Fundraiser, What Are You Selling?
I was speaking recently with Dave Goetz of CZ Strategy, and our conversation turned to challenges facing nonprofit organizations. When he asked what I thought was the biggest challenge fundraisers had to deal with, I didn’t answer with the usual suspects (e.g. declining donor loyalty or retaining staff), instead pointed to a lack of differentiation by the nonprofit itself. How can you “sell” something that feels about as unique as generic white bread?
I’ve moaned about this before, but the challenge remains: In a quest not to shut anyone out as a potential donor, we instead become “OK” to all people, but the “absolute best” to very few or none.
If you want to be unique in the world of organizations that are tackling the same overarching problem as your organization does, ask yourself these questions:
1. What one positive attribute do I want our donor or prospect to know about us that few or no one else can claim?
For example, do you work with a specific market segment or have a solution that is yours alone? Do you have a true expert on your team, or are you the only partner with acknowledged experts?
In sales, this is called the “Unique Selling Proposition.” As a fundraiser, think of it as the unique story of your organization—the one thing you can say that will make person want to become your donor.
2. Are we consistently proclaiming that unique story everywhere?
It’s not enough to have a great website and a cool video if you aren’t saying what it is that makes your story unique. Make it crystal clear why you are different—and yes, better—than all the others that are doing what can be perceived as “the same thing” to a casual observer.
3. Am I focusing enough energy on making sure our donors and advocates know what it is that makes us unique, or am I assuming they “get it,” instead of focusing on the currently skeptical or disinterested?
Do you proactively offer supporters a regular diet of “proof,” or do you expect them to go find it on their own?
4. Does what makes us different really make sense to someone who has only a peripheral knowledge of our organization, or are we indirectly demanding they work hard to figure it out?
We can’t expect our supporters to sift through stacks of data to understand a technical nuance; we have to find a way to make it understandable to a layperson.
5. Why does our unique story matter?
Can we point to changes that are a result of those successes? Do we measure our impact and communicate that in donor-friendly language, or are we still trying to figure out what exactly it is that we accomplished and hoping we have enough smoke and mirrors to appease the donors?
While creating your unique story depends on your programs, your results and your dreams, it begins with your mission. What is the driving force of your organization? What makes people get up and go to work for your nonprofit? Dan Heath, co-author of Made to Stick, gives us a straightforward recipe for mission statement success in his short video, “How to Create a Mission Statement that Doesn’t Suck.” As a fundraiser, you may not be able to change the mission statement, even if it is terrible. It’s what you’ve got and you have to deal with is. So then what?
Figure out your unique story, even if it doesn’t embrace every aspect of your mission. (It needs to have an obvious relationship to the mission, though it might be a sub-point, not the entire thing.) Start telling that story every chance you get—in letters and newsletters, in presentations and one-on-one. Feel free to say, “While XYZ organization does many things, I am truly passionate about ______. Why? Because I have seen how it is changing lives/history/etc.”
Make that unique story your entrée into people’s hearts and wallets. Once you’ve “hooked” them on your organization, they might want to know more. Just like consumers can still like and use Tide, if they don’t know about or use Swiffer (both brands of the same company), your donors can love your unique story and be loyal to you without embracing every aspect of your organization’s work.
Sure, you might offend a colleague if you aren’t giving every part of the program equal billing. But this old dog reminds you that your job is to raise money to carry out the work of the entire organization. If a donor starts paying attention when you talk about X instead of Y, go with it. If you don’t, you may never get a chance to tell them about the great attributes of Y if you lost them before they even felt a connection to one thing you do.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.