Mar 172014
 

rockonIndependent musicians are often technological trailblazers. From their embrace of social media, to their march toward different ways of engaging fans and selling their music, a lot of indie bands have been on the cutting edge of the intersection of technology and commerce.

So I like to keep an eye on what they’re doing. This post caught my attention last week, and although it’s written specifically for indie bands, I think it has a lot of great lessons for nonprofits as they try to navigate high-tech waters and engage their donors — particularly the next generation of donors.

So here are my suggestions for nonprofits who want to make the leap to nonprofit rock star:

Rethink the Way You Build Your Donor Base

This isn’t going to happen overnight, but a lot of organizations are already starting to look at how they’re acquiring donors and how they can do it better. Direct mail is still a viable way to go, and the Web is certainly upping its numbers ever year. But what else could you do?

  • Deliver quality content. Too many organizations send out email blasts because they’re on the schedule, not because they have something important, interesting and actionable to say. Send emails your recipients want to open. Try surveys or petitions to get them involved. Link to articles you found interesting. Send a video greeting from your ED or a celebrity supporter. And please, resist the urge to bombard them with asks for money.
  • Be social on your social media. Engage with your followers. Start conversations, send good wishes, share cool information or funny videos. Don’t be so scripted and regulated that you sound like an institution — let your organization’s unique charm and personality shine through.
  • Give your donors the Thing they want. Why do people give to your organization? What do they hope to accomplish? Why YOU? Deliver that. Tell stories, stream video, thank them. Make them feel like a vital part of your work.

Find New Revenue Streams

This isn’t just for indie bands. Nonprofits need to get creative with their fundraising if they want to raise more money. And today, there are as many ways to do that as there are organizations.

Of course, there are the tried and true ways to expand your revenue stream. If you’re not already maintaining a Sustainer program, encouraging Planned Giving, and working on upgrading current members to higher giving levels, well…get on that!

But consider these other ideas, too.

  • Crowdfunding for specific campaigns, or for events like birthdays, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and anniversaries.
  • A “store” that sells itemized portions of your work. $25 to feed a puppy for a month. $100 to save five acres of rainforest. You get the idea.
  • If your ED or board members travel, consider asking them to host members-only house parties or other events in the cities they visit. It’s a great opportunity for some face-to-face fundraising, and it makes your donors feel valued.

Stop Believing in the Magic Bullet

There is no magic bullet. There is no one fundraising solution that will work for now and for always. You’re going to have to continually reinvent your fundraising as new tools become available and as donors become more sophisticated. That doesn’t mean throwing out the tools that got you where you are today, though.

You need to have a whole catalog of songs, oldies and new releases, to play for your donors if you want to be a nonprofit rock star.

Feb 172014
 

imagesThis past week we did a lot of rushing in my family. From piano to birthday celebrations, from haircut to dinner to middle school tour, from futsal to more birthday celebrations…it was a whirlwind.

As we rushed from activity to activity, I also did some rushing in my work life. And it got me thinking about how compressed our schedules have become in the last few years. What used to be a six week process of strategy-research-outline-draft-refine-review-perfect-mail has, too often, become a mad dash from outline to draft to review to mail — with no time to strategize, thoroughly research, refine or perfect anything.

I see it all the time in news reporting. It’s almost impossible to read a news article today without finding at least one typo. Even larger news outlets have become so quick to publish that they do their fact-checking after the story’s out.

I am not a technophobe, and I don’t hate progress. I do not want to go back to the days of stinky blueline proofs and camera-ready copy. I love being able to type, copy and paste my way through drafting and editing.

But I do wonder if we’ve hit the limit of how fast we can go.

Now, I know computers can and will do things faster. They’ll continue to advance, and my children or grandchildren will likely wonder how we managed to get by with such clunky interfaces as keyboards and mice.

But true creativity and excellent, thoughtful work still take time.

Before I write a word, I like to take time to absorb the information and notice what bits and pieces stand out for me. If I do my research and then step away, my brain helps me out by sifting through things and organizing it all, so that when I do sit down to write, the words flow more easily.

