DX: The Donor eXperience

Cheese Slicer

Every time bad fundraising happens, it hurts all of us. Like a cheese slicer shaving off a thin layer of donor goodwill from the entire sector, eroding it away until we are left looking back saying “where’s the cheddar?” (I hope the double-meaning of cheddar for fundraisers isn’t lost here!)

It’s a hard truth that fundraisers must face. We’re forgetting about our donors. The numbers don’t lie. Donors are speaking out with their giving. According to the 2015 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey Report by AFP, as a sector, we lost 103 donors for every 100 gained and we lost $95 for every $100 gained.

Does anyone else have a problem with that? I sure do.

The root issue is the DX: The Donor eXperience.

Donor fatigue doesn’t exist. What donors get tired of is poor fundraising. Far too many donors have this experience with charities:

  • Lack of prompt and proper gratitude: Often, there is no proper acknowledgement or thank you for a donation. Proper means at least one communication with no ask or implication of an ask. It isn’t sending a receipt which happens to say thank you in the letter. It isn’t a generic email sent 2 months later.
  • Impersonal communication: We are in the information age, collecting more data than ever before, and yet donors receive so many generic appeals with no consideration of the donors relationship with the organization or their interests – information we already have in our hands. Plus the donors who receive “Dear Friend” letters, which is bad enough when a mail merge takes literally 5 minutes to set up – it’s even worse when the address label is customized, indicating the ability to do so.
  • Uninspired messaging: When we forget about who our audience is, we end up with organization-centered, own-horn-tooting communication which forgets to give the donor credit for their role as a change agent and investor in good. Donors want to see and hear the impact in creative, tangible ways, and they want to feel good about giving.
  • High ratio of asks to other touchpoints: While getting asked to donate multiple times a year per charity isn’t inherently bad, it’s brutal when coupled with all of the other issues outlined here. We’re drawing from the goodwill bank without putting anything back into it.
  • Randomness: For example, mailings with random costly enclosures and swag that have nothing to do with the charity. I get it. This is intended to stimulate reciprocity – but if it has no meaning, then in my opinion, it is actually just stimulating guilt.

When we have so much evidence that personal, tangible, meaningful appeals followed by prompt gratitude and demonstration of impact are fundamental ways to strengthen the DX and raise more money, it’s amazing how much bad fundraising behaviour is still taking place.

Sure, sometimes, doing these things works in the short-term. But just because something works, it doesn’t mean it’s right…or that your DX is strong. Even if you can raise a few more dollars by using fundraising tactics that are manipulative, lazy and uninspired, you are not building trust in the Donor eXperience – and that hurts all of us. This is the cheese slicer whittling down the delicate block of positive affinity that the public has towards giving to charities. Having an insular, short-term view of fundraising sentences all of us to a world of low retention rates, lack of engagement and poor public perception.

Okay, that’s enough of the bad. Anyone who knows me knows I’m an optimistic, positive guy (my #1 Strength in the StrengthsFinder test was Positivity) – all hope is not lost!

There is a solution to all of this.

A big dose of #DonorLove. It is the single best way to enhance the DX and ultimately build stronger relationships with donors.

So what does #DonorLove look like? How can you create a better DX?

  1. Make donor relations a priority: It should already be a top priority in your fundraising and development departments, but for this to really work, you need coordination and buy-in across all areas of your organization – senior management, programming, marketing, finance and the Board of Directors to name a few. Engage them in the vision and discussions for the DX that you want to see.
  2. Listen to your donors: Whether it’s a focus group, a survey or just looking at their giving behaviour and response patterns, your donors will tell you what you need to make their experience better if you give them the chance.
  3. Invest in your systems: There is no excuse because we know doing this works. You might not be able to do everything at once, but once you start investing in the DX, your donors will respond positively, leading to better results and you can build from there. Plus, if you have done #1 well, it should be easier to get the financial and human resources you need to get things moving.
  4. Have a personality: There is no reason why fundraising can’t be creative, interesting, playful and fun. In fact, it is the best way to stand out and will draw your donors closer. It builds credibility and likability for your organization. Brands have a certain “feel” that you have the ability to influence.
  5. Inspire and wow at every opportunity: Every single interaction with a donor is a chance to build positive affinity, including an ask. What can you do that is different, unique and meaningful? It might take a bit longer to develop or be harder to implement, but the efforts will be rewarded.
  6. Be an advocate for #DonorLove: When donors feel good about giving, they give more everywhere. Encourage other fundraisers to take the high road and put donors first. Speak up when you see something happening that you don’t agree with or that could damage relationships with donors.

