When Great Board Members Have Not-So-Great Fundraising Ideas

Board members are integral to nonprofits. Legally, of course, but more importantly, because of the incredible role they play in enabling nonprofits to run well and make an impact. They bring expertise, ideas, connections, funding and so much more to the organizations they serve. They are awesome.

But sometimes, between you and me, they have less-than-stellar fundraising ideas. They get direct mail and email, they’re on Facebook, they text, and so they think they understand direct response and online fundraising. The problem is, being a consumer of media doesn’t make one an expert in its implementation. It’s that false “oh, I could do that!” instinct that we’re all guilty of at times. But you know that just because you watch TV, it doesn’t mean you can write and produce CSI. (That episode idea you have is really excellent though.)

So how do you handle well-intentioned but not-so-hot fundraising ideas from your Board or Development Committee? With care and consideration for sure. But also with the power of data and a vast body of testing to validate why you might respectfully disagree and suggest a different direction. To help you respond to those occasional iffy ideas, here are the five most common ones you might encounter, and the facts and best practices to help inform your fundraising decisions:

1: “I don’t read long letters, so our fundraising letters should be short.” Boards are filled with busy business people who want you to get to the point quickly. It seems unfathomable to them that donors would actually read a 4 or 6 page letter. And they’re right because most donors don’t read your letters word-for-word. But it’s not about whether donors read your letters – it’s about whether they respond to them. And in head-to-head testing, longer letters almost always perform better than shorter ones.

2. “Our donors get too much email/mail from us and are starting to tune us out. If we send less, they’ll be more welcoming of our communications and will give more.” You are sending too much email and mail … to some of your donors. And you’re not sending enough to others. But sending less to everyone will almost surely mean raising less money overall and losing more donors to attrition because one size does not fit all in direct response fundraising. What you should really focus on is identifying the donors who are most likely to give or take action and communicating with them more, and in more targeted ways.

3. “Our major gifts program raises so much more than our membership program. We should shut down our membership program and just focus on major gifts.” Compared to major gifts, general membership programs often appear to take an inordinate amount of resources relative to the return. But that’s only if you evaluate membership in a vacuum, which you shouldn’t. A properly structured membership program is a vehicle for public education, a source of unrestricted revenue, and a lead-generator for your major gifts program. Your evaluation metrics for your membership program should always include the number of major donors who started out in the membership program, as well as their subsequent giving in the major gifts program. After all, you wouldn’t have them in the first place if you didn’t have a membership program. And if you find that your membership program isn’t yielding many major donors, then you’re probably missing important opportunities to cultivate and upgrade members and need to do more to optimize your membership program for major donor conversion.

4. “We need to do something ‘different.’” There’s good different and bad different in direct response fundraising. Good different is

… applying a known direct response principle or technique
… in an inventive way to your fundraising communications
… and testing it.

Bad different, on the other hand, is invention without basis, and not testing. Make sure any new ideas you try fall under the “good different” definition. And always, always, test especially if circumstances require you to test an idea that verges on “bad” different. Nothing clarifies strategy like hard testing data.

5. “Direct mail is so expensive and everyone gives online anyway. We should eliminate our direct mail program and fundraise online only.” According to Convio’s 2011 Online Marketing Nonprofit Benchmark Index™ Study, online giving is indeed the fastest growing fundraising channel for nonprofits. Direct mail still comprises the majority of giving however. Of the nonprofits included in Target Analytics’ 2011 donorCentrics™ Internet and Multichannel Giving Benchmarking Report, direct mail comprised 79% of giving and online just 10%. But it’s not a matter of choosing direct mail over online or vice versa. The report also affirms the complementary role that the channels play in acquiring, retaining and upgrading donors.

So, when you are occasionally presented with a questionable direct response idea, take advantage of the wealth of testing data and information that the industry has to offer. Then use it as a springboard for a good conversation with your Board or Development Committee about direct response strategy and how you can make your program even more successful.


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