And the same principle works once the copy’s written. My best direct mail letters need rest before they’re ready for the world. I have to step away for at least a day — ideally for three or four days — so that I can see clearly what needs work.

Yes, I can — and often do — turn things around on a dime. I’ve written, directed design and sent to the printer direct mail packages in the course of one business day. (With a lot of help from clients, graphic designers and printers!) And many of those packages were successful.

Some of them were not.

The truth is, my best, most enduring packages have been those that I was allowed to spend weeks on.

As you rush to meet deadlines, consider if there might be a value to slowing down. I’m a firm believer that done is better than perfect, but that doesn’t mean I don’t try to be as perfect as I can be — and sometimes that means taking an extra day or two.

Sometimes, the best way to beat the rush is to slow down and let it pass you by.

Feb 032014
 

poutLast week, I had one of those days. You know the ones. You do your best to get things done, reach for creative heights, and refrain from yelling at your family or snapping at the mom who just ran over your foot with her giant stroller. And nothing quite seems to work out.

I sometimes have a hard time keeping days like that in perspective. Rationally, I know that some days are just like that. But I often turn my frustration inward, sure that if I could just buckle down, I could move forward on that big project/be a more patient parent/write the heck out of that fundraising letter.

But last week, I had a bit of a breakthrough. I was complaining to my husband about my lack of forward momentum, and he reminded me that we’d had a sick child, strange school hours/off days, and an addition to our already crowded weekly schedule. From his perspective, it was no wonder I was off my game.

And that is when I realized that “those days” almost always happen when I’m out of my routine. My work may be creative, but that creativity relies on my devotion to my daily rhythms. And when those rhythms get thrown off, so does my ability to do my most effective work.

Of course, disruptions to routines are inevitable. Not only that, I’m starting to think they’re valuable.

“Those days” often can be precursors to a different kind of day: the days when everything I work on comes together almost magically.

My regular path might be narrow, but sometimes you see more by stepping off for a time.

My regular path might be narrow, but sometimes you see more by stepping off for a time.

By stepping off my usual path, I give myself the chance to look at the things I’m trying to accomplish from a new perspective. And I’m able to be fresh and more creative when I get back on track.

So next time I have one of “those days,” I’m going to try to look at it as a gift, rather than a curse.

Although I still might snap at the lady who runs over my foot with her giant stroller.

Nov 112013
 

Earlier this year, my friend and colleague Amy Blake posted a fantastic musing about storytelling and her concern that it has evolved (or devolved) from a valuable tool in the fundraiser’s toolbox to a meaningless buzzword-du-jour. As I’ve  made my year-end rounds, I’ve noticed that it’s not just storytelling that’s getting the magic bullet treatment.

IMG_0062_2As I’ve mentioned before, right now is a fantastic time to be a fundraiser. There’s so much information out there. But be careful when you’re implementing all that free advice because there are nuances to using story-telling, donor-centricity, compelling emotion and all the other keys to great fundraising. And those nuances could mean the difference between a blockbuster campaign and a dud.

Being donor-centric doesn’t mean putting yourself in your donor’s shoes.

Because you can’t. You know too much, you’ve taken the red pill (The blue one? I can’t remember.), you’re in too deep. You’re already sold on the issues you care about, and it’s really hard to be objective enough to take a step back and understand how those issues appear to your donor.

Instead, try to remember the last time you tried to learn something new. How did it feel to not know anything about a subject? What key pieces of information did you need to help you understand the subject and what was required of you? What kind of encouragement did you need? What spurred you on to learn more?

Even the most devoted donors are not as well versed in your issues as you are. Being donor-centric means understanding what your donor needs — emotionally and intellectually — to spur them to give.

Storytelling is not a magic bullet.

I’ll tell you a secret: storytelling will not singlehandedly save your fundraising.

Donors do not read stories and automatically open their wallets. In fact, stories without context not only don’t help you fundraise, they actively hurt your fundraising efforts. And sometimes, even stories with context don’t work in fundraising — if they’re not the stories your donor wants to hear.

