Best practices for nonprofit organizations with or without dedicated development staff.
Three metrics for forward-looking fundraising organization:
- Retention rate: How many donors you keep year over year
- Acquisition rate: How many new donors you bring into your organization
- Extraction rate: Percentage of your moderate to highly engaged constituents make an annual/major/planned/principal gift every year
Typical areas that should focus on these metrics:
- Retention: donor relations & stewardship, annual giving
- Acquisition: annual giving
- Extraction: leadership gift officers
All there are necessary for a growing, inclusive organization. If you focus on extraction, then you’re creating risk in the long term (not enough engaged donors), if you focus on acquisition, you’ll have a lot of arms-length donors and will have difficulty converting them into major donors. If you focus on retention, you’ll have a highly engaged community but your financial results will not be there.
You could easily call the last 10 years “the lost decade” in alumni engagement. Based on VSE data I analyzed, US higher ed lost 285,293 alumni donors on an annual basis.
The heroes of this lost decade are schools that increased both the number of alumni donors AND their participation percentage (number of alumni giving / alumni of record). How did they achieve this feat? Here are the top 10.
Keeping Up Relationships in Times of Crisis is Good Business
As local news organizations face critical times, perhaps the following tips from the nonprofit fundraising field will help you. The tips here are most obviously helpful to nonprofit newsrooms, but can also help for-profit organizations since the goal should be to maximize revenue, independently of where it comes from (companies, donations, sponsorships, advertising, subscriptions) or it’s legal status (donation or fees).
While you are probably carefully looking at emergency financial resources for COVID-19 hardship, keeping up relationships -‒ especially in times like these -‒ is good business practice.
News Nonprofits: All About Relationships?
Thinking of your audience in lifetime relationship value terms (i.e. as much more than subscribers) can open paths to higher-value offerings, whether they be a donation or a cruise (like The Nation cruises).
Not every nonprofit’s business model needs to be based on building strong relationships with its beneficiaries (read this for a definitive overview of nonprofit business models), but for local news it makes a lot of sense. Is this how you are thinking about local news organizations?
- Some nonprofits, such as the Cleveland Clinic, are reimbursed for services that they provide to specific individuals, but rely on people who have benefited in the past from these services for additional donations. We call the funding model that these organizations use the Beneficiary Builder. Two of the best examples of Beneficiary Builders are hospitals and universities. Generally, the vast majority of these nonprofits’ funding comes from fees that beneficiaries pay for the services the nonprofits provide. But the total cost of delivering the benefit is not covered by the fees. As a result, the nonprofit tries to build long-term relationships with people who have benefited from the service to provide supplemental support, hence the name Beneficiary Builder.
The consequence for you – right now – in crisis mode?
Find out who your most loyal advertisers, subscribers, and donors are. A good proxy to measure “depth” of the relationship is the date of their most recent transaction, how many times they’ve interacted with you, as well as how much they’ve spent/given. This is called RFM or Recency-Frequency-Money. These individuals and organizations should be your top priority as you implement the strategies below.
Reach out to your Community
Mark Cuban has said that response to Coronavirus will define companies’ brands for decades. I believe this will be a similarly pivotal moment for journalism nonprofits and for-profits, alike.
Now is the time to be reaching out to your closest friends and supporters: check in with them, ask them if they are alright, make sure you have updated contact information, share resources that your news organization is making available to the community. Potentially, invite them to partner with you on fundraising initiatives related to the crisis (more on that below).
Does this sound too ‘feely touchy’?
Never mind how much relationships matter in business, if you’re going to do it, do it well and efficiently.
Develop an outreach template but do not send a blast email. Use templates if you are using Gmail or AutoText if you are in Outlook, then personalize each one. File the responses and then evaluate them to determine which ones may require additional contact or even potentially a conversation about making a significant gift.
Partner, Do Not Plead
In crisis times, should we be asking or not?
