What Does Success Look Like: A Case Study

One of the first questions I ask prospective clients when we're getting into the nitty-gritty of their programs is this:

What does success look like?


In other words, how does the world change if your mission is successful and there is no longer any need for your organization?

People often laugh when I ask it. After all, I'm forcing them to envision their own obsolescence. But it's important for a couple of reasons. One, it's way too easy when doing this work to get lost in the weeds. There is so much complexity to most of the problems we face, and we know intimately the obstacles in our way. The idea of success shrinks as we look for small daily triumphs instead of the big picture.

And second, far too often, we forget to offer ourselves and our donors the hope that we really can solve the problems we face.

A long-term client of mine has been struggling with their acquisition program. The reasons were complex, as prospecting usually is, and we weren't sure what aspect of the program to tackle first. At a meeting this summer, we decided it was time to go back to the beginning. 

I pretended to be completely new to the organization. I conducted short interviews with several key institutional leaders, pored over their most recent speeches and writings, and delved into the concerns of their constituency. Of course, this was all stuff I've done before, that I do every time I sit down to write something for a client, new or old. 

But this time, I forced myself to see it with fresh eyes, asking these key questions: Why does this organization exist, in simplest terms? What problem are we addressing? What does success look like? How are we making that success happen?

After working with this organization for so long, I'd learned too much. I knew too many fascinating details about the ins and outs of their work, the problems they face, the influence they wield, and the successes they've had. Lost in those details was the heart and soul of the organization -- and that heart and soul is the reason people give.

By pretending to be new, I was able to tease out the core of their mission, present that core to a prospective new donor, and show that donor the end game that would be possible with their support. 

The result? A 30% lift in response over the previous control package, with an increase in the average gift of $7.00.

If you are struggling to develop messaging for your organization, try taking a step back. Pretend you don't know all those insider details and ask yourself: What problem are we trying to solve? How are we solving it?

And the final, perhaps most important, question: What will success look like?


Are You Playing It Safe?


My favorite clients are risk-takers. They are bold, inventive, and unafraid of failure. It's exhilarating to work with people like that, even if it does mean that I see my own ideas fail more often than I'd like. But the flip side of that is that when our ideas succeed, they succeed big.

A few years ago, one of my clients tried a new creative team for one mailing, testing their package head-to-head against mine. It didn't feel great that my client was looking around, and I spent a few moments feeling upset. But then I realized that, ultimately, the test would be good for the organization -- and for me. It would show us both what their audience was interested in seeing and how they would respond.

It did end up being a good test, too. I focused on the lessons I'd learned in my years of working in the industry and with that particular client and turned in the best work I could. I knew that regardless of the outcome, it was good for both the organization and for me to conduct the test. (Of course, I did win. Maybe I'd feel different if my package had failed!)

More than all the great internal lessons I learned, though, was the way that one risk turned into more risks, more bold moves, some of which met the same fate as that other creative team's, but more of which went on to break organizational records and build a robust direct mail program that continues to thrive.

Another client is always willing to try something new. They enthusiastically embrace innovation, and they are completely indifferent to failures. They pick up and move on. It's inspirational and so much fun to work on their program.

But so many organizations I encounter refuse to take risks. And I understand -- there's a lot of money on the line. Many organizations depend a great deal on their direct mail income, and one bad mailing could quite literally pull them to the brink of disaster.

But when you play it safe, donors can tell. They can sense you're not the organization that's going to finally make a break-through on your issue. They understand intuitively that you won't be sweeping them along in a bold campaign to make history.

And, really, isn't that part of what philanthropy is about? We give, at least in part, to try to leave the world better than we found it. And those of us who have to consider where every penny goes -- which is the vast majority of your direct mail donor file -- want to give where we feel most confident we can make a difference.

That doesn't mean the flashiest -- though some flash certainly doesn't hurt -- or the biggest name. It means the organization that feels the most authentically bold, daring and out in front. The one that is willing to take big risks in order to garner big wins.

Is that your organization?

Creativity and Failure


Failure is not a word I would associate with Pixar.

Over the last couple of decades, the animation pioneer has created some of my family's favorite movies, including Up, Finding Nemo and Toy Story. Not a bad track record!

But when I read CREATIVITY, INC. by Ed Catmull (with Amy Wallace), one of the founders of Pixar, failure was one of the recurring themes.

Catmull says early on that wrote the book to reflect on Pixar's success and offer a blueprint for business administrators who manage teams of creative professionals on how to maintain a successful creative company over the long haul.

But I found the book to be so much more than another entry in the business self-help genre. Instead, it was a fascinating peek into a visionary company that put story, creativity and excellence at the center of everything they do...which is what I aspire to do every time I sit down to write.

