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April 2009

Not feeling so good about the Facebook gold rush

Facebook and Twitter are both abuzz with this scandalous article in the Washington Post: To Nonprofits Seeking Cash, Facebook App Isn't So Green. Honestly, you'd think the Post had claimed everyone's mother was a lousy cook.

Here's the bad news, according to the Post:

  • The majority of nonprofits using the Facebook Causes app have received no donations through the site.
  • Only a small fraction of them have brought in even $1,000.
  • Fewer than 50 of the 179,000 fundraisers on Causes have raised $10,000.
  • Only two nonprofits -- the Nature Conservancy and Students for a Free Tibet -- have raised more than $100,000.

And that's not all. The mean-spirited Post further twisted the dagger by pointing out that while more than 25 million of Facebook's 200 million members have signed on as supporters of at least one cause, only 185,000 have ever given through Causes. That's 0.74%, which might sound okay if you're thinking in a direct mail context, but this is cumulative: all giving to all causes across all time. Woops. Not so hot, as in approaching absolute zero.

Are you catching the pattern here? The report also noted that the Nature Conservancy -- the top fundraiser on Causes -- has brought in $198,000. Impressive? Maybe. But for a large and effective direct mailer like the Conservancy, it might not be so much. They probably get that much every couple of days in the mail.

I don't think all this means you should totally ignore Facebook, though I'd hardly blame you if you did take away that lesson.

The real lesson is be realistic.

There's a gold rush mentality in some nonprofit quarters about social media. Get moving! Get involved! We are obligated to invest! The real cry should be something more like, There's a trace amount of gold in them thar hills!

Facebook is not your get-rich-quick scheme. It's an interesting place to learn how to navigate this strange new world. Maybe it's a good place to get out the word. But for fundraising? Don't hold your breath.

Dissent here, here, and here.

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Stupid heads: more fun with nonprofit ads

Does this image make you feel panicky?


It's a poster for Evergreen, a Canadian nonprofit that promotes "deepening the connection between people and nature." Sounds like a good cause to me; I'd like my city to be as full of trees, lakes, streams, birds, and (nonviolent) animals as it can possibly be. Even though I don't live in Canada.

(You can see other posters in the series here and here.)

But really now. This poster is hardly takes you where the organization wants you to go. Here's what it says:

Be the Root
Nature in the city begins with all of us. The harder we try, the more it will thrive. We need your help. Visit evergreen.ca

First the headline: Be the Root. I think that's pretty good. It really could have gone somewhere -- to a call to action like giving or volunteering. But it doesn't. It falls apart with the confusing, misdirecting copy, which can't seem to make up its mind us "we" are -- everybody, or the people at Evergreen? And rather than be clear about what needs to happen, it just has us trying hard ... at, well, something.

But weak copy alone can hardly get you a Stupid Nonprofit Ad honor. And in this case, the winning ingredient is the insanely weird image.

When I think about being surrounded by nature, I tend to focus on fresh air, clean smells, gentle sounds. Not being buried head down.

Is that a look of deranged happiness on his face? Or is it a frozen mask for horror brought on by this sadistic torture of live, head-down burial with his neck grafted onto a shrub?

This poster is a symptom of the same impulse that drives most of the other Stupid Nonprofit Ads: Abstraction. The cause of naturing up the city sounds pretty straightforward, doesn't it? You'd think that donors' gifts and volunteers' work would translate pretty logically into concrete, understandable progress. Right?

The creative Zen-masters who designed the poster apparently didn't think so, and chose an abstract representation of how you can connect to the cause. Abstract and utterly wacko.

If you want to motivate people to join your cause, you're just going to have to tell them what you want them to do, and why. Be clear and compelling. Nobody who matters is going to laugh at the "obviousness" of your message.

Leave the abstractionism to avant-garde artists. They do it better.

Thanks to AdRants for the tip.

See many more Stupid Nonprofit Ads.

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Fundraising for donors

Here's a provocative challenge from Greg Verdino's blog: May I market for you?. Greg says anyone who works in marketing should fill the blank in the sentence I work in marketing for _________ with the word "customers."

Not for the company. The customers. Here's why:

... if you still think in terms of delivering your services for the benefit of your company rather than for the benefit of your customer (or prospective customer), you're missing the point. Smart marketers look at the transaction not as the thing itself, but as the by-product of the thing -- as the benefit gained as the result of a well-built win/win relationship.

If that's how commercial marketers should think, how much more should fundraisers approach their work that way? If you see donors as an unwelcome and painful part of what it takes to get your organization's mission accomplished, your fundraising is dead in the water in these challenging times.

Can you say "I work in fundraising for our donors"?

