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October 2008

If you're not a filthy liar, prove it

You might be amazed how cynical donors can be.

I once interviewed a lot of folks who were sponsoring needy third-world children. Again and again, these good people said what impressed them most was when they discovered that the child they sponsored was a real person. It floored me: These normal, decent people had started with the assumption that the organization (a well-known religious charity) was lying to them about their sponsored child.

Good chance you've got donors who think that ill of you. Apparently it doesn't take a psychopath to believe a nonprofit organization is psychopathic. Many donors have a nagging fear that they're being taken.

This is why it's so important that we report back to donors on what their giving accomplished. Here are three ways to do that:

  • Your receipt is about the same topic the appeal talked about. Too many nonprofit receipts are generic -- not connecting back to the gift. It should use the same language, with same level of emotion and urgency that motivated the response.
  • Nearly all the content of your newsletter is about the impact of donors' giving. (You do have a newsletter, of course.) Not an "education" piece, but a clear and obvious reporting back vehicle.
  • Consider special progress reports, especially for key donors, about ongoing projects they support.
These things give evidence that your work is real, that she hasn't been tricked. But even more important, they show her that her support matters and is appreciated.

Prove to donors that their giving is real and you'll have better donor retention, more upgrading, and great word-of-mouth in the marketplace.

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More on surviving a down economy

There's a lot of advice out there about surviving the economic crisis. Some of it is good, like what you'll find at Katya's Nonprofit Marketing Blog 6 Ways to Survive the Economic Storm. The advice:
  1. Don't be steered by fear.
  2. Set realistic goals.
  3. Don't abuse your existing donors.
  4. Get online today.
  5. Don't undersell yourself.
  6. Admit to donors that it's hard.
Most important: #1. Fear will drive you to bad decisions that will hurt you worse than the recession itself will. Be realistic, be smart, watch the horizon -- but don't be afraid. At least don't act afraid.

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Because you aren't Barack Obama (or are you?)

In September the Obama Campaign raised a jaw-dropping, record-shattering $150 million. (More here.) The take more than doubled the $66 million they raised in August, which was itself a record-breaking month.

So now, many a fundraiser is asking Why can't we do that?

The assumption behind the question is that the Obama campaign achieved those numbers by implementing a bunch of good techniques, and if the rest of us could just put those techniques to work, we'd see unprecedented revenue too.

Not so fast.

Sure, the campaign has done a lot of things very, very right. (In fact, a lot us will be studying their techniques for a long time.)

But the real reason for their success: They have an ultra-compelling "offer." It's about an historic candidate who's running during a time of national crisis, whose message is utterly compelling (to his audience), and who delivers the goods whenever he speaks.

Without that, all the cool techniques in the world can only make an incremental impact on revenue.

So ask yourself: Is your organization a "Barack Obama"?

  • Are you unlike all the others, or are you one of several similar organizations -- distinguishable only by experts and insiders?
  • Is there urgency built in to everything you say?
  • Do you have the ability to reach out, grab people by the heart and actually make them feel differently from how they felt before they encountered you?
  • Are you fighting an enemy? (It needn't be a person or people.)

If you can say yes to all those, then you can ask:

  • Are you really nailing your online fundraising techniques?

But first things first -- if you want skyrocketing, "impossible" fundraising numbers.

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Which of your departments is strangling you?

Does this show a familiar situation? From Logic+Emotion: The Corporate Social Media Curve.


Every organization, commercial or nonprofit, has its idea-killers. They may or may not be the legal department. They are the fear-mongers who find reasons not to make progress. They have an audience because they promise to lower risk. What they never mention is the monster of risk they create: stagnation. These are hard times. It may be that some nonprofits are going to fold in the coming months or years. I don't know which ones those will be, but I can tell you which ones they won't be: It won't be the inventive, adventurous, full-speed-ahead organizations. Get rid of your fear-mongers and charge ahead.

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Your guide to fragrant fundraising copy

One of the hardest things to see clearly is the quality of your own writing. We confuse the quality of the ideas, the amount of sweat we put into it, and how fond we are of it with actual quality. Which is one explanation of why so much fundraising copy out there is so bad. Here's some outside help, from Kivi's Nonprofit Communications Blog: 10 Signs Your Writing Might Stink & How to Fix It. These are signposts that should clue you in that there's a problem you can't see:
  • You are cutting and pasting grant application text into your newsletters.
  • You can play Nonprofit Buzzword Bingo with yourself.
  • You find yourself skimming your own writing.
  • Your boss takes forever to get comments back to you.
  • The article you just wrote could have been written ten years ago.
  • You aren't really sure who is on your mailing list.
  • You refer to yourself as "the association," the council," or by your organization's name.
  • When reading your writing out loud, you can't get to the end of most sentences without taking a breath.
  • You think asking readers to do something is being too pushy.
  • You try to cover everything, just in case this is the only thing they'll read.
If your copy is stinky, it's costing you revenue. It's worth sniffing out.