“To be a truly creative company, you must start things that may fail.”

Catmull believes that one of the things that dooms creative companies (and by extension, creative people) is refusing to risk failure. He spends an entire chapter -- and a significant portion of the book -- talking about the various failures he and his company faced as they reinvented animation for the computer age.

And even though I’m not an animator, it all really resonated with me. Because in my work as a creative strategist and copywriter, I have found that my very best work walks hand in hand with failure.

When I started out, I didn’t feel the same way – at all! I vigorously avoided anything that might lead to failure. I tried to keep my ideas tame, thinking that being too ambitious was a sure road to failure. I copied what others were doing thinking I could replicate their success. I rarely offered original ideas in meetings, even when I had them, hoping someone else would validate what I was thinking first.

But over the years I've learned that when I try an idea that seems too bold, too big for me to handle -- when I risk trying something that might fail -- I usually end up creating something more interesting than I ever thought possible.

“While planning is very important…there is only so much you can control in a creative environment.”

For me, one of the scariest things about taking a creative leap is the fear that I might not be able to pull it off, that I might fail.

As a strategist, I can’t know for sure that the path I’m proposing an organization take will lead to more donors and more funds raised. I can’t know how donors will respond to the asks in my copy. I can’t control the weather, the news or other natural disasters that may interrupt delivery of a mailing, or divert focus from my client’s cause.

In essence, I think welcoming failure into your writing is a letting go of control. And most of us don’t enjoy not being in control.

In CREATIVITY, INC. Catmull has a few suggestions on how to deal with the failure and loss of control that are inherent to the creative process:

  • Embrace it. Once you can start to see failure as part of the gig, you'll have an easier time moving past those moments when you inevitably fail to meet your goals.
  • Share it. Get feedback at every stage of your work. As Catmull says, "I do not believe creative products should be developed in a vacuum."  
  • Realize that failure helps you. The bolder and fiercer your work, the closer you walk to failure. If you’re failing, it means you’re pushing yourself.

The bottom line: don’t be afraid of failure. It’s there to help you think and act more creatively.

And if you're interested in Pixar, animation, or how the creative process works and is nurtured at one of the most enduringly creative and successful companies in the country, definitely check out CREATIVITY, INC.

Featured Package: Save the Bees

After a long weekend, I was pleased -- and surprised -- to discover that my Bee Package for Friends of the Earth had been featured by NonProfit Pro on their Anatomy of a Direct Mail Control column by Paul Bobnak. 

Our team has been incredibly pleased at the performance of this package over the last few years, and I'm glad to see it get some industry notice. Thanks, Paul and NonProfit Pro!

Your hurt pride is beside the point: More lessons from the DNC

I have been getting a lot of inspiration from the Democratic National Committee lately...but unfortunately, it's probably not the kind of inspiration they're aiming to deliver. Not to pile on after my last post, but I just can't help myself: Get your comms act together, DNC!

Last week, I received an emailed invitation to help the DNC chart their direction moving forward. On the surface, this is a great idea. People love to armchair quarterback -- clearly, I'm no exception! -- and surveys are a proven way to engage donors. Even if a survey-responder doesn't donate at the time of the survey, she's much more likely to give later on.

But take a look at the copy they used:

Let's start with the headline: "Let's rebuild this party together." 

"Rebuild" is a terrible choice here. It tells donors that the organization is wallowing in their failures. It tells donors that the party is a mess. It immediately puts the DNC on the defensive, sounding more like a disaster-relief fundraiser than a political powerhouse.

And sure, the DNC probably does need to do some rebuilding. But their use of that word tells me they don't have a clue what their audience needs right now. Democrats across the country are frightened and angry, and they're begging for someone to come out swinging on their and the country's behalf. Rebuilding the DNC is not going to make sure people have healthcare next year. It's not going to stop hate crimes or protect our civil liberties or keep us safe from nuclear war. 

I do like the urgency of "right now," but it's lost with the weakness of "rebuild." 

And last -- but definitely not least -- using "Let's" here is such a waste of a headline. Yes, people want to feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves, but they also want to feel like their individual contribution to that something bigger is valued. A well-placed "you" would make this ask so much more compelling.

Imagine the difference if the headline read something more like this:

We're gearing up for the fight of our lives...and YOU can help us start right now!


Take a look at that line: "...building a Democratic Party we can all be proud of." Does that make you want to leap off your sofa and take action? Then it's not doing its job.

Fundraising and activist communication are both about one thing: getting the donor to act. Whether you're just asking her to fill out a survey, or you want her to give a gift (this piece asks for both), you want to get your potential donor so fired up that she can't help but open her heart and her wallet for your cause.

