What do you do every day that's holding your organization back?

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Somebody shared this article in one of the fundraising LinkedIn groups in which I participate. The authors lead with this story that I suspect all of you can relate to:

According to military folklore, shortly before World War II the US and British armies conducted a joint exercise and came to a strange realization: The American artillery team fired just a little bit faster than the British squad every time. They analyzed the process and found that just before the British would fire, several soldiers would step back and pause for a second. They would wait until the gun fired, and then rejoin their team to reload.

No one was certain why this hitch was part of the process. When asked, the soldiers simply explained, “That’s how we were trained to do it.” The military asked several experts to get to the bottom of the slowdown. But no one could figure it out until a veteran from the Second Boer War finally provided the answer. He watched the process, thought about it for a minute, and then explained: “I know what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re holding the horses.”

Because back when teams of horses pulled the guns to the battlefield, if no one stepped back to hold the horses’ reins, the animals would bolt at the sound of the shot. Amazingly—decades after horses were no longer involved—the practice carried on.

Having set up this powerful metaphor, the authors go on to ask questions about what orthodoxies philanthropic foundations are really just "holding the horses." And they're good questions. But they could just as easily be applied to the organizations those foundations fund.

What "holding the horses" procedures are in place in your organization?

  • Do your fundraisers spend a disproportionate amount of time on things that do not ultimately bring in a significant amount of money? Maybe they are writing grants (or reports after grants) 60% of the time when 90% of our budget is paid for by individual donations. Maybe they're constantly being distracted by involvement in parts of the organization that are outside their core capacity. Maybe they spend all year trying to juggle fundraising with other work when a three-month focused blitz would get better results.
  • Do your development and communications teams operate in separate silos? It's an open question whether these should even be distinct teams; some larger organizations I've worked with have opted to combine them into a single constituent engagement team that's focused on starting, developing, and maintaining strong relationships using every tool in the organization's arsenal. Others, though, would improve drastically if the two separate teams simply worked off the same calendar and touched base once a month.
  • Where are you finding your new donors, and how are you approaching them? Are your entry points, awareness funnels, and development pipelines actually working, or are you relying too much on a more or less stagnant donor base that could eventually get burned out?
  • Do you personally spend a lot of your time on things that detract from your ability to do your job well, or feel fulfilled at work? Not to sound too Gen Y or anything, but I know very talented EDs and development directors who spend literally 80% of their time doing things that detract from both, either by holding them back from accomplishing things that would give them a win that day or by keeping them away from the part of their job they are best at. And those things tend to go together. When a development director whose core skill is people spends all her time in a CRM or calendar or spreadsheet, she doesn't enjoy her job, and rarely does anything that makes her feel she's doing it well. End result over time: dramatically diminished productivity and a smaller budget--but she sees no way out. Consider reviewing what's really necessary vs. what's just "holding the horses," and creatively rethinking the parts that are really necessary--who should do them, how can they be done more efficiently, etc.

Try spending half an hour mentally reviewing how your organization operates. What areas might be "holding the horses," and how would you know whether they really are (or whether they make sense but need to be tweaked)?

Sometimes we find an outside perspective is helpful for seeing these kinds of areas accurately--please feel free to get in touch if my team can help with that.



Is donor retention on the rise?

The Fundraising Effectiveness Project (FEP) has released the findings from their latest survey. I found the results on the blog of the awesome folks at Bloomerang, so kudos to them. The 2014 report summarizes data from 3,576 survey respondents, covering year-to-year fundraising results for 2012-2013. A few things to notice:

  • Respondents raised over $2.44 billion from 2.2 million donors
  • For every $100 gained, $92 was lost from lapsed donors and smaller gifts from current donors (up from negative $19 in 2009)
  • For every 100 new and returning donors, 102 lapsed (a +3 improvement from last year’s report)
  • 43% of 2012 donors made gifts to participating nonprofits in 2013 (up from 39% in last year’s report)



The scary people who frighten your donors away


At the Nonprofit Marketing Guide, Claire Meyerhoff has a great piece on the scary people who are frightening your donors away. Spoiler: it might be you.

Claire describes some "gory scenes." Here are two that especially made me bang my head against the table because I've seen them too many times:

  • The newsletter that initially had a heart-warming front-page photo of a volunteer and child planting flowers in your hospital’s community garden – but then your boss told you to swap it out for a photo of five board members lined up like smiling soldiers.
  • The end of year appeal that was succinct, upbeat had a clear call to action and engaging ask until it was over-edited and your Executive Director dealt the final blow – he added a paragraph at the top. It “explained” what you do and gave the letter “context,” he said.