There is no doubt that part of our goal is to raise more money. However, we have to find the intersection of where achieving your financial metrics can actually strengthen donor relations, rather than depleting them.

While I am a strong advocate for #DonorLove, I cannot take credit for creating it. Some of this is the very basic, rudimentary, foundations of successful fundraising about which we must be constantly vigilant or be in danger of forgetting. I’m also not the only one speaking out about this. There are a number of people who are donor champions, standing up for their rights and a better DX.

An amazing team of disruptive, thoughtful and uber-passionate fundraisers, led by Rory Green (aka Fundraiser Grrl) and Maeve Strathy (What Gives Philanthropy) have put together the #DonorLove Rendezvous to address this issue exactly. It’s not your average conference. It will be a group of people who not only want to create a better DX, but want to see our sector push itself to be better too!

I hope you will join us at the #DonorLove Rendezvous on May 11, 2016. You can register and learn more at www.donorlove.ca. It will be one of the best investments you can make in your own development, your fundraising shop’s DX and in our sector.

Donorlove Rendezvous

Constant Questions: Do you think fundraising is doing alright the way it is? What examples can you share of a really strong DX? Will you join us at the #DonorLove Rendezvous? Did I confuse the wrestling fans who thought I would be posting about Degeneration X?

Career Shift: From a large shop fundraiser to a small shop Executive Director

When you look at career paths, you might think they are linear, but in reality, they can take many turns.

(PHOTO CREDIT: Demetri Martin, “This is a Book“)

This drawing fittingly explains the reality of what career success will look like for many of us in the new age of employment. It is well-known that we have moved from the days of one career to having multiple careers in our lifetime – and this applies to all industries and sectors.

I recently had a conversation with someone who has worked with hundreds of executives in the charitable, government and social profit sectors. She was adamant that the successful leaders of the future will not be the ones with the most knowledge, the most skills or the most experience, but with the strongest ability to adapt and change. This requires gathering a variety of skill sets and perspectives – the type you can gain from shifting career paths.

In that case, experiencing multiple careers is not a bad thing – it can actually work in your favour and prepare you for the employment landscape of the future.

After 8 years working at an internationally known charity, being provided opportunities to advance into new roles, and ending up in the helm of the fundraising department, overseeing a team of 8 people and raising over $8M annually – I decided to take on the role of Executive Director of a much smaller (or as I prefer to say, small and mighty) organization.

How to decide if a move like this is right for you?

My current seat is within an organization that I volunteered with intensely for eight years before joining as the Executive Director. I felt deeply invested their success before starting. While this move was a difficult choice because I felt very much fulfilled and connected to my last shop; the decision to move ultimately came down to a matter of following my gut and asking some key questions to engage my brain:

  • Can I be the lead champion for this cause? Can I demonstrate boundless passion and share the vision to draw others in?
  • What skills, knowledge, perspectives and new connections do I stand to gain by making this move?
  • What risks am I taking by leaving my past role and stepping into something very different?
  • Where are the current knowledge and skills gaps, and in what areas would I need to learn and grow immediately?
  • Who are the current staff I will be working with? Is the right team in place to achieve success or are significant changes needed?
  • What is the culture of the Board of Directors? What type of relationship are they looking for with the Executive Director?
  • What supports do I have to guide me through this journey?

Asking yourself questions like this will serve as a self-interview, making sure you are listening to your heart and your head in the right quantities.

What is the difference between heading up fundraising at a large organization and leading the charge at a smaller organization? 

If you are considering such a move, there are some important differences between large and small organizations, and between lead fundraising roles versus lead management roles, which you should be aware of. The following tips may help you prevent total culture shock when you make the leap:

  • There is a huge learning curve around administration – payroll, HR, finance, governance, marketing and communications – think of it as running a small business. All bucks stop with you and you wear more hats than LL Cool J. There is no director of marketing or vice president of human resources – it all comes down to you.
  • Small organizations require tremendous entrepreneurial spirit, lightning fast decision making, and the ability to take risks on a regular basis. It’s not that these don’t exist in larger organizations, because they certainly do, but often they can conflict or become lost within larger structures.
  • There is a much less established fundraising program. The base of donors, average gift and largest gift are much smaller, and there are less fundraising channels and tools embedded within the organization. There are likely two to three pillars such as a key campaign, funder or event. What this does mean is you have the chance to work from a clean slate and build great new programs with no existing structures to break down – sometimes that can be easier.
  • You are now reporting to a Board of Directors instead of a CEO. This requires a different approach to reporting, relationship management and governance. Working with a Board of Directors means you have a large in-house pool of talent, wisdom and mentorship to draw support from, and this also means there are more people you need to keep aware, informed and engaged with your work on a regular basis.
  • Working long, hard hours…no wait, that isn’t any different!

