What I learned years ago, and how it might help you.
Many of the organizations I’ve worked with have been small to medium sized. And that’s no surprise since most nonprofits in the US are small. They’re eager to build a solid fundraising program, but most continue to depend on grants.
I think that’s a mistake. A program that builds relationships with individuals gives you a broader base of support. It reaches farther into your community. And it can help your organization grow.
Maybe my experience will help. Many years ago, I began my fundraising career at a respected regional theater. Fundraising from individuals was largely a board function. They focused on raising money from each other and a select group of donors. The development director focused on grants and in-kind gifts. Then she left a few weeks into my tenure. So the marketing director and I worked together to build an annual giving program.
Here’s what we did:
As a consultant myself now, this might sound self-serving. But we needed professional expertise to get started. Here’s some of what we gained from consultants:
- Direction and a framework
- Guidance on messaging
- How to track results and act on what we learned
- When to outsource – for example, using a mailing house instead of our old in-house equipment
Communicated better and more often
In the beginning, we hired a professional copywriter. I could write, but I didn’t know about writing for donors. So we hired someone who did. It made a tremendous difference.
I made it a point to learn to write our donor communications myself. Soon, we no longer needed an outside writer. But I wouldn’t have gotten there without professional help to start with.
We also expanded the once a year ask that had been the hallmark of the board led program. I wrote about killing the annual appeal here. Believe me, once a year is not enough!
And along with tracking results, we got serious about thanking our donors. It took years for this part of the process to become engrained in our functions. Looking back, we should have done better.
Researched similar organizations
We began in the days before the internet and websites. Instead, I called many other theaters to talk with their development staff and learn what was working. I filled a binder with ideas, publications, and appeals from across the country.
What we learned saved us so much time and effort! An example: hearing about what others were doing led me to retool our recognition and donor benefits. We stopped mailing mugs and t-shirts. Instead, we offered benefits that connected donors to our work, like open rehearsals and dinners with the artistic staff.
A few years later, one of our leaders suggested our job was to “feed donors’ addictions”. That sounds awful, doesn’t it? What he meant though, was right on target. Our job was to connect our donors to the passion they already had for theater. We needed to bring them inside and give them new reasons to feel enthusiastic about the organization and their support. Our revised benefits and communications focused on doing that. Donors loved the change!
Made it easy for the board to be involved
The annual fund had been run by a small group of motivated board members. But it was a 50 person board. We needed to involve everyone. We asked the board to choose some donors from the list who they would be willing to sign a letter for. They could choose people they knew or people they didn’t know. We wanted donors to receive a personalized solicitation with a real signature and a short note. Most of the board responded. I wrote some more about this process here. It’s worked well for me at many organizations since.
Kept good records
These were the early days. When I began, we had no computers. I tracked responses on paper. Soon, the theater got ticketing software. When the same vendor created an add-on for fundraising we started using that. It wasn’t ideal, but I was able to tweak it. Keeping even basic information in a system was better than index cards!
These days, there’s no excuse for not finding a database system that works for you. Excel is not your answer!
Tried something new
The theater had already begun to use telemarketing to sell subscriptions. Fundraising was able to use their services for several weeks in the year. We found our in-house telemarketing staff was great at building relationships with donors. They listened carefully, offered information about current productions, and kept notes for our files. Subscription sales continued to be the main focus of this group. But donor acquisition soared during the weeks we had access. A few years later, we even used a few top callers to run a small major gift campaign.
Proved a good annual giving program leads to a major gifts and major relationships
It took years, but we built our top giving levels and added a middle-level group. Many of the donors who migrated to these higher giving levels began with smaller gifts. Most donor contact continued to be on the phone and through written communications – we had no major gift staff. With no dedicated staff, it was everyone’s job to make these donors feel special. That’s something to keep in mind, even if you do have major gift staff!
Of course, the process of growing an annual giving program never ends. Whether you’re just getting started or you have an established program, there’s always something new to learn. I hope my experience has been helpful. If you have any questions, please leave me a comment or be in touch.
To sum up:
- Put your donors first.
- Hire professional help when you need it.
- Keep learning, and don’t be afraid to experiment.
- Don’t skimp on a good system.
- Understand that building a great program will take time and focus.
Photo: 160H by Ryan McGuire