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Slow and Steady Wins the (Fundraising) Race

October 22, 2014

Headshot_derrick_feldmannAre you suffering from "ice bucket" envy? Most nonprofit fundraising professionals and development officers are, whether they admit it or not. During the conferences and conventions I've attended over the past few months, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has dominated many of the conversations I've been part of. And it's easy to see why.

To date, the viral phenomenon has raised a jaw-dropping $115 million for the ALS Association. And its success has led other organizations to ask, Why not us? But should organizations try to replicate the Ice Bucket Challenge? And if they do, should they expect to see equally amazing results?

There's a phrase, "Fear of Missing Out," for what many of these organizations must be feeling. Regular users of social media will see it hashtagged a lot as #FOMO – that anxious feeling you get when your train (or plane) is leaving without you on it. Professional fundraisers often experience FOMO when we see other organizations' causes going viral. Yes, we're happy for them, but we'd almost certainly be happier if it was our cause that was breaking through the noise and becoming the focal point of everyone's attention.

Let's face it, too many fundraising professionals make the mistake of investing precious organizational resources to replicate other organizations' successes. What these professionals fail to realize is that organizations with causes that go viral don't follow repeatable rules. Instead, in almost every case, their success is rooted in being the exception to the rule.

Your cause is unique, just like you and the members of your fundraising team. Replicating someone else's idea is simply not "authentic," and when your donors and potential donors figure that out, they're not likely to be impressed.

My colleagues and I host an annual conference called MCON, a national event that highlights the future of cause engagement. At last year's conference, Jeffrey Raider, co-founder and -CEO of Harry's, spoke about the company's mission ("we make shaving a little better every day") and business model. For those of you who don't know it, Harry’s makes well-designed shaving products and ships them to the customer's home at a reasonable price. They've achieved a lot of success in a short period of time, and lots of organizations are trying to replicate their success.

During the Q-and-A following his talk, Raider was asked about this. Here's what he had to say:

"Replication is definitely flattering, but it becomes a challenge for those who try it, because they are trying to replicate what we do today, even as we've started iterating on this model with the aim of transforming it into something different tomorrow. We're always looking to make changes to the way we operate with the aim of becoming more efficient, and we're always trying to come up with new ideas for the business and staying one step ahead of our competitors."

Isn't that what we all should be doing? Shouldn't we be spending our time figuring out how we can stand out in a world that constantly shifts its attention from one viral trend to the next?

The key to standing out, as many successful social engagers will tell you, is not to aim for mass attention. Rather, you should focus first on building a cadre of committed digital ambassadors for your cause. Cultivate a group of connected individuals who are happy to share your message with their networks and give them the tools they need to shout it from the rooftop.

Motivational speaker and entrepreneur John Green – you probably know him as the author of the best-selling novel The Fault In Our Stars – has a lot to say about how to build an audience that is passionate about your message. He attributes much of his own success to the devoted group of online fans he calls "nerdfighters." In a Fast Company article, Green discusses his formula for building and keeping an engaged audience, which includes what he calls "small beginnings," transparency, and thinking out-of-the box.

For many years, Green's loyal followers numbered in the hundreds, and he communicated with them through sites like MySpace and YouTube. However, those few hundred followers loved Green's work, and every time he posted a new video, blog post, or status update, his audience treated it as if it were gold.

The moral of my tale: A devoted following is more powerful than a viral message.

Here are a few suggestions for building your own audience of cause ambassadors – individuals who will passionately share your organization's good work, challenges, and most compelling messages:

Create a memorable, never-been-done-before experience exclusively for your donors. Help them remember why they agreed to give to your organization in the first place and show them the impact their gift made. Take the typical thank-you-for-your-donation note. How can you reinvent it so it stands out to the individuals who support your organization?

Invite your supporters to weigh in on your programming and marketing decisions. Ask them to select the headliner for your next event. Ask them for crowdfunding ideas. Be creative and make them a part of your decision-making process. They will respond, and you and your colleagues will be pleasantly surprised.

Add some suspense to your communications. Include stories of donors who have been tangibly affected by their involvement with your cause. Encourage your donors to use your social media channels to tell your story. Some may say "Not interested," but if you make it fun for them, many will jump at the chance.

There's a lot to be said for viral-ness, and fundraisers, being an eternally optimistic bunch, will continue to hope and look for the kind of success achieved by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. But there's also a lot to be said for building, cultivating, and igniting your own loyal following, a dedicated group of supporters and cause ambassadors who are eager to spread your organization's message and share its good work with the world. Besides, you never know what might catch on and become the next viral fundraising campaign!

Derrick Feldmann is president of Achieve, a creative research and campaigns agency based in Indianapolis. In his previous post, he explored the explored the difference between "thoughtful" and "thoughtless" giving.

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