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Who's buying you? ------ Customer satisfaction. Customer knowledge. Serious marketers obsess over them. But not fundraisers.
Tom Ahern

February, 2013

This should be a great time for nonprofits.


But as you'll read in this new study, Underdeveloped, that's not the case.


Unfortunately. At this particular, peculiar moment ...

  • when our global economy is still shockingly punky 
  • at a moment when governments are eager for "exit" signs and so slash budgets for everything from education (public universities) to social services (shelters and food banks) 
  • at a time when our dying planet's problems multiply like germs in a test tube: climate change, wealth inequality, extremism, polarization, overpopulation, runaway diseases, the death of privacy, corruption, collapse of faith, rise of faith

... this should be a great time for nonprofits and their donors. Nonprofits and their donors are problem-knockers. They bang problems on the head. This should be a great time for them to suit up in superhero capes ... and prove again and again anthropologist Margaret Mead's observation, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."


Amen, sister.


But far too many nonprofits, those that depend heavily on individual donors (as opposed to, say, government funding), unwittingly face a major headwind that reduces their prospects for maximizing charitable income, for an obvious "sales and marketing" reason: [cue deep voice from the clouds] They do not see their donors as customers. And they certainly don't treat them as customers.




Instead, they see donors as onlookers and admirers. Human beans who in turn then express their admiration for the charity's work by making gifts.


Have you ever been on a blind date where the other person wouldn't stop talking about himself?


That's the way charities mostly behave in their communications. It's puerile. It's self-centered. It doesn't work. And, by the way, it's unbelievably common. 


Meet the Fatal Flaw of Donor Communications: your true customer is your donor, yet you treat that customer indifferently ... as a set of ears attached to a bank balance. 


Who says? 


Ken Burnett, whose bestseller, Relationship Fundraising, laid bare the entire "Vitamin Donor Centricity" deficiency in 1992. Ken called his approach "donor based." A decade later Penny Burk called it "donor centered," giving this already-well-established "customer-centered" business strategy a nonprofit twist. 


Who says? 


Dr. Adrian Sargeant and his co-authors like Dr. Jen Shang. Adrian is the marketing professor who took on the Herculean task of cleaning fundraising's Augean stables of "conventional wisdom."


Who says? 


Practitioners around the world who are getting FAR BETTER results by becoming donor (i.e., customer) focused. Buy me a drink sometime, and I'll tell you about the hospital that improved giving from current donors 1,000% between one month and the next.


From the road .....


On direct mail, the frequency of... 


If you're using direct mail, acquire new donors twice a year. Once you've developed a "control," i.e., a direct mail appeal that works, leave it alone until it stops working.


If you're only mailing 1 or 2 appeals a year to good donors, then you're not mailing often enough to try new stuff and fail.


Which in turns means you won't always be improving. Because when they said "trial and error," they meant to say "error and trial."


You fail. You try again, something different.


As Thomas Edison described his search for a commercially viable light filament, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."


A serious direct mail program is into trial-and-error.


On capital campaign launches...


Conventional wisdom has it that a school's capital campaign needs a "quiet period" during which 60% or even more is quietly (not secretly; word gets out) raised.


A quiet period can save face, if you don't make goal. Which is the behavior of frightened people. 


Conventional wisdom isn't always right. Pep rallies do not have a quiet period. The Big Game does not have a quiet period. A capital campaign for a university is the Biggest of Big Games, with the very future of the school at stake. 


Yes, I'd talk about the campaign with top prospects first. That census won't be large; it shouldn't take long to make a few hundred phone calls and ask if they'd like to meet "for more information."


The University of Toronto's billion-dollar campaign, which made its goal after seven years in 2004, tallied 217 donors who each gave $1 million or more. Thirty of those donors gave $5 million of more. The top of the giving pyramid has very few people standing on it. 


In my deeply humble opinion (IMDHO), there is no great virtue to the quiet period, except to offer an "exclusive preview" to a "select few" of "leaders we count on to give us straight talk and good advice." It shouldn't drag on. 


On a communications schedule, I'd give the so-called "quiet period" no more than a couple of months.


Then I'd start tossing pebbles into a lot of ponds with a hard launch - a bold announcement - to all alumni.


The chronological truth is that the sooner you involve all your prospects (i.e., alumni), the quicker you will reach your goal.


And about that case statement... 


Case statements can wait (and they often do).


Your real best first step in a capital campaign communications effort would be to survey your "natural constituency," which is ALL your prospects (if you're a university, that's your alums; if you're a hospital, that's your patients; if you're a community foundation, that's your grantees and their boards).


You need to know more before you can craft smart messaging and offers: two essentials. 


No charity I've yet met knows enough about its prospects or donors; and I've wandered the fundraising guts of many, many charities, big, small, famous, obscure.


Commercial marketers all know: knowledge = sales.


And the donor survey is the basic tool for gathering that knowledge. If you're doing a survey a year, you're brilliant. If you're doing a survey a decade? Best of luck.


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