Category Archives: General Fundraising

What Can Other Nonprofits Learn From Community Radio Station Pledge Drives?

radio_mikeI don’t know about you, but where I live, it’s been all fund drive, all the time, from virtually every nonprofit, community radio station in the Bay Area. No matter where you turn the dial, there’s someone reminding listeners about the great service the station provides, the costs to run it, and the great thank-you gifts we’ll get in return for pledging particular amounts.

As someone interested in nonprofit fundraising, I perhaps listen to the pitch sessions of the programs longer than is average. (Or maybe it’s just that I’m usually listening in the kitchen, with hands too wet or slimy to touch the radio.)

Since I happen to know a few radio programmers, however, I also know that I’m not the only one who sometimes listens all the way until the end of a show, even when the last 20 minutes are all fundraising. In fact, my programmer friends say that, in general:

  1. most donations come in the last few minutes of the program, and
  2. overall, most donations come in during the last day of the fund drive.

What’s up with that, and what does it mean for other fundraisers?

I haven’t seen any studied analyses of this phenomenon. It actually seems doubly surprising given that experts who have studied on-air fundraising consistently say that urgency, desperation, statement like “We’ve got to meet this goal!” and “The phone lines are empty!” are a turnoff. (See, for example, John Sutton’s “Listener Focused Fundraising” report.) Positive messages about the listener’s part in supporting excellent media work much better.

So, I’ll have to speculate a bit. Here are my best guesses:

  1. Everyone procrastinates. All fundraisers have learned to expect a last-minute rush of donations in late December. But that’s just one of many possible deadlines during the year. Any time potential donors know there’s a deadline ahead, they may perhaps mentally put the item on their “deal with later” list.
  2. Even the people who say they’re turned off by urgency and desperation may eventually be moved by it. I believe the prevailing fundraising wisdom that it’s best to keep the message positive — but I’m starting to suspect that either there are some people who prefer the “S.O.S.” messages, or that no matter how donors respond to surveys, they actually respond to the cries for help more than anyone recognizes. I’m on an email list for a nonprofit that regularly gets into public debates with donors who say, “Cut it out with the strident distress cries, already,” to which the nonprofit invariably answers, “But it’s the only thing that works!” Are they deluded? Is it just their donors? Impossible to know.
  3. The comparison shopping urge takes over. Almost all radio pledge drives involve thank-you gifts. Some people may simply be waiting to hear what all the gift options are! Of course, they then miss out on opportunities to get limited-offer thank-you gifts.

Assuming I’m not totally off base, the first two items on this list may be worthy of any type of nonprofit’s consideration, radio or not. So, for example, if someone’s newsletter is about to run out, you’d want to give them advance notice, but also make abundantly clear, later on, that THE DEADLINE IS COMING. It’s also worth paying attention to the tone of your messages (which may slip into “distress” mode even without your intending it) and how your donors respond.

As for the third item on the list, it’s a useful reminder that, even in the charitable context, people’s consumer side can take over. Whether at an auction, bake sale, or something else, be sure to remind people early and often that the main purpose is to support a nonprofit, not to pick up a goodie.

Real People Trying Crowdfunding Discover What Nonprofits Already Knew

coinThe field of artists, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, dreamers, freelancers, travel buffs, scientists, and folks in need who are trying out crowdfunding as a way to raise cash is getting a bit, well, crowded. Distinguishing one’s pitch from all the others takes all the creativity and marketing skills that one can muster, as seen in the article “Generation ASK,” by Lauren Smiley, in the May, 2013 issue of San Francisco magazine.

Experienced fundraisers will nod knowingly at the marketing lesson arrived at by one such seeker — Michele Turner, on her way to raising $14,000 to cover basic costs (rent, gas) associated with her time spent in chemo. In order to tap into people’s passions rather than mere guilt, Smiley explains that Turner needed to “sell[] benefactors on the experience of being part of her recovery, not just on alleviating her poverty.”

Sound familiar? In fact, the various crowdfunding sites advise people seeking funds to post updates and thank-yous, “keeping [donors] abreast of every morsel of good news.” As Smiley explains, “All this can be exhausting for someone fighting a serious illness.”  But the good part of this is that “With so many people invested in her recovery, [Turner] can’t shake the feeling that she’s on the hook to heal . . . .”

The parallels aren’t entirely surprising, but notice that, even when the first people who will be viewing the pitch for cash are your own friends and family, sheer neediness and desperation remain a turnoff. Hope sells, as does the chance to be part of the solution.

For more information on nonprofit uses of crowdfunding, see Nolo’s new article, “Using Crowdfunding to Raise Money for Your Nonprofit.”

