A Hiker's Guide to Fundraising
In my part of the country, we are heading into the time of year when hiking is at its finest — cooler temperatures, some rain to green things up and re-energize the waterfalls, and even wildflowers and wildlife. Some recent hikes inspired me to draw a few comparisons to fundraising — which is always an exciting journey with one more trail to conquer!
With appreciation to Jerold Panas (FundRaising Success' 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award winner), who stimulated this article with a short piece he published several months ago comparing fundraising to white-water rafting, here are some tips from a hiker to energize your work as a fundraiser this fall.
No. 1: Having a plan results in accomplishing your goal
Hikers use maps or GPS to find the right trail and get to the ultimate goal. You, too, need a road map. Scheduling out your e-mails and direct-mail letters a year in advance is a very important task. This both makes sure you begin a project in time to meet the deadline and helps you balance your communication so you aren't neglecting donors or (equally bad) barraging them.
Your plan should also cover newsletters, phone campaigns, your annual report, custom landing pages, visits, special events — in short, anything that is part of your fundraising strategy. And everything should have a projected income figure attached to it. That way, if you are falling short in the early months of the year, you can make midcourse corrections to ensure your nonprofit has the best chance possible of achieving its mission goals.
No. 2: The better prepared you are, the better the journey
Depending on where, when and for how long you are hiking, you may need a rain jacket, granola bars, a compass, moisture-wicking socks and a cap. The same is true for fundraising. You can get by with the fundraiser's equivalent of a pair of Keds and a couple of cookies. But if you are serious about fundraising, you need to be better prepared.
Preparation means knowing what's happened before (response and/or open rates, average gift sizes, donor interaction, net income, etc.) and having a general idea about what lies ahead. It means anticipating what could go wrong and being as prepared as possible. It means studying the advice of others who have been on the trail and learning from their observations (i.e., reading articles, attending webinars). And it means taking the time after the journey to evaluate and capture learnings so the next effort is even better.
No. 3: You can hike anytime, but some seasons are better than others
Winter hikes can be fun (if you heed the instruction above), but there are other times when the conditions are so perfect you really want to be out there. The same is true for fundraising. Year-end is generally the best season; if your fundraising at year-end is weak or nonexistent, you'll probably never get that opportunity back.
Depending on your nonprofit, there are other good seasons for your fundraising. Plan those first so you get them right, and fill in the rest of the year with other fundraising that is appropriate to the season — meaning you may mail or e-mail fewer donors (only your most responsive), send out less costly mailings, rely more on electronic communication, have a special mini-campaign to generate excitement during a period of time that is usually less responsive, or other techniques to maximize your income during the off-seasons.
No. 4: There are hills to climb but also great flat or downhill stretches
You're going to run into challenges. Mistakes will creep into copy, drop dates will be missed, colleagues will edit the life out of your copy, a donor or two will complain and it gets blown out of proportion ... whatever it is, it's a "hill" — and you're going to be exhausted (physically and mentally) from the climb.
That's why it is important to have personal celebrations of the great things you do. Be your own best cheerleader. Take a vacation or a long weekend during a "flat" stretch. You can't keep running at 110 percent or constantly climb uphill. Enjoy the stretches when it's a bit more relaxed, and use them to recharge yourself for the next steep climb.
No. 5: Some hikes are for quiet meditation while others are for bonding with friends
When you cruise along the Inside Passage of Alaska, there is a stretch of water when a local pilot will board the ship and take control of the bridge. The reason is that those are narrow waters, and an expert who has sailed through them over and over again is the best choice for navigating through the obstacles so the ship accomplishes its goal of a safe passage.
In the same way, a fundraiser can often benefit from someone who comes alongside to help you meet a deadline, accomplish an income goal — or simply get more done with better results. Many things you can and will do on your own. But sometimes you need to call on someone with more expertise or even a specialty in a specific area (i.e., fundraising copywriting, optimizing landing pages for fundraising, planned-giving marketing or analytics, to name just a few). There is no shame in this, and it can result in more net dollars for program — the ultimate goal of any fundraising program.
No. 6: It's the little things that can trip you up
Be it an untied shoe lace, a tree root or a small stone, the small obstacles along the trail can trip up any hiker. We're all watching for the boulders and the sharp drop-offs, but it's easy to overlook the little impediments that can land you flat on your face, eating a mouthful of dirt.
The same is true in fundraising. We are watching carefully, but the insidious march of donor attrition, the slow decline in average gift size or the minor changes in messaging that shift the focus to talking about the organization's need instead of showing donors how their goals and objectives can be met by giving — these are the kinds of things that result in slow but sure decline of fundraising results until we're looking at a crisis (or staff upheaval). Keep your eyes on the small things, not just the obvious pitfalls looming ahead.
Take it from this old dog — the fundraising hike is a great way to spend your career. I'm hoping these tips will help you enjoy the experience as much as I do.