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Science uncovers another benefit of charitable giving

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that among the reasons it's great to be a fundraiser is that charitable giving makes your donors more happy, more healthy, and more wealthy. Science has uncovered a new reason to feel good about our job. Seems generosity helps your, well, social life (nudge, nudge, know what I mean?). Really. Check out the study reported in Dienekes' Anthropology blog: Altruism and sexual attractiveness:
... people (and especially women) find altruists more attractive. Thus, altruism can be seen as a sexually selected trait, and advertisement of one's propensity to be giving, and hence, presumably be a good parent and provider.
I'd hate to be one of those irresponsible bloggers who cites a scientific study out of context because it supports his beliefs. But this is science, for goodness' sake. I'm just saying. You can feel good about motivating people to give. Because you're helping them feel good.

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Time to bail out those boring program names

Pretty much everybody has a reason to hate the $700 billion bailout. Maybe that starts with its description: bailout. Who wants to go deep into debt to help out some rich, greedy, stupid Wall Street types? A BBC news story If only the bail-out had been called a rescue, asked marketing experts, who concluded:
Had President George Bush concentrated on the word "rescue" when selling the $700 billion "bail-out" package, say ad chiefs, the plan might have sailed through Congress rather than first being rejected.
I'm not taking a position on the merits of the bailout here. You could argue that "bailout" is an accurate term, even if unattractive. But surely those who proposed it and then voted it into law see it as other than, or more than, just a bailout. What you call a thing matters. Nonprofits have a habit of using dull, jargony, uninspiring terms for programs and campaigns. It can be hard to people to support these things when their names inspire no confidence or excitement. Spend some time thinking about what you name things. Think about it from the viewpoint of outsiders. Maybe that will help you avoid needing someone else to bail you out.

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Making your story about your donors

If you know only one thing about fundraising, you should know this: Fundraising is about donors, not about fundraisers.

That's the point at A Beautiful Experience: Egonomics 101 - it's all about THEM -- and the good news is, we have new ways to make it about them:

Old: send messages out to consumers.

New: engage your customers and get them to tell their story.

Do you have a story that people want to tell? (Is it something real people really want to tell, or is that just wishful thinking on your part?)

Have you found a way for your donors to tell their part of that story?

Is your website compelling, easy to use, and interactive?

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Great service keeps donors from leaving you

The commercial world is waking up to the harsh news that customers are less tolerant of poor service than ever before. Things they used to get away with are now costing them customers. (This is very good news to all us customers.)

The Think Customers blog looks at this trend at Wake Up People--Customers Demand Great Service, noting recent survey results that say 87% of consumers say they've stopped doing business with a company after getting poor service (that's up from 80% in 2007 and 68% in 2006):

... organizations that provide a positive customer experience will not only see brand loyalty and return on their investment, they'll likely weather this economic storm.

The same applies to nonprofits. Service matters more than ever.

Great service from a nonprofit? It's not as tough to provide as it is for an airline or cellphone provider. It comes down to doing just a handful of things:

  • Spell their name right. (Get all the data right.)
  • Send receipts out quickly.
  • Act on all requests and questions quickly.
  • Report back on the impact of their giving.

That doesn't sound too difficult. But nonprofits routinely fail to serve their donors in even these simple ways. You used to get away with it. Not for long. Donors are bringing their service-hungry expectations to the table. If you can't meet them, they'll go elsewhere, just as they are in the commercial world.

See also Poor service? You're busted.

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What donors want

The more you know about people, the easier it is to motivate them. That's what advertisers do all the time, and you can see some of the thinking behind it at Copyblogger, 12 Tips for "Psychological Selling" The tips:

  • People make decisions emotionally.
  • People justify decisions with facts.
  • People are egocentric.
  • People look for value.
  • People think in terms of people.
  • You can't force people to do anything.
  • People love to buy.
  • People are naturally suspicious.
  • People are always looking for something.
  • People buy "direct" because of convenience and exclusivity.
  • People like to see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, or smell it before they buy it.
  • Most people follow the crowd.

Yes, these tips are for selling stuff. But every one of them has application in fundraising. Persuasion is always psychological at its root.

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Focus, People! Focus!

Here's my column in this month's FundRaising Success magazine, The Futility of Educating Donors.

Teaser: Taking your eyes off your mission -- even when something else is important -- is a flat-out betrayal of your donors; it's like playing a shell game with their support -- even if they might agree with you on the issue at hand.... Failure to focus is exactly the same thing as misusing funds.

Older brains are different; what about older boomer brains?

You know that as a fundraiser, you're a specialist in marketing to the elderly, right?