Nonprofits that are building sustainable organizations are sensitively inviting their communities to join them in building solutions that alleviate societal problems. It is not about desperately asking for pennies to keep the doors open.
Losing a trusted pillar of the community that is critical to disseminating potentially life-saving information during emergencies definitively qualifies as a worthy cause. Some fantastic initiatives have been shared in the NewStart Alliance newsletter. Giving your closest (organizational) friends the opportunity to join you by investing in them should be a no-brainer.
Yes, but how?
1. Make sure your infrastructure is in place. At its simplest, this is a decent online gift form and mass email-sending capability. I recently shared this presentation with high impact, free or low-cost digital fundraising resources.
2. Determine your “case for support” and “giving levels.” Are you fundraising to keep local covid-19 coverage available to all, to provide digital subscriptions to students, or to provide free physical copies to digitally underserved audiences? You’ll have to marry your priorities with donor interest.
You should also provide giving levels, as a way of framing the impact of different donation amounts. Framing is an important effect in behavioral finance, and it will be harder to reach your goals without it.
3. Start with your most loyal supporters. If you’ve gone through the outreach exercise above, you will already know who your most engaged supporters are and will be in touch with them. Share your fundraising initiative with them and invite them to join you. Explain that their early support will be critical in achieving the necessary momentum.
4. Launch a crowdfunding campaign. Use your own platform or third-party resources (some free ones available here) to set up a fundraising page. Engineer your goals to utilize the goal proximity and urgency effects as well as matches. Your most effective communication medium will be email but make sure to use all available channels and leverage the “big names” in your community, including editorial staff.
5. Thank. Do this well to guarantee the sustainability of your organization. Most critically, use the post-gift communication to build relationships with your supporters.
For the last 10 years, Louis Diez worked at and consulted for higher education, cultural, and news organizations including nonprofit giants such as Lincoln Center, the Johns Hopkins University, and the American Journalism Project. You can read his resume here or connect on LinkedIn. He’s passionate about local news and is offering pro bono assistance for coronavirus-related fundraising. Send him an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org or a text message at 865-630-0626 to brainstorm.
Policy and strategy go first. What do you want your gift officers to do? What are your auditors going to be requesting? The way your building your system has immense influence over how work will get done and even the types of work that will get done. Ask for internal or external advice, but think through these issues first. Although…
Don’t over-design. Assume you’ll have to make changes and don’t try to get it perfect (at great cost) until you’re actually using it. That means you’ll need to…
Plan for change, then double the ongoing maintenance budget. You’re always going to be needing to make tweaks, new strategies will require new reports, things change. Make sure you’ll be able to make them or your operations will grind to a halt. As you deal with larger organizations, change management becomes more of an issue.
Self-service. Make sure your users (development officers, reporting positions, admins) can pull all the data they need on their own.
Document everything inside the database. I’ve never worked in an established organization that hadn’t created thousands of reports AND actually explained what these reports did and how to use them. Assume that the people using the CRM will change every 18 months. The documentation needs to be right there in the database, not in some shared folder that everybody forgets about.
Everything else, you can figure out as you go. 🙂
Pre-CRM Thought Experiment
We’ve all bought into the concept that a CRM is indispensable and this is probably a good thing. But, I’d like you to imagine fundraising’s pre-CRM days.
There were rooms full of files, lots of cards, and scores of librarians or administrative positions to manage the input/output of data.
Then all that went away and we started looking at a screen that holds supposedly equivalent information.
What has improved since we started using CRMs? What is worse now?
Here are some possible answers:
- We save money on administrative staff. Maybe. I don’t have specific data from the pre-CRM days but wouldn’t be 100% sure about this since we have had to hire entire IT departments to manage the systems.
- We gain visibility into the actions of frontline fundraisers. This requires that they file contact reports and record their activity, which is not a given in every organization. This has, for the most part, worked out well. We are now able to manage larger fundraising organizations than ever before.
- Facilitates reporting to auditors, to the board, etc. Psychologically, people trust “what the database says.” There is a level of built-in trust in separating the data from the humans who enter it.