One of my clients launched a big storytelling push last year. It bombed. In reviewing what went wrong, we realized we weren’t telling the donors the stories they wanted to hear. We were telling them the stories we wanted to tell. The difference cost the organization a lot of money.

Guess what? How your donor helps your cause IS a story. Two lines of copy addressing what’s at stake IS a story. And often it’s those stories-that-don’t-look-like-stories that are the most effective in fundraising.

You need the right kind of emotion.

One of the biggest mistakes I see with organizations is confusing pathos for emotion. I feel sorry for a great many people and sad about a great many situations in this world. But I don’t — I can’t – fix them all. Emotion is no good to a fundraiser if it doesn’t move a donor to act.

Anger is a prime motivator to action. Outrage makes us jump out of our chairs and get things done. Positive emotions like hope and gratitude are also super-motivators. Pathos, sympathy and sorrow might push people to act, but they’re far more likely to  make donors feel overwhelmed or depressed.

One of my favorite things that Tom Ahern says about fundraisers is that it’s our job to “deliver joy.” There’s no joy in a sad story if it doesn’t make the donor feel like he or she can do something to alleviate the sadness.

Get that information — and go deep

DSC_0045The volume of information we have and our almost-instantaneous ability to get it can sometimes encourage a broad but shallow understanding. But our fundraising can be so much more effective if we deepen our knowledge. Track what moves your donors, continue to refine that knowledge through tests, and listen to what your donors say about your organization, your cause, and the other things that interest them.

In the end, it is your donors — not experts like me! — who will tell you how best to fundraise.

Always Say Yes

 creativity  Comments Off
Sep 162013
 

YESOne of the most valuable lessons of my professional life was first delivered to me in my high school improv class: Always Say Yes.

If you’ve ever taken an improv class — or read the chapter in Tina Fey’s memoir that talks about her application of “Always Say Yes” into her own work life — then you know that this rule is designed to keep an improv scene going. Actors are not allowed to say “no” to their scene-mates, or the entire scene dies. As Fey says, “The fun is always on the other side of a yes.”

I was reminded of this lesson from my long-ago improv class right out of college, when I worked for someone who routinely demanded the impossible. Very quickly, I realized that as long as I greeted his every new proposal with a “yes,” then work moved forward relatively peacefully.

Of course, that didn’t mean that his every proposal worked. In fact, many, many times, it fell flat. And eventually, I learned how to avoid his crazier demands by saying “yes”…and then telling him exactly what needed to happen in order to accomplish his request.

To this day, I say “yes” to almost every unreasonable demand that crosses my desk — not out of a misguided sense of people-pleasing, or a secret masochistic streak. But because I know saying “yes” is the quickest way to get to the fun, to the part of a project where the words are flowing, the creativity is happening and things are getting done.

I am always taken aback when I work with someone who tells me “no.” How can you ever get to the good stuff if you refuse to even try?

Sure, it might not work. I’ve pitched many an idea that did not work — either because they were under-developed, or because I didn’t understand something crucial about the project, or because they just ultimately weren’t doable.

But those failed efforts almost always led me to successes. And, perhaps more importantly, they taught me to take a joy in my work that I could never have found if I’d let myself say “no.”

 

Aug 192013
 

A fundraising consultant I know asked me the other day what data I felt was the most important to pay attention to when running a membership program. The question caught me a bit off-guard because I am so intensely focused on the creative end of things for my clients that it becomes very easy for me to gloss over the numbers side of things.

calcBut my colleague’s question reminded me that I do, in fact, pay close attention to a few key metrics. After all, how do you know what really works for your donors if you can’t measure your results?

Here are 3 key measurements I look at when developing a creative strategy:

Percent Response

This is a big one because it tells you what portion of your membership is responding to your fundraising efforts. If you’re keeping a close eye on this number, you can learn which subjects your donors are most interested in funding, or which renewal effort is not pulling its weight.

