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2015 was a great year. We launched a new website, re-launched our blog with a new focus, grew our team, and became better acquainted with social media. In doing so, we have grown our audiences and made new friends in the nonprofit sector along the way. Each year can be a great year so long as plenty of room is left to learn. The ability to grow and adapt is crucial for nonprofits and other institutions that fundraise amidst an ever-changing technological landscape. With that said, we pulled together 15 lessons we learned and discussed in 2015:

  1. Start with Why

Author Simon Sinek started a movement with his now famous TED talk Starting With Why. Though his examples point more toward for-profit businesses, we found that his findings actually correlate with issues that organizational leaders and marketers face daily. By abandoning the this-is-what-we-do mentality and rearranging our thought process to go from why to how and then what, we’re able to incredible things: forge more meaningful connections with our audiences, show the human side of our organizations by revealing ideologies, and increase donor retention by building relationships with those whose personal values connect to our mission and mission-focused communications. Read more here.

2. Planning Makes Perfect

More often than not, nonprofits seem to always be right up against the wall when it comes to fundraising appeals. In order to help push the idea of planning ahead, we looked at the results of proactive marketing as opposed to reactive communications. Rather than organizing around we’ve got to get this out, proactive marketers are more successful because:

  1. They have time to reflect on what worked or didn’t, and can adapt future communications based on those findings
  2. There’s more room for evaluation once communications are planned out and scheduled
  3. Their audiences are happier because they’re receiving meaningful communications that are personal and have fewer mistakes

Read more about being proactive here.

3. Donors Will Wax and Wane

Sometimes the neverending battle of donor attrition feels more like war since losing valuable donors feels like a serious casualty. For instance, 103 donors are lost for every 100 donors gained. That’s a serious punch in the gut. Keeping donors engaged is the key to winning, but when communications flat line it’s easy for donors to become disenchanted. We found that simple tweaks to your mail, personal phone calls, and serious attention to data help keep things afloat. These tactics can be scaled for big organizations or small shops and the work can be spread out. Sound like a plan? Read more here.

4. Thank Differently

We’ve been telling you to think differently about your communications all year, but we’ve also been telling you to thank differently. It’s important that you thank all donors immediately after receiving a donation. This can be done by letter or email, but that shouldn’t be the last stop on the road to next year’s repeat or increased donation. The stewardship route is a local one, not an express trip so be sure to make all the stops. Getting creative with your thank you pages, connecting with your constituents through video, social media shout outs and handwritten notes from your board or beneficiaries are all great ways to heap on the gratitude. They’re also great ways to continue telling your story or for creating pathways to deeper engagement. Learn how to do this here.

5. Social Media is Our Friend

One of the best one-liners we heard this year was that social media isn’t a fundraiser, it’s a friendraiser. So many organizations use social media channels to continually ask of their constituents. We believe social media should be thought of as a way to connect with your followers by telling your story and hearing more about theirs. Social is a great tool for listening and learning if organizations use it properly. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are built for storytelling, whether it’s a long, short, or visual narrative. Ambassador programs can assist in building communities and safe spaces for open discussion, particularly for advocacy organizations. Most importantly, these strategies amplify your message and lead to gifts rather than ask for them. Learn more here.

6. Change the Channel

Nowadays it doesn’t take long for people to get bored with one form of communication or another. Whether your unsubscribe trigger finger is a little happy this week or you’re deactivating Facebook the next, hearing from a company or organization you like in more ways than one helps to prevent this kind of burn out. One of the biggest challenges that marketers face is competing with the thousands of messages their target audiences are bombarded by each day, getting their message through, and having it actually resonate with a person (or two…thousand). Trying out new channels is something we encourage our clients to do, and digital publishing has been a great new way to have some fun with traditional media. We’ve found that digital publishing allows you to be more accessible, more creative with dynamic content, and more opportunistic when it comes to creating new revenue streams for your organization. You know you want to read more.

7. Find New Ways to Build Community

Just as it’s important to take the time to really get to know your audience or donors, it’s important to facilitate ways for them to get to know one another. Building community is one of the best ways nonprofits or schools can make the most impact on specific groups of individuals. Think about it: you’ve managed to cultivate a large group of people with a common goal or interest. What amazing things could happen if they came together together? This is the beautiful thing about social media: its power to unite. Social media also affords the opportunity for many organizations to assert their thought leadership by answering questions posited by those who choose to connect with you. Rather than sharing content for the sake of likes or follows, use these networks for good by serving as a resource or virtual extension of your organization. Learn more here.