Once you see it that way, you can start to ask interesting questions, like one raised recently at the Neuromarketing blog: Marketing to the Senior Brain.

The post notes that "... the brain's reward system ... is dialed down as our brains age." That's why older people are less susceptible to fads and shiny new things -- and instead tend to prefer trusted, well-known things. (Less gullible is another way to look at it.)

But today, with 78 million baby boomers in the US alone entering old age, it's worth asking: Are boomer brains different? Neuromarketing's answer:

Probably not -- it's important to realize that the brain's reward system doesn't shut down with age, it's just toned down a bit. It's equally important to realize that many other factors affect senior marketing, and, of course, individual seniors are no more alike than individuals in other age demographics.

Yes, boomers are different from previous generations. But their brains are fundamentally the same. Our task is to find the points where the different culture of the boomers directs them to see things differently -- and where it doesn't.

Getting an understanding of this will be one of the most important factors in the success of fundraising in the next few years.

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Does brand kill fundraising?

No. Of course not. A good, strong, clear brand can only help people know who you are and feel good about supporting you.

But so very often, in the real world, branding shackles fundraising. And the more involved the branding effort is, the more damage it does to fundraising revenue.


Why? Because the more directive your brand, the more likely it's about you, not your donor. And that's why it kills fundraising.

Strange thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. You could have a huge brand book that's all about donors. But I haven't seen that yet.

Keep your brand simple. And not about you.

Improve your fundraising in your sleep

Just when we could really use some, here's good news: A recent New York Times story uncovers the value of the good old-fashioned nap: We'll Fill This Space, but First a Nap.

Turns out, they say, sleep makes you work better:

Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas.

So go take a nap. You'll come out ahead.

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Podcast: Fundraising in a bad economy


There's really only one thing you need to be afraid of during this economic crisis. Find out what it is, and discover many other tips for surviving hard times -- and maybe even turning it to your fundraising and long-term advantage.

To listen, click here to download the audio file or visit the Fundraising Is Beautiful page here, where you'll find several listening and subscription options.

Or subscribe with iTunes:

Be specific to help build trust

It's unfortunate that nonprofits exist under a vague cloud of suspicion. It only takes a few charity scandals and publicized rip-offs to give a lot of people the sense that you just can't trust someone who asks for money. Building trust is one of your most important tasks.

That's what Trust me, I'm a fundraiser at Professional Fundraising (a UK blog) is about. (Late note: Sorry, a subscription is required to read the post. The nerve!)

Among a number of useful tips for fostering trust among donors is this:

Develop tangible programmes for people to give to. You don't become an ActionAid donor. You sponsor-a-child. This is tangible and donors love it. Their worst fear is that their money will get lost in the pot. Give them something tangible (and honest!) and they'll be much happier to support you.

That's such an important point: They aren't giving because of who you are. They're giving because of what you do (and because of who they are).

If you're choosing to raise only undesignated funds unconnected to specific programs, you're forcing your donors to accept you on blind trust. That has worked for a long time. I don't think it's a sustainable strategy for much longer.

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Subject lines that work

One tough thing about raising funds is getting people to open your message. You're in the inbox next to dozens, even hundreds, of other messages, many of them brazen spam. And all you have to get opened is a few words. No color, no images, no typography -- just pure text. And very little of that. (If you've played your cards right, your name in the "from" line also helps.)

Here are some good principles for subject lines from Constant Contact: How to Get More Opens and Clicks.

1. Opposites Attract!
Put your advertising dollars to work for you!
Advertising NEVER Works. (If you disagree, click here)

2. The Cliffhanger
Put your advertising dollars to work for you!
Advertising NEVER works, unless...

3. Interest by Association
Jane Smith book signing, Wednesday at noon
From Oprah to our store: Jane Smith book signing, Wed. at 12

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The sky is falling; who cares?

Many nonprofits are freaking out about the economy. (See Nonprofits Uneasy About Turmoil's Effect on Endowments in the Washington Post for some recent hand-wringing.)

Maybe they shouldn't. Maybe this tough situation is going to be the best time ever. If you want it to be.

That's what Seth Godin notes at Looking for a reason to hide:

... uncertain times, frozen liquidity, political change and poor astrological forecasts (not to mention chicken entrails) all lead to less competition, more available talent and a do-or-die attitude that causes real change to happen.

Make sure you aren't using the current crisis as an excuse not be go for greatness.

Some nonprofits are going to take it on the chin in the coming months. A few will probably fail.

But the smart ones, the good ones, the daring ones -- they'll look back on this time as the moment they found their stride. When they become tougher and more focused. When the competitive landscape opened up (because of the fear-mongers pointlessly abandoned the field).

When breakthrough growth happened. It's up to you which way you go. Success isn't guaranteed if you take risks. But failure is guaranteed if you don't.

