10 Strategies to Actively Build Nonprofit Donors Trust

trustTrust defines the credibility and legitimacy not only of your organization, but of the entire social benefit sector. Yet too few organizations make the effort to operationalize this construct into their fundraising and marketing planning.

You should.

Without donor trust and confidence in philanthropy there’s no future for social benefit organizations.

Donor retention guru Professor Adrian Sargeant has spent 20+ years researching the relationship between trust, philanthropy and continued donor commitment. And he has found, unequivocally, that trust is the essential foundation of the philanthropic relationship.

Ignore this at your peril.

Actively Build Donor Trust

The Donor’s Bill of Rights is a great starting point.  But simply using it as a checklist is not enough.  Too transactional. I encourage you to go above and beyond. Because the best predictor of future giving is when people feel good.

You can make giving to you a transformational experience. How? By actualizing what you learn here into a series of multi-step plans for:

  1. Gift Acknowledgement that Satisfies Donors
  2. Donor-Centered Communications that Instill Happiness
  3. Useful Content Marketing that Offers Gifts
  4. Consistent Branding that Instills Confidence
  5. Relationship Fundraising that Creates Meaning and Builds Loyalty

If you take these five steps, I can guarantee you’ll steadily build trust and make donors happy. What I’d like to do now is break these steps down into 10 action strategies. They may seem simple, and they are. But honestly ask yourself if you really do these things? I’m going to guess you could do better. So please read these with an eye to what you might do to make your donor retention plan – what I prefer to call a “donor love and loyalty plan” – more vigorous.

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4 Strategies to Listen so Others Will Talk

You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.

Ever hear that?

It’s the secret to building authentic, lasting relationships. Full stop.

Whether you’re dating, parenting, teaching, attending a conference or hosting a dinner party, the ability to be fully present – in listening mode – will impact so many things. For good or ill.

  • Whether people want to keep talking to you, or don’t.
  • Whether people feel relaxed and open, or anxious and stressed.
  • Whether people want to tear down walls, or build them up.
  • Whether you learn something, or don’t.
  • Whether you’re perceived as compassionate, understanding and helpful, or not.
  • Whether people like you, or don’t.

Donor loyalty and love are earned, and it begins with YOU listening.

If I had to boil down Penelope Burk’s two decades of groundbreaking research in donor-centered fundraising into one thing donors want, it would be this: SHOW ME YOU KNOW ME. There are lots of ways to do this, but we sometimes miss out on the most obvious one.

Become a Donor Coach

Your job – as fundraiser, nonprofit professional and philanthropy coach – is to help your donors see the way to greatness. Think of this as part and parcel of your job as a philanthropy facilitator. In donor coaching mode, you need to listen so you can find “coaching moments” – opportunities to motivate donors to engage with, and act on, their passions in a way that brings them meaning and joy.

“Coaching is a worldview that is driven by the intention to be of service to others.”

— Dianna Andersen, Cyliant

Your job is to guide folks over the river, through the woods, up the mountain and

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12 Top Tips to Broaden Your Nonprofit Donor Community

Philanthropy should not just be about big checks.

That’s why you should never eschew small gift fundraising. Today I’m offering some tips for building and mobilizing your community to find, sustain and grow smaller gifts.

This is important, because a donor’s first gift is seldom their largest.  It’s a starting point.

The majority of your gifts will be small, but the majority of your income will come from a small group of major donors.

You have to grow this cadre of loyal, passionate philanthropists by building relationships with supporters over time.

The lion’s share of major gifts come from previously small gift donors.

A client I’m working with told me 50% of their major donors began with very small gifts.  How about tracking this for your organization? Sure, some major donors come in at the top. But I’ll bet you a majority start by dipping their toe in the water. How can you get folks more fully immersed?

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How to Kon Mari Your Nonprofit Work Plan

This year it’s been easy to hoard.

You had all the strategies that worked for you in the past, PLUS you had to add a bunch of new ones when faced with the realities of the pandemic economy.

Then you had to add things to be relevant to supporters who were thinking about a million news stories. You needed to be relevant, and consider your stance on BLM, BIPOC, DEI and a range of political and social justice issues.

The extraordinary times could not be ignored, so strategy got piled upon strategy, got piled upon…

And your nonprofit work plan got super crowded.

Time to clear out some space!

You’re likely wondering if you have to do everything virtually as well as in person. You’re wondering if your messaging needs to change to be more inclusive? You’re wanting to connect with folks in ways they’ve come to expect, and to offer meaningful engagment opportunities, but… where is everything going to fit?!?!

