Is the Annual Report Dead?

It’s no secret that our organizations’ donors have been moving and shaking in the last decade. Not a week goes by it seems without a new report on the magnitude of their migration online, social, and mobile.

One of the most exciting developments in donor communications as a result of all this has been a renewed focus on something that’s not new at all: the idea that fundraising isn’t about our nonprofit’s interests; it’s about our donors’ interests. Or to put it another way, being all “me, me, me” doesn’t cut it in a relationship.

What’s different, however, is how our uber-connectedness today has held our feet to the fire on this point at a totally new level:

What we say about ourselves is becoming less important than what our donors say about us, what they think about us, and what we say with our donors.

Where we used to have no choice but to talk at our donors, at least on a large scale, now we can talk with them (and are expected to), and they talk about us with each other.

The great news is, we know this. While we may not have realized our full potential yet, nonprofits are building vibrant communities and fostering connections on Facebook and Twitter. We are getting interactive on our websites, blogs, and in our emails, inviting our donors to share and take action. We’re even taking the conversation on the go, exploring exciting possibilities in our nascent mobile communications programs.

It’s a “let’s talk about you” world that has turned our donor communications strategy on its ear. And as our social media intern, Facebook page, blog, and mobile program say: We got that memo! We are down with all this!

But did we? Are we?

Because – curious thing – many of our organizations are still pushing out the ultimate “me me me” document, year after year.

The annual report.

For decades it’s been a mainstay of the development officer’s toolbox and a vital instrument of nonprofit accountability. It’s an important document that says a nonprofit recognizes its responsibility to its donors as investors in the organization’s approach to fulfilling its mission.

But at the same time, even with the long donor lists as the end, more often than not it also says “but enough about you, let’s talk about me.”

Is that so wrong? Until recently, no. Truth is, there are a lot of nonprofits that could do far worse than monopolize a conversation with powerful stories of their beneficiaries, interesting details about their issues and work to enact change, and their plain all-around awesomeness.

But our donors’ expectations and preferences are changing. (Apparently their brains are changing too.) And so as good communicators, we need to ask the unthinkable.

Is the annual report dead?

As we know it – words on paper, content on PDF, 2D, monologue – maybe it is. But, at least in fundraising, I believe in reincarnation. The things that are good and essential in fundraising never die; they just take different forms over time.

And so perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t whether the annual report has left the building. Maybe it’s this: are we going to greet our donors at the door with a new kind of annual report that’s in step with the way they’re thinking and behaving? Or are we going to catch up to them later – and are we willing to risk being too late?



Direct Response #*¢!ups – Let’s Hear Yours!

One of the best national conferences on integrated direct response fundraising is right around the corner. If you haven’t yet registered for the Bridge Conference, taking place July 21-22 in Washington DC, I hope you will. It’s chock-full of valuable sessions representing best practices and breakthroughs in multichannel direct marketing. And with early bird rates in effect through July 5, it’s also respectful of nonprofit budget realities.

But I hope you’ll attend for another reason too: I could use your help!

Along with Dolores McDonagh of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Evan Parker of The Nature Conservancy and Bonnie Catena of Amnesty International, I’ll be conducting a session that’s, well, a little different. Instead of sharing tips and case studies in how to do multichannel fundraising right, we’re going to be talking about how to recover – and even thrive – when you accidentally do it wrong.

Between the four of us, we have collected some amazing case studies in turning direct response snafus into successes. But we know there are more out there that we can all learn from … it’s just a matter of getting folks talking.

That’s where you come in. Have you found a way to make lemonade out of a direct response lemon? Then post your story here, or email it to topics@nthfactor.com. If we can use your story in our presentation, we’ll credit you of course at the conference and here on The Nth Factor. And you, in turn, will enjoy the satisfaction of helping your peers and colleagues become better fundraisers by learning how to navigate the inevitable bumps on the road to fundraising success.

So send in your stories. And if you’re at Bridge, stop by our session – Direct Response #*¢!ups: A Survival Guide – and say hello. I hope to see you there!



Smart Marketing vs. Chasing Windmills


“What if we just got 100,000 people to each give us a couple of bucks?”

“One percent response in new donor prospecting is terrible! We should accept nothing less than 99%.”

“Our donors are too old. We need to get younger donors.”

“What we really need to do is focus on major donor acquisition. (Who here knows Mark Zuckerberg?)”

If you work at the foundation of the donor pyramid (aka direct response fundraising), you’ve probably heard all this before. From a client, a Development Committee member, a boss.

