digital-first

This digital-first fundraising post is the first in a six-part series. 

“Every few hundred years there occurs a sharp transformation. We cross a “divide… ACTION POINT: Next time you hear colleagues pounding the table for something that is clearly yesterday’s news, find a way to tell them they need to wake up and smell the coffee.”

 – Peter Drucker

I was recently asked what I saw as a change or trend on the fundraising horizon. This year, in particular, this is an important question. 

We seem to be at that “every few hundred years” marker. Social upheaval, political unrest, a global pandemic, and climate crisis: These things affect nonprofit missions, constituents, and supporters. 

Drucker wrote that quote less than a hundred years ago. So I’d say the pace of change is accelerating. 

I realized that this is a year that calls for greater specificity. We can’t simply consider strategies as what we do; it’s necessary to consider how we do things. With so many options available, online and offline, it’s time to go beyond the tried-and-true fundraising fundamentals. 

I’m not suggesting you dump what you’re doing if you’ve got solid strategies built into your nonprofit’s DNA. No doubt these strategies work for you. But could they work even more effectively if you adapted them to meet the moment? Of course they could! 

It’s too easy to think you’re doing a good job with fundamental strategies just because you know what they are. For example, simply saying “we prioritize major gifts” or “we focus on donor retention” isn’t helpful without understanding specifically how you’re doing so and then tracking and measuring your results so you can improve. 

The times we’re in offer opportunities to demonstrate your effectiveness, relevance, and unique purpose in ways that weren’t previously accessible to organizations other than the largest nonprofits. In taking advantage of these opportunities, you can reach more people and raise more money.

This six-part series will focus on how to approach what I consider the top strategies. Within a reasonable period, if you embrace these six picks and dive into them with intent, dedication, and passion, doing them will begin to feel as natural and liberating as breathing. I mean it. 

Top 2021 fundraising strategies 

I’m calling these fundraising strategies. You may think some are more management or marketing strategies. If you do, I caution you against “silo thinking.” 

You can’t fundraise effectively without strong management and marketing. Fundraising, marketing, and management must be seamlessly and purposefully integrated. 

So if you’re the fundraiser and something is going wrong in key areas related to your success, you need to concern yourself with these things. 

Here are my top six fundraising strategies for 2021:

  1. Investing in digital-first fundraising and marketing communications
  2. Mastering online user experience and messaging
  3. Mastering relevant content marketing
  4. Mastering personalized, customer-centered philanthropy facilitation, especially mid-level and major donors, to increase donor lifetime value
  5. Mastering an analytic approach to strategy and planning
  6. Internalizing and externalizing an organization-wide culture of philanthropy

I strongly believe that if you master these six strategies you’ll succeed beyond your wildest dreams. That said, you won’t master them without commitment and hard work

 “Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes…but no plans.” 

– Peter Drucker

With that in mind, you need to commit to learning, working hard at living your commitments, practicing strategies that work, working smarter, and loving the results of your newly re-energized labors.

Keep reading to learn more about the first strategy I recommend implementing.

Investing in digital-first fundraising and marketing communications

Make investing in digital-first tools, opportunities, and strategies a priority. Going digital is now an in-your-face proposition that can’t be ignored. Commit to transition and shape your future, or grind along and be left behind.

“Digital transformation will start to become synonymous with business modernization and innovation.” 

Brian Solis

Having difficulty persuading leadership to embrace and invest in a digital-first strategy? Read this. Having difficulty persuading other staff and volunteers? Read this. Per McKinsey, for-profit businesses are investing more in digital technology today than anything else. Why? Because they recognize technology’s strategic importance as a critical component of the business, not just a source of cost efficiencies. You should too! 

If other nonprofits make it easy for people to engage and invest, and you don’t, you’ll operate at a competitive disadvantage. This will affect your bottom line and ability to deliver on your mission. 

In other words, it’s not only the largest or most cutting-edge nonprofits that must invest in digital-first opportunities. All nonprofits need to take that approach. You don’t get a pass because you’re new, small, short-staffed, or “putting all your resources into mission work.” 

We’re in a zeitgeist now where there will be no mission absent digital-first tools. And remember: Organizations that had worked on their digital-first fundraising and communications before the pandemic did more than survive during that crisis; they thrived. 

Take a look at the M+R 2021 Benchmarks report and share some data and examples with your “powers that be.” Make sure your fundraising and marketing communications are integrated and that you’re strategically using every channel where your constituents hang out. Multichannel strategies outperform single channel strategies because messaging in one channel supports messaging in another. It’s common sense, supported by research

The digital revolution ended business as you knew it. Embrace that fact. 