Sure, we'd like to know our donors are proud of our efforts. But donor pride shouldn't be the end-goal. The end-goal is building a better world, not building a better organization.

Here's another harsh truth: donors don't give because they care about your organization. They give because they care about what your organization does. They give because in doing so, they feel like they are shaping the world they want to see. 

Fundraising copy should be about action. It should be inspiring. It should be moving and focused on the donor. It should be bold and visionary and fiercely committed to making the world a better place.

Anything less is insulting to the donors who give you their hard-earned money...and unlikely to give you the results you really want.

Two Ways to Avoid a DNC-Style Disaster...And Do More Good in the World

There’s a snowstorm happening outside, and I am curled up with my pup and thinking about the incredible New York Times article on the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee.

The entire article is by turns fascinating and horrifying. It’s clear that bad decisions were made at every turn by people at every level. But I work with nonprofit organizations, and the failures at the DNC are all-too-familiar.

Now, I’ve never worked with the DNC, and other than being a casual West Coast observer, am not familiar with the specifics of how they operate. But I have spent a lot of time with dozens of nonprofit groups from across the U.S. and around the world, and my consulting practice has given me a window into how far too many of them conduct their business day-to-day.

So I’m not writing this to condemn an organization I haven’t seen first-hand and up close. And I’m not going to comment on cyber-security, other than to say you should probably get some, like, yesterday.

But I do want to weigh in on a couple of key things that any nonprofit can do right now to help avoid making the same mistakes that caused the DNC to take months to respond to the attack on their servers.

1)   Break Down Organizational Silos.

The most effective organizations I work with are all up in each other’s business. Comms knows what Fundraising is up to. Fundraising actively collaborates with Program Development. Contractors touch base with every team. Executive leadership is kept in the loop on all of it.

And yes, this requires meetings. Look, I hate meetings. Too often, they feel like an interruption from the actual work I’m supposed to do. But that’s because most organizations don’t have enough of the right kind of meetings.

The contractor working on the DNC’s tech support who initially took the call from the FBI acted in a fairly typical manner: he wrote a memo, probably in the form of an email, which he sent to whoever was supervising him. But imagine if he’d asked for a quick meeting to discuss the FBI’s call. E-mails can – and do – get ignored all the time. I am a pretty good email responder, but more often than I’d like, I set them aside, intending to answer later, only to forget about them completely. But when a client or colleague phones me, I have to respond right then.

Lots of orgs, especially in these days of telecommuting, have weekly status meetings and monthly/quarterly big picture meetings, saving other communications for email. But quick “hallway meetings” – either in-person, let’s-convene-in-the-hallway, or via telephone or Skype – can be amazingly effective at getting information out and acted upon before it becomes front page news.

More importantly, all this face-time keeps people connected and communicating.

2)   Put a Concrete Value on Excellence.

Nonprofits are strapped for cash. That’s not new. But you have to invest in the people who keep your mission going: the professionals who get your important work done. Way too many nonprofits pay peanuts, especially compared to the private sector, and then act surprised when the people they hire turn out to be inexperienced, mildly incompetent or lazy…or they suffer from burnout just as they’ve got the job down.

Contractors have become a handy way to save money and get quality people in the door. But if you want to use contractors, let them into your fold. Include them in team meetings, send them reports, give them access to your insiders.

When they feel like a part of the team and not just a skill-for-hire, they’re more likely to go the extra mile for you…or, you know, let you know that the FBI called.


I don’t know that any of this would have made a difference in the DNC’s case, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt.

The best organizations I have worked with do these two things. What’s more, they are committed to a culture of openness, collaboration and excellence and keep a vigilant watch out for the complacency that can come with success and growth. 

And ultimately, when your organization is firing on all cylinders, you can not only avoid disasters like the DNC faced -- you can focus more energy on the good you're doing in the world.

Fundraising Yoga: The 4 C's

Back when I took my first yoga class, the teacher warned us to avoid "The 4 C's." I have kept that advice in the back of my mind in the 25 years since that class, and I've found it to be good advice for yoga, for daily life, and for fundraising.

But while The 4 C's are big Don'ts, they can lead to some even bigger Do's.

Don't Compare

It's tempting to look at other organizations in your sector and wonder why you don't have the same name recognition or the number of donors that they boast. But comparisons don't move you forward. Instead, they tend to get you mired in picking apart your flaws and all the ways you can't measure up.