Before a Nonprofit Can Publish Its Stories, It Needs to Gather Them

book pagesIt used to be that two or three inspiring stories about a nonprofit’s work could supply all the material it needed for mail appeals and newsletters — with any luck, for months at a time.

But with the growth of blogging and social media, nonprofits are developing an unrelenting hunger for new, publishable stories about their own work.

Even if it’s for just a quick photo or blurb about recent activities, the communications or development arm of a nonprofit organization needs to hear from the program people and volunteers. The trouble is, many of the latter folks are either too busy to talk or don’t understand the value of passing information along.

The organization Share Our Strength, with its well-known No Kid Hungry campaign, has plenty of stories to tell: for example, about the volunteer who drives around in a non-air-conditioned truck to deliver summer meals to hungry children, or the mother who declared that, thanks to the Cooking Matters class, she could triple the value of her WIC check.

But the organization also realized a few years back that gathering such stories wasn’t going to happen by chance.

I spoke with Jason Wilson, Associate Director of Digital Communications, who explained, “We set out to deliberately create a culture of storytelling within our organization. This involved identifying members of each department or team and making story transmission part of their responsibilities. They are literally asked to set aside time to tell the story of the work that’s happening, and then to connect with the people who are putting this information together for the Web or other materials.

“Once we got this culture built, and staff people began to see their stories presented—perhaps in an email campaign or as online content—they realized the double satisfaction in not only accomplishing something through their day-to-day work, but also through the telling of that story.

“There’s no set schedule for sharing. Either the staff will pass news along, or the people in charge of content may approach them with questions like, “We’re looking for stories about X, what do you have to share?”

“An effort like this really needs to be organization-wide, and involve accountability. For our team members, storytelling is a formal part of their performance goals.”

How Nonprofits Increased Charitable Donations in 2012

Kitts1_025Hopeful news for nonprofits just came out in the Nonprofit Fundraising Study: Covering Charitable Receipts at U.S. and Canadian Nonprofit Organizations in 2012.  According to the study, 58% of the nearly 1,2oo organizations surveyed said their fundraising receipts had gone up in 2012. That’s an improvement over the 53% who saw a rise in 2011 and a paltry 43% in 2010.

The increase was relatively uniform across the four regions of the United States and among different types of organizations (covering issues such as arts, culture, humanities, and religion).

We could attribute the rise to improvements in the economy — but given that this rising tide still didn’t manage to lift 42% of nonprofits, it’s worth taking a closer look at the successful ones. How did they do it?

Most explained their fundraising success in 2012 to such factors as:

  • the addition of new staff (10%)
  • a jump in receipts from bequests (6%), and
  • a successful event (3%).

It’s worth noting that all three of those factors require advance planning and investment, of a sort that’s all too easy to jettison when an organization is underfunded, understaffed, and feeling insecure. Thus it’s not too surprising that larger organizations saw more growth in charitable receipts than smaller ones.

Nevertheless, the overall message is a positive one. In the words of Nancy Raybin, with the Giving USA Foundation, “With a better economy, charities generated results by looking again to the future, not just for meeting day-to-day needs.”

Happy National (Underfunded) Library Week!

books-188x300From April 14 through 20, the U.S. is celebrating books and the role that libraries play in people’s lives. Libraries have become many communities’ go-to place to rent a movie, do homework, search for a job, and more. Of course, many remain shuttered or on a reduced schedule, with libraries across the U.S. having become, in the last few years, victims of city and county budget cuts.

As if librarians didn’t wear enough hats already, these budget difficulties have led many librarians to assume a new role: fundraiser. I talked to a number of them for my book, The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising: Raise Money for Your School, Team, Library, or Community Group. Many were involved in contacting prospective donors, organizing special events, rounding up donations for an auction or raffle, and so on.

Fortunately, librarians are also a multi-talented bunch, and they’ve got a great theme to work with: reading and literature. Book sales, book awards, and author events are staples of the library fundraising world. But the fundraiser that gets my vote for creative adaptation of the theme is the Edible Book Festival, which started in 2000 and has now spread around the globe.

The idea is that people create cakes or other food items that represent famous books and in some cases, themes and characters from those books, which are displayed and then consumed at a public event.

Check out some of the pictures here and here. And if you’d like to learn how to hold your own such festival, check out the “Eat your words: Tips for hosting an Edible Books Festival in ProgrammingLibrarian.org webinar,” to be held Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 2 p.m. CST.