They’re all saying the same thing:

We’re different from everyone else.

It’s a powerful thought. Nonprofits are like snowflakes. And if you’re too cynical to believe anything less of your own organization, then you’re likely to fail or, worse, be mediocre.

But even snowflakes are subject to the forces of gravity.

Will you ever achieve a 99% direct mail response rate? No. Will you ever have a donor file made up of 20 year olds? Probably not. (And are you sure you’d want that anyway?) Will Mark Zuckerberg ever become a major donor to your organization? I wouldn’t count on it.

But recognizing the realities of direct response fundraising doesn’t mean being a quitter. It means being a smart marketer. Good marketing is not about chasing the elusive majority who say no; it’s about what you build with the minority who say yes.



What Personality Type is Your Nonprofit?


Like people, nonprofits have personalities. They’re complex amalgams of an organization’s history, mission and leadership. People rarely have any idea how they come across to the rest of the world, and nonprofits are often the same. And yet, as with people, how your nonprofit comes across to the rest of the world plays a huge role in whether and to what extent you achieve your goals.

So, have you ever stopped to consider what your nonprofit’s personality is? Not what you think it is. And not what the small group of people who nurtured you and love you unconditionally think it is (e.g. your mom, or your organization’s founder).

No, I’m talking about how everyday acquaintances, friends, and new people you meet see you. If you haven’t yet considered your own nonprofit’s personality type, you should. And don’t cut yourself any slack …

… Are you a Pessimist or Optimist?

… Are you a Talker or Listener?

… Are you a Sad Sack or Got-it-Together type?

… Are you a Holiday Carder or Year-Round Friend?

… Are you an Air Kisser or Hugger?

… Are you a “Me-Me-Me” Bore or a “You-You-You” Friend?

Obviously, your organization is way too complex for labels. But is it realistic enough to know that it is being labeled constantly by donors and prospects nevertheless? And is it self-aware enough to know what those labels may be?

Just like it is with people, changing how you look on the outside usually begins with a good long look on the inside.



When to Fire Your Fundraising Agency


There are dozens of reasons a nonprofit may decide to part ways with its fundraising agency, and inevitably when the decision is made, it’s for a combination of them. Reasons range from big to small and – truth be told – right to wrong. But the truly big and right reasons boil down to just four. Be sure to pay attention to these key considerations in judging whether your agency is on the job, or out of one.

1. Your agency is not willing to compromise, ever.
Your business relationship with your fundraising agency is just that: a relationship. And successful relationships mean compromise. Is your agency open to discussion on project budgets? Are they willing to try doing things a different way? Will they revisit their fees with you even if you’re in the middle of a one-year contract? You should be able to talk about anything with your agency, and your agency should approach your ideas and needs with a spirit of sensible accommodation. Remember however that your relationship with your agency is a two-way street. If you are not willing to listen and compromise, you might find yourself getting fired by your agency.

2. Your account management team is inexperienced. (AKA the person that sold you on the agency goes AWOL.)
Because fundraising firms are a relatively small and specialized breed of marketing agency, most don’t have dedicated sales departments for drumming up new business. In fundraising agencies, it’s often actual senior account people, along with executive staff, that pitch new accounts and win your trust – and business. So when the star fundraising strategist who sold you on the agency never writes, calls, or shows up at meetings anymore, and you’re left with junior staffers who just don’t inspire your confidence, it’s time to rethink whether the agency deserves the privilege of your organization’s business.

3. Your results aren’t as good as they can be.
Kirk’s demands for seemingly impossible feats of engineering and medicine drove poor Scotty and McCoy to routine desperation on Star Trek. But they always pulled through because although ambitious, Kirk knew what results were possible. In the fundraising universe, good results mean strong analytics, strategic planning and creative, as well as healthy client-agency collaboration. If your agency is giving you all they’ve got, and you have good reason to believe all they’ve got isn’t good enough, then you should think about whether they’re the right agency for you.

4. You share your concerns – and your agency doesn’t address them.
When your agency isn’t living up to your reasonable expectations, it’s your job to let them know right away what isn’t working and to give them constructive feedback on how to address your concerns. When problems are addressed early, they can almost always be resolved easily. But if left unattended, little issues have a way of multiplying and becoming much harder to resolve, usually to the detriment of your program. You also need to be prepared to turn a critical eye to your own organization. Are there ways in which your organization is contributing to the less-than-stellar working relationship? And how can you support a stronger client-agency relationship through changes on your end?