Do Study and Learn

Where it's damaging to compare, it can actually be really helpful to look at what an organization is doing to get that name recognition or secure that donor loyalty. Study their direct mail and see if there are ideas -- packages or techniques -- that you think your donors might respond to. Learn what you can about how they engage the press or work social media and see if you can find ways to boost your own organization. 

Don't Compete

I was at a children's soccer game recently where a parent was so upset that his son's team was losing that he lost it. He began yelling at an eight-year-old child on the opposing team and had to be escorted out of the park. It didn't help his son  or his son's team play better, it didn't increase anyone's enjoyment of the game, and it didn't change the outcome. Our culture tends to laud competitiveness, and while some drive to win is a good thing, in general, competing in fundraising isn't going to get you where you want to go.

Do Collaborate

Instead, try collaborating. If there's another organization in your sector that is performing better than you in their fundraising efforts, reach out to them and see if they'll share some of their secrets. Reach across sectors to find like-minded colleagues to work with. (Some of my biggest successes come from looking at what organizations in totally different arenas -- including for-profit companies -- are doing.) Different minds have different takes on the same situation, and working together can help everyone succeed.

Don't Complain

I like to complain as much as the next person. But let's face it: Nobody likes a whiner. And where does it get you anyway? That ten minutes you just spent jawing about a rotten situation is ten minutes you could have spent fixing it.

Do Embrace Challenges

Fundraising -- like life -- doesn't promise to be easy, comfortable or fun. I wish it did, but instead, it promises one challenge after another. So embrace those challenges. Come up with creative ways to solve them. You might come up with the next Velcro. And even if you don't, at the very least, you'll be moving forward instead of wallowing in the same old problems.

Don't Criticize

Criticism has no place in yoga, where the idea is to do the best practice you are capable of doing at that moment. But what about in the nonprofit world? Shouldn't we criticize in order to produce the best possible outcome -- whether we're writing a fundraising letter or developing a new outreach program?

Do Critique

Criticism doesn't leave a whole lot of room for what's going right, which is often just as important -- if not more -- than what's going wrong. In their fantastic book on change, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath talk about one of the key steps that people who successfully change situations take: following the bright spots. By looking at what is working and trying to do more of that, we're usually more successful than if we look at what's not working and try to change it. In other words, endless criticism is not going to get you where you want to go as fast as thoughtful critique.

That "Worthless" Humanities Degree

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were discussing our respective college experiences. I pursued a pretty standard liberal arts degree -- a BA in English literature, with a minor concentration in French. He obtained an architecture degree, then returned to university 15 years later for a Master's in Education. Each of his turns on the higher education merry-go-round prepared him to step into a specific career.

My university experience prepared me to...read a lot. In two languages.

That discussion with my husband wasn't the first time I've defended my "worthless" degree. Despite floundering a bit post-university -- eventually finding myself (gasp!) using my degree in my position as a copy editor for a direct marketing fundraising firm -- I continue to believe that studying the humanities has made me a much better consultant and business owner. The liberal arts taught me how to think critically and how to better understand people, individually, as a group, and across cultures.

But I can't defend my study of the humanities nearly as well as Ryan Stelzer, co-founder of Strategy of Mind, does in this article

Yeah, I wish I'd taken a business class or two. But now, I'm more excited to inject a bit more philosophy, history and English literature mojo -- and maybe even un mot or two of French! -- into my consulting and fundraising work. 

Away we go!

I launched my own consulting practice -- and my own website -- in 2009 after a dozen years of working for others. The last almost-seven years have been incredibly gratifying (and occasionally terrifying), and through it all I've learned a great deal about the kind of consultant I want to be.

It was time for the public face of my business to reflect that. Over the last few months, I've been working behind the scenes on developing a new look for my website, and I'm finally ready to unveil it! 

It's much easier for me to tell someone else's story than to tell my own. So I anticipate that over the next few months, I will undoubtedly refine the site, hone my image, tone and content, and -- fingers crossed! -- develop and implement new tools to reflect my passion for helping nonprofits communicate effectively. 

I'll be sure to share anything I learn along the way.

In the meantime, let me know what you think in the comments!

The Activist Attitude: 5 Ways to Fundraise like an Activist

Earlier this week, I talked about cultivating an Activist Attitude.DSC_0002 Now we're going to get down to the nitty-gritty: what can you do in your fundraising to frame your organization in a more activist, we're-changing-the-world way?

Here are 5 ways to fundraise like an activist:

1. Include an Involvement Device.

For more traditionally activist organizations, this is often a petition to a person in authority. They work. Not only do they inspire people to respond to your direct mail or your email solicitation, but they also show you who your most passionate and engaged supporters are.

