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.

2013 Reflections

IMG_0246Now that all three of my children are in school, I've noticed that time seems to move much more quickly than it used to. Although it's been an entire year, I'm still not entirely used to the idea of 2013…and here we are almost at 2014. Which means it's time to reflect! I rarely make New Year's resolutions, but I do like to take a few minutes at the end of every year to think about what has changed this year, and ponder where I'd like to be at the close of the next.

And part of those reflections is asking myself how well I served my clients this year, how the relationships are working, and how we can work to achieve even more in the coming year. Even if you're not a consultant, I think these are valuable questions to ask yourself at any time of the year:

What surprised you about the last year? Good or bad, surprises have things to tell you. Did a campaign you thought was sure-fire actually bomb? Did a relationship go awry? Did an idea you had on the fly turn out to be a life-saver? Reflect on those things that surprised you -- and why you didn't see them coming.

What worked well? It's easy to focus on what's not working, but I think the more helpful trail to follow is what is working. Chip and Dan Heath call it "following the bright spots" and I've found it to be incredibly helpful as I move forward each year. Where are things going right? Can you pinpoint why it's working so well? What can you do to keep that momentum going and even expand it? Can you apply any of those lessons to other areas of your life? While dwelling on things that went wrong might be tempting, looking at what went right often yields more positive results.

How can you make things that aren't working better? That's not to say that you shouldn't examine your failures. I had a colossal mess on my hands at one point this year, and although I'd love to pretend it never happened, I know that it actually has a lot to tell me about where I want to go in 2014. Where did you fail this year? How can you turn that failure into a positive next year?

I enjoy all this reflecting -- and find it deeply helpful. But even better is coming back to work on January 2nd and beginning to make my reflections reality. Bring on 2014!

(But if reflection isn't for you, you could try one of these ways to welcome in a New Year.)

Cheers! And see you in 2014!


Busting Direct Mail Myth #5

freeGiftThe last Direct Mail Myth I want to bust is the one that is the most true: Premiums always boost response. Of course, nothing is guaranteed, but adding a premium to an acquisition package very often will boost your response rate. And while I have less experience with premiums in house mail, it's certainly true that a well-chosen premium can increase both your average gift and your percent response. But premiums in direct mail come with a host of complex issues, and the truth is they don't always work.

Here are three things to consider when you're looking at premiums:

-- How much do they cost? And I'm not just talking about the cost of the actual premium. What will your costs be to fulfill the premium? If it's an up-front gift -- a magnet, notecards or address labels, say -- will the added weight up your postage, or will the item itself distract from the real purpose of your package, which is, of course, to get a gift? If the premium is something you're sending out once people donate, how much will it cost to mail it to them? Some seemingly cheap premiums have hidden shipping costs that make the item prohibitive.

-- Is the added cost worth it? If you get a boost in response -- either in larger average gifts, or more donors -- you need to do the work to see if that pencils out against the cost of the premium and fulfillment. And how do those donors renew? Are they joining just to get the premium, then dropping like flies? Or are they sticking around, ensuring that the added costs are made up by their years of giving?

-- And most importantly: How does the premium fit with your mission? An environmental organization that sends address labels may acquire more donors, but that extra paper is sending a subtle, unintended message that they may not be quite as green as they claim. On the other hand, an environmental that promises a tote bag is putting their money where their mouth is -- and getting more effective advertising when donors carry the bags in public. Carefully consider what your chosen premium says about your organization: is that a message you want to send to your potential donors?

To me the biggest question to ask yourself about premiums, encompassing all the things I discussed above, is this: Do you want donors who support you because you shower them with gifts, or because they believe in the importance of your mission?

Busting Direct Mail Myth #2

Continuing my post from last week talking about 5 myths of direct mail, today I'm going to talk about a myth I really wish were true for my clients.

Myth #2

oesA closed-face Outer Envelope always beats a Window Outer Envelope.

I have heard this myth time and again, and I really do want to believe it. Honestly! If this would prove true for even one of my clients, I would be forever grateful because I hate writing teasers.

But time and again, I have urged clients to test this to no avail. The Window Envelope with teaser wins every time -- with both a higher percentage response and a lower investment per donor.

Now, I know other organizations have tested this and found the opposite results, so please, please, please don't take my word for it. Test it for yourself. Because remember, it's not a rule until you test it yourself.

But don't become wed to one way of sending out your packages. Instead, remember the function of the Outer Envelope: to get opened. If it doesn't get opened, you don't get a gift. It's that simple.

So if the personal touch -- a closed envelope, the signer's name in the cornercard, maybe even a handwritten font for the donor's name and address -- is getting your direct mail opened, then keep using it.

But if your response rates aren't what you'd like, try mailing a Window Outer Envelope with a teaser. But make it a good one. A great teaser can do a lot of heavy-lifting by setting up your letter -- and your ask -- all in a handful of well-chosen words.

