Do You Want to Know the Latest, Greatest Fundraising Idea?

When I’m invited to speak at professional gatherings, I’m asked frequently to talk about the latest, greatest ideas that will help nonprofit organizations raise more money. I’m never surprised. For many years, I’ve talked with fundraising professionals who attend conferences, participate in webinars, and read publications in a grand quest for the new shiny idea that will result in massive fundraising growth.

Recently, I read some tweets from three fundraising experts related to the search for fundraising’s Holy Grail. While these colleagues and I all embrace innovation, we also share a common belief about what will allow fundraising professionals to be more successful immediately. Here it is:

Master the fundraising fundamentals.

Here’s what T. Clay Buck, CFRE; Andrew Olsen, CFRE; and Tom Ahern all tweeted this month:

Let me demonstrate what I mean by “master the fundamentals.” In a planned-gift marketing seminar I presented a few years ago, I shared a variety of ideas for promoting planned giving. I knew I had a diverse audience, so I provided both simple and sophisticated ideas. While my suggestions were certainly not revolutionary, some of them did push the envelope of current practice.

Following my talk, a fellow came up to me and said, “You didn’t say anything I didn’t already know.” Ouch! That’s not the feedback I like, even if it was just one person’s opinion. I always want everyone to come away from my seminars with at least one terrific idea.

After receiving the stinging feedback, I said to the man, “I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t get any fresh ideas. However, I’d love to hear about how you’ve used the phone to market bequests.”

He replied, “I haven’t implemented a phone program.”

“Ok, then tell me how your direct mail campaign has done,” I requested.

“I haven’t done a planned gift mailing,” he responded.

“Ok, then tell me about your website and how it allows you to track and rate visitor interaction,” I requested.

“Our website isn’t that sophisticated,” he said.

The conversation continued in that vein. The point is that this fellow knew what he should or could be doing, but he was not doing it! He had not fully embraced the fundamentals of planned-gift marketing yet he was searching for new ideas, a planned giving Holy Grail. If he would simply implement one of the ideas I had talked about, his planned giving results would have been much stronger.

The fundamentals matter. To be successful, fundraising professionals need to learn the basics and embrace them. Doing so could add up to billions of dollars for the nonprofit sector.

Do you want more money for the annual fund? Then tell me, do you have a monthly donor program? Do you do second-gift appeals? Do you do targeted upgrade appeals? Do you effectively steward gifts to ensure a high donor-retention rate? Do you use database analytics to help you better target asks, even in your direct mail appeals?

Do you want more planned gifts? Then tell me, do you have a sophisticated website that allows you to track individual engagement and then rate prospects based on that? Do you use direct mail to generate bequest commitments and leads? Do you use the telephone to generate planned gifts and leads? Do you use surveys to learn more about prospects while engaging them?

Do you want more corporate support? Then tell me, do you offer something of value to your corporate donors or do you simply expect them to “give back”? Do you only go after the usual suspects or do you also approach the profitable, rapidly growing small and mid-size businesses in your community? Do you just ask or do you cultivate and engage as well?

Don’t get me wrong. Once again, I’m a big fan of fresh ideas and cutting-edge research. Again, so are Buck, Olsen, and Ahern. However, learning without doing accomplishes nothing.

Everyone seeking to work as a fundraising professional should learn the fundamentals so they can effectively identify prospects, educate and cultivate them, ask for gifts, and properly steward supporters.

Implementing relatively simple, small changes can yield big results for your nonprofit organization. Virtually every charity has low-hanging fruit. But, you actually have to go and grab it!

Here are five simple steps, that I outlined several years ago, that you can take now:

1. Look at what you want to accomplish. Do you want a higher donor-retention rate? Do you want more donors? Do you want a larger average gift from your donors?

2. Consider how your fundraising program can be tweaked to allow you to achieve what you want to accomplish. Chances are you probably already know what you should be doing differently to generate better results. If you don’t, then seek the specific expert information you’ll need.

3. Analyze why you have not already made the necessary change. This step might help you identify some internal obstacles you might need to overcome.

4. Develop a Return On Investment (ROI) analysis, short and long term. In other words, how much will the new idea or tweak cost and what is the projected return in terms of leads, donors, and dollars? This will be particularly important if you’re going to seek some special budget dollars or a permanent budget increase. If you can’t get the internal funding, you might be able to leverage your ROI analysis to attract funding from a wealthy individual or a business or foundation.

5. Implement your change. Track results. Adjust your tactics as necessary. Evaluate the outcomes. A core component of Total Quality Management is the belief in the need to always change and enhance operational performance. Look for those opportunities and make sure your changes are having the desired effect.

Mastering the fundamentals. Making simple changes. Doing what you know you should be doing but aren’t. If you do these basic things, you’ll be a wildly successful fundraising professional even if you never stumble across the Holy Grail.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

15 Responses to “Do You Want to Know the Latest, Greatest Fundraising Idea?”

  1. Hi, thanks, Michael… Yes, this is one of my pet peeves as well. BACK to BASICS, people!! If you’re wondering why your retention is low, did you send a thank you letter? Do you call your donors to say thank you?

    Oh I hear you say, “But, our donors don’t want that?” How do you know? Did you ask them?