But you don't have to do a petition to involve your donors! Try a survey. Ask donors what they think about various aspects of your work or the issue you're focused on. One client had such good results with the survey they used in Acquisition, that they included one in a renewal effort, as well.

Another great involvement device that doesn't get used often enough is asking your donors to sign a Declaration of Support. This gets donors signing on to your mission, making them a key player in your work. And you can use these signed declarations in a variety of ways, from delivering them to a decision-maker or displaying them prominently in your headquarters as a Wall of Support.

2. Have an Urgent Call to Action. 

yell_out_56091You know urgency is key to fundraising, so pair it with a call to action. For many activist organizations, this is tied to a specific campaign, but if you've got your Activist Attitude turned on, you'll see many ways to use it.

Your donors have full lives, so you need to give them a reason not to set that fundraising piece down on the “I’ll get to this later” pile.

Make your asks urgent. Tell your donors you need their help NOW. Better yet, give them a deadline by which to act. And make it sooner rather than later. Plaster that deadline on the outer envelope, on the reply form, in the letter and on the reply envelope. Explain to them why it’s so important that they act fast.

And give them specifics about what you're asking them to do. Tell them how much you want them to give or what you want them to sign and what that action will do.

Instead of "You can feed the hungry this winter", think: "Respond within 14 days to feed hungry families this month!" Or "Your gift of $XX will feed YY hungry families -- give now!"

3. Find an Enemy. 

Your enemy doesn't have to be a political leader, as it is for many activist organizations. An enemy can be abstract, like the weather. Or it can be systemic, a bureaucracy that your organization helps people navigate. Enemies are fundraising gold. Is someone trying to stop you from accomplishing what you need to accomplish? Is there a system standing between you and success?

People love rooting for the little guy. When you have powerful forces arrayed against you, your donors will want to help you.

Need a softer "enemy"? Think roadblocks or obstacles instead. Staff stretched too thin? Funding troubles? Lack of awareness about your organization or a particular program?

All of these roadblocks can be cast as enemies, forcing your audience to wonder how you can possibly overcome. (And of course, you’ll tell them that THEY are the key to solving any problem that comes your way!)

4. Empower Your Donors.

You already know you need to be donor-centric, right? Well, a really great way to be donor-centric is to tell them this truth: they are changing the world. Every time a donor makes a gift, volunteers, or takes an action on your behalf, they are saying, "Yes, I want to help your organization solve this problem!"

Activist organizations understand this inherently, and they let their donors know that their enthusiastic embrace of their missions makes a difference. They give them many opportunities to participate -- from telephone town halls, to news updates via email and in the mail, to gatherings with organizational leadership, and social media engagement.

Your donors are your tribe, the heroes who make your work possible. Your donors wield a great deal of power to re-shape the world in the way you're working to reshape it. Engage them in conversation, listen to their voices, and give them as many opportunities as you can to use their power!

5. Embrace Your Righteousness.

You believe your cause is important, right? You are passionate about the work you do and believe that it is critical to creating a better world for us all. Embrace that.

Successful activist organizations stick to their messages because they know without a doubt that they are right. They own it, and they don't back down -- they fight hard and don't compromise their beliefs. And that righteousness breeds trust in those who share their vision.

Don't be afraid to stand up for your mission. And don't apologize for your passions. Yes, there may very well be causes that are more life-and-death than yours. But your donors are looking to you for leadership on your issue. And your work is right.

Above all, embrace your Activist Attitude!

With a little more activism injected into your fundraising, you just might see more energy among your staff, your supporters and your fundraising.

You Are an Activist

If you work in the nonprofit industry, you want to change the world. smaller-crowd-rdc-color-mdWhether you're trying to find homes for abandoned animals, feeding hungry children, working to cure an incurable disease, or committed to bringing more art into your community, you're out to create a different world than the one we have today.

The status quo isn't good enough for you. You want the world to be better.

You are an activist.

Funny thing is, when I use this word with a potential client, I can tell right off if we're a good fit by their reaction. Some fundraisers embrace their activism, understanding that whether or not they are petitioning Congress or staging demonstrations, activism is inherent in everything their organization does.

Other organizations shy away. They prefer to think of themselves in terms of social good, community benefit, outreach or education. Anything but activists.

Forget for a moment about what you think your organization does. What does your donor think? Does Verna give because you're doing good work? Or does she give because you are changing the world?

After almost 20 years working with a broad spectrum of nonprofit clients, I've come to believe that if you want to raise more money and encourage more loyalty in your donors, cultivating an Activist Attitude is where it's at.

A Case Study of Environmental Organizations

Let's put this in real terms by talking about two different environmental groups.