Strategies to shifting into an Executive Director role?

Here are four key things I learned making the shift to being an Executive Director:

  1. Seek advice and mentorship from those that have done this before or who are leading organizations successfully – in this sector, there are many generous and wise leaders who want to see you succeed. Ask and you will be surprised who says yes to being a support for you.
  2. Establish your presence right away with all your stakeholders. Spend a lot of time up front listening, engaging and making yourself known. As the face of the organization, it is critical that key donors, funders, volunteers and partners begin to get to know you and trust you, as you will be working together.
  3. Don’t try and fix problems that you don’t understand. Talk to the people – they often have the answers – or at least can clarify the issues.
  4. Be very conscious that what you did to be successful so far is not the same as what you will need to be successful going forward. Old habits may need to change. Rethink and unlearn.

Making a career shift can be scary, but can stretch your perspective, challenge you to build new skills and be a wonderful stage in your journey. There is no one right way to do things – it depends on your personal definitions of success. Wherever you go, bring your best self, develop positive reputation and stay in touch with the people who matter – that is always important. Besides, this decision is never final – you can always go back the other way, now armed with some new skills and a broader lens that you bring with you.

This article was originally published in Hilborn Charity eNEWS

Thank you, but no thank you

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Stop saying thank you to donors. Of course, I don’t mean that as it sounds. Showing appreciation for donations is one of the (if not the) most important things that happens after someone gives. All I’m saying is find another way to say it.

You are a bunch of creative people out there and I’m sure you can find some awesome alternatives. A simple thank you always has its place, but to get people’s attention, show them that you’ve taken some more time to think about showing gratitude.

So how about a contest?

I am looking for the best opening line for a thank you that doesn’t say “thank you” in it. Get creative, get fun, get quirky, but show your appreciation.

Starting as soon as this post is released, tweet your best opening line for a thank you email, letter, phonecall, fax, or stone tablet message to #BestTY and the best one wins, it’s that simple.

Just don’t say thank you.

The contest will close Saturday, August 17th at midnight, EST, and the winner will be announced shortly after. The best ones will be Storified, along with the announcement of the winner, and captured here in a future post.

The judges for this contest will be me and these four amazing fundraising type people:

  • Mary Cahalane, Director of Development at Charter Oak Cultural Center and fundraising wizard, as her blog Hands-on Fundraising will show you.
  • John Lepp, Partner at Agents of Good, standing up against bad fundraising everywhere, and mega-zealot about treating donors right.
  • Ann Rosenfield, Executive Director of the WoodGreen Foundation, and her hands are insured for $1 million because she is a handwritten note legend.
  • Brock Warner, Donor Programs Officer at War Child Canada and recent entrant into the blog world with iamafundraiser, much to the delight of…well…everyone!
  • Supreme appreciation to these excellent friends for supporting this – I know they are all big advocates of showing ‘donor love’.

    So what’s up for grabs? Recently, I was lucky enough to win a Twitter contest run by Zipcar, and I won a $25 Amex gift card. I committed that if I won it, I would find a way to give it away, so that was the birth of this contest. I know it’s not a trip to Paris, but it’s the pride, not the prize, folks.

    However, after hearing about the contest, John and the good folks at Agents of Good have generously offered to do a free evaluation of an appeal or thank you letter for the winner. Now that’s something to write home about…hopefully to say thanks.

    UPDATE August 12, 2013 – I’m going to up the ante to spur on entries by adding three $10 Amazon.com gift cards to be given out randomly to those that enter. Use it towards a fundraising book or a waffle iron. Maybe get something nice for a friend. Whatever you like!

    Note, the Amex card is a US gift card, but it should be usable at any online vendor if you’re not from the US. If you win, I will mail it to you once the contest is done, wherever you are in the world.

    Here’s the catch. You must be on Twitter! This is as good an excuse as any to start.

    Good luck to all!

    Constant Questions: I would ask you here for the best opening line for a thank you, but you’re going to tweet it, right? Instead, what is the worst opening line for a thank you that you have seen? What are some creative ways you have said thank you or seen it done?

    FBO – Why charities need it

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    There are an estimated 85,000 charities in Canada, 180,000 in the UK, and 1.1 million in the US.

    (Pause for gasp)

    That’s not even factoring in the various other not-for-profits and causes that although they may not issue tax receipts, are still a destination for donors.

    So…the big question. Why should anyone give to you?