Never fear. Help is here!

What if you were to look at your work plan this year from the KonMari perspective?

If you’ve been living under a rock, Marie Kondo’s KonMari is the art of “tidying up to transform your life.” It’s a popular book that’s become a Netflix sensation, and it may not be your cup of tea, but…

What if, through some simplification and organization, you could transform your life (at least at work) as well as your nonprofit’s life — so all involved felt greater inspiration and even serenity?

You. Can. Do. It.

Alas, I’ve participated in many a planning session, and seldom do I recall – if ever – really focusing first on what we could stop doing to make room for new endeavors.  If this sounds familiar, you’re likely also familiar with the unfortunate consequences.

There are some things that really should not be part of your work plan moving forward. Or, at the very least, they should be pared down. Quite. A. Bit.

Here’s how you know you need, as Marie Kondo might say, to tidy up.

  • Do you try to stuff too much into your work plan and end up doing nothing as well as you’d like?
  • Do you allow daily clutter to crowd your inbox so you’re often responding to the little issues rather than the big ones?
  • Do you keep working on things that no longer have the payoff they once had, causing you to miss out on newer and more cost-effective opportunities?
  • Do you allow inertia to divert your focus towards ‘make work’ transactional stuff that satisfies your need to feel ‘busy,’ while you know it’s not really transformational work?
  • Have you allowed your job to become overloaded with tasks you don’t enjoy, to the point where you feel a bit like a lobster in a pot?
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These Fundraising Appeal Fallacies Will Cost You Money

Control Soup. Caution Soup. Street art.Ever have a well-meaning, yet perhaps overly controlling or risk-aversive, boss say to you:

  • Our fundraising letter must be no longer than one page.

  • That’s too simple; we don’t want to talk down to our donors.

  • We need to say more about our accomplishments.

  • We need to describe numbers of people served; that’s what’s impressive.

  • That’s not how I talk.

  • That’s not our corporate style.

  • That’s not how we do things.

  • That’s not what our donors are used to.

  • That’s not proper grammar.

  • That’s too gushy and effusive.

  • I want happy, not sad, photos.

  • Asking the reader to “please give generously” is sufficient; no need to name an amount.

  • Asking once is enough.

  • The development director should sign the letter.

  • Signatures from both the E.D. and board president will be more persuasive.

  • We don’t need a P.S.

Alas, these are common fundraising appeal fallacies that will cost you money. Money donors might have given to you, if you’d only understood some fundamental fundraising truths.

I was reminded of some of these truths today in a post from Jeff Brooks. He spoke of true pearls of wisdom gleaned from his fundraising mentor, the recently deceased pioneering direct mail writer Bob Screen. We’ve lost several fundraising giants this year, including Simone Joyaux and John Haydon, but we should never lose sight of the wisdom they imparted. It’s the best way to assure their memories live on and their good works continue.

I did not know Bob, but I’m sure I learned from him without realizing it.  Because the good stuff gets passed around. Why?  Because it works.

And it takes someone with experience to not just demonstrate it works, but to forcefully maintain the necessity of adhering to tested principles, facts and truth.  Even – especially – in the face of doubters (e.g. executive directors; board presidents) who would seriously derail your fundraising efforts. With all good intention, of course.

YOU are the fundraiser.

Never forget this is why you were hired. No one is an expert at everything. And chances are fundraising writing is not your leadership’s key area of proficiency. It’s your job to know what works, and what doesn’t.

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Donors Screening Calls? 12 Strategies to Stop Being Defeatist.

Donor screening callHave you ever made a phone call hoping to talk with someone, but instead reached voice mail?

Of course you have!

Does that mean you don’t ever make phone calls?

Of course not!

What do you do?

You leave a message and ask the person to call, email or text you back.

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

But at least they know you reached out to them. If they want to connect with you, they now have an invitation to do so. And if they know you, and like you, they’re very likely to return your call.

Donors know you. They like you. Otherwise they wouldn’t have made a gift to you.

So why are you, or your board members, so afraid to pick up the phone to thank them?

All the time nonprofits tell me “Asking our board members to make thank you calls won’t work, because people screen their calls these days; they won’t pick up.”

Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t.

Either way, you’ll have accomplished something important merely by proactively reaching out.

Stop worrying about how your donors will or won’t behave. Instead, worry about how you’re behaving. Or not.

Don’t donors deserve thank you calls?

Of course they do!

Penelope Burk, author of Donor-Centered Fundraising, found 91% of donors said this is their number one preferred method of recognition.

