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Keep the Old, Try the New – A Bucket-Balancing Act for Fundraising Pros

March 11, 2014

(Derrick Feldmann is president of Achieve, a creative research and campaigns agency based in Indianapolis. In his previous post, he asked whether professional design matters when it comes to your fundraising materials.)

Feldmann_headshotThis is an especially challenging time for nonprofit fundraising professionals.

On one hand, you have board members, bloggers, marketing "experts," and creative types all calling on you to be more "innovative" with your fundraising tactics. You've probably heard statements like:

"You have to embrace social media if you want to stand out!"

"I know an organization that had great success with an online giving platform; why don't we do things like that?"

"Why are we still wasting our time on direct mail letters? They're boring, and no one reads them."

As new fundraising tools and practices emerge, there's some validity to these arguments. For example, email solicitations have a pretty good track record. And digital fundraising campaigns, online donation pages, and crowdsourcing, despite their risks, all have been known to raise significant revenue for certain types of organizations.

On the other hand, you probably feel pressure from older stakeholders who expect you to stick with tried-and-true fundraising methods. Meanwhile, it's almost impossible to convince even open-minded executives and board members that raising money almost always requires spending money. And the tension between traditional tactics and more experimental methods only makes your job more difficult and stressful.

So, what do you do when your head reminds you that the majority of your loyal donors still respond to traditional forms of fundraising while your gut tells you it's time to take a few risks?

Simple. Pay less attention to what others are telling you to do and more attention to what your competitors are actually doing. Don't be afraid to experiment a little, and always remember that the ultimate goal is to do what is best for your organization.

I know, we all answer to somebody. Indeed, most development professionals have scores of individuals and groups they have to answer to. Which is why many of my clients and colleagues in professional development have asked me for advice as to how to justify risks and explain new fundraising tools and tactics to stakeholders who think the old ways are always the best ways. Here's what I tell them. Start by looking at your fundraising strategies – both what you've been doing and what you want to do – and put them into three "buckets":

Bucket 1: Traditional fundraising methods. Traditional fundraising tactics (direct mail, gala events, phone-a-thons, etc.) still appeal to older donors (i.e., boomers and their parents). Indeed, according to Blackbaud’s 2013 Charitable Giving Report, 52 percent of so-called "matures" and 40 percent of boomers say they gave in response to a direct mail solicitation. In other words, as long as they raise money for your organization, traditional fundraising tools and tactics are worth your time and money. If your board members feel it's time to pull the plug on direct mail, show them the data on direct mail response rates; they'll probably change their minds.

Bucket 2: Newer fundraising methods. Younger donors are largely responsible for driving the success of online-based fundraising platforms and tactics. According to Blackbaud, online giving increased 13.5 percent in 2013 and accounted for more than 6 percent of all charitable giving. Other research shows millennials leading the way with respect to online giving. Indeed, of the millennials surveyed for the 2013 Millennial Impact Report, over 46 percent said they had donated through an organization's Web site. At the same time, while most of us may not view email as a new fundraising tactic, it's really only donors under age 40 who prefer email to direct mail. Bottom line: email, online pledging, and digital fundraisers are tested, trusted, and worth investing in, especially if you're trying to reach new, younger donors.

Bucket 3: Experimentation. This is where watching comes in handy. Before you try something new and un-tested, look around to see what others are doing. Most of what you'll see relies on newer technology and targets millennial or tech-savvy donors. If you're creative, you should be able to experiment with these tools and tactics without having to spend a lot of money. For example, while social media is pretty low cost, the ROI can be amazing. In fact, 47 percent of Americans who donated to a nonprofit or cause in 2013 said they learned about it via social media or an online channel. Just keep in mind that while experimentation won't make your organization rich, it is a great way to bring in new donors, whom you can then cultivate with more traditional approaches. And remember: to raise money, you have to spend money. Fortunately, you're in the business of raising money. So take some risks, experiment with new ideas, and think outside the box.


Now that you’ve categorized your fundraising strategies, keep in mind that your donors won't always be found in or through the same bucket or buckets. That's why after the conclusion of every campaign, for each strategy used, you need to calculate: 1) the number of donors; 2) the average yield per donor; and 3) the total raised. Given people's biases and competing agendas, you're likely to be pressured to focus on the fundraising strategies that work – as well as some that don't. It's your job to educate stakeholders about what you're doing to reach donors  via each strategy type – and to explain how donors responded.  With persistence, some well-designed spreadsheets, and a little luck, you should be able to convince them that the time is right to take advantage of both the new and old worlds of fundraising.

-- Derrick Feldmann

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