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"Best practices" -- not always the best practice

A lot of fundraisers focus on "best practices." What is everybody doing that's not stupid?

I'm not sure that's the right way to do.

Because being obsessed with best practices can be the road to mediocrity.

"Best practices" is supposed to be about not making stupid mistakes. And that's fine. Applying experience to the situation at hand is important.

Too often, though, "best practices" ends up meaning risk aversion and creativity avoidance.

It's great to know what you're doing. But if you zero in completely on doing everything the standard way, you won't achieve greatness. You may avoid embarrassing errors, but you won't go beyond the middle.

Doing something innovative or amazing often means you don't know what you're doing. It's not a best practice. And it might fail. But it might succeed in a breakout way.

So be aware of the best practices. Be smart and experienced (or hire someone who is). But know when to go beyond the standard way of doing things. That's how you make a difference.

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How to waste your marketing dollars

Are you spending scarce dollars "marketing" your organization's image but not giving people the opportunity to take action with and for you?

You aren't alone. And it's time to reconsider. An article in Response magazine makes the case for action-oriented marketing: Branding Is Dead. The point is focused on commercial advertising, which has largely abdicated the role of directly promoting sales in favor of a complex of vague, unmeasureable goals that all come under the umbrella of "branding":

The job of advertising is not to entertain. Or to be clever. Or even to make friends, although no marketer wants to alienate the customer. While some of these approaches may be used to engage consumers, such tactics are meaningless unless they cause someone to take action.

This applies to us too. While corporations that are foolishly spending on pointless marketing are merely being financially irresponsible, when a nonprofit does it, it's a betrayal of the mission -- the reason the organization exists, and (one could argue) a violation of their 501(c)3 status.

Not all advertising is a waste. Some forms a very important part of moving people toward sales, and it does it very well and cost-effectively, even if it's not direct-response advertising. It's part of the larger strategy where direct response messages close the deal.

Marketing is difficult and expensive. Your time and your budget are limited. Don't waste either one going no where.

Thanks to Ted Grigg's Reflections about Direct Marketing for the tip.

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Need more web donations? Start here

In the Network for Good Learning Center: How to Ask for Donations on Your Website. They are:

  1. Make it painfully easy to find the "donate" option.
  2. Show where the moolah goes.
  3. Explain the how of your mission (not just the what).
  4. Appeal to donors' ideals and values.
  5. Show your connection to or presence in the local community.
  6. Don't forget to ask.

Take a look for the details.

What's the common thread here? Maybe it's: If you want to raise funds on your website, raise funds on your website.

The reason so many nonprofit websites have a hidden, tiny, or otherwise obfuscated "donate" option, why they don't really address the issues of giving -- they want to raise funds without seeming to raise funds.

Sorry. If you want a website that doesn't raise funds, go ahead. There are plenty of other things you can do online. But if you need online revenue to accomplish your mission, then make sure you do what it takes to raise online revenue.

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Twitter better for birds than for nonprofits?

My condolences if you've spent any of your life in a meeting that was about whether your organization should have a Twitter account.

I have yet to see a nonprofit use Twitter in a way that's even close to justifying the small amount of time they're putting into it. Part of the problem may be the way they're approaching it. There's some insight into that from the What's Next Blog, Top 10 Reasons Your Company Should Not Tweet.

Here are some of the reasons not to Tweet:

  • Every Tweet has to be approved by legal.
  • You are not going to respond when people direct tweets at you.
  • You think paying for followers might be a good idea.
  • You think all that matters on Twitter is getting a lot of people to follow you. Quality trumps quantity.
  • You want to protect your updates. conversation.
  • You think you can market to people with whom you have no relationship

If any of these are true for you, don't tweet!

That's also true of blogging or any other social media. If your organization isn't able to culturally adjust to the fast moving, conversation-driven, authentic ethos of social media, you are going to be boring and foolish, an utter waste of everyone's time.

(If you know of a nonprofit that's making effective use of Twitter, I'd love to hear about it.)

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There's just something about that control

Here's one of those "truth is stranger than fiction" moments, from James Read, creative director at Grizzard:

One of our clients was testing a new concept against a well-established control that had mailed at a certain time for many years. After we mailed the test, a woman called our client and said, "Can you send me the package I normally get? I want to give to it."

Maybe it's not so strange. Some of those long-established direct-mail controls just can't be beat. Maybe they actually build a constituency over the years of donors who know and love them.

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When the recession will end

From Dilbert, advice for organizations wondering about the recession: Dilbert.com Glad I could be of help.

When PC Equals BS


Here's my column in this month's FundRaising Success magazine, When PC Equals BS.