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"Donation Dashboard" helps donors find charities

This is pretty cool: the Donation Dashboard, a site created by the Berkeley Center for New Media. It's meant to help you decide where you should direct your charitable giving.

It works like this: You are offered a series of descriptions of nonprofit organizations. You rate them on a sliding scale of your interest. Then it returns a pie chart of how you should divide up your charitable giving.

The logic is, "If you like organization X, you might also like organization Y." In my case, I got a few "what the heck?" recommendations, but as I understand it, the relationships between X and Y should improve as more people make ratings.

You can check out my portfolio here. I rated a lot more than the 15 that they start you with. The organizations that rose through the clutter are mainly ones I already give to. Not surprising, I guess.

I have two criticisms of this dashboard:

  • Why organizations? Most people give to causes, finding organizations that match up with the causes they care about, not the other way around. In fact, in many cases, the small amount of information you get about an organization hardly tells you what the cause really is.
  • Focus on efficiency rating. Each organization's "efficiency rating" is prominently displayed. That's unfortunate, because it has the appearance of being a meaningful quantifiable indicator of some kind of quality. Which it isn't. They should either remove it, de-emphasize it, or give a richer menu of information that gives a better picture of an organization.

When it actually links to an online giving mechanism, it'll really be slick.

But really, this is pretty spiffy, and is well on the way to give donors more power than ever. It will be up to us to work with tools like these in the coming years.

Other posts about the Donation Dashboard are at Prospecting and Tactical Philanthropy.

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When marketing and truth collide

Maybe you've seen this ATT ad. What's the problem here?

According to Greg Verdino's blog, it's the plain unbelievability of what they're claiming: Incredible? I'd settle for credible.

They claim wireless access on a remote desert island. But in the real world, you can't pick up your ATT signal in the middle of urban centers in America. Instead of being inspiring, as the ad is meant to be, it makes you hate ATT even more.

... there is no shortage of instances when actual product experience simply cannot live up to the promises made in advertising. ... makes me wonder what (at a time when consumers seem to prize corporate authenticity and transparency more than ever before) companies think they have to gain by making incredible claims?

Is your fundraising like that?

Does the real world match up to what your fundraising or marketing says? If it doesn't, your marketing could be doing a lot more damage than good.

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Podcast: Donor Acquisition vs. Cultivation -- How They're Different


Getting a first gift from a donor is an entirely different activity from getting subsequent gifts. The way you talk, what you ask for, and how you budget are all different. Knowing these differences is critical to long-term (and short-term) success in fundraising. We'll show you the practical things you need to know.

To listen, click here to download the audio file or visit the Fundraising Is Beautiful page here, where you'll find several listening and subscription options.

Or subscribe with iTunes:

To get people talking, do something amazing

This is just cool. Studio Brussels (Belgium) called attention to its campaign to raise funds for clean water in the developing world with a crazy guerrilla tactic. Check it out:

The campaign raised nearly $5 million dollars -- that's from Belgium, a country with only 10 million people.

Such an odd, edgy idea. How many nonprofits would authorize a kid invading TV studios while they're on the air? Isn't the a bit risky? Won't people be offended?

If you want unusual results, you have to take unusual steps.

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12 ways for fundraisers to face the economy

Are you feeling a bit freaked by what's happening to the economy? I am.

Here are two good sets of advice about what we fundraisers should do and expect:

From The Agitator, 7 Fundraising Tips for Surviving 2008:

  1. Don't Whine.
  2. Re-Project and Take it Upstairs.
  3. Advance the time-table for your year-end campaigns.
  4. Resist Your Natural Instincts.
  5. Engage your core donors as you never have before.
  6. Do not lose the courage of your convictions.
  7. Don't expect that the "good old days" will ever return.

From FundRaising Success magazine, Five Tactics to Rev Up Fundraising in a Down Economy:

  1. Connect with your donors' pain.
  2. Call mid to major donors now.
  3. Begin year-end campaigns in September with installment options.
  4. Use alternative giving vehicles.
  5. Focus on segmentation and target total net income (not return on investment or revenue).

Expect a lot more advice on this topic in the coming weeks. Not all of it this good.

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What is this blog all about?

If you're serious about raising money from donors, you need to get serious about donors. More than ever before, donors are insisting that you share power with them, not treating them like passive ATMs. This blog is about the ways you can do that -- and the rewards that await you and your donors when you do.

About the Blogger

DonorPower Blog is penned by Merkle's Power Blogging Team, led by Greg Fox, our senior vice president of strategy. Working with Greg is a police line-up of guest "artists", fundraising pros all, who like to pose as blogatorialists when the sun goes down. You can reach this blog, and any of our regular contributors, at
donorpowerblog [at] merkleinc [dot] com. See this blog's policies.

A great partner for the nonprofit that wants to get donor-powered and grow revenue like crazy!
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