donor-centered communications

Divide and conquer may be a good strategy on the battlefield. For nonprofit fundraising, not so much.

If you want to succeed with donor-centered communications you need to stop fighting and start inviting.

I mean this in two important ways:

  1. Stop fighting donors by trying to ‘hit them up’ and ‘twist their arms.’ Fighting is never a good way to win hearts and minds. Your job is to persuade, not coerce.
  2. Stop fighting internally about who gets to message your donors, and when, where and how. Every single donor communication should invite the donor into your community and your story.

Both of these strategies fall under the umbrella of something you’ve no doubt heard of ad nauseum: ‘Donor-centered fundraising.’ There’s a reason. The more you can get inside your donor’s head, and see things from their perspective, the better chance you have of them answering your call to action.

The more you come from your own internal biases, the worse chance you have of success. When you operate from instincts and habit, you often won’t see the forest for the trees. You need real time information, or you’ll fall back on preconceived notions that will generally lead you down the wrong path.

Let’s take a look at some common internal biases that set fundraisers on the wrong path. Beware the ego-centric path. Rather, seek the donor-centric one.

Stop Fighting Donors

Bias #1: Fundraising is a Fight for Money

Do your donor communications focus on your fundraising goals more than the specific impact your donor’s gift will create? You may be guilty of coming across as primarily in a fight to acquire your donor’s money if you’ve ever headlined a fundraising appeal with any of the following:

  • “Help us meet our year-end goal.”
  • “Help us complete our campaign.”
  • “Your gift will be doubled when you respond to our challenge grant.”
  • “Just 12 hours to go until our deadline is reached.”
  • “Just $50,000 left to raise.”

Donors aren’t sitting there with money burning a hole in their pocket. They aren’t looking for ways to part with their cash. They don’t care about your campaign goals or how much total money you need to raise.

Donor’s care about their own goals. They’re looking to make an impact… create change in the world… right a perceived wrong… fulfill a moral or religious obligation… leave a legacy that expresses their values – they aren’t thinking about money. As Jeff Brooks writes in Future Fundraising Now:

They [donors] give for reasons within themselves. They want to put their values into action. Or they want to prove to themselves that they are good people. Or they have guilt they need to work on. Whatever it is, they’ll say yes when they can see that their donation to you accomplishes their goals. Your goals are barely relevant to them.”

If you want donors to give you their money, you need to get inside their heads and figure out what they want to “buy” with a philanthropic gift to your cause. The more you show you know and care about what donors want and need, the better. The less you show you care about what you want and need, the better. Because you want money, and donors want a whole lot of other things.  You won’t get their money until you know what they want to purchase with it.

ACTION TIPS: Anything you can do to learn more about your donors is something you should do. Consider:

  1. Donor surveys.
  2. Asking for feedback on social media, your blog or e-newsletter, or via emails.
  3. Asking for feedback at, and after, events
  4. Focus groups
  5. Virtual ‘town hall’ meetings
  6. Small group events
  7. One-to-one coffees or lunches
  8. Paying attention to ‘clues’ such as folks who earmark gifts for specific programs
  9. Paying attention to LinkedIn, Facebook or other email notifications that clue you in to donor interests and accomplishments
  10. Paying attention to your most clicked on web pages, stories and emails

BOTTOM LINE: Invite your donors to be the change they want to see in the world, and in themselves.

Stop Fighting Internally

Bias #2: Credit for Winning the Fight Should Go to Us

Do you create/maintain departmental silosChances are you do if any of these statements are true for you:

  • Marketing, development, volunteers, human relations, customer service – each department operates in isolation and rarely do they meet.
  • Marketing is charged with putting butts in seats; development with getting those seats named.
  • It’s not marketing’s job to inform development who purchased tickets, nor is it development’s job to provide marketing with contact information for donors.
  • Marketing is charged with recruiting students/patients; development with securing donations from those constituents and their families.
  • School of Law has a separate major gifts goal than School of Environment, and separate databases as well.
  • Online giving has a separate goal than offline giving.
  • There’s no integration of campaigns and relatively little sharing of data.