Teaser: A lot of nonprofits seek colorless, uncontroversial, low-impact ways of describing the issues they're involved with. When they mandate that kind of language in their fundraising, they're choosing to motivate fewer donors, raise less revenue and do less good. And that, as far as I'm concerned, is way too high a price for being able to feel good about the way you talk. To put it bluntly: How many people have leprosy right now because we couldn't bring ourselves to say "leprosy"?

More about surviving the recession

From the recent AFP conference, a summary of what some of the speakers said about surviving the recession (as reported in the Chronicle of Philanthropy at Focusing on What Works: Veteran Fund-Raising Consultants Offer Their Ideas).

Among the ingredients given for success:

  • Focusing on the mission, not the dollars that need to be raised.
  • Understanding which fund-raising efforts are productive and which are not.
  • Thanking donors.
  • Listening to supporters.
  • Asking donors to give now.
  • Proving to donors what their money will do.

Things that can lead to failure in a bad economy:

  • Cutting programs across the board.
  • Using the economy as an excuse to sit back.
  • Going negative.

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How nonprofits fail their donors on the web

If you have a sense that a lot of nonprofit websites are pretty bad, you're right. At least according to web usability guru Jakob Nielsen, who did a study where he sent regular people to nonprofit websites to see how things went. Summary of results at Alertbox, Donation Usability: Increasing Online Giving to Non-Profits and Charities.

Talking to the donors, Nielsen found that they wanted to know the organization's mission, goals, objectives, and work and how the organization uses donations. But ...

Sadly, only 43% of the sites we studied answered the first question on their homepage. Further, only a ridiculously low 4% answered the second question on the homepage. Although organizations typically provided these answers somewhere within the site, users often had problems finding this crucial information.

On top of that, he cites these "donation-killers":

  • 47%: usability problems relating to page and site design.
  • 17%: users couldn't find where to make a donation.
  • 53%: content issues related to writing for the Web, including unclear or missing information and confusing terms.

Sound distressingly familiar? My advice: Get professional help. It's worth it.

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Podcast: Partnership (not marketing) with donors


An interview with Troy Stremler, CEO of Newdea, a company that helps nonprofits measure and report the impact of their programs. Troy sees a big change in the new generation of donors: They don't want to be "marketed to" -- they want to be partners with the organizations they support. If he's right (and we think he is), that means we're going to need a radical new level of transparency, being able to report on the impact of their involvement, rather than trying to motivate them with the tired old stream of branding activities and low-involvement fundraising tactics we've relied on. This program will encourage and/or terrify you!

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:

How story-telling goes wrong

It's no big news that stories are an important part of fundraising. Stories are one of the main ways we motivate people to join our causes.

There's a long, detailed post on story-telling for fundraisers at the Sea Change Strategies blog: Andy Goodman Ruined My Life. Now I Want to Ruin Yours. There's a lot there that's worth reading if you want to tell better stories. But here's one part, the fatal flaws that derail our stories:

  1. Fear of Emotion.
  2. Bad casting. (You're casting yourself as the hero of the story.)
  3. The "everyone can do it" myth. (Get professional help!)
  4. It's "story telling," not "stories telling." (One story, not 1,001 Tales.)
  5. Happy ending syndrome.

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Do premiums work online?

Here's something worth knowing: according to recent testing by M+R, offering premiums can boost online donor acquisition: The Power of the Premium: Convincing Prospective Donors to Give (PDF).

Believe it or not:

When we looked at the net dollars raised per email recipient after taking into account the cost of producing the premium and getting it to donors, three of the four nonprofits netted more with the premium.... On average, the net dollars raised per recipient was 51% greater when a premium was offered.

It may seem counterintuitive that such an old direct mail warhorse would have life online, but this just points out that people are people, regardless of the medium you use to reach them.

Note that not just any old premium works, and it's quite likely that premiums won't work for every organization. Test it for yourself. But it's worth a test.

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Marina's 10 tips for a good life

This is absolutely real. Wisdom from my five-year-old niece Marina. Follow these, and you'll do just fine.
  1. Love Marina.
  2. Always let the dog out.
  3. Have a good business plan.
  4. Always be helpful.
  5. Don't interrupt.
  6. In an important meeting, don't shout out, "I have to go the bathroom!"
  7. Never steal.
  8. Don't let strangers in your house.
  9. Always shake hands.
  10. Exercise every morning.

The immeasurable is measurable online

Your fundraising touches donors in ways other than motivating them to give. It can create a host of other conditions, some good, some bad. It might inspire them or annoy them. It might raise their awareness of your cause to a new level. It might harden their resolve to ignore you.

