You Asked—Fundraising Questions Answered, Part Two
Continuing my follow-up to the NonProfit PRO webinar David Gunn from Salsa Labs and I presented, here are my answers to some of the questions people submitted. As I said last week, often what one person is asking is the unvoiced question of others.
What are best practices in researching and renting lists of potential prospects? Unfortunately, the days of renting a list and getting a great response are gone. But you can improve your odds of success by working with a company that models a list of prospects that "look like" your current donors. Often, a modeled list is more successful in terms of responses than one that isn't. However, if you are a small nonprofit, modeling may not be an option due to cost or a lack of sufficient volume. At the very least, look for lists of people who have done something—donated, participated, etc.—and not a compiled list. Frankly, my experience in the past few years is that free or near-free lists and most compiled lists are worth what you paid for them—little to nothing. You're better off investing in list rental with a list broker who will get to know your organization and offer, and knows what lists are working, what lists are over-mailed and what lists aren't well-maintained (the last thing you want to do is rent a bunch of names of deceased people). There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to a list broker. Find one who goes the extra mile, and remember, bigger may not be better for you, especially if you don't have a great track record to use for reference or if you are new to the list rental game and need some hand-holding.
Does engaging new supporters/donors include advocacy? It can, or it may not. A lot depends on your cause. Sometimes an advocacy campaign is a real stretch and it's not something that is going to stir people to action. Also, your donors may not be inclined toward advocacy. Finally, you have to have a solid strategy to convert advocates to donors. Some of us are volunteers, some are advocates, some are donors—but not all of us are all of these. So...
How do you get people to go beyond signing a petition? If you ask someone to do two things, they are more likely to gravitate toward the easiest option. So from the beginning, try signing the petition (or any other non-giving action) to the gift: "When you send in your donation this month, be sure to include your petition so we can ______." For non-donors, you may want to reverse that: "When you send in your petition, please also include a donation so we can ______." Personally, I would not tie the donation into covering the cost of compiling and delivering the petition, for example. If you ultimately want to acquire or renew donors to help you accomplish your work, you have to stay focused on the donation and what it will do for your mission. Avoid making any kind of involvement device the tail that wags the dog, unless raising funds is not your greatest priority.
How can we find the best financial supporters? Just last week I read results of a survey that showed the people with the lowest income give the greatest percentage of their income to charity. So, simply casting your net for wealthy people is not the solution. You need a solid base of people who give to you consistently. I view it as a building—you need a strong foundation of donors in order to add more stories, like planned giving, major gift officers, etc. So, how do you get this foundation of donors? You have to work very, very hard. There are no shortcuts. Ask existing donors to (1) give a monthly gift (even $10 a month beats two $50 gifts a year) and (2) refer their friends so you can invite them to give, as well. That's not going to lead to huge results, but it should be part of your effort. You also need to invest in acquiring donors; if you have a committed donor who has more resources, or a board that is truly committed, you can ask him/her/them to underwrite the cost of acquisition. And, you have to have program results that are measured and meaningful. People like to join the winning team, but you have to tell them about the impact you are having. It's not just "we're doing a good job." You need to do the work required so you can prove it both with statistics (head) and with stories showing impact (heart). But once again, it takes very hard work to build the solid, lasting foundation that leads to a sustainable nonprofit organization.
How do we grow our email list from the existing donor base? How do we turn an email address into a direct mail address? I chose to combine these two questions because, while I have read many strategies for doing one or the other, I still think it gets down to one thing: You have to offer the person something that makes it worthwhile to share the missing piece of data. I'm not talking about a keychain if they update their records (thought I am not opposed to small premiums as incentives); rather, what is the content you can offer to mail to email supporters, or offer to email to mail supporters? For example, say you are going to have a fundraising campaign to raise $XX,XXX for project Y. In the mail piece, tell the donors that you will be emailing a report on the project in three months (or whatever is realistic), so please provide your email address. Include a statement like, "If you don't have an email address, please check here if you would like a mailed copy." By phrasing it that way, some donors will share their email rather than falsely say they don't have one. For email, offer some content that is desirable but only available through the mail—a personalized certificate, a photo book from a project, a mug, etc. Everyone won't respond, but if what you offer has perceived value to the person, he or she may be willing to share more contact information. Side note: Be sure you are following the CAN-SPAM law for your emails. To learn more, check out this article.
Where do I start? OK, this one is tough. Some of the answer depends on whether you are a local organization or have a bigger territory, but I am assuming this is a question most often asked by the person starting a nonprofit at a more local level. So, right or wrong, that's where I'll focus. I have watched a grassroots nonprofit grow from a very small funding base five years ago to a solid nonprofit with growing programs and a growing supporter base today. For fundraising, they used a combination of print, online and events—but (I think) the biggest reason for their success is an executive director who is relentless. He isn't afraid to ask anyone to support the nonprofit. Elected officials endorse the work, business leaders host events, churches recruit volunteers, the local newspaper covers their activities—in short, there are so many people involved that success is almost inevitable. On top of that, this nonprofit regularly seeks out research showing they are effective and then shares those results with donors and potential supporters. The executive director is such a passionate and tireless voice for the organization and he's everywhere that could lead to more support and supporters. In my opinion, that's a huge factor in success: Take advantage of every available means to interrupt someone and get them to think about your organization and even donate.
Once again, I'm sure if you asked these same questions to 10 other fundraisers, you'd get 10 different sets of answers. We all have our opinions based on our experience and biases. This old dog knows that fundraising is not just science; it's also art. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. So never stop asking your questions, and never stop trying new things. There is no pixie dust that can make all your efforts successful, but thoughtfully trying new things can eventually lead to the next big breakthrough for your fundraising program.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.