Q: “Have you done anything in the last 3 months?”
A: “Yes! This report showed that we’ve had 354 substantive actions with as many current and future donors, presented proposals to 170, of which 82 have been accepted raising a total of $1,435,234.”
- We have the database enforce our policies.
i.e. Gift officers must make 250 meaningful contacts per year. All contact reports must have a next step with a date attached to it.
Even defining “meaningful contact” is a way for you to prioritize specific types of interaction with donors. Hopefully, because you believe that these are conducive to better fundraising results. For example, events don’t count, short emails don’t count but longer, substantive ones might.
In other words, you use a CRM to be more consistent.
- It is also a tool to help distribute information. Managers and sometimes entire teams want to see who is talking to who and what transpired in these conversations.
- On the other hand, because access can be restricted granularly, it can be a way to keep certain information confidential from the rest of the organization.
- CRMs allow big data analysis in ways that manual systems didn’t.
And yet, the great conundrum of our times is that the promises of big data remain so elusive. I have worked with Blackbaud products (Raiser’s Edge, Nxt), Ellucian Advance, Abila, Tessitura, homemade and have yet to encounter a system that allowed you to perform a keyword search of contact reports, much less was using the data in donor profiles to do any sort of tagging.
- Allows many users to simultaneously make changes. (vs. a spreadsheet.)
This is a big benefit but also holds some hidden traps. If you allow lots of people to change the info in the database, you’re going to need a way to enforce data policies (is it Mr., Mr, or mr?) and include lots of context and explanations to make it dumb-proof.
- This means you need input validation, data sanitization, and lots of contextual documentation. I have yet to see this done extraordinarily well.
Couldn’t We Just Use a Spreadsheet?
If you work in a large organization, you’ll probably be laughing this email into your trash folder right now.
Nevertheless, for the vast majority of nonprofits this is a legitimate question. I feel the answer isn’t so obvious.
The problem with CRMs is that, unless you’ve given thought to all 8 of the points above and have good answers to them, rushing into a CRM can cause you much pain down the line.
Oftentimes, small or startup nonprofits do not have the expertise to set the systems up in ways that can grow with them. CRM vendors are not of much help here. Their understanding of fundraising operations and strategy is limited and their incentives don’t exactly align with yours.
In my view the answer is yes. A spreadsheet that is thoughtfully set up, allows you to record contact notes separately, and has some minimal reporting can take you a long way until you are finding it hard to operate with it. I.e. if you have more than one gift officers, or multiple people are making edits to the spreadsheet at the same time, or several thousand donor records.
I’ve been playing around with this Basic-Best-Practice-CRM idea in Google Sheets. Send me a note if you’d like a copy.
You won’t find anything innovative in this donor visit checklist.
That’s why I love it and why it works so well. It is a simple collection of best practices that even the most experienced development officers forget from time to time when meeting with donors.
If you adapt it to how your organization works and apply it consistently, it can help you and your organization reach great heights.
Do you know the story of how legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden began the first practice of every preseason with a lesson in how to put on socks? This is the equivalent for front-line fundraisers!
This online giving form checklist is a tool to make sure you’re not leaving money on the table through a lack of functionality.
Would you have a phone line without an answering machine? We often forget about all the ways a giving form can help or hinder our fundraising results.
This list covers all the items I’ve been able to identify that will impact your bottom line.
Online Giving Form Security
These are basic requirements that you need to be able to securely process payments online:
- Communication to and from the online form has to be encrypted with the https protocol. You can tell this is happen because the web address will start with “https://” instead of “http://”
- The form has to be PCI Compliant. This is a standard enforced by credit card issuers and impacts all the places where credit card information is entered, processed, and stored.
The online gift experience requires not only a gift form but the ability to generate emails and maybe even actual letters. All these communications reflect on your organization and impact the likelihood of a repeat gift:
- Is the gift acknowledgement or thank you email fully customizable? Some systems will have hard-coded language that says “invoice” or “receipt.” Find a better system.