Group A is a venerable institution in the environmental world, with a 40-year history and a host of achievements.

Group B is a newer organization with a fierce passion for their work.

Both are international in scope. Both stage protests and work collaboratively with other organizations. Both do a fair amount of cage rattling at the national and international level. Both have impressive track records in their areas.

Group A wants to be seen as on-the-ground activists, out to fight for our planet. Group B insists on presenting their work as education and community outreach. Even their protests and petitions to governments and governmental bodies is couched in terms of local empowerment, not activism.

Group A has doubled in size in the last two years. Group B has...not.

A Case Study from the Arts and Culture World

An acquaintance works for an arts organization that has always struggled to raise money. They can articulate why art is important, they believe in the critical importance of their work, but they were in danger of disappearing because they couldn't get the funding they needed.

We discussed their problems, and I asked if she'd ever thought of making the case that the organization was addressing very real and persistent problems in the community -- that it was changing the world through its work.

They tiptoed into a more activist tone in their next appeal, and it garnered the best response of the year.

Later this week, I'll post more about how to fundraise like an activist organization. But for now, take some time to remember that you wouldn't be doing the work you do if you didn't think the world needed to change. Don your Activist Attitude!

You are an activist. And you can fundraise like one.

The Power of Narrative

photo 4-1 Today, I'm over at ARC talking about my recent trip to Hearst Castle and what it taught me about the power of narrative.

How you tell your story -- your own or your organization's -- matters. The right narrative can move and inspire, anger, or even harden your audience's heart. So check out my post on the Hearst Castle narrative, and let me know what you think. What have you learned about your own narrative over the years? How has it changed? Are there any ways you could make it even more effective?

The Power of Choice

Most of us are pretty passionate about "choice." We prefer restaurants where we can choose from a variety of foods. We love department stores with a wide array of items. Parents like to be able to choose the best public school for their child, regardless of where they live. Much of the healthcare debate in this country has been framed as a discussion about "choice" -- of your healthcare provider, your insurance company and the procedures you can have. skeinsBut too much choice can be paralyzing. The other day, I visited the yarn shop intending to buy yarn for a new project. My choices were already limited -- I needed a specific weight and fiber yarn for the project -- so I thought it would be easy. I quickly found a yarn that would work…and then I was stumped.

The colors! There were so many (this photo shows only half of what was available!) that I could not decide. I stared at the yarn for several minutes and ended up leaving without buying anything.

Are your donors facing this same dilemma when they go to your website or receive a direct mail package?

The only choice you want your donors to make is how much to give. Now, of course, many people are going to choose not to give at all, but you don't want to make that easy for them. Offering them too many choices can make even the most determined donors opt out of giving altogether.

I've seen reply forms and landing pages that ask donors to choose between a straight gift, a monthly gift, a tribute gift, and a bequest and a multi-year gift…and then go on to detail other choices they can make, such as submitting a matching gift form from their employer, signing up for a newsletter, or joining another giving circle.

If making a donation to your organization requires more paperwork than getting a bank loan, people won't bother.

But we still love choice, right? Offering no choice at all makes people uncomfortable. Nobody likes to be told what to do, and most of us want to feel like we have some control over the transactions we make, even with our charities.

So do offer some choices. A gift string with a variety of amounts and a spot for a donor to write in their own amount is a great way to offer choice without turning a donor off.

Frame your Ask as a choice: Would you rather live in a world where children like Marcus have enough to eat? There's only one answer to that question -- YES, I want Marcus to get enough to eat! -- but it still feels like a choice, and one we can feel good about making. After all, what kind of monster would say "no?"

And yes, I LOVE monthly giving programs and high-level giving circles and bequests and all the rest. But I don't love throwing all those choices at your donor at once. Give them the space they need to consider these options by offering them one at a time.

Choice can be a powerful ally in fundraising, but it can easily become overwhelming. Take a look at your website and direct mail and make sure that at each stage, you're offering your donors the one choice that matters: to give.

And if you have any suggestions on the color of yarn I should buy, please feel free to weigh in!


A Pep Talk

When you're reading blogs like this one, you often get complex information presented as easy-to-remember slogans and buzzwords: It's all about relationships! Friendraising! Storytelling! Three simple ways to... It all sounds so easy. I often find myself reading a few blog posts, attending a webinar or two and coming away believing I should be able to incorporate all my new knowledge without a hitch. It rarely goes so smoothly as I think it should.

It takes time and effort to perfect new techniques.

beach gazingI see a lot of organizations jump on a trend or try a new way of doing things, only to abandon it when it doesn't pay off immediately. But how likely is it that you are able to stand up on your first attempt at surfing? Won't you have to learn how to read the waves, move your body in relationship to the water and the board, and teach your muscles how to maintain a new kind of balance?