Thank you phone calls, IMHO, are the number one underutilized strategy in your fundraising toolkit.

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Digital Fundraising Revolution: Annual Benchmarks Study; Trending Behaviors

Sign: Amplify Your VoiceYou’ve no doubt become familiar by now with the term “digital revolution.” It’s something that’s been dawning on us, slowly but surely, over the past few decades, and particularly in the past ten years with the advent of social media. How far has your nonprofit come? Far enough?

It’s hard to believe, but a mere ten years ago so few nonprofits had jumped on the digital bandwagon I began blogging about it. I even wrote monthly for a national social media blog, becoming their guest nonprofit expert. It makes me chuckle now, because use of technology is by no means my sweet spot.  But I was just so troubled by the elephant in the room too few nonprofits were naming.

Today, most nonprofits have a digital strategy. Some are even going so far as to discontinue direct mail entirely. I don’t recommend this; still, it’s testimony to how far we’ve come in a short period.

NOTE: I find abandoning direct mail a bit extreme and precipitous. A classic “leaving money on the table” rookie mistake. Merely substituting an online for an offline channel ignores today’s reality. What’s that? It’s a multichannel world. Sure, it’s more work than in the past. Where you used to just have to communicate in one space, now you must show up in many. Yet there’s good news: layering your strategies can result in richer engagement than before, because you’re meeting folks where they are and reaching people you’d never have before reached. And donors cross channels! The lion’s share of philanthropy still comes from direct mail, but things are evolving. Online giving may be precipitated by offline fundraising strategies. Even if you engage in direct mail, you need to consider the convenience of your prospects and donors. What makes giving easy, convenient and likely for them? Simply sticking to online fundraising may narrow your chances for success. Did you know average email lifespan is 17 seconds vs. direct mail’s average of 17 days?  Also, did you know 31% of offline-only first-time donors are retained for over a year, versus 25% of online-only first-time donors? So you’re going to want to hedge your bets and not just fundraise in one place.

Okay, back to the revolution.

Nothing accelerated the transformation to digital like the past year.

Is your digital adoption of a transformational nature? Has it fundamentally altered how you do business? We’re at a transformation tipping point, and transformation doesn’t move backwards.

Going digital is now an in-your-face proposition that can’t be ignored.

I’m about to share some data with you to demonstrate how online engagement and revenue grew in 2020. But first I want to share some broad perspective strategic thinking on the subject.

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Fundamental Fundraising Truths: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

Truth: newspaper headlineThe Lilly Family School of Philanthropy projects total giving will grow by an estimated 4.1% in 2021. So you can’t use the pandemic as an excuse for raising less money in the year ahead.

Nor should you ever adopt a sky-is-falling stance of “we can’t compete in this environment, so let’s lower expectations and cut back.”

Did your organization cut back on development expenses last year?  Did you lay off fundraising and marketing staff? Did you send fewer appeals?

If you did, chances are you didn’t tell, and sell, your case for support.

At least not as effectively as possible.

That’s a sure-fire recipe for raising less money than you could or should.

Here are three evergreen, fundamental fundraising truths:

1. It Costs Money to Make Money

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Stop Writing Unconscious: Secrets to Inspire Action on Your Nonprofit Appeal

"Conscious Soup" street artYou want to raise money with your fundraising appeal, right?

Guess what?

However you feel when you sit down to write is how your readers will feel when they sit down to read.

Feeling anxious? Unprepared? Bored?

Your feelings come through in your writing. Or not.

So… first put a smile on your face! Think about what inspires you about your mission. What are you passionate about? What drew you here and keeps you here?

Passion is contagious.

You can do this – it’s just like talking to a friend about how important your cause is.

Yup.  Your donor is your friend.

Talk to them exactly that way.

Becoming a writer is about being conscious.

“When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader.” 

– Ann Lamott

7 Key Secrets + 16 Blooming Tips to Appeal Success

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Transactional Nonprofit Work vs. Transformational Philanthropic Progress

Greg Warner of Market Smart writes a lot about the difference between “work” and “progress.” I appreciate the distinction, both professionally and personally. I think you can use this notion, so I’m going to suggest a way to extend this idea to your nonprofit fundraising.

Warner notes in Why You Should Never Get a Job and Go to Work: “work” is tedious and negative; “progress” is inspiring and positive.

This is about being intentional about where you’re going.

It’s somewhat about perception and desitnation, but I’d argue it’s largely about the journey.

Your journey. Your donor’s journey.

And how everyone feels about the endeavor.

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