That said, if you don’t know what other organizations in your sector are getting percentage-wise and you don’t have years of data about your own organization, then the number can be a little meaningless. Is a 4% response on an appeal good or bad?

That’s why it’s critical to track this number over many mailings and a long period of time. It’s a great starting point for knowing how your creative efforts are performing.

Average Gift

A high average gift could show you what your donors feel most strongly about. Say you sent one appeal asking for money for a physical project, and one asking for program support and both received the same percent response from your donors. If one of those asks garnered a $50 average gift while the other only reached $35, then you have a good indication of what your donors think is important.

Of course, you often get a higher average gift when you’re sending to your most loyal donors, so don’t get too excited until you compare your populations. And remember to toss out any unusually high gifts before you calculate this number. One $1,000 donation can skew your data.

Lifetime Value

Since I’m most decidedly not a data expert, I turned to this post on the Donor Perfect blog to explain this stat and how to calculate it.

Knowing your donors’ lifetime value is a key part of a good long-term strategy. From deciding when to mail and how much to spend, to developing donor cultivation and retention plans, this number will help you refine your fundraising efforts.

Find your data experts

I am the first to admit that I am not a data pro. But I know that these statistics can help me hone a creative strategy, so I listen to the data experts in my life.

Data folks: what did I miss? Are there other numbers I need to start paying attention to? Help me and my fellow creative types create the best fundraising packages we can by sharing the numbers we need to know!

Mar 252013
 

There has been a lot written about the Veronica Mars Kickstarter project and its implications for how movies are funded. Launched last week, the project reached its $2 million goal on the first of its 30 days. With 18 days to go, it has almost doubled its initial goal.

I’m excited on a personal level because I was a big fan of the show and am looking forward to watching another 90+ minutes of Mars-y goodness. But what really intrigued me is what the project can teach fundraisers.

If you’re not familiar with the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, check out their FAQ. In a nutshell, it’s a way for artists and other creative types to collectively fund their projects. Musician Amanda Palmer financed her successful album Theatre is Evil via a Kickstarter campaign, and two documentary short films funded by the platform went on to be nominated for Academy Awards.

Though there has been a lot of backlash against the Veronica Mars project – the money is going to fund a movie that the studio will profit from! There are so many worthier causes! These people are millionaires and should fund the movie themselves if they care so much! – there are some really powerful fundraising lessons embedded in this campaign.

  1. They asked. Lots of fans have been clamoring for a Veronica Mars movie for years. The stars of the show and the show’s creator wanted to do it, but it was stuck in development hell, languishing for lack of financial support. So creator Rob Thomas figured out what he needed, explained it to his supporters, and asked them to fund it.
  2. They have a well-articulated plan for the money. They set a campaign goal for the minimum amount they needed and then made a plan for what they’d do if they received more. Donors to the campaign were informed up front exactly how their money would be spent and what their contribution would make happen. They also told people what would happen if the Kickstarter goal wasn’t met and explained why this campaign was the best way for everyone to get what they wanted.
  3. They acknowledged their supporters. Sure, they offered plenty of swag – that’s part of the Kickstarter model. But they also immediately thanked all supporters as soon as the campaign achieved its goal. And they kept thanking them, offering new incentives and updates as the campaign continued.

People have a choice of how to spend their money – and that counts for charities too. The Veronica Mars Kickstarter shows how loyal your supporters can be. Years after the show went off the air, fans jumped at the chance to get one more story from the series.

But it also shows that when you have a loyal base of supporters and you treat them with respect, candor and gratitude, you can fund even your most audacious projects.

 

Dec 062012
 

I started knitting when I was in my mid-20’s. My mother is an expert seamstress and had tried to teach me to sew, but it just never took. I couldn’t muster the patience or the exactitude necessary for sewing. (Really, I hated all the ironing. I still don’t iron, unless you count tossing things in the dryer for a few minutes.)

By a strange coincidence, I also started writing for a living in my mid-twenties, about four months after I cast on my first stitch.