- Will the system be able to generate reminders for pledges or recurring gifts? If someone is making an annual recurring credit card donation, a reminder beforehand will help you reduce attrition.
- When credit cards expire, can the system handle asking donors for an updated number without human intervention?
- Finally, for people that make multiple gifts online over a year (one-off or recurring), can the system easily provide data to send a tax-year gift summary?
Online Donation Tracking
You owe it to your donors to be as efficient and effective as possible in your online fundraising efforts. To do so, you must track the results of your fundraising efforts. Online giving forms provide ways to do it effortlessly:
- Can you pass on data into the gift form through URL parameters? This could be an appeal code (a string of numbers and letters that will help you know what exact link the donor clicked on to fill out the form), or other useful data like campaign, user ID, etc.
Donation Form Payment Methods
In the US, credit card use is prevalent. In other countries, other systems that interface directly with your bank account are in use. Whatever the case, your form has to be able to handle all the ways that donors want to give to you:
- The donation form must be able to allow recurring gifts.
- If you choose to, you should be able to set recurring gifts as the default option.
Donation Form Conversion Optimization
As a fundraising operation, the form needs to make it easy for you to make on-the-fly changes and have flexibility for multiple uses while implementing conversion optimization best practices:
- You should be able to change all the pieces of the form without IT support.
- If you need different gift form setups for different campaigns, there should be a way to clone giving forms.
- Support for multi-page forms is a usability best practice to deal with forms where you need to collect more info.
- Of course, it needs to display well on all types of mobile devices.
- A prevalent issue is “gift form abandonment” where people start to enter a gift but stop because they have a question or are interrupted. Your form should make it possible to collect their email toward the top of the form and give you this data to follow up with them. Even better if the system can detect these cases and send a nice email: “We noticed you may have had trouble with our giving form and wanted to offer to help.”
- We know that an ask will be more effective if we present specific amounts we are asking for. On the other hand, not everybody needs the same ask amounts. The form should have a system to set these amounts variable depending on the user, link, or other factors.
- Some large organizations have lots of projects or designations you can give to. You shouldn’t expect the donor to know them all, or even to have to choose among an enormous list of accounts. The form should allow you to “pre-designate” their gift according to the email they received or where they’re coming from on your website.
- Finally, the giving page should not be the only place where you are able to display giving forms on your website. You need functionality to display a giving form (or the first step of your giving form) in your website header, in a popup, as a slide-in, and maybe even in an email!
Fundraising appeal checklists like this one have helped us consistently achieve strong results.
I collected all the best practices I’ve tested to create the one below.
Aren’t checklists infantilizing?
On the contrary, they are critical for consistently high performance in complex environments.
Substantial parts of what software designers, financial managers, firefighters, police officers, lawyers, and most certainly clinicians do are now too complex for them to carry out reliably from memory alone.
The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works.
I’ve received lots of questions since sharing the Fundraising Appeal Checklist. Here are some of the most frequent:
Q: How do I use the Fundraising Appeal Checklist?
A: There are two types of checklists. The first is like a list of instructions (think of McDonald’s), specific steps that you need to follow. The second is like a reminder of important areas (think of an emergency room). This is the second type.
Workflow-wise, you can require every appeal to be accompanied by a checklist before publication, or you can review as a group to make sure every appeal is the best it can be. Not every box has to be checked, but at least you should have thought about it.
Q: What do you mean by Gamification in fundraising?
A: Anything you’re asking the donor to do that is not making a gift. Ideas I’ve seen include 3-question surveys, notecards for the donor to send a message to a professor, nurse, or service recipient, or checklists with a mark for every year donated and the current one blank. In non-fundraising direct mail, I’ve seen games with stickers and crossword-like quizzes.
Q: Should/can we edit it?
A: Yes, please! Use this as a starting point. In fact, surgical teams have seen surprising safety and performance increases when they develop their own. Every development shop will need something different.