8. Donor Centered Campaigns Get Results

Putting your donors at the center of your story is one of the best pieces of advice we can give. Donor-centered campaigns are deeply personal, engaging across multiple channels, and can often help connect the right people to a legacy or major accomplishment. Your donors are heroes, so keep them feeling that way. Take a look at what happened with one campaign we worked on where the donors were the story.

9. Put Yourself into Your Messaging

Plain and simple, be yourself. People give to people, not to institutions. When you drop the sales-y or ask-heavy language and communicate in a way that is clear and relatable, that’s when you make a connection. So how can you avoid sounding like a robot? Use natural language, it’s less stuffy and levels out the playing field. Since we’re talking about loosening up, don’t be afraid to be playful but with language or imagery. Also, speak to personalities not demographics. Your readers aren’t just a bunch of statistics on a page, they’re real people and when you treat them as such they’ll like you more. Learn about the anti-robot movement here.

10. Data is Your Friend

We’ll keep this one short and sweet: you have more data than you think and it’s all useful. Data allows us to create personalized communications, relevant messaging, and helps save time and money by helping to shape future touches. If direct mail doesn’t work as well as email, do more of one and less of the other. If one story isn’t performing as well as expected, change things up. When you ignore your data, you forfeit incredibly useful information that helps maximize the little resources you have to begin with. Learn how to be actionable with your analytics here.

11. Pay Attention to the Big & Little Pictures

When evaluating the success of a fundraising campaign, it’s important to look at each individual touch in addition to the campaign as a whole. Response rates, gift amounts, and performance by donor segment can all tell a story. Who are you capturing on social media? Where are you reacquiring the most lapsed donors? Answering these questions will tell you whether or not you’re achieving goals beyond dollars raised. Maybe you wanted to engage better with millennials. Maybe you wanted to boost online giving. Maybe you wanted to try out a new channel and you need to justify the effort. Whatever the reason may be, it’s crucial to look at how each piece of the puzzle worked to create one big, beautiful picture: success. Keep reflecting here.

12. Not All Donors Are the Same

If you truly want to be personal with your communications, the first step is realizing that not all of your donors are the same person. This means that you can’t talk to each donor the same way as the last. Segmentation helps get many organizations out of this rut, and we seriously cannot advocate for it enough. Break your list up into specific groups. Separate people by constituency, whether they’re current or lapsed, income level, generation, region, or even industry! This will also help you get better acquainted with who’s in your orbit, all leading up to how you start talking to them and what about. Personalized communications begin here.

13. People Love Prompt

Promptness is a great attribute that often goes unnoticed, at least until you do the opposite. When you’re late on sending a thank you or your appeal feels unplanned and rushed, trust that that’ll be remembered first. A prompt thank you following the receipt of a donation tells people that their gift was received, that it’ll be used promptly, and in general it makes a great first impression. Appeals that land at the right time during appeal season and don’t show up during Giving Tuesday or right before Christmastime prove to your donors that you’re investing in them just as much as they’re investing in you. That kind of decorum goes a long, long way for your organization. Click here for more ways to properly steward donors.

14. Communicate in Surround Sound

Cross-channel communication is really important nowadays, and with social media being a free and prevalent resource there’s no reason for organizations not to be taking advantage of it. The term we use for this type of work is integrated marketing, which is simply a means of reaching your constituents by using data to integrate the use of a variety of media, approaches, and digital channels. Knowing your audience and using that knowledge will supercharge any multi-channel campaign. Simply put, hit ’em where it hurts (which is everywhere!). Give your fundraising a swift kick into high gear here.

15. Grow Donors Not With Asks, But With Opportunities

Donors aren’t just cash machines, they’re people that truly care about your cause. Beyond making an investment in your organization, your donors can do so much more for you than write a check. For particularly active or long-time donors, present them with the opportunity to volunteer at an event or join a committee. Part of getting to know each other is allowing for a little transparency, and letting them behind the curtain during the show will do just that. Plus, their gift of service will make them feel good and help you out at the same time. The emotional bond forged between donors and organizations when they work together is one that does not fade quickly or easily.

The Wrap Up

Take a look back at your communication and fundraising efforts this year to see how your work compares. Celebrate your successes, and learn where you need to put more work in. If you fail, fail forward. Mistakes are opportunities to grow and get better. Use this information to start off 2016 sharper and more agile than ever. From everyone here at Action Graphics, have a happy healthy New Year!

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