Inspiring Innovation

2017 was a record-breaking year for giving. Still, 36% of individual donors admitted they could have given more – in some cases, much more. This includes an eye-opening 53% of donors under the age of 35 who said they left money on the table and 35% of America’s most generous donors who give $10,000 or more to charitable causes [1].

While there is evidently more money out there, donors now place conditions on unleashing their philanthropy at a higher level. Innovative fundraisers — your time has come.

These are just some ways in which donors have changed how they give: they are more independent (witness the growth in Donor-Advised Funds); they are harder to reach (your e-blasts are only getting to a fraction of the mailing list you think they are reaching); they are quick to stop giving if they don’t get what they need (donor attrition is the #1 problem in fundraising today). They are also supporting fewer causes. In the latest edition of The Burk Donor Survey, middle-aged donors gave to half the number of causes of their senior counterparts.

Donors’ changing approach to giving is a challenge, of course, but a welcome one to fundraisers who are willing to adopt new ideas and question some long-held beliefs. Here are six strategies that encourage innovation while ensuring sustainable fundraising growth:

1. Don’t Say “No” Without Evidence

Why…because you might be wrong. Take my colleague, for example. On her first day in her new job as Manager of Donor Relations for a prominent institution, she reviewed samples of standardized thank you letters that the college had been sending to donors for years. (Letters got progressively longer – not better, just longer – as donors made more generous gifts. If their gift values didn’t rise, they just kept getting the same recycled thank you letter.) So, my colleague spent her first two days on the job drafting a new and very different acknowledgement letter. She took it to her boss who read it, and with a note of alarm in her voice, said, “We can’t talk like that to donors! Send out the standard letter; it’s always worked just fine.”

The boss was wrong on several counts. Our research consistently finds that donors consider most thank you letters they get to be boring, cold and largely focused on telling donors how great the not-for-profit is that they just supported. We also find that donors consider thank you letters to be the single most important communication they ever receive. Typical thank you letters are not contributing to donor retention if two out of three first-time donors never make a second gift to the same not-for-profit and 90% disappear within five campaigns. “Safe and predictable” is definitely not working just fine.

2. Don’t Say “Yes” Without Evidence, Either

Innovating is critical but so, too, is protecting the gains you have already made. Controlled testing makes it possible for you to do both. It is surprising how seldom fundraisers turn to controlled testing when only two critical measures of success – renewal and average gift value – will definitively answer their questions. There are so many unsubstantiated opinions about what inspires donors to stay loyal and give more generously; and it’s so easy to end the debate and get on with making more money by simply testing a different idea against current practice.

3. Budget for Innovation

New ideas don’t stand a chance unless there is money (which also means time) to try them out. Fundraisers should advocate for a separate budget that is reserved for testing new ideas, one which any staff member with an intriguing proposal can access.

4. Adopt a Non-Judgmental Attitude

Testing considers a question without presupposing the answer and does so in a non-judgmental way. Test results neither laud nor condemn the fundraiser (or team) who came up with the idea. In the context of testing, being right or wrong is irrelevant; the answer simply allows everyone to move forward with a concept that makes more money or end the discussion without incurring an unacceptable level of risk.

5. Look for a Curious Spirit in Potential Hires

It is interesting how the very same interview questions showcase candidates who excel and expose weaknesses in those who are not up to the task. Here are three interview questions that say a lot about whether a candidate is likely to add value to the team through innovation:

  • In your current or most recent position, what have you brought to the job that is new?
  • Describe a situation in which you offered a time-saving idea to the team? Not having enough time is fundraisers’ number one complaint, so it is very impressive when a candidate can come up with a strategy that saves time.
  • Tell me about an idea you have had that you decided to keep to yourself. [Supplementary] Why didn’t you bring it forward? Good ideas are just daydreaming if they never see the light of day. Stewarding new ideas takes diplomacy as well as perseverance.

6. Never Get Old

As it is in any other business, the longer fundraisers keep working the more likely they are to rise through the ranks into positions of greater responsibility and authority. No one survives in this business without being brought to their knees occasionally; but what separates great senior fundraisers from their less capable colleagues is their refusal to let those tough experiences destroy their curiosity or their delight in imbuing that same curiosity in their colleagues and staff.

[1] The Burk Donor Survey…Where Philanthropy Is Headed in 2018, Penelope Burk, Chicago, IL., soon to be published


Editor’s Note:

Penelope’s fully updated and substantially expanded second edition of Donor-Centered Fundraising has just been published. It includes much more information on issues covered in this blog, including:

  • an entire chapter of thank you letters that break away from typical acknowledgements and contribute to donor retention;
  • how to structure controlled tests that make it easy for anyone to answer questions definitively
  • how to position fundraising cost as investment in a profitable future instead of unfortunate expense
  • hundreds of quotes and stories from donors about how their philanthropy is changing and what they need from not-for-profits they admire

In addition, Penelope’s other acclaimed book, Donor-Centered Leadership, includes more than 100 interview questions and a Donor-Centered strategy for hiring great fundraisers who stay loyal longer and raise more money.

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