Smart Fundraising: How to Streamline and Innovate
In the lead up to year-end fundraising season, nonprofits can benefit from trying out new strategies for connecting with donors, say panelists on an online briefing organized by the Chronicle.
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In the lead up to the year-end fundraising season, several expert guests joined the Chronicle to discuss innovative ways to connect with donors. The panelists explained ways to personalize donor communications and to make fundraising more efficient.
“Customization is the name of the game,” says Cathy Whitlock, associate vice president of online communications at the Parkinson’s Foundation. Personalized communication is “more powerful, and it also makes the reader feel like we know them, we hear them, and we understand them. It makes them want to deepen their relationship with us.”
Since the National Parkinson Foundation and the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation merged to form the Parkinson’s Foundation in 2017 and since ramping up its digital-advertising efforts, the foundation has grown from a $10 million to a nearly $50 million organization. Whitlock attributes the growth in part to innovations in advertising, with a particular emphasis on paid search ads.
Whitlock was joined on the panel by Becky Endicott, co-founder of We Are For Good, which produces a podcast for nonprofit professionals and offers training, and Dominique Calixte, associate director of annual giving and special events at YW Boston, which aims to advance racial and gender equity through advocacy and programming. The session, “Smart Fundraising: How Savvy Groups Are Streamlining and Innovating,” was hosted by Margie Fleming Glennon, director of learning and editorial products at the Chronicle. Read on for highlights or watch the video to get all the insights
Create a ‘Culture of Innovation’
In its first year running year-end advertising, Whitlock says the Parkinson’s Foundation invested most of its $30,000 advertising budget into social media and digital displays on the internet, and only around 10 percent on paid-search results. Yet the paid-search advertisements, which appear on the results pages of such search engines as Google, Bing, and Yahoo, ultimately drove 25 percent of the campaign’s revenue.
“Paid-search ads are a tremendously powerful way to drive new and existing constituents to the actions that you would like them to take to support your organization,” says Whitlock.
The following year, the foundation spent 37 percent of its budget on paid search, which drove nearly 60 percent of the year-end campaign’s revenue.
It’s that kind of experimentation and analysis that Endicott says helps create a “culture of innovation” at nonprofits. She recommends setting aside 10 percent of staff time for innovation, including frank conversations on what’s working, what isn’t, and what new strategies might be worth a try.
“Innovation is a word that sometimes scares us in nonprofits, because we associate it with massive scalings of technology or trying new campaigns or radical ideas,” says Endicott. “It’s just trying stuff — failure is not a dirty word in the nonprofit sector anymore.”
The panelists noted that such innovative strategies don’t necessarily require massive investments of resources and can be fruitful for large and small organizations alike. Small organizations can benefit from paid-search advertising, as long as their budgets are large enough to stay competitive with similar organizations that may bid for the same keywords. Whitlock also noted that search engines like Google and Bing offer grant programs that enable nonprofits to place ads in search results at no cost.
During times of economic uncertainty, Whitlock says, investments in advertising and innovation become especially vital and should not be cut.
“Reducing advertising dollars is just a short-term cost-cutting measure that has some very serious long-term consequences,” she says, noting that search ads “let you reach new audiences that you can convert into donors, and help make up for any giving gaps with your existing constituents.”
Keep Track of Donors’ Actions, Activities, and Preferences
For Calixte, whose donors come largely from the YW Boston’s programs, learning to customize and connect with different supporters has been key to the organization’s fundraising success. Salesforce’s engagement scoring tool has been especially useful in helping YW Boston keep tabs on different donors’ behavior, she says.
“We’re able to see and rank the different engagement levels of different folks in different pockets of programming,” says Calixte, whose organization then uses those rankings to develop customized performance indicators and goals for deepening engagement.
As a part of this approach, YW Boston invited its most engaged donors to become part of a host committee, through which they were invited to recruit other donors and event attendees.
In one case, Calixte’s team identified a donor who had attended every event the organization hosted for the past several years. After accepting the invitation to become part of the group’s host committee, the donor doubled the number of attendees she recruited to the nonprofit’s events and brought in several new sponsors.
YW Boston has also tailored its fundraising events to best serve the needs of different donors, using lessons the organization learned over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. The group now hosts a mixture of in-person, hybrid, and virtual events, with an eye toward accessibility for different attendees.
“I think the big thing that we learned as an organization — and as people — is that flexibility is super important,” says Calixte.
Show Appreciation to Donors — and Staff Members
As the end of the year approaches, Calixte says, it’s especially important to express appreciation to both donors and fundraising staff, who are each at their own risk for burnout and compassion fatigue. She often dedicates her year-end fundraising campaigns to thanking donors for their time, commitment, and ongoing engagement.
“Spend time thanking the people who have been in your network,” says Calixte. “It’s going to remind them that you’re there.”
Endicott agrees that it’s equally important to extend gratitude to fundraisers as they juggle intense workloads. Leaders and fundraisers must be mindful of mental health as well as the importance of work-life balance, pay rates, time off, and other benefits, she cautions.
“If you’re not a healthy fundraiser, then you can’t have a healthy mission,” she says.