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Redefining Integrated Fundraising for a Stronger Appeal

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I remember reading an article in Fast Company last summer with a headline of, “Charities are Spamming You Because it Works.” I’ll admit, at first I was a little incensed that a business publication would be broadly painting nonprofits as spammers. It’s a poor choice of words when what they are really trying to say is that nonprofits are using multi-channel direct response marketing and it’s working for many organizations.

This is not exactly an earth shattering insight. For years nonprofits have used direct response mechanisms for fundraising such as mail, email and phone. Many organizations are getting increasingly sophisticated with their direct response efforts by creating multi-channel or integrated fundraising campaigns that make a coordinated ask across channels. 

But here’s the insight that this article misses – some organizations are strategically using multi-channel direct response marketing and getting results, while others are simply playing a volume game. Let me unpack what I mean by that.

Some organizations strategically and wisely use direct response marketing for fundraising (perhaps that’s you!). This includes direct mail, email, and telephone channels. But, there are many organizations who use direct response and believe that they more they send, the more they raise. The latter group is playing a volume game to reach their goals and grow their fundraising program.

And why should they not believe this? After all, industry experts have propagated this idea for years and to some extent, it’s true. Sending more can help you raise more. But as organizations see a drop off in response rates, open rates, and so on, the answer is not sending more emails, mailing more letters or making more phone calls. In fact, this is a key opportunity for charities to ask themselves – why are we having to ask so much in order to reach our goals?

I certainly won’t deny that you’ll only see a portion of your response rate with each ask and so sometimes it makes sense to follow up. But what could you do beyond the ask to make your annual fundraising appeal more effective?

When we look beyond asking tactics to improve our fundraising outcomes, we are presented with an opportunity to rethink our understanding of what goes into multi-channel and integrated fundraising campaigns. 

In 2019 we need a new definition of what integrated fundraising means. We need to understand it requires a holistic approach to relationship building with donors, especially annual-level donors. We need to consider the whole ecosystem of asks and communications that build relationships and lead to fundraising success. Communications that support fundraising campaigns are a key piece of this that will help your organization cultivate donors and reduce the spammy-ness of your campaigns. 

When you think of authentic donor communications, you may think of pieces like newsletters, donor-specific social media content, thank you letters, gratitude reports, and annual reports. All of these communications play an important role in cultivating donors over the long term. But how many communications do you send out a year that specifically prime your donors for the launch of a campaign? I would guess not that many.

The benefit of strategically using donor communications in this way is that your organization starts a conversation that leads into the ask you want to make. You lay the groundwork for messaging, narrative, storytelling, and ultimately the ask. Anytime you create a fundraising campaign plan, like for your year-end fundraising campaign, there’s an opportunity to factor in this kind of communication. 

Let me give you a concrete example. 

A homeless shelter plans to raise money for its facility in December. They know they want to send a direct mail letter and several emails over the course of the month. They also have some stewardship plans in place to follow up with donors after they give. 

Now on their regular communications calendar, they know that donors will receive an email newsletter in both October and November as well as a special gratitude email around Thanksgiving. Plus, they will be posting on their social media channels.

Those newsletters in October and November are opportunities to start the conversation that leads to their year-end fundraising ask. They could do this by sharing content that:

  1. Highlights the need for homeless shelters in their community
  2. Makes a case for their particular shelter model and why it’s more effective
  3. Speaks to the impact homelessness has on people’s lives

By increasing donors’ exposure to these narratives and arguments before we roll out the asking portion of the campaign, we are already leading the conversation rather than springing it on them with the first annual appeal. This is a strategic (and maybe elegant) way to think through your next integrated fundraising campaign. One that turns down the noise in favor of focus, effectiveness, and relationship building. 

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