Fundraising Lessons From Trader Joe’s for the Small Nonprofit
If today, in the year 2016, your job title falls under the category of “one-person development department” (OPDD), it’s very likely that, sometimes, you feel like a chicken running around with its head cut off.
I mean, think about it: The mere prospect of an OPDD is enough to trigger even the most seasoned CFRE to blanch, sweat bullets and clench clammy fists in anxiety. When it comes to the OPDD working at a small nonprofit, he or she often is balancing diverse skills, including: grant-proposal writing, individual giving, copywriting, stewardship, database management, major gifts, data entry, website creation and maintenance, event planning, and more! Whew.
And what’s that now? Your organization is being advised that Facebook and Twitter accounts are a must? Alas, it doesn’t even end there! What about Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat? You really want to harness the power of all available social media avenues, don’t you? There even has been serious talk about social currency, so what better way to capitalize on that now, before everyone jumps on board?
Ah, the pressure. How on earth is a smart development director to do it all?
Brace yourself for the big news, folks: You shouldn’t want to focus on all of that stuff, because you don’t have to focus on all of that stuff.
Case in point: While waiting for a Trader Joe’s crew member to check out my grocery mother lode the other day, I innocently inquired why Trader Joe’s wasn’t yet on Instacart, my latest fascination and addiction.
Instacart especially caters to those lazy souls who don’t feel inclined to venture out into traffic in pursuit of their groceries and basic needs. For a small fee, you can order groceries from Whole Foods, Costco and more, and have them delivered to your door in just an hour. Genius, no?
Instacart and Amazon Prime have been ruling my life lately.
“It’s deliberate,” Ben, the Trader Joe’s crew member, replied. “The owner believes that it’s all about the Trader Joe’s store experience. You’ll notice we don’t really do anything much online.”
Sure enough, this fantastically fun, beloved, off-the-beaten-path grocery chain is equipped with a terrific website that features locations, new items and recipes. But there’s a lack of social media links to be found anywhere, and in this day and age, it feels almost conspicuous. Trader Joe’s isn’t on Facebook or Twitter. And Instagram? Forget about it.
But is its lack of social media presence really a lack at all? Has it hurt Trader Joe’s in terms of sales or identity? At this point, its solid gold reputation and ubiquity precede the chain. In 2010, Fortune magazine estimated Trader Joe's sales per square foot of floor space to be $1,750—more than double that generated by the oh-so “in the know” Whole Foods Market.
It’s possible that you’re scratching your head, wondering how and what the savvy small nonprofit can learn from Trader Joe’s.
I’ll start with one word, and I urge you to do the same: focus.
Trader Joe’s doesn’t advertise—at least, not in the traditional sense. There’s no big advertising agency, print or television ads involved in its overall big picture, and it’s worked well for the company.
Instead, Trader Joe’s utilizes a direct-mail approach to reach its customers, and it does this by way of the monthly Trader Joe’s Frequent Flyer ad, a mail piece that you’re naturally inspired to read from cover to cover. Reminiscent of the classic J. Peterman Company catalogs of the 1980s and spiked with a dose of humor, the Frequent Flyer features simple line drawings with descriptions like this:
Trader Joe’s Mango Joe-Joe’s are the inevitable mango manifestation of our now-iconic Joe-Joe’s sandwich cookies. Crisp, round cookies with a sweet, creamy filling in between, Mango Joe-Joe’s only differ from their cookie cousins in their dominant flavor—mango. The cookies are mango flavored, the cream is mango flavored, and the end result is mango-tastic. The recipe uses mango purée, mango powder and natural mango flavor, so you can be sure the mango makes itself known from start to finish.
Bite into a Mango Joe-Joe and eat it the conventional way. Twist the cookies apart and eat the cream first. Crumble them over ice Mango & Cream Ice Cream. Use them to make a cookie crust for an ice cream cake. The only way you won’t enjoy them is if you neglect to remove them from the box. Then again, even the artwork on the box is quite enjoyable. Equally enjoyable is our price of $2.99 for each 10.5 ounce box, only at your neighborhood Trader Joe’s.
You know what? I don’t love mango. My ex-husband and daughters love mangos, but me? Not so much. And yet, as a result of Trader Joe’s superpowers (or ingenuous communication), I was inspired. I was charmed. I was motivated to buy a box, and so I did—and I liked the treat.
Trader Joe’s focuses on all the stuff that matters, and it doesn’t get wrapped up in the extraneous nonsense of page likes, Instagram filters and tweets. Its heart and soul is deeply invested in its customer service, unique Trader Joe’s experience, culture and the brand it has spent years building from the inside out.
And at the core of its carefully carved niche in the grocery world are the company’s good people. In its entirety, Trader Joe’s emerges as something genuine, real and unpretentious, and its people are crucial to its eclectic, slightly eccentric appeal. The company’s brand and identity are obvious, and its “crew members” are an integral aspect of the in-store experience. The employees’ enthusiasm is unbridled without being over the top, and it is genuine. They treat you as a friend and without a hint of ulterior motive; it’s not because they want you to like their social media posts.
Employee training covers all of the bases, including communication, teamwork, leadership and product knowledge. Their varied responsibilities (cashier, stocker, customer service, etc.) are evaluated on the quarterly. And they are happy. Part-timers make up 70 percent of the staff, and turnover is 4 percent annually, way below that of typical grocery stores. The managerial structure is simple.
But what really sticks out at first glance? The atmosphere. Before you experience the warmth or the eats ranging from basic to extra inspired, you’ll see the Hawaiian-themed employee uniforms and banners in keeping with the tropical theme. Chalkboards highlight new products, and, along with accompanying drawings, they echo the tried-and-true aesthetic of the company’s Frequent Flyer.
OK, so back to the looming question: How can the time- and resource-strapped OPDD emulate Trader Joe’s bastion of grocery awesomeness?
I’ve witnessed the greatest success from members and subscribers of mine who do certain things. They achieve their successes because they zero in and focus on perfecting one to three key components. Rather than spreading themselves too thin and across the unruly, volatile seas of social media, they instead begin with either direct mail or email and master the channel, utilizing it at ultimate capacity. And that’s where they harness their powers. Because when you pick the right things, it’s more than enough to build an identity, a culture and a brand.
Several nonprofits started by paying close attention to growing their email lists. And now? These organizations consistently run multiple successful online campaigns each year—campaigns that have now branched out into direct-mail territory.
customer donor experience at the heart of what matters, making it a point to call each and every first-time donor to connect one-on-one. Like a friend.
Sure, if you’ve got an expansive staff who’s ready, willing and able, perhaps you can afford to experiment with the “instafacetwitchatscape” of social media. But for the smaller organization? Navigating it is probably as confusing (and pointless) as it sounds, and you just will be a little fish in a gigantic ocean of mayhem.
So instead, take the time to create your goals by deciding on what matters to you, and focus in on one to three of them with laser-like intensity until you get it right. Because you will get it right.
Pamela Grow is the publisher of The Grow Report, the author of Simple Development Systems and the founder of Simple Development Systems: The Membership Program and Basics & More fundraising fundamentals e-courses. She has been helping small nonprofits raise dramatically more money for over 15 years, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Fundraisers by Civil Society magazine, and one of the 40 Most Effective Fundraising Consultants by The Michael Chatman Giving Show.