Your agency’s job, in turn, is to listen to you and make real efforts to address your concerns. The best case scenario is they do, and you get back on track with a mutually rewarding partnership that engages donors and raises critical funds for your organization. But even if they don’t, the worst that will happen is you will part ways and develop a new agency partnership that works better for you, your organization and your program.



Religion, Politics and Branding

Want to get a roomful of people who work in fundraising riled up? Forget religion and politics. Talk about branding.

Maybe that’s because branding is a lot like religion. And politics. It has its thought leaders, moderates, fundamentalists, left wingers, independents, evangelists…. And like religion and politics, it stands for different things for different people.

Nonprofit branding gets especially controversial in direct response fundraising. A brown logo-free carrier envelope with your organization’s name and return address in Times New Roman will almost always generate a better response than a meticulously branded one. It will also almost always irritate, and possibly even enrage, your communications director.

Jeff Brooks rails regularly, and rightfully so, over at Future Fundraising Now against the type of narrow branding mentality that kills direct response fundraising.

But this doesn’t mean you have to violate your brand to create really good direct response fundraising. That’s because branding is about a whole lot more than logos, color palettes and font families. In fact, if your brand IS your logo, then you’re in trouble.

Some think that branding is about how you present yourself. But branding is really about how people see you. Or as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos put it: your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

And so in direct response fundraising, true brand integrity comes down to one simple thing: being recognizable to your donors in a way that goes far deeper than your logo and fonts.

What does this mean? Well, take yourself.

You don’t wear the same clothes every day. You mood isn’t always the same. You come up with new ideas and ways of expressing them. But this doesn’t prevent your friends from recognizing you and caring about you when you walk into the room. In fact, they love you. Not because you’re some vanilla version of who you think you should be for them. But because you’re you and you’re interesting.

So think about – or rethink – what it means for your nonprofit to be “on brand.” Being human is a pretty great starting place.



Eight Ways to Jump Start Your Fundraising Creative

jumper-cables1It’s easy to develop a fundraising idea. The real challenge in donor development is coming up with fundraising ideas, continuously, so that you can present your contributors with a steady stream of varied giving and engagement opportunities.

Depending on the size of your organization, your healthy membership program may rely on you to develop anywhere from four to twelve to twenty (!) fundraising campaigns per year. Sure, you know your organization is awesome, but saying why and how up to twenty different ways in a single year – let’s face it – is not easy.

So when you’re out of ideas, which you occasionally will be, here are eight ways to jump start your creative thinking and get the ideas flowing again:

  1. Roll up your sleeves. Go to work – on the program side – for your organization for a day. Serve meals, put up drywall, go door-to-door. You’ll be inspired all over and will no doubt find new ways to convey that inspiration to your organization’s donors.
  2. Reverse the way you build your case for support. Most of us naturally take a funnel approach to building a case for support. That is, we start wide with the big picture of what our organization does and then we narrow in and substantiate with specifics on why our work is important and examples of the impact we have. But if you build your case the other way around instead, you’ll actually end up with a more effective case. Next time, start narrow – tell a single story conveying your impact on an individual level – and then expand to the larger discussion of what your organization is doing and why the donor’s support matters. For inspiration, check out The Girl Effect, a collaborative effort that manages to talk about and tackle global world poverty from a very simple starting point and perspective: that of a 12-year-old girl.
  3. Check your idea file. What, you don’t have one? Well get started right away! It can be hard copy, electronic, or both. Whichever, keep a folder of clippings, notes and samples from other organizations that you like. Individually, they’re just scraps but collectively they can be a valuable springboard for new ideas.
  4. Share with and learn from other nonprofits and colleagues. Make time in your calendar and budget to attend high-quality conferences. But don’t be a session hermit. As Seth Godin points out, it’s the engaged conversations you have in hallways that can often be of the greatest value. I’ll be headed to one of my favorite conferences later this week by the way – NTEN‘s Nonprofit Technology Conference – which kicks off on Thursday. If you’re not able to enjoy the opportunity to engage and learn in person, you can still attend online.
  5. Read up. What’s going on in the news about your issues? What are people saying? Are they saying good things or bad things about your issues? Are there any new studies or statistics that are relevant to your organization’s work? Spend an hour taking the external pulse on your issues and your reading will likely spark ideas for new ways and reasons to make your organization’s case for support.
  6. Remember that donors don’t want to hear about your programs; they want to know what you accomplish. Nonprofits usually organize their program areas in ways that make sense from an implementation perspective. Programs are things like: “Education,” “Research,” “Advocacy,” and “Community Outreach.” This is rarely compelling from a donor’s perspective however. Donors don’t give because you “do community outreach.” They give because of your organization’s impact, and at the most individual level possible. So instead of showcasing a program in your next appeal, think carefully about what you really do. I still think one of the best examples of this is the American Cancer Society‘s More Birthdays campaign. For all the organization’s many program areas and initiatives, this campaign distills the impact and goal of ACS into one simple thing: more birthdays.
  7. Spend an hour with your results. Data is one of the best places to look for messaging and campaign ideas. What approaches have your donors responded to the best? Which issue areas have your donors been most interested in? The least? Sometimes revisiting your results helps shape new ideas and approaches that you can test in your program.
  8. Take a walk. Seriously. An apple can’t hit you on the head if you don’t step outside. And by outside, I mean anywhere you’re not staring at a computer screen or mobile device. Your most inspired ideas – of any kind – are more likely to show up on those rare occasions when you’re unplugged and alone with your thoughts.