Your teaser and envelope graphics can also do double-duty by drawing donors' attention to their own names. We're all self-centered creatures, and even the most moving teaser probably won't thrill us quite so much as the site of our own names. Many of my clients find that a small teaser above the window that leads the eye to the address block gets their envelopes opened -- and boosts response

As with the first myth, the key to busting Myth #2 is to test, test, test.

Check in next week for more Myth-busting. And until then, leave comments below!


The 20-year-old Thank You

As you move forward on your path, don't forget to thank those who helped you get there. This week, I sent a thank you note that I should have written 20+ years ago.

When I was applying to colleges, I asked one of my English teachers for a letter of recommendation. He wrote it, I'm certain I at least said "Thank you" when he handed it to me, and I included it in my applications.

A few months later, I blew out of that suburb and didn't look back.

Now...fast-forward a couple of decades. Picture me in my sweats, sitting on the living room floor surrounded by dusty boxes from the attic. I pulled out a file and found the original letter of recommendation from my English teacher.

It was quite a letter -- one tight-margined page filled with praise for me as a student and as a person. It was clear as I read it that Mr. Lewis hadn't relied on boilerplate recommendation language, replacing another student's name with mine. He'd put thought and effort into that letter. And I am sure I was one of dozens of kids who had asked for his recommendation. 

As I read the letter, I knew I hadn't fully appreciated what he'd done for me back when I was in high school, and my verbal "thank you" felt entirely inadequate.

I wanted to thank him properly. But what were the chances he'd remember me out of thousands of kids he's taught over the years? What difference would a heartfelt thank you note mean now?

I decided it didn't matter if he remembered me or not. (To be perfectly honest, I probably wouldn't be able to pick him out of a line-up either!) I knew from years of working with nonprofits that sending a thank you is always the right thing to do.

So I did it. And he responded with a kind note of his own. I don't think he does remember me, but that doesn't matter.

The important thing to me is that I was able to acknowledge his generosity.

Now, clearly, I should have written that note many years ago. I blew it then...just like so many nonprofits blow it each and every day when they fail to acknowledge their donors' generosity.

But it really is better late than never. So if you are still sitting on a stack of thank you notes from your year-end giving drive, for pete's sake, send them out! Better yet, take a few minutes out of each day to telephone those donors and thank them profusely for their support.

They don't have to give to you. They don't owe you anything, just like Mr. Lewis didn't owe me such a stellar recommendation letter.

But you do owe them something: a sincere and timely thank you.

The STOP List

I'm a sucker for New Year's Resolutions lists, even though I rarely make them myself. There's something so hopeful about them, as if by simply writing down the things we hope to do, we can make our lives better.

I often wonder, though, if the things we wish we were doing really are the most important to focus on. Perhaps it would be more helpful to make a list of things we're doing that we should strive to STOP doing. So with that in mind, here's my list of bad fundraising habits that you should banish in 2012.

STOP promising the moon.

When the pressure's on, it's hard not to make any promise you can in the hopes that you'll be able to come through. But aiming for the stars when you're traveling in an old jalopy is an exercise in futility.

Make your goals realistic and achievable for where you are right now. Small successes lead to bigger successes. And if you can build on those successes, you'll be able to promise the moon when you can actually deliver it.

STOP playing it safe.

This might seem like the opposite of the above, but I think the two go hand-in-hand. When you're promising more than you can deliver on one project, you're forced to play it safe in other areas to compensate.

The best way to have a successful year is to try new things, reach out to new people, engage new experts, and test, test, test.

STOP wallowing in your mistakes.

We all make mistakes. But dwelling on them doesn't make you better, it makes you more paranoid. Embrace your mistakes, and find the nuggets of wisdom that come from them.

STOP downplaying your successes

Normally, I'm not a fan of those who toot their own horns, since far too often, those who talk about how hard they're working are just that: all talk.

But if you have a successful fundraising event, help craft a winning direct mail package, or convince a donor to give more than she's given in the past, make sure you share those successes with your board, your volunteers and your staff. Hold those triumphs up as examples of what can be done...and challenge your people to beat them.

I'm going to work on these things this year, and I challenge you to develop your own Stop List for 2012.

Lessons from a Soccer Fundraiser

I have two daughters who play soccer with the local youth soccer organization. It makes for some action-packed weeks in the fall and the spring! It also puts us in line for every fundraiser the soccer organization conducts -- team photos, individual photos, MLS and college team partnership promotions and ticket sales. Most of the time, I'm happy to participate and feel glad to be contributing to sports programs for kids in our community.

But the other day, I received an email from someone affiliated with the soccer organization demanding that each parent on my older daughter's team purchase two tickets to a local university soccer game, chiding those who had not yet contributed.

Now, as it happens, we'd already purchased tickets for our family through our younger daughter's team. I explained that to the representative who emailed me back saying, "Okay, you're fine then."

Whoa, whoa, whoa! I know this person is almost certainly a volunteer, but somebody with the soccer club needs to give their volunteers a lesson in donor relations!

So let's examine what went wrong with this Ask and figure out how it could have been done better.