Guess what happens when you don’t share the work, and the credit, by beginning with giving your employees information about what other folks are doing, a sense of purpose about where they’re headed, or how the work of different departments, or simply different staff, works together towards an integrated whole?

Opportunities for cross promotion and developing deeper ties with your constituents are missed. Even worse, your own staff don’t help one another do their jobs. They become competitive and territorial. “Don’t touch my subscribers,” “don’t touch my donors,”  “don’t touch my clients,” and even “don’t touch my volunteers” become common refrains. No one thinks in terms of our constituents. No one thinks in terms of how you, as a whole, might best serve them.

Donors may be segmented inappropriately, such as seeing them as online vs. offline. Again, this is an organization-centered, not a donor-centered communications, perspective. Donors don’t think of themselves as one type of donor or another. In fact, they probably give both ways depending on what seems most convenient at any point in time. When you think in terms of channels you miss the opportunity to segment donors according to things they share in common (e.g., recency/frequency of gift; size of gift; gift designation; affiliation with your organization; demonstrated areas of interest; expressed areas of advocacy).

ACTION TIPS: Anything you can do as a leader to eliminate departmental silos, is something you should do:

  1. Commit to a plan to develop an organization-wide culture of philanthropy where everyone is invested in donor service.
  2. Commit to a plan that incorporates the philosophy a rising tide raises all boats, and helping someone in another department or ‘school’ bring in the gift means the organization as a whole succeeds.
  3. Occasionally hold joint meetings with other administrative departments such as finance, information technology or volunteer services.  Explain what you do, ask them what they do and see what ways you can help each other.
  4. Create cross-departmental task forces or work teams focused on specific objectives. When you bring together folks with different skills and perspectives you (a) create a holistic approach that avoids duplication (i.e., different teams working on the same problem, thereby wasting precious limited resources) and (b) foster greater awareness of the depth and breadth of what your organization is doing.
  5. Integrate development and marketing if they’re not already joined at the hip. This is a primary area where if the right and left hand don’t work in sync you can seriously undermine your overall branding and messaging.
  6. Align online and offline strategies under a single strategic umbrella. Similar to the ‘rising tide raises all boats’ philosophy, multichannel and channel agnostic acquisition, engagement, and retention is critical. Each channel supports the other. No channel where your donor wants to hear from you should be left out. And it should be understood donors will not always give and/or otherwise engage the same way. They may give online in response to an offline appeal, and vice-versa.

BOTTOM LINE: Invite donors to give on their terms — wherever they are and whenever they hear from you

Bias #3: Mission Work is Pure; Fundraising is Dirty

Do your leaders and program staff see their work as mission-centric and view development staff work as ancillary? Chances are you do if folks where you work see fundraising as an administrative function and a big suck of resources, rather than as a profit center that helps them fulfill the mission.

This happens when fundraising is transactional rather than transformational. When leadership doesn’t take the time to ensure every staff member is oriented about the important role development plays in furthering the mission. When employees – all of them – are not fully engaged in your mission, leading them inevitably to bungle openings to turn inquiries into interest, interest into involvement and involvement into investment. When workers just do their job, not understanding their real job to be part of your greater vision-focused undertaking.

ACTION TIPS: Anything you can do to bring fundraising and program staff together, is something you should do:

  1. Hold organization-wide staff meetings where heads of all departments talk about their missions and give updates on their progress towards accomplishing their goals.
  2. Invite program staff to development staff meetings to talk about their programs. This shows you care about what they do, and also helps eliminate the mystery about what you do.
  3. Ask to be invited to sit in on program department meetings from time to time. For the same reasons stated above.
  4. Occasionally hold social get-togethers where staff from any department come together to talk about that week’s or month’s highs and lows. Tell stories of successes and failures. Celebrate and commiserate together.

BOTTOM LINE: Invite staff to collaborate in fundraising together to facilitate your donors’ journeys. It’s the best way to grow your nonprofit’s reputation as a force of goodness in the world.

Be sure to download our free “Donor-Centered Content Marketing Worksheet and Checklist to help you tailor the donor experience and take folks on a meaningful journey!

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.