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Fundraising learnings from social media

January 21, 2021

Social_Media_Platforms_PhilanTopicHanging out on social media can be a remarkable way to spend time, though I acknowledge the word remarkable has more than one definition. In fact, given the unprecedentedly disruptive nature of the past year, I’ve often found myself turning to social media either to brainstorm about fundraising with others or simply to see what other nonprofit fundraising professionals are up to. While there is a lot of clutter out there, there's also a good deal of wisdom to learn from and experience to share.

Here are a few things I've learned over these long months that may be useful for others involved in doing the good work of philanthropy. Please feel free to share lessons and tips of your own in the comments section below.

The meaning of $18 donations

An online fundraising community I follow recently was expressing confusion over a sudden barrage of $36 donations. If you've ever spent time going through your organization's giving history data, you may have come across donations of $18, $36, or other multiples of $18. In Judaism, the number eighteen stands for "chai" ("life"). The word "chai" is spelled with the eighth and tenth letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which of course equals eighteen, while thirty-six is "double chai." So people for whom Judaism is important often will make gifts in increments of eighteen. But organizations that don't provide services with or for the Jewish community may be unfamiliar with the practice. At an organization where I worked several years ago, we received an online donation of $18 from a donor who had never given before and apparently was not made in response to a recent direct-mail letter, email, or other communication. (Ours was also an organization whose mission was very broad and not centered around a particular religion or cultural identity.) When our database manager sent around a note asking if anyone knew anything about the donor, or why they had opted to donate that amount, I made a chancy assumption about the donor's surname and called to thank the donor personally for making a gift honoring life; suffice to say, the donor was not expecting such a response and, over time, increased their support from a one-time $18 donation to recurring, four-figure gifts — a lovely surprise.

When gratitude gets too tactical

Some readers may know of the anonymous, sometimes-hilarious Twitter personality The Whiny Donor. All we really know about Whiny is that she "used to chair the development committees at a couple of nonprofits" and has some serious opinions about the way philanthropy should, and shouldn't, work. As a fundraiser, I wince at some of her tweets, especially the ones that call out bad or arcane practices in our industry. Recently, for example, she tweeted about nonprofits including too much "mechanical" information in the body of their donor thank-you communications. Acknowledgements, she tweeted, "that include the date when they received my donation in the very first line of the letter stop the flow of gratitude cold. Can't you put that detail in the fine print at the bottom?"

Now, admittedly, this is something we do (or did) at our nonprofit, largely because the tax receipting is handled by a different department, and we always want our letters to be polite yet functional. So I wanted to call Whiny on it. But after a few moments I realized she had a point. If a donor, any donor, is put off by what is supposed to be a thoughtful note of appreciation being interrupted by bureaucratic tax-related information, then we do ourselves a service by moving those details to another, more appropriate part of the letter. Needless to say, the next day we updated our thank-you letter template to better reflect and improve the flow of our gratitude.

Outcomes over outputs

For many of us whose fiscal years don't align with the calendar year, there are always a few conversations with leadership, accountants, and corporate-minded board volunteers that stumble over a question like, "Wait, are we talking about calendar year-end or fiscalyear-end?" On Twitter, the satirical account NonprofitsSay had some fun with the problem, posting: "These are our calendar year accomplishments, not to be confused with the fiscal year accomplishments in our annual report." I had to chuckle, because our organization is finalizing our 2020 (calendar year) annual report while at the same time thinking ahead to our 2020-21 (fiscal year) impact report.

When crafting our 2019-20 impact report, our team struggled with what we should call the document. For years the organization had gone back and forth between "Year in Review" and "Impacts and Benefits," both of which were always met with a mildly positive response from our donors. But given where we were in the middle of 2020 — with much of our work centered on pandemic response, equity, and resilience — we wanted to tip our hats to the donors whose generosity helped make those efforts possible.

Over on Joan Garry's "Your Thriving Nonprofit" Facebook group, I posed my question to the more than thirty-three thousand members of the group and was truly inspired by the responses. Many people suggested thinking less in terms of a catchy title and more about the vision behind the document. After some internal debate, we landed on "How You Helped Build a Better City" in bold letters. The response from our supporters was overwhelmingly positive.

I'll say it again: hanging out on social media can be a remarkable way to spend time. And with so many of us endlessly scrolling through our channels looking for information that can be used to refine our practices, respond to questions, or offer suggestions, there is indeed much to learn and share. Just remember to be patient and open to the views of your virtual colleagues.

Evan_Wildstein_PhilanTopicEvan Wildstein has served on the fundraising team at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University since 2017.

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