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Avi Kaplan 9 min read

7 Lessons Your Nonprofit Needs to Know

Blackbaud’s annual conference was this week and nonprofit staff converged on #bbcon to ask questions, share lessons learned, and learn together. I thought I’d share a few of the ideas I came away with.

1. "Long-tail fundraising is hard”

During the bbconchat in the main expo, Geoff Livingston made the point that many nonprofits have unrealistic expectations when it comes to social fundraising. Serious effort and investment are needed to succeed in social fundraising because as Geoff pointed out "long-tail fundraising is hard.” Sometimes it helps to be strategic in teaming up with other organizations to create more buzz around a fundraising effort. Major fundraisers like GiveMN which raised over $30 million for Minnesota based nonprofits and DC’s upcoming Give to the Max Day take this approach.

2. Gimme gimme gimme doesn’t cut it

Care2's Frogloop’s (and Rad Campaign) own Allyson Kapin highlighted the need for organizations to focus on thanking donors. No one wants to feel like you’re being pushy in your requests for support, so be sure you are showing appreciation and avoid pushing your donors and prominent supporters to give give give. Sometimes a soft touch is the most effective.

3. Highlight the meaning in supporting your cause

Donors give for a lot of different reasons. One reason we don’t often reflect on is that people find it meaningful and enriching to support you. That seems obvious, but it’s an important point and one worth celebrating. When I see your supporters’ excitement at being involved in your organization I'm inspired to join your cause.

In a session titled, Ten Rules to Break in Capital Campaigns, Anne Caffery shared a series of micro-documentaries produced by her organization, The Memorial Foundation, of Yakima, Washington. Anne shared her realization that “what almost always happens is the donor finds more joy and elation than the staff when donors realize they are having an impact that saves lives.” With that in mind, the Foundation sought to share a sense of that elation with the larger community through its micro-documentaries. The videos focus on stories and images of donors and showcases the recipients of their program as the real heroes. Each 90 second shot shares a personal narrative from an individual supporter about how their involvement enriches their lives and what makes their commitment to the foundation meaningful.

This is a useful approach and I understand why Anne found success this way. Tell a story, share your values, and demonstrate the kind of deep and heartfelt relationship that you want to have in partnership with your community.

4. “Ready” is overrated

Another great point Anne expressed is that while you should certainly prepare and do your due diligence before undertaking a campaign or new initiative, over-worrying that you aren’t ready can be crippling. It’s easy to fall into the trap of perfectionism. With any major campaign you ultimately need to press go and dive in. You can change course later as you see what’s working, but you won’t learn anything if you never begin.

5. Know your people

Anne also reiterated that it’s important to remember that not everyone on your team has the same temperament. Your staff are likely to have varying comfort levels when experimenting on the fly, so be sure to address people’s anxieties in your planning and keep them appraised of your progress and observations along the way. Think about your staff and each person’s working style to be sure you’ve assigned everyone roles they are comfortable with. Don’t assume your team knows what you do.

6. Be mindful of cultural challenges

Allison Van Diest highlighted a similar idea in the Supporter Journey sereis in her session, Engage and Communicate. When you’re at the beginning of any journey of organizational change there are always going to be skeptics. Prepare for the skeptics early and meet with them in advance to show you care about their concerns. Not only that… *gasp… Care. About. Their concerns.

Gather any relevant statistics, charts, case-studies, and materials you need before you present your plans. Then bring those materials to your meetings as ammo to convince people your idea is worth trying. You need the support of many stakeholders for big changes and initiatives, so go the extra mile to get their support.

7. Gen Everyone

Nonprofits often talk about the importance of reaching out to a new generation. Generation is no longer a demographic concept. We are all part of a new generation now, in the sense that everyone’s expectations have been reset. We expect information and communication to be immediate, mobile, social, and personal. Communication is multi-directional now so redefine the way you engage your community accordingly.

By 2014 mobile web use will eclipse desktop traffic. Donors expect you to understand who they are. Not just their names, but why they give, how you met them, their interests. If I’m a $25 per year donor don’t send me a form letter asking for $400. As a donor, I also want to see you let down your guard, put real people out there from your organization for me to relate to. Build a tribe for us to belong to. We support you, now connect us to each other.

Part of this means that it’s become increasingly important to get your CRM solution right. It’s tough to get all your data in one place, but database health and maintenance are key. As Allison pointed out, your database should be your one source of truth. 

Bonus. Bacon

Of course the most important thing I learned at #bbcon was from Steve MacLaughlin of Blackbaud who pointed out that #bbcon autocorrects to “bacon” on smart phones :)


Avi Kaplan is the Online Coordinator at Rad Campaign, a firm that provides web design, web development, and online marketing and strategy to nonprofit organizations and political campaigns.