Balance: The Fundraiser's Best Friend
I recently was asked a question by a person new to fundraising. She wondered what some of the best strategies were for a nonprofit expanding to a new geographic region. How could the organization "hit the ground running," as it were, with its fundraising?
That's a good question for any nonprofit team, and especially for fundraisers. I doubt there are many communities just waiting with eager anticipation for another cause asking for their money. Yes, they may truly want a nonprofit to come to town and address a genuine need, but in general, people aren't at a loss for options of where to invest their philanthropic dollars. Good causes aren't rare, so it's tough for the "new kid" — or one that has been around a while but wants to expand its reach — to break out of the pack and capture market share.
As I contemplated my response to this question, I kept coming back to one reality: balance. It's that old saying coming back to haunt us in 21st-century fundraising: We can't put all our eggs in one basket. Sustainable fundraising needs multiple options; that way, if one "goes bad," you can rely on other sources for funding.
But this leads to reality No. 2: It costs money to raise money. Email is cheap — but email may also have an abysmal clickthrough rate. Silverpop estimates that for nonprofits, it averages about 4 percent. Direct mail has a 5 percent response rate or even 10 percent on a good day, but it costs a lot more. Face-to-face is highly effective when done well, but staff with the necessary skills may be limited. Events drain time from staff and volunteers and may not result in many sustainable donors.
No perfect answer
In other words, there is no perfect fundraising tool. We can argue pros and cons of them all for days and never come to consensus.
So, that said, if I were launching a new nonprofit or a nonprofit in a new community, I would begin an aggressive email program — combining e-news (with a soft ask) and e-appeals. I also would seek referrals from current donors. Adding in some print is important — email alone doesn't get enough readership to be sustainable — but direct mail and printed newsletters are more expensive than email, so they need to be put together in such a way that income is maximized.
But from a bottom-line point of view, a balanced program of mail and electronic over nine to 12 months can move an organization toward stronger fundraising and a larger funding base. Systematic communication can turn some of your "window shoppers" into supporters.
At the risk of irritating some readers, events should be considered carefully since they often are expensive — and addictive. Events can cost a lot more than many nonprofits realize since they rely on staff to fit them into already busy days or use volunteers (and often burn them out) to run them. Key to making an event profitable, I believe, is sponsors; if the entire event is underwritten, all donations are "profit." Also, invite the right people; the most successful events I am hearing about lately are smaller, but each person there was invited for a reason. It's not just filling a table; it's garnering support from people who fit the profile of a person most likely to support the offer.
My bottom line to the person who asked the question — and to you — is this: Which fundraising options will attract donors who are sustainable? To succeed, a new or growing nonprofit needs donors who will give again and again, not just one time. What fundraising activities will communicate with people who believe in the cause (or will believe once they learn about it) and have enough disposable income to be committed donors?
Once you survive year-end and are thinking about how you can make 2015 even better than what I hope will be your best fundraising year ever, start thinking about balance. What should you add into your mix in 2015 to attract a new group of donors, capitalize on something you are already doing well, or rejuvenate an old but fading fundraising staple?
This old dog knows that right now, you are focused on Dec. 31. But January will come again, and there are opportunities for the fundraiser who is willing to carefully try some new approaches. Balance isn't about doing things without cautious planning, but it isn't always about playing it safe, either. Launching and perfecting a new fundraising program that is sustainable is a great way to make 2015 memorable.