The ED happens to be the bad guy in both these examples, but a more useful takeaway is to make sure you have good communications people on your team, and make sure you listen to them.

I'd add this: the goal is to get communications people who understand fundraising--still better, lose those distinctions and combined those old-school departments into a single constituent relations team that uses everything in the book to manage donor attraction and relations (social, email, snail, ads, events, conversations, etc.).

Off-topic side note: when you hire a photographer for events, beg and plead for him/her to get candids. If you can get a photographer who specializes in photojournalism, so much the better. Those shots of people "lined up like smiling soldiers" almost never end up getting used by a competent communications director.



What nonprofits could learn from LEGO

the_lego_movie2014 If you're like most nonprofits, you haven't asked your donors for ideas recently. If ever. Maybe a major donor in conversation if you know him really well. But if you think about asking your whole list--well, either you worry about the deluge of criticism, or you figure you know your business better than they do.

And yet, as Anna Pikovsky Auerbach writes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

A few years ago, a Harvard Business Review article explained that customers want a shared purpose with corporations, not be bystanders. They want to feel like they are important, are a part of something, and have influence. In fact, customers are now integral to product development and innovation, and crowd-sourcing has become a commonplace method of gathering solutions, ideas, and funding. For example, one way that LEGO innovates is through its LEGO Ideas portal, which allows enthusiasts to submit ideas and share feedback, accelerating the company’s product-innovation cycle.

One of my clients has a very loyal core donor base that the client has done a great job keeping engaged socially. That means the donors know each other and interact with each other (generally they met through the organization). I've noticed that when I spend time with them, especially in twos and threes, ideas tend to get generated. But how many of those work their way up so the decision makers hear about them?

Things to think about:

  1. Do your donors know each other? If not, how could you be creating opportunities for friendships to be built so that your organization is a hub of creative energy rather than merely a source of it? (That's a lot less pressure on you!)
  2. Are you asking them for input? Not just "how are we doing," but actual creative input. Where should we be looking for new donors? Are we communicating our identity and our story in a way that you think works? How could we improve our programs? Are there ways in which you'd like to feel more a part of the picture--and what can we do about that?
  3. Is there a mechanism for getting and implementing new ideas from outside? This could be as simple as an occasional email or Facebook post asking for ideas. It could be a webform on your site that invites input. Or it could be built into your organizational DNA so that it's a part of every conversation everybody has with everybody else. Regardless, think about how an idea would turn into reality if you liked it--who would need to see it, who would need to sign off on it, how would the process keep moving?

Are there things you've done in this arena that you recommend to others? Consider sharing them in the comments or tweeting them to @BrianBrownSF.



Are your communications part of the noise?

08ATTENTION-articleLarge What a first quarter of 2015! Great to see such awesome work going on among our clients--it's been so fun working with you to get ahead of the game rather than rest on your end-of-year laurels. Sam, David, and I have all had plenty to do. I'm headed to D.C. at the end of April for some client strategy sessions (let me know if you want to meet up!).

A few weeks ago, Matthew Crawford wrote a fantastic little piece in The New York Times on "The Cost of Paying Attention." It's a worthwhile read--there's a reason email open rates have dropped to 20% (making it harder to reach your supporters), and social media guru Gary Vaynerchuck thinks Twitter will die if it, too, can't reduce the noise.

So I have a follow-up question for you to think about:

Are your nonprofit communications part of the noise, lowering the quality of life for your followers and supporters? Or are you building relationships with large numbers of people in such a way that their connection to you improves their quality of life?



Do you have a donor pipeline that's working?

Bethesda-Escalator Developing a smart donor pipeline, from first contact through different levels of giving, has always been a part of good fundraising operations. But nowadays, with different points of contact, different resulting demographics, and other challenges, you often need more than one donor pipeline for each of several donor personas. If you're new to donor pipelines, or to multiple ones, here are a few things to think about:

(1) Who are your target supporters?

This is probably a combination of personas you can already see in your support group (e.g. middle-aged churchgoing white people who care about international missions), and personas you think you can realistically attract to grow your base. Doing some homework about demographic size, giving habits and capacities, etc. is highly recommended.

(2) What are the points of entry?