The same is true for fundraising tools. You may need to work on your new skills over many months and many mailings, tweaking and perfecting constantly, before you see your efforts bear fruit.

In other words: practice, practice, practice.

People who write blog posts with "easy" new tools have been working with those tools for years. Many of the writing tips and techniques I talk about are skills I've been honing for decades.

So if you try something you read on a blog or learned at a fundraising conference once and it didn't work…give yourself a pat on the back for trying something new. And then try again.

What I'm cultivating this year

cherryblossThe calendar may say it's spring, but across much of the country, we're still waiting for evidence. But I know it's coming. So as I sip hot tea and gaze out the window at the rain pouring down, I'm planning my garden -- and thinking about the seeds I want to plant at work, too. This week, I'm over at the ARC blog talking about some of the ideas I'm nurturing this spring -- think better stories, improved donor relationships and finding new supporters. Check it out here…and let me know what you think!

Are You a Non-Profit Rock Star?

rockonIndependent musicians are often technological trailblazers. From their embrace of social media, to their march toward different ways of engaging fans and selling their music, a lot of indie bands have been on the cutting edge of the intersection of technology and commerce. So I like to keep an eye on what they're doing. This post caught my attention last week, and although it's written specifically for indie bands, I think it has a lot of great lessons for nonprofits as they try to navigate high-tech waters and engage their donors -- particularly the next generation of donors.

So here are my suggestions for nonprofits who want to make the leap to nonprofit rock star:

Rethink the Way You Build Your Donor Base

This isn't going to happen overnight, but a lot of organizations are already starting to look at how they're acquiring donors and how they can do it better. Direct mail is still a viable way to go, and the Web is certainly upping its numbers ever year. But what else could you do?

  • Deliver quality content. Too many organizations send out email blasts because they're on the schedule, not because they have something important, interesting and actionable to say. Send emails your recipients want to open. Try surveys or petitions to get them involved. Link to articles you found interesting. Send a video greeting from your ED or a celebrity supporter. And please, resist the urge to bombard them with asks for money.
  • Be social on your social media. Engage with your followers. Start conversations, send good wishes, share cool information or funny videos. Don't be so scripted and regulated that you sound like an institution -- let your organization's unique charm and personality shine through.
  • Give your donors the Thing they want. Why do people give to your organization? What do they hope to accomplish? Why YOU? Deliver that. Tell stories, stream video, thank them. Make them feel like a vital part of your work.

Find New Revenue Streams

This isn't just for indie bands. Nonprofits need to get creative with their fundraising if they want to raise more money. And today, there are as many ways to do that as there are organizations.

Of course, there are the tried and true ways to expand your revenue stream. If you're not already maintaining a Sustainer program, encouraging Planned Giving, and working on upgrading current members to higher giving levels, well…get on that!

But consider these other ideas, too.

  • Crowdfunding for specific campaigns, or for events like birthdays, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and anniversaries.
  • A "store" that sells itemized portions of your work. $25 to feed a puppy for a month. $100 to save five acres of rainforest. You get the idea.
  • If your ED or board members travel, consider asking them to host members-only house parties or other events in the cities they visit. It's a great opportunity for some face-to-face fundraising, and it makes your donors feel valued.

Stop Believing in the Magic Bullet

There is no magic bullet. There is no one fundraising solution that will work for now and for always. You're going to have to continually reinvent your fundraising as new tools become available and as donors become more sophisticated. That doesn't mean throwing out the tools that got you where you are today, though.

You need to have a whole catalog of songs, oldies and new releases, to play for your donors if you want to be a nonprofit rock star.

The Big Rush

imagesThis past week we did a lot of rushing in my family. From piano to birthday celebrations, from haircut to dinner to middle school tour, from futsal to more birthday celebrations…it was a whirlwind. As we rushed from activity to activity, I also did some rushing in my work life. And it got me thinking about how compressed our schedules have become in the last few years. What used to be a six week process of strategy-research-outline-draft-refine-review-perfect-mail has, too often, become a mad dash from outline to draft to review to mail -- with no time to strategize, thoroughly research, refine or perfect anything.

I see it all the time in news reporting. It's almost impossible to read a news article today without finding at least one typo. Even larger news outlets have become so quick to publish that they do their fact-checking after the story's out.

I am not a technophobe, and I don't hate progress. I do not want to go back to the days of stinky blueline proofs and camera-ready copy. I love being able to type, copy and paste my way through drafting and editing.

But I do wonder if we've hit the limit of how fast we can go.

