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

The lean forward moment

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I wait for that moment. It happens every time, without fail. I meet someone, and they start telling me what they “do”. Sometimes they’re excited about it, and sometimes they’re barely showing any signs of passion.

Then, as I start asking questions, and we get deeper into conversation, it happens.

The person’s eyes light up, a genuine smile breaks through, and they lean forward and really get into the conversation.

That is when I know we’ve made a real connection and I’ve been let into the person’s world. What makes someone lean forward is what is at the core of that person and gives you a great idea of who they are.

I have experienced so many lean forward moments – people from all walks of life, backgrounds, ages and career paths.

  • The leader of a social profit agency leaned forward talking about the letters she reads from families that have had their lives changed as a result of her organization’s work.
  • A rising star fundraiser leaned forward when he told me about how excited he gets working with donors one on one, walking them through an inquiry or even a complaint, and taking them to a place of understanding.
  • An introverted engineer turned consultant specializing in innovation tax credits leaned forward when he started talking about his vision of the future of Canada as an innovation hub.

  • Sometimes, people ask the question “If you didn’t have to worry about money, what would you do?” as an attempt to determine someone’s true calling or passion. Maybe that works if the person answering the question is very self-aware and has already figured it all out.

    I think having a meaningful conversation is more likely to reveal the real answer, because it’s coming about naturally and organically, and we may not always be highly attuned with our own deep-seeded passion.

    The next time you go to a networking event, or anywhere you are meeting new people, you are bound to have someone asking you early in your conversation “What do you do?” Answer them, then try something different as a response. Don’t ask “What do you do?”. Ask “What makes you lean forward?”, pause while the person gives you a weird look, explain yourself, and see how it goes. I have a feeling it will be much more interesting that way.

    Sometimes we do what we have to do, but we hope that for the most part, we get to do what we want to do, what we like to do and what we believe is our calling. Find what makes you lean forward, and make sure, even if you’re not doing that all the time, that it is part of your life often enough to keep you fulfilled.

    Constant Questions: What makes you lean forward? Do you get to do enough of that in your life? Have you seen other people lean forward and realized you just discovered what makes them tick? Would you lean on me, when you’re not strong? Because I’ll be your friend.

    If you do have a million dollars and are struggling for ideas of what to do with it, here are some great ones.

    Why the heck are you here?

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    “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain

    Have you figured it out yet? Why you are here?

    Sometimes it could take a lifetime, but never stop searching for that reason.

    We are all here to accomplish some purpose. Start a movement. Teach others. Make a product which will make life better for people. Keep our streets safe. Create art for others to enjoy. It likely involves contributing something to the greater good.

    Stephen Covey talks about defining your own personal mission statement as a habit for success. Maybe it changes over time, maybe it doesn’t stick forever, but if you don’t have a sense of purpose, then it’s very hard to determine where to invest your precious time. FranklinCovey has a personal mission statement builder that can help you figure yourself out – complex, enigmatic puzzle that you are!

    My core belief is that “we are all responsible for each others’ success” – so my mission is to help others to achieve success, in whatever way I can. It’s not that I have any amazing abilities to help others, but if there is a way I can help someone out in their journey, why wouldn’t I? It’s a privilege and an honour, because it’s a small way I can pay forward all of the amazing mentors, leaders, coaches and inspirational people who helped me on my path.

    Anything and everything we have achieved in our lives, we didn’t do alone – someone helped us, whether we knew it or not. There are some people who believe they did everything on their own. I’m not trying to undermine the role of the “pull up your bootstraps” story, where hard work and tireless perseverance were essential ingredients of success. Although somewhere along that path, a person reached out their hand to support you, you accepted it, and it made a difference. Their purpose and path intertwined with yours and created a stepping stone for you.

    What is the point of humanity if we aren’t supporting each other? I don’t think on your path to success that you have to step over other people or achieve success independently. The most generous people out there seem to be the ones who have the most good fortune, and that’s probably not a coincidence.

    By defining your purpose on the planet, you can find your route to generosity for others and your connection to the big picture.

    Don’t stop trying to figure out your purpose, and if you have figured it out (lucky you), don’t ever stop trying to achieve it!

    Thanks to Promod Sharma for bringing the opening quote by Mark Twain into my life, amongst many other amazing ideas he has instilled into my mind. Check out his excellent blog network – you won’t be disappointed.

    Constant Questions: Please share! What is your personal mission statement? What do you believe you are here to achieve? Do you remember the day you were born? Seriously? You are indeed special, my friend.