What situations have you created (or are developing organically) that will allow people to have a first point of interaction with your organization? A happy hour? A volunteer event? A digital promotion to get people to sign up for your email list? Is each point of entry a realistic one for a given donor persona?

(3) What happens when the donor connects with you?

After the point of entry, what happens next, from the donor's standpoint? They probably don't want you to ask them for money right away. Knowing what you know about a particular persona, how can you follow up with them in a way that will help you build a mutually beneficial relationship?

(4) Why would she give you money?

At some point, you've got to push a donor over the edge and ask for money--passive appeals to mass email lists or Facebook followings aren't nearly as effective as the right person getting in someone's face and asking them to give money right now. But you have to set that up; the donor has to understand your organization, what you're trying to do with her money, why the amount you're asking for will make a difference, and be invested enough to put you on her giving priority list. The process of working through a good donor pipeline is incorporating the right steps so that when you do make the ask, she's already taken the psychological step from "It's a good organization" to "I support Joe's work and want him to succeed." From there, taking the step to actually giving is usually a formality.

(5) Why would she give you money again?

The goal isn't to get her money and run. I mentioned "mutually beneficial relationship." You get her money, and hopefully some amount of her time and talent. But what is she getting out of the relationship? Until you can answer this question, you're just a salesman trying to take her money. My team loves helping organizations build donor pipelines, and other pieces of key strategy and infrastructure to help you build for the future.

Check out some of our services here, or email me to talk through how my team might be able to help. We bring over 50 combined years of nonprofit experience as well as up-to-the-moment knowledge to your situation!



"American generosity" and your budget

3085063015_6946e92983_o You hear a lot about American generosity, and how we give a lot of money to charity ($241 billion a year from individuals in 2013). But there are some major asterisks we should attach to that number--each of which has implications for your budget.

(1) Of that $241 billion, over 30% goes to churches.

The number was 57% a decade ago. Why is the number so high, and why has it dropped? It's high because two of the biggest factors in motivating behavior are a shared social expectation and making it public, according to Penn professor Jonah Berger. Historically, the church has been very clear about an expectation that Christians tithe. They give 10% of their income to the church. That's what they do; it's not that they should, or we wish they would--it's part of the identity. Period. And that tithing has been public; they pass the plate every week and you can see the people around you doing it (who in turn can see you not doing it). From what I've seen, you can attribute the decline in church giving percentage pretty directly to two things; a decline in shared social expectations about what it means to be a Christian (with the individualization and commodification of the religion), and a decline in the significance of church in the life of even the average churchgoer (let alone the average American).

Nonprofit organizations that want to learn from the historical success of the church need to find ways to build shared social expectations about giving, and to make giving more public.

(2) Sacrificial giving is in decline.

It's not that people have stopped caring, but no single institution has the kind of hold on them the church used to have. Since nobody has stepped into the church's void in a consistent way, creating a shared social ethic of sacrificial giving (10% is a lot of money!), nonprofits that don't step up their efforts to attract and retain people in their 40s and 20s are likely to have budget problems in the near future. The last generation that had an ethic of sacrificial giving will only be giving for so much longer. That said, this isn't an irreversible trend--for example, households with incomes under $100k upped their giving (as percentage of income) in the last few years. The total dollar amount change wasn't significant since the recession lowered actual incomes, but it suggests people are still willing to be generous if given good reasons. Different things are considered to be the causes every decent person should give to (education giving is way up from a few years ago, instead of church)--and that's a communications opportunity for organizations willing to work together to drive interest in their mission area. City downtowns have figured out that everybody benefits when they market as a group; nonprofits could learn a thing or two from them.

(3) Models for giving are changing.

More people want to give time and talent; skilled volunteerism is up, as is volunteerism in general. If you're still on the model where "doing nonprofit work" is something for the professionals, and you think donors should give money and stay out of your hair, you're hurting yourself. Online giving has been rising very steadily the last few years--make sure your online donation form is RIDICULOUSLY quick and easy and visually appealing (if you can integrate it with Google or Apple Pay, all the better). Finally, the rising generations don't have the same unquestioning acceptance of big institutions their parents and grandparents did--institutional loyalty is way down. Driving and maintaining long-term interest in your cause is the big challenge for the next generation of development and communications directors--keep in mind that social connections and collaborative partnerships with supporters are both huge.

Want us to help you work through these and other issues? Check out some of our services here, or email me to talk through how my team might be able to help. We bring over 50 combined years of nonprofit experience as well as up-to-the-moment knowledge to your situation!