Now, I know computers can and will do things faster. They'll continue to advance, and my children or grandchildren will likely wonder how we managed to get by with such clunky interfaces as keyboards and mice.

But true creativity and excellent, thoughtful work still take time.

Before I write a word, I like to take time to absorb the information and notice what bits and pieces stand out for me. If I do my research and then step away, my brain helps me out by sifting through things and organizing it all, so that when I do sit down to write, the words flow more easily.

And the same principle works once the copy's written. My best direct mail letters need rest before they're ready for the world. I have to step away for at least a day -- ideally for three or four days -- so that I can see clearly what needs work.

Yes, I can -- and often do -- turn things around on a dime. I've written, directed design and sent to the printer direct mail packages in the course of one business day. (With a lot of help from clients, graphic designers and printers!) And many of those packages were successful.

Some of them were not.

The truth is, my best, most enduring packages have been those that I was allowed to spend weeks on.

As you rush to meet deadlines, consider if there might be a value to slowing down. I'm a firm believer that done is better than perfect, but that doesn't mean I don't try to be as perfect as I can be -- and sometimes that means taking an extra day or two.

Sometimes, the best way to beat the rush is to slow down and let it pass you by.

You Are Not Your Brand

The other day, I spied an interesting conversation on Twitter about author branding. And while the conversation revolved around those who write books for a living, I think many of the ideas apply to nonprofit organizations as well. Don't get fooled by the fancy icing…it's the cake underneath that counts.

Here's the tweet that started it from author Chuck WendigReferring to your "brand" is another way of saying "here's the carefully constructed, safe, corporate lie I need you to believe about me."

One of the things I love about writing for nonprofits is that, when I get it right, it can take all those meetings and reports and outreach that you do each and every day and make it all personal. The donors reading your direct mail -- or, really, any marketing or fundraising copy you write -- should be able to feel the conviction, passion and tireless effort behind what you do and get a sense of the personality behind your organization...not the brand.

So here's my PSA for the day: Stop talking about branding!

It's boring. It's obnoxious. And your donors don't care.

Instead, talk about who you are -- your identity.

Your brand is an image. It's helpful when you want people to recognize your organization at a glance. It's great shorthand for marketing. But it's not who you are.

Your identity is the soul and vision of your organization, what you hope to achieve, now and into the future. What does your organization care about? Why do you care? Why is it so important? What will be better in the world because you're working on this issue?

That's what your donors care about. Branding is just the fancy icing your marketing and communications team puts on the delicious cake that is your organization.

Don't let the marcomm team tell you "That issue isn't part of your brand." That gets you stuck in a rut, and there's no better way to stop caring about what you do than to make it so rote and routine that it ceases to matter -- to you or to anyone else.

If you're working on it, and you care about it and it will make the world better, it's part of YOU.

Are you a scrappy band of rabble-rousers? Or a firmly established group making changes from the inside? You may be tempted to straddle the line or try to be all things to your donors, but if you want your identity to be authentic -- and you do -- you have to make a choice about who you are as an organization. And then stick to it in all your copy.

As Chuck Wendig said a bit later in the conversation, "Just be the best version of yourself. Let everyone else worry and talk about your brand."


One of Those Days

poutLast week, I had one of those days. You know the ones. You do your best to get things done, reach for creative heights, and refrain from yelling at your family or snapping at the mom who just ran over your foot with her giant stroller. And nothing quite seems to work out. I sometimes have a hard time keeping days like that in perspective. Rationally, I know that some days are just like that. But I often turn my frustration inward, sure that if I could just buckle down, I could move forward on that big project/be a more patient parent/write the heck out of that fundraising letter.

But last week, I had a bit of a breakthrough. I was complaining to my husband about my lack of forward momentum, and he reminded me that we'd had a sick child, strange school hours/off days, and an addition to our already crowded weekly schedule. From his perspective, it was no wonder I was off my game.

And that is when I realized that "those days" almost always happen when I'm out of my routine. My work may be creative, but that creativity relies on my devotion to my daily rhythms. And when those rhythms get thrown off, so does my ability to do my most effective work.

Of course, disruptions to routines are inevitable. Not only that, I'm starting to think they're valuable.

"Those days" often can be precursors to a different kind of day: the days when everything I work on comes together almost magically.

My regular path might be narrow, but sometimes you see more by stepping off for a time.

By stepping off my usual path, I give myself the chance to look at the things I'm trying to accomplish from a new perspective. And I'm able to be fresh and more creative when I get back on track.

So next time I have one of "those days," I'm going to try to look at it as a gift, rather than a curse.

Although I still might snap at the lady who runs over my foot with her giant stroller.