Major change of any nature has been the exception rather than the norm for the vast majority of the nonprofits I have had the pleasure of dealing with over the last 30 years. You do not notice this phenomenon as much when you first become associated with this wonderful world of charities. However, as my time marched forward in the sector, certain characteristics began revealing themselves which underscore this reluctance to embrace change.
By the time I had been ask to join multiple nonprofit boards and attended several meetings, this reluctance became abundantly clear. The key ones I noticed were:
- NPO boards being assembled to be conservative
- NPO boards being told that the status quo is good enough
- NPO executives and boards thinking being bold or innovative will strain budgets
- Boards and NPO executives reluctant to believe large increases in fundraising (revenue generation) are ever possible
- An overall mindset that is handed down from old board members to new board members to inhibit being bold or different
Bold Strategy in Direct Mail Generates Startling Results for Smile Train
Being radical can deliver startling successful results. Check out this case study of a radical approach to fundraising appeals. The organization made the bold offer that if you donated and asked them to remove you from the active appeal list they would honor the request!
Here is an excerpt from the article:
“Smile Train, a nonprofit that provides surgeries to children born with clefts and trains doctors to perform surgeries for and treat clefts, risked losing hundreds of thousands of contacts by experimenting with a very unconventional solicitation concept: donate to opt out.”
The test and actual appeals were more successful than they imagined, and only a small percentage actually asked to be removed! Perhaps the gesture of the offer was enough to spur allegiance?
I love this next section from the article:
“Taking this risk led to a great reward for Smile Train. The group’s efforts serve as a lesson your nonprofit can learn from when it comes to adopting new fundraising tactics.”
Such breakthroughs rarely happen without someone within or close to the nonprofit insisting on bold experimentation and innovation. My question: why can we not help such actions to occur much more often?
The Urgent Pleas from Roger and Tom
I am going to make a shameless plug for two newsletters every single fundraiser should be reading daily and weekly. The first is the Agitator with timely advice and musings from respected fundraising veterans Roger Craver and Tom Belford. The second is Ahern’s “tips” e-newsletter, also from one of the most respected fundraising communications veterans, Tom Ahern.
Both of these great sources of strategy and fundraising execution tips implore every single fundraiser to think outside the box and be bold enough to experiment, and thereby innovate. Each request or suggestion is laced with example after example of such innovation working! Sadly though, many times the examples are taken from someplace other than the nonprofit sector.
As the day approaches when direct mail will not be economically feasible and when large events such as galas may not be practical, should we not be taking some baby steps toward innovation and building strong personal relationships with donors?
5 Initial Steps to Try
I hope and believe every small to medium size nonprofit can break this mold of clinging to the status quo by trying the following initial steps:
- Establish a portion of the overall budget for experimentation and innovation
- Encourage donors to support innovation by creating and raising dollars for an Innovation Fund
- Make it a policy to experiment in a bold manner (in small tests at least twice a year)
- Make innovation a key section of your strategic plan
- Allow your strategic planning committee of your board to stay intact and become the innovation committee the rest of the time
If you are a nonprofit board member or executive reading this post, make it your goal to be the catalyst for this much needed change. Just close your eyes and think about what your nonprofit might be in five years if you are successful. If your personal vision is based upon innovation and change, then you must be that catalyst!