If you’re embracing the digital revolution for the first time, you’ll likely need to allocate more resources to fundraising and marketing. This is why, as Dan Palotta has been preaching, nonprofits need to get more comfortable with higher overheads. 

So, spend more on fundraising. Put enough boots on the ground to become effective at building relationships through multiple channels. If someone told you there was sure money behind 10 different doors, would you think you’d done an effective job by only looking behind five or six of them? Of course not! You need resources to be able to open all the doors.

Here’s a look at some of those resources. 

Invest in professionals. 

One person can’t possibly do everything well. It would be like hiring one person at the United Nations to be a simultaneous translator for every language! 

As little as a decade ago, when I left my last full-time Director of Development gig, it wasn’t uncommon to hire one person as the Online Fundraising Manager or Digital Communications Manager. 

Fast forward to today, and you need strategic specialists. If you just dabble and try to be everywhere at once, you’ll barely scratch the surface in any area. 

Just consider all the things you need to deal with: 

“Everything that even smells like digital or new media is shoved under the heading of ‘online’. To name a few: SEO, SEA, Facebook, content management and creation, website conversion, from micro-sites to landing pages, retention programs, journeys, data enrichment, media buying, campaign management, social media, display, SMS, marketing automation, growth hacking, lead generation, email marketing, mobile, copywriting, layout, analytics, CMS, CRM, YouTube advertising, re-targeting, customer data platforms, etc.

And in small organizations you can generally add a bit of ICT to that, because if the printer or your email doesn’t work, the online person is often the first to be asked…”

Reinier Spruit, Fundraising Practitioner and Consultant

Tip: Don’t fail to consider this simply because you believe you can’t hire additional staff. If you have no idea what all these acronyms mean, and if you can’t afford full-time staff for everything you need, at least consider outsourcing some of the work. There are folks who do this all day long, and hiring them may be more cost effective than bringing someone in house.

Invest in support software and technology.

Commit to investing in solutions that help, not hinder. Closely related to investing in professional people is investing in professional technology (e.g., database, CRM, email provider, texting provider, payment processor, and analytics tool).

Tip: Some of the online work can be outsourced to companies specializing in building nonprofit websites, landing pages, event registration, monthly giving, P2P fundraising, text messaging, social media fundraising, list building, and more.

There are many options today for organizations of all shapes and sizes, offered at a range of price points. There’s simply no excuse to ignore getting up to speed if you want to stay in the game.

Tip: Don’t get freaked out by technology. It’s simply a tool. Your job is to use it to reach people effectively in today’s environment. Right now, that means embracing online social fundraising. 

Invest in evaluation tools.

The best way to ensure you’re being smart about your investment of time and money is to measure your results. That might mean you need to spend some money to invest in measurement tools. It might also mean investing time to learn how to use tools that may be free or relatively low cost.

We’ll look more comprehensively at evaluation as a core strategy in part five of this series because taking an analytic approach to digital, or any other strategy, is the only way to know what’s working/what’s not working. 

Tip: Set up systems to make data your friend. Digital-first fundraising enables instant capture and analysis of donor data. But it’s only useful if you commit to using it!

Begin by setting up Google Analytics or use the analytics tools available in your donor database, email provider, CRM, or specialized social media tools like Hootsuite.

Next, see what’s available on the social media platforms you use (e.g., Instagram Analytics; Twitter Analytics; Pinterest Analytics) to track what’s opened and shared, which posts generate the most traffic, and what results in “conversions” (i.e., donations, ticket sales, sign ups, or other desired actions).

Finally, develop dashboards and reports that will help you track your most important, frequently referred-to metrics.

Assess where you are now with your digital-first strategy.

It’s always a good idea to take stock before you run out to purchase new merchandise, hire new people, or embark on a new strategy.

So schedule some time to review what digital strategies you’re using now and to what degree they’re successful. Since digital touchpoints can be objectively tracked and evaluated in a way that’s not possible with more subjective interactions, you’ll also want to build your online communications strategy based on data points. If up until this point you’ve used gut instinct to develop your communications plan, now is the time to move knowledge above opinion. 

If you want more help rocking a digital-first approach to fundraising, download this free guidebook from Hubspot: The Ultimate Digital Experience Audit. It’s written for businesses of all stripes. I suggest every time you see the word “buyer” you substitute the word “donor.”

donor loyalty

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.
Claire Axelrad