    You can’t compete only on:

  • Product (your cause)
  • Service (how you treat people)
  • Loyalty (how much people like you)

  • Why not? Because these things can be replicated and built by others. In this free market, openly competitive charitable world, when something is seen as successful, originators may win in the early stages, but imitators gravitate to your success. Unless there are real barriers to entry, they can do the same thing that you’re doing.

    So your differentiation factor, the unique space you occupy where there’s no room for anyone else, is the one thing you can use to stand out and get people to pay attention.

    If you don’t differentiate, you end up competing on…price.

    In the charitable sector, this could be seen as competing on administrative costs. As we know, in isolation, this is usually a weak indicator of how well an organization is doing. It also doesn’t connect someone strongly to you when a “cheaper” charity comes along.

    Guess what – it’s our fault.

    If donors want to keep comparing charities based on something like administrative costs, it’s because we haven’t given them something else to talk about. If you’re not different from anyone else, then what’s interesting about you?

    So what do you need to do? Find your FBO.

    Figure out what you do where you are the first, best and only. That’s your differentiation factor.

    First = longevity and trust.

    Best = credibility and confidence.

    Only = exclusivity and pride.

    Then find a way to build this into your branding, communications and organizational soul. More importantly, talk about what it means for people considering getting involved. (Plus gentle reminders to those that already are!)

    One caveat – this must be tempered with ensuring your donor and volunteer communications are focused on their role as the hero in the story. FBO is only for those rare moments when you are talking about yourself. By the way, also stop asking for money. Instead, start conversations.

    FBO – think about it. Then find it and use it! It’s the best shot you have in standing out in a sea of same.

    Thanks to Krishan Mehta for first introducing me to this concept and to Tim Rooney for his wisdom about the importance and mechanics of differentiation.

    Constant Questions: As an individual, what is your first, best and only? How about your organization or charity? Did you think that FBO was a typo and I meant FBI? If you’re worried about the FBI, what for? Something you need to share with us? Maybe this blog isn’t the best place – it’s a public space and I don’t want it to get virtual cyber yellow tape wrapped around it!

    Fundraisers, stop asking for money

    Yes, I said it. Stop doing it. Now.

    Think they sell these at Home Depot?

    Think they sell these at Home Depot?

    Stop asking people for money.

    How dare he! Tie him up and lock him away! Release the hounds!

    When someone hears you are a fundraiser, they often say “I couldn’t do that, I hate asking people for money”. Here’s the big secret – so do fundraisers, at least the really good ones.

    So if you stop asking for money, how will you raise funds? How will you support the very important mission your organization is trying to achieve? How will the programs, activities, research and services you support continue to go on, if no one is driving donations into the cause?

    If it’s just about the money, it is a shallow appeal. It will only reinforce the stereotype of the beggar charity treating people as wallets. This type of approach may even work in the short-term, but eventually people will get tired. Don’t try to secure a donation in 30 seconds, have a dialogue instead. I believe that “donor fatigue” comes from receiving too many asks for money, not from too much good fundraising.

    You are one with the donation.

    You are one with the donation.

    After recently reading The Zen of Fundraising by fundraising guru Ken Burnett, where he makes a similar appeal as I am in this post, it became even more clear to me how much fundraising is not just about the charity, not-for-profit or do-gooder organization. Although you do have a very important job.

    So what are you doing then?

    You are inviting people to make a difference. You are facilitating the marriage of interest and opportunity. You are navigating the space between a person’s desire to achieve something big and the places in the community, country or world that would allow that to happen.

    Anything but asking for money. The day I realized this was the day I truly embraced fundraising.

    Ok, yes – technically you are going to be asking someone to provide a donation, and if you are not confident and skilled in asking, and are not willing to learn how to do better, you may have a really hard time achieving success in the field. But fundraising is a learned skill, and a solid foundation of confidence comes as much from the passion and desire you have to help donors achieve their goals, and for your organization or cause to achieve the mission as it does from your mettle as a fundraiser. Experience does count, sure, but so does the right mindset. Think impact first.

    The point is to make fundraising about more than just money – because it is!

    Constant Questions: How have you made fundraising about more than money? If you’re not asking for money, how do you define what you are doing? If you’re not a fundraiser but you’re a donor, what conversation do you like to have about your giving? Is money the root of all evil? Isn’t that a bit harsh? Come on, be nice.

    Maybe closing with this O’Jays video is obvious. Or maybe not. It’s ironic that this song is often used in a sensationalist context of people that are rich or looking to get rich, when it’s actually quite outspoken about how focusing on money in and of itself can be really problematic. As they say – with money, “do things, good things with it.”

    It’s the “things” that we really should be talking about as fundraisers.