For fresh ideas and inspiration this week be sure to follow the Nonprofit Technology Conference on Twitter via hashtag #11NTC.



Direct Marketing Basics are the New Black. Report From #dcnpconf

The Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Federation‘s annual DC Conference kicked off today bringing together 700+ nonprofit marketers from all over the country.

The name of the conference this year is “Charting a New Course in Changing Times.” But with its focus on the fundamentals of direct marketing strategy – at all levels from beginner to advanced – the “new course,” it would seem, would be doing integrated direct response really, really well.

The “shock of the new” (the financial crisis, social media, even mobile giving …) has worn off a bit. There are no new darlings to fawn over, or financial upheavals to freak out about.

And so here we are: just us and the work.

How refreshing.

Follow the conference on Twitter via #dcnpconf and the DMA Nonprofit Federation @dmanf.



Turning the Tables: What Big Nonprofits Can Learn From Smaller Ones


There is no shortage of advice in our industry on what small and mid-sized nonprofits can learn from larger nonprofits. It’s a frequent and valuable topic at conferences and in publications.

But larger nonprofits can learn quite a lot from smaller ones too, particularly when it comes to direct response fundraising. Here are a few “habits of highly successful” smaller nonprofits – and food for thought for larger organizations.

1. Smaller nonprofits think of their donors by name, not segment. Nonprofits with large programs think of their donors in terms of segments that are predictive of response, with names like “0-12 Multi,” “Lybunt” or “A3XQP12B.” To smaller nonprofits, donors are “Grace,” “Fred” or “Mr. and Mrs. Walker.”

2. Communications from smaller nonprofits look and feel “real.” Because they are. The handwritten address on the carrier envelope isn’t a font – a person actually addressed the envelope! The rubber stamp on the carrier envelope marked “urgent” is a real rubber stamp. The insert in the year end appeal looks a little grainy because it was actually photocopied, and on a 30-year-old machine to boot.

3. Smaller nonprofits can mobilize quickly. When there is breaking news, lengthy communication routing and approval processes don’t hold smaller nonprofits back from communicating with their donors in a timely manner.

4. Smaller nonprofits don’t write “copy;” they write letters and emails. When you know someone personally, you talk to them differently and are more accountable for what you say. Smaller nonprofits have the advantage of knowing many of the donors they’re communicating with, and this can translate to more genuine – and effective – communications. On the other hand, when an organization starts thinking of its letters as just “direct mail” or its emails as “eblasts” as Kivi Leroux Miller points out, face it, they they probably suck.



How To Be a Better Fundraising Professional

1. Engage. Have you noticed that the best conversationalists – the people you always find yourself drawn to at gatherings – don’t actually talk that much? They ask questions. They stimulate ideas and opinion sharing. And they make you feel energized and special by their sincere interest in what you have say. If you want your nonprofit to be the one your donors are the most drawn to, try talking less and listening more.

2. Give. You ask your donors to upgrade, make extra gifts, respond to matching gift challenges, meet year-end shortfalls, and make stretch gifts. Do you do any of these things? If you want to effectively connect with donors, you yourself need to be one.

3. Dazzle. Whether you are talking to your donors in a ballroom or a living room, through a letter or a blog post, nothing inspires a donor like passion, intelligence and originality. It’s a lot of work to bring your A game to every donor communication. Fortunately your organization’s mission is well worth it.