 

Nonprofit Email Response Rates Down, Twitter Followers Up, Up, Up

roller coasterHave you read the 2013 eNonprofit’s Benchmark Study yet? It’s worth a gander, both for encouragement and for a reality check. The findings (based on data from 55 nonprofits) show that social media audience sizes went through the roof in 2012; in particular, nonprofits’ Twitter followers increased by an average 264%. But typical “open” rates of nonprofit emails went down to about 14%, and response rates dropped precipitously, down to .07% for fundraising appeals. Ouch.

The study’s authors (M+R Strategic Services and NTEN) are careful to note that different types of groups had different experiences, with the biggest drop in email response rates among groups doing international and rights-related work. And we might be able to blame the 2012 elections for sucking up a big share of donations. Also, response rates may also look worse than they should because nonprofits are failing to weed out nonresponsive recipients from their lists.

Nevertheless, I doubt that my email inbox is the only one in the world that’s simply flooded with emails from every nonprofit I’ve ever had contact with. (And once you sign a few petitions at the urging of your Facebook friends, you’ll find that the number of “contacts” starts rising fast.) I start looking for excuses to delete an email without opening it. (“Looks boring. Don’t care as much about that issue as others. Typo in the subject line? Fuggedaboutit.”)

What all of this inevitably means is that your nonprofit needs to work extra hard at making your emails stand out from the rest. Also be sure to include newsletters and other advocacy pieces in the mix of emails you send out — these, according to the study, get opened more than straight fundraising appeals.

For more tips on this topic, see Nolo’s article, “Nonprofit Fundraising Emails: How to Make Them Profitable.”

Smaller Nonprofits: What the Blackbaud Charitable Giving Report Means for You

flowersSmall is powerful, according to the Blackbaud Charitable Giving Report for 2012. The report found that, while charitable giving went up in 2012, the overall 1.7% rise wasn’t evenly distributed among different-sized nonprofits.

Organizations that raise less than $1 million per year saw their contributions jump by an impressive 7.3% in 2012. Compare that with the 2.7% rise in giving to mid-sized groups (those with annual revenues of $1 million to $10 million) and the tepid 0.3% rise in giving to the largest nonprofits (with revenues of $10 million and more).

What accounts for this differential? According to a report in Barron’s Penta Daily, Steve MacLaughlin, director of Blackbaud’s Idea Lab, says that ever since the recession began, the tendency among donors has been to give locally — for example, to a park, arts council, or hospital.  Donors are better able to see both the need for funding and the potential impact of their gift when the group is basically in their own back yard. Another factor may be that smaller nonprofits receive a relatively high percentage of their funding via the Internet, and online giving is growing.

That’s good news for small groups, but how do you capitalize on this? Or, while we’re at it, how can mid-size or larger groups overcome the perception that they’re too big to need help?

Clearly, every group’s communications and marketing materials should be reviewed with an eye to establishing local presence. Donor lists should be segmented to make use of opportunities to gear communications to particular geographical areas or local interests. If your actual offices are physically located near certain donors, that’s worth highlighting. (Sure, they can look at the address line on the letter, but that doesn’t really drive the point home.)

No matter where your main offices are, if your group is serving clients or working on a cause that’s physically near certain donors, make sure they know that, too. Even larger groups can point to their local branch offices or membership groups and opportunities, and explain the important local needs that they serve.

The study also has implications for finding new donors. Has your group fully considered who its neighbors and nearest potential friends are? What about its literal neighbors? Something as simple as holding an open house, to which you invite people from nearby offices and residences, can yield a new list of names for your database, possibly leading to new donors or volunteers.

Just don’t get so wrapped up in grassroots efforts that you forget to attend to the other important part of the equation — making your website an attractive draw, where potential donors find it easy to give, as described in the article, “Your Nonprofit’s Website as a Fundraising Tool.”

After the Event Is Over: Where’s the Follow-Through?

3a47103rDo you know when the real work of a big event begins? Not the day of the gala, but afterwards.

Nonprofit organizations often put  much energy into an elegant gala, an annual dinner, a silent auction, or some other special event. The event itself may be a roaring success (or maybe not). But then, as Bay Area fundraising consultant Lela DaVia describes it, “the captive audience attending the event is often forgotten in the aftermath of  staff and volunteers recovering from the hard work. If there’s no follow-through, you may have lost a golden opportunity to cultivate current donors and engage new ones who attended.”

A profitable event can, with the correct follow-through, maximize its fundraising potential by fostering new and ongoing donor involvement.  This was a key theme in DaVia’s January, 2013 workshop at the Foundation Center in San Francisco, entitled “A NONPROFIT’S NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: IMPROVE DONOR RELATIONS.”

