important foundational piece for a fundraising program of the 2020s.
Key point: Don’t overlook that tiny work. Direct response is not the only fundraising tool you need, but when done right it provides a foundation of almost immediate and ongoing support that lets you add on more longer-term or seasonal complementary programs.
If you represent a nonprofit that competes for the top spots in lists of America’s largest charities, you can move on; this article isn’t for you. But for those of you who are struggling to make ends meet and relying on a few core donors to keep you afloat, I encourage you to keep an open mind to discover some blunt truths about successful direct response.
Your No. 1 concern as you get started is to acquire donors — warm, breathing names and addresses that you can cultivate. You may not net a fortune out of the gate, but your initial goal is to get a core group of people who respond to your e-appeals and mail appeals. Don’t raid your major donors who are already being cultivated. Focus on the one-time or occasional givers, event participants, etc.
Be sure to watch your costs. After all, spending $1 to raise 80 cents is not sustainable in the long run. Success in direct response is ultimately measured in net income. Some may argue with me on this, but I know firsthand that, in a small shop, you cannot afford to lose money month after month. Your board will only bail you out so often before they decide that something — or someone — has to go.
So, how do you get the job done? Well, now I am going to really step on toes — spending a lot of money to hire a big firm may not be the best approach. As Elvis Presley sang, “Before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.” While I am near-certain he wasn’t talking about direct response fundraising, this lyric certainly applies. Before you hire someone to write and/or design your direct mail or e-appeal, ask this question: “How long has it been since you have done my job — if ever?”
Why does this matter? Say you wanted to learn to drive. You find a driving instructor to explain best practices in driving. He regularly presents at conferences, has connected with firms that offer the latest research on driving and can crunch numbers to identify every potential flaw in the world of driving. He has a blog about driving and has won national awards for driving instruction. He knows the terms and where your hands belong on the wheel — but he has never actually driven himself.
Why, as a small nonprofit, would you hire someone who has never worked at a nonprofit and tried to raise money to make Friday’s payroll? You need support from someone who understands what it’s like to sit behind your desk and sweat over stretching too few dollars to accomplish the vision that you are committed to.
If you look for outside help (and I do recommend that), don’t commit to a contract or a retainer. Stick your toe in the water before you plunge off the high diving board. Try a single direct mail letter and a handful of e-appeals and look for signs of life. How much did you raise? How many people responded? Did you get positive messages? (Don’t let any complaints overpower the kind words and the money you raise.)
Next, start slow. A letter a year is too few, but 12 is likely too many when you are just getting started. I typically recommend six (enough so the donors don’t forget you but not so many that they don’t net dollars).
Finally, expect to be criticized. Board members and some of your colleagues may tell you it’s a waste of time at best, offensive at worst. Be armed with results to combat the naysayers.
Bottom line: After a few years of steady efforts, direct response fundraising can raise a steady stream of funds. Then your major gifts can truly be used for transformational programs.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.