For years, I didn’t think the two were related at all, except that when I am in a knitting phase, I’m not writing quite as much, and when I’m in a writing phase, I’m not knitting as much. If I thought of them together at all, they were competitors for my time.

But one day, one of my kids was looking at my latest project, and she said, “Wow, that sure is a mess. Are you sure you want to keep making it?”

Hold the mustard! That is something I say to myself in the middle of every single thing I write — fiction or fundraising or email to a friend.  And in that moment, I realized that all these years of knitting and writing have been far more inextricably linked than I ever knew.

The Beginning: Casting on

The first few stitches…

Every piece of knitting starts with that first cast-on stitch (Fancy expert knitters who know some fabulous technique for starting without casting on: Pipe down! I’m making a point here!), just as every piece you write starts with that first word.

Those first few rows of knitting – just like the first few sentences you write – are maddening. Full of promise of what’s to come, but messy and often confusing…and absolutely necessary to get to the good stuff. They’re never the prettiest stitches or the most beautiful prose. But they form the foundation for what is to come.

As you add row upon row, word upon word, you feel pretty good. You’re making progress! Your fingers are flying! This is AWESOME!

Until you look at your word (or row) count and realize how much further you have to go.

The Messy Middle

Which is when you get to the big slog, which looks like this:

Ugh! Must I keep going?

Can you even imagine wearing that? Can you imagine wanting to?

The same thing happens when I’m writing. I get to the middle and feel absolutely certain that everything I’ve done up to that point was a complete waste of time. There are stray thoughts everywhere, paragraphs that start strong, then peter out into nothing. Structure? What structure! It’s an amorphous blob that will never amount to anything.

But I keep plugging away. Because I’ve come this far, and because I’ve done this enough times to trust that it will somehow, some way, work out.

Done, But Not Done

And then you finish. You type that last word, cast off that last stitch. It feels great, and hey! It doesn’t look half bad.

I feel like I should be done!

Of course, it’s not ready for prime time yet. There are all those loose plot threads to tie up and those seams – and themes – to sew up.

And this is where I really start to lose heart. I’ve spent so much time with this project – during which I’ve thought of a dozen other projects (or received a dozen new assignments) I’d rather be working on. And I’ve kind of gotten sick of even looking at this one. Why did I pick out this ugly yarn anyway? No way am I ever going to wear this monstrosity!

I know a lot of knitters – and writers – who get to this stage and simply stop. They have completed but not finished sweaters taking up space in their knitting bags. Writers have finished but not polished novels. Fundraisers have letters that could have raised big money, but instead fall flat.

But this is what knitting – such a visual and tactile medium – has taught me about the more intellectual medium of writing: DON’T GIVE UP.

That extra little effort to finish and polish and press is so worth it.

Guess what I’m wearing right now?!?

 

Aug 072012
 

Like many people the world over, I was thrilled to see that the Curiosity Rover landed successfully on Mars this week. I showed my kids the first pictures and answered their questions about space exploration. (I think my 5-year-old’s mind was officially blown by the news that a ROBOT took that picture!)

But even as my kids were getting more and more excited about space exploration, I saw the tweets racing by lamenting the money spent on sending a rover to Mars when there are so many problems here on Earth we need to solve.

I’m not going to write a comprehensive defense of space exploration. If you wonder what the value is, check out this interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, or read his newest book. But I will say that many of the things you and I use every day — everything from our cell phones and computers, to athletic wear and tennis shoes — were originally developed for NASA.

Imagine what might be achievable if NASA had reliable funding and the freedom to aim for truly audacious goals. What alternative fuels or advances in solar power technology might be made? What cool new fabric might make sweaty summer runs like the one I took this morning even more comfortable?

A lot of fundraising departments I work with are just as starved for funding as NASA. In an effort to be efficient and streamlined — to put as many of those dollars they raise toward programs as possible — too many nonprofits are denying themselves a chance to innovate, evolve and, ultimately, do even more to further their missions.

Instead of aiming for the big and complex mission to Mars, they’re content to run the same near-Earth orbit mission over and over again.