What exactly does effective follow-through involve? In the case of one organization with which DaVia worked, it meant that “after the event, every person in the room was entered into the organization’s database; the guests were segmented into categories; and then they were personally contacted by someone from the organization (ideally a Board member or key volunteer), asking how they learned about the group and inviting participation, for example in the next year’s event-planning efforts.” Sending a follow-up letter or e-mail is another option for communication.

Of course, the organization that holds the event may not have a complete guest list on hand — after all, if a corporation buys a table and invites various employees and their family members to attend, even the ticket-buyer may not know until the last minute who will actually show up. But your group can capture such names by unobtrusive means, such as putting out a guest book, offering a door prize, or holding a contest (in which attendees are quizzed on facts about your organization). You can do all of these to cover all bases.

If this sounds like common sense or something you’ve heard before, remember that it’s still not the way things typically happen. In fact, lack of follow-through was a prime concern expressed by members of DaVia’s workshop audience. In many cases,  despite coming from established nonprofits, and their interest in attending the workshop indicating their organizations’ commitment to professional development, many cited lack of follow-through as a major impediment to their group’s fundraising success. Sometimes the ball got dropped even before the event was over, as in: “We have house parties, but no one is willing to make a clear ask for money.”

Follow-through issues can be compounded when a group brings in a consultant to serve as events planner. The very person who was devoting the most energy to assuring the event’s success must pick up and leave when it’s over, along with a good deal of institutional memory. No matter how great a job the event planner did at creating notebooks or files describing what happened before and during the event and what needs to happen after, the key is  actually reviewing those notebooks to take the next steps. A good new year’s resolution to cultivate those donors from minor to major!

When Organizations Stretch the Meaning of “Nonprofit”

A nonprofit is meant to carry out a charitable, educational, religious, literary, or scientific purpose  — and not to personally benefit its directors, contributors, or other participants — in return for which, the IRS and state tax authorities don’t require it to pay taxes on profits it makes from its activities.

But the issue of what activities are “charitable,” and what constitutes personal gain, make for unending investigations and opinions from the IRS. These can be looked at as either an object lesson in how not to go wrong — or as comfort for nonprofits trying to operate in an above-board fashion, given that some groups are obviously trying to get away with a tax exemption they don’t deserve!

beerRecent cases highlighted in Bruce Hopkins’ Nonprofit Counsel letter, for example, include revocations of tax exemption for:

  •    the parents of a cheerleading squad, who worked at concession stands and used their pay for “scholarships” for their cheerleading children, based directly on how much work they put in. That was too much “private inurement” for the IRS’s taste.
  •    a bar (that’s right, the kind serving alcoholic beverages), which claimed to have been promoting “fellowship among all living beings.” (What were they drinking when they came up with this idea?)
  • a group that, when questioned as to why it hadn’t been filing its annual information returns, claimed that it was the integrated auxiliary of a church — but the church itself had no idea of this supposed arrangement.

The lines aren’t always so brightly drawn, however. To make sure that your group continues to qualify for its tax exemption, see the Nonprofits section of Nolo’s website.

Will Your End-of-Year Fundraising Email Stand Out From the Pack?

Those end-of-year charitable fundraising emails are coming thick and fast. My inbox is full of subject lines like, “Midnight is just hours away,” “Last chance: Gifts doubled,” “Before midnight,” “Really, we mean it this time — last chance to match,” and “Last chance to give in 2012.”

They’re starting to all look alike — and no wonder. The senders have likely run out of creative ideas, given that this inbox-influx represents only the latest in a sustained flow of emails that every nonprofit has been pouring out for the last several weeks. All with good reason, of course: As you’ve heard many times before (including in my blog on “Motivations for Holiday Charitable Giving“) about a third of all donations are made during the final weeks of the year.

But maybe the similarity in subject lines is okay. By now, the readers should have a good idea of what your nonprofit does, and whether they deem it worthy of support (though this is certainly something you want to include convincing information on in the body of the email). If your nonprofit can’t stand out from the pack in this slew of emails, it can at least establish its presence there. That will be handy for the people who are making their final decisions about giving, and thinking, “Hmm, I think X nonprofit should get something from me — maybe there’s an email here with a handy link I can click.” A good part of fundraising is, after all, about making it easy to give.

My one pet peeve is with nonprofits that make it sound like the end of the world is coming, and that anyone who doesn’t give by midnight will lose their chance FOREVER. It’s just a tax deduction, folks. Not all charitable donors itemize their deductions in the first place. Plus, the same nonprofits will be asking for donations again in 2013. Hopefully with a few days’ break on the email front.