    Why, oh why, do you think that your donors are so very different from other donors?

    And how about appeals… 5 to 10%, in some cases even 25 to 50% of donors respond to direct mail…. where do you get that on Facebook or any other social medium… (I’m not knocking social media, all together, it works really well but the time spent on these is disproportionate with the money you’ll raise).

    Before you start spending a lot of time on things that don’t generate much results yet, let’s get back to the basics…

    Human beings like to be thanked, especially donors who gave!!

    Then, of course, ask them to give monthly and thank them again for that… 😉

    Start there, cheers, Erica

    • Erica, thank you for taking the time to comment. As usual, you’re spot on. By the way, what is it with organizations that do not thank donors? I’ve always found that stunning. Even when organizations do thank donors, many don’t do it properly. Amazing!

  2. Thanks, Michael. I think a lot of us consultants are trying to figure out how to move nonprofits toward doing what they, and we, all know they should do. Just pointing out “It will make you more money” doesn’t do it: if they were money-motivated, they wouldn’t be in nonprofits to begin with! And I am sympathetic to the “We don’t have enough time” explanation–when I was a top-level manager at a nonprofit, we never had enough time either–but when they have the time to keep on doing fundraising events that don’t raise much money, I am less sympathetic.

    The Holy Grail I’m looking for is how to get nonprofits to take your advice!

    • Dennis, thank you for raising an incredibly important issue. It’s the old you-can-lead-a-horse-to-water conundrum. Your comment reminded me of a visit I had years ago with a major client. I had conducted a test for them that proved the value of the strategy I was proposing. However, they were still refusing to move forward with the roll-out. At one point, I literally started banging my head on the conference table. After a very long pause, they finally agreed to the roll-out. The campaign was a great success. By the way, I’ve only banged my head on a conference table once, and I’m NOT recommending it as a tactic. 🙂

      As a consultant, I always want clients to do what is best for them. At the very least, I want them to avoid what is harmful. It can sometimes be a challenge.

      Now, you’ve given me an idea for a future post. I think I might write an open letter to CEOs and Board Chairs outlining the things the fundraising staff wants them to know. As you know, the outsider’s voice is often the one that ends up resonating. I’m not sure why that is, but I’ve seen it often enough. Fundraisers who forward my missive on to the folks that need to see it. Just a thought. If I go that route, what should I include?

  3. I couldn’t LOVE this post more… oh wait, I could… if you could PLEASE tell me how to convince leadership that there is no shortage of new, great, ideas… there are so many of them… but if you don’t invest time, effort, and energy into the fundamentals, you’re wasting valuable resources. I believe we have a shortage of “capacity” and it stems from leaders who want the new, shiny, quick fix. Instead of digging deeper into the fundamentals that work.

    • Michelle, thank you for your kind message and for raising a critical issue. I’m now considering writing an open letter to nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs outlining what fundraisers want them to know. Over the decades, I’ve seen organization leaders unwilling to listen to their staff or staff afraid to educate their organization’s leaders. My open letter might help staff since they would be able to simply forward my open letter to the folks that need to see it. What do you think? If I go forward with the idea, what things should I include in the letter?

  4. Agreed. Including fundamentals like focusing on the donor and her needs v practicing a pitch to be delivered.

  5. Having spent most of my career in the for-profit world, I’ve seen successful organizations spring out of incubators, accelerators, competitions and online programs, especially when combined with mentoring. The good programs start from square one, ingrain the fundamentals from the get-go, and take a holistic approach to developing the plans required to make a business operational.

    A few such programs do exist to help nonprofits, however most combine for-profits and social enterprises into the mix, lessening the focus on the particular needs of NPOs.

    In any event, it seems to me that enabling existing models like these can help address your and Dennis’s concern of showing organizations not only what to do but how to do it. And not just with respect to the five steps you’ve outlined, but throughout the organization. So I’m wondering if you have any insight as to why this approach is not more widely used for nonprofits?

    In a sense it means giving up on organizations that are stuck in the mud while focusing on young nonprofits and those that choose to do a makeover. But it’s an opportunity to attract leaders and senior staff who really want to internalize the fundamentals and make it all work together.

    • Michael, thank you for your comment. Many in the nonprofit sector feel they are so unique, they have nothing to learn from the for-profit sector; I’ve also found the converse to be true. However, I believe that both sectors have much they can learn from one another. As more and more people participate in formal, university-based educational programs for fundraisers and nonprofit managers, we may begin to see positive changes in the sector. For its part, the Association of Fundraising Professionals has been teaching fundamentals for decades. At the AFP Greater Philadelphia Chapter, we pioneered the “Fundamentals of Fundraising Course” now offered nationally. Unfortunately, part of the issue is cultural. Many working in the sector mistakenly believe that “nonprofit” is a goal not just a tax status.

  6. LOL. We’ve only been preaching this for over a decade now. Why do you think I named our classes “Basics & More?” and my book, Simple Development Systems.

    • Pamela, thanks for your message. I thought this post might resonate with you. 😉 Those of us who have been pushing the back-to-basics message for a longtime definitely get-it. Unfortunately, we also recognize that common sense is surprisingly uncommon. Keep on preaching!


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