It’s easy to play it safe. After all, nobody wants to be the one who bets big and loses. But your donors can tell the difference between an organization that’s hanging on to the status quo and one that’s charting a bold and energetic course for the future. Guess which one most of them prefer?

Investing in your fundraising efforts — whether it’s in increased time, money, energy or vision — can pay huge dividends.

Test boldly in your direct mail, and you can find out what appeals to your donors and target your fundraising more effectively. No more incremental nudges. Let’s find out what happens when you take an entirely different creative approach, or aim for a new universe, or aggressively go after lapsed donors.

Take the time to coordinate communications and fundraising department efforts, and you can pool talents and develop strong messaging that helps inform and enlighten people about your efforts. (Bonus: unless you have to bribe them with donuts to sit in a room together, this won’t cost you a cent!)

Spend a little more on personalization — in the mail, on the Web and in your face-to-face efforts — and you can foster better relationships with your donors…and reap the benefit of increased giving.

And another bonus of investing in your fundraising is that in doing so, you might just find other ways to cut costs that don’t stymie innovation.

I’m excited to see the pictures and read about the discoveries that Curiosity sends back to Earth. It’s a remarkable achievement.

But I also get really excited when I work with an organization that is committed to exploring all the ways they can improve their fundraising. Be bold. Be daring. Dream big. Show your donors how much passion you have for your mission, and watch as they reward you with their loyal support.

Jul 302012
 

Well vacation and a mountain of work came between two pieces I had hoped to post a little closer together, but I do want to follow up on my earlier post on storytelling ethics, with a set of basic rules to follow for nonprofits.

Those rules are a great start, but I don’t think that’s the end of the discussion at all. Because when I was asked the question, it brought up a lot of other, related ideas about storytelling, ethics and the nature of truth and fiction that I think are valuable to explore.

What is truth?

If you work for a nonprofit of any size, you probably see hundreds of stories coming through your organization each year. And I’m willing to bet that many, many of these stories have a commonality to them that can, sometimes, make them seem indistinguishable from each other.

It’s probably easy for you to generalize about the people you serve: “Our clients are predominantly [insert three adjectives that describe the typical constituent here].”

So is that generalization true?

What if you put the generalization into story form by creating an amalgam? Could you give it a name, a set of circumstances and a story arc and still call it “true”?

I’ve worked for organizations that had no problem with this definition of the truth, believing that slavish adherence to the details of the stories in their organizations undermined the true spirit of their work. I’ve also worked for organizations that would never, ever consider using an amalgam, certain that it was lying to their donors.

Truth in Fiction

It may be because I am a fiction writer as well as a copywriter that I fall more into the first camp than the second.

Think about memoir for a second. Memoir is generally considered to be a form of nonfiction. But memoirists also take liberties with dates, places, names and timelines in order to create a more cohesive story, while staying true to the overarching themes of their work. Looking at it another way, memoirists lie to preserve the truth.

And some of the “truest” writing I’ve read is fiction. Sure, the facts may not be there, but truths of what it means to be human are often found in fiction, and can serve to inspire as well as — or sometimes better than — nonfiction.

But…

But we’re talking about nonprofit storytelling here, not memoir, not fiction. Making up stories whole cloth and pretending they actually happened in your organization will not serve your purpose well.

Lying is a crummy thing to do to your donors. It betrays their trust and is an extremely poor way to repay their generosity.

Still, it is extremely easy to turn a compelling story into a boring collection of facts. And while your donors never deserve to be lied to, you certainly don’t want to put them to sleep.

So as I mentioned earlier, use the constraints of the truth to up your creative game. Remember to hit as many of the five senses as you can. If you’re interviewing someone, really listen to what they’re saying about how they felt so you can convey that to your donors.

Your organization’s storytelling ethics deserve careful thought and consideration. Make sure you can justify your stance — to your board, to your employees, and above all, to your donors.

And, as always, be creative about how you tow that line. Nonprofit storytelling should be about taking your donors on a journey with you, not just about telling a story and asking for money.