The Offer

The first email we received about this particular fundraiser contained no details, just a vague mention of the need to purchase tickets to a soccer game at the university. I didn't know who was playing the game -- was it our kids? Or the university team? Or an exhibition game for our local MLS team? I didn't know when the game was scheduled. Would we even be able to attend if we did purchase the tickets? And how was the money raised going to be used by the club?

The Ask

I know that no fundraising professional out there would demand a gift. But do you train your volunteers and program staff how to ask for donations? It's all too easy for a volunteer to take a simple request that each family buy two tickets and turn it into extortion. Make sure they understand that donations are voluntary. And no one should ever be chided for declining to participate.

The Thank You

And of course, every donor should be thanked, genuinely and promptly. Tell them what their contribution means to the organization. Do my tickets to the university soccer game help pay for club equipment? Or scholarships for budding soccer phenoms in need? Make sure I know that up front and remind me when you say a heartfelt "Thank you."

Don't let anyone in your organization -- staff, volunteer or friend -- inadvertently create ill-will as they try to help raise money. Drill in the importance of treating donors with respect and gratitude, and you'll see donations rise.

What Nonprofits Can Learn from Netflix

I read the email from Netflix Co-Founder and CEO Reed Hastings this morning with a mixture of disbelief and amusement. A lot of people have summed up the new changes, which include dividing the company into two entities, with Netflix responsible for streaming video, and the new unfortunately named Qwikster responsible for DVDs. Despite Mr. Hastings' emotional admission that he "messed up", his statement remains almost as tone deaf as the one he made earlier this year when he announced controversial new price structures. Which is why I think the Netflix debacle holds a great lesson for nonprofits.

A lot of nonprofits have had to reinvent, restructure and reassess over the last few years of economic turmoil. Some have cut back on donor newsletters and magazines, others have laid off staff, sold assets, and consolidated services. A lot of the time, you can get away with making big changes without informing donors. But when financial or other concerns force you to make big public changes, how do you communicate that to your loyal donors?

Not like Netflix.

The big mistake the Internet media company made wasn't raising its prices or splitting its business -- or even lacking "respect and humility". It was not understanding what its customers liked about the service it provided.

When I read Mr. Hastings' statement, I wondered if anyone in the PR department actually uses the Netflix service. Customers flocked to Netflix because they could get DVDs and streaming content. They saw the company as a content-delivery service with multiple avenues for delivering that content.

But the company saw itself differently. Where customers saw one service, Netflix saw two (DVD and streaming) and decided to charge for each. Which they probably could have gotten away with pretty easily had they made moves to separate the services in customers' minds before they announced the big price hike. (I have no words for the new Qwikster service. WHY are they making it harder for people? Why?)

The lesson: You must listen to your donors. Know how they perceive your organization, what they like and what they don't like. See where their goals and your goals meet and where they diverge. If you must make a change you know will be unpopular, see if you can steer your communication efforts so that your donors will understand where you're headed and why.

You'll always get complaints, and most of the time, that's good. It means your donors are paying attention.

But if you understand where they are coming from, you can communicate your changes more effectively, and avoid the kind of controversy -- and mass exodus of once-loyal supporters -- Netflix has enjoyed the last few months.

Whoops! Recovering from Mistakes

Mistakes get a bad rap. Sure, everybody likes to talk about learning from mistakes, and there are many, many old sayings encouraging us to shrug off our mishaps.

But I've spent a lot of time in meetings devoted to deconstructing every step of a mistake -- how did this happen? Who did what? Who can we blame?

It's usually clear what happened within five minutes of reviewing the error, but the meetings almost always ramble on for another 45 minutes, assigning blame, shaming the people who messed up, and ensuring that everyone present will be hitting the hooch later on and sighing, "What a day!".

I am all for self-reflection.  Knowing how you got from point A to Disaster Ave. can be a valuable exercise. You can bet I have learned to double-check the latches on my springform pans since the little Thanksgiving mishap pictured at left.

And while I didn't love cleaning out the oven, I did enjoy the scent of pumpkin cheesecake that wafted through my house every time we cooked anything for three weeks afterwards.

That's why I love mistakes. They take you in new directions, give you insights you may not have gotten otherwise, and fuel creative solutions.

Several years ago, a client I was working with made a mistake in their segmentation that resulted in a whole bunch of people who had asked not to receive direct mail getting a special appeal. From an organizational perspective, it was a big mess-up. A few people called up, mad as all get-out that their wishes had been ignored. A few other generous souls gave to the appeal anyway.

The organization sat down and decided to contact the affected donors, thank them for their dedication, apologize for the error, and explain the new procedures that would ensure the same mistake was not repeated. They also gave the donors the opportunity to start receiving communications from the organization again, and several took them up on it.

As a result of the original mistake, they did lose a few donors. But they also streamlined their segmentation process, cemented the support of other donors, and had an invaluable opportunity to connect with a group of donors who had been virtually ignored.

Next time somebody (metaphorically) drops the cheesecake in your organization, go ahead and have the meeting. Figure out what happened and why it occurred. But spend the next 45 minutes talking about what you learned from the mistake and what opportunities opened up because of the error. At least then the drinking will be celebratory.