In direct mail, we can't measure or even directly see these non-response impacts. But in email, we can capture and measure a lot more -- and get a clearer picture of what's happening in donors' minds. You don't have to throw up your hands and call it all unmeasurable.

The ExactTarget blog, at Email as Branding, notes things we should be measuring online so we can gauge the impact of our emails on our donors:

  1. Readership & engagement (time on pages, interactions on website)
  2. Churn (not just unsubscribes but also decline of engagement)
  3. Delayed conversions (with long-term expiration and no conversion variable overwriting)
  4. Short-term cross-channel measurement
  5. User behavioral changes (increased engagement, cross-channel interactions, etc.)

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Online fundraising continues to rise

The online revolution is coming to fundraising. But it's not here. That's what you can learn from a new study from Target Analytics: donorCentrics Internet Giving Benchmarking Analysis (PDF).

Some of the findings:

  • Online giving continues to grow ... even in the absence of major disasters.
  • Even with this growth, online giving is still dwarfed by direct mail giving.
  • Online donors have slightly lower retention rates overall than traditional donors.
  • Higher acquisition giving levels and higher revenue per donor in subsequent years may mask issues with cultivation and retention of online donors.
  • Online giving is not a strong renewal channel ... large numbers of online donors migrate away from online giving and to other channels, primarily direct mail.
  • Donors to direct mail ... rarely give online.
  • When mail donors do give online, they tend to give higher average gifts.... Online donors downgrade when they switch to offline, primarily direct mail giving.
  • Having an email address on file makes a positive difference in the giving behavior of offline donors.

There's also a similar study from Convio that's well worth reading.

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Donors may be helping you -- or hurting you -- more than you think

From the Church of the Customer Blog, here's a chart on customer value taken from the cell phone industry:


See Wominomics.

("Wom" is short for word-of-mouth, the always-powerful force in marketing that has become super-charged by the web and by the fact that so many people don't trust advertising any more as a useful source of information.)

We tend to look at donors as if they're all in that middle column: The only action they take is writing checks. But clearly, there are some in the two outer columns: They're talking you up and helping motivate people around them to become donors. Or they're unhappy with you and they're helping chase away prospects.

It's easy to see what the cell phone companies should do: they should be super-nice to the people in the left column. Discounts, free upgrades, happy surprises. They can afford to invest in that group. And their customers on the right? They should "fire" them. Every day they keep those customers, they lose more money. Either that or start treating them right so they have less to complain about. (Ha ha. That last suggestion was just a joke.)

What should nonprofits do? Pretty much the same thing. Happy, well-treated donors are a lot more likely to be your best advocates. Annoyed, mistreated ones can torpedo you in the marketplace.

Knowing that, I'd bend over backward to have flawless service for donors, and to create a communication program aimed not just at harvesting donations, but at pleasing and rewarding donors.

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Always listen, but don't always obey

Hey, I'm really honored to be taken as the poster-boy of donor-centrism. (I'm usually seen as the poster-boy of messy desks.) But the guys at The Agitator are pushing it a little too far in their post, Listen To Your Donors? Sometimes when they impute on me an extreme belief in donor listening:

I don't want to put words in his mouth, but Jeff Brooks over at donor-centric Donor Power Blog would probably say "Always!"

Come on, guys. You're totally putting words in my mouth.

Well ... technically, you aren't exactly putting words in my mouth, because I would indeed say Always listen to donors. I just wouldn't say Always do what donors tell you to do.

Let me show you two examples:

  1. Suppose some donors -- maybe a whole bunch of them -- want you to change your mission. You don't have to obey. In fact, you almost certainly shouldn't obey. Your donors support your mission, but they don't know it like you do. It's up to you to lead in this area. To find the donors who want to come along with you. To let go those who don't. It's your job and your duty to bring that leadership to the table.
  2. Donors complain that you send too much mail. (Sound familiar?) If you follow their advice and cut back on your fundraising, you're going to have to cut back on your programs too. Because you're going to get less revenue. Your donors don't know squat about fundraising! One of the worst things you can do is let complainers set your course. By all means, send less mail to that donor who says you're sending too much. Just don't be tricked into assuming that's what's right for all of them.

You are not an empty vessel, waiting to be created by donors. You exist to accomplish your mission, and you need donors to join you. A donor might have a really cool idea about how to do your work, something you never would have thought of. But don't count on it.

You should not only listen to donors, but actively seek their thoughts on any topic you or they can think of. But don't hand them the steering wheel, because they'll crash you in about five seconds.

By the way, if I were Facebook (the actual topic of the post on The Agitator), I'd create a button for their two million belly-achers who hated the new design. Clicking that button would allow them to stay with the old design. If the new one really was a lot better, people would eventually all migrate over to it.

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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