February 8, 2016

3 Things That (Maybe) Worked in Fundraising a Decade Ago That Don’t Today

A while ago, I linked to this post by Carey Nieuwhof titled 9 Things That Worked in the Church A Decade Ago That Don’t Today.” I linked to it partly because I thought as many churches as possible should see it. But I also linked to it because I thought a lot of the things on Carey’s list applied to how nonprofit organizations raise funds. So I’m going to riff on Carey’s list a bit. I’m not going to talk about nine things, though. I’ll just do three.

Thinking People Will Automatically Give Again

Maybe there was a time we could rely on our donors to give to us. Maybe there was a time when all anybody needed was a little reminder to support an organization or a cause that they loved.

If there ever was such a time, it’s over.

It’s a well-known fact in the fundraising world that donor retention rates are terrible. According to Bloomerang – a donor management software company – median donor retention is 43% and first-time donor retention is only 19%. Think about that. Out of every 100 donors you have right now, 43 of them will be gone by next year. And those 100 brand new donors you brought on board? Only 19 of them will stick around. And that’s if you’re in the middle of the pack.

The simple fact is that donors don’t stick around unless we engage them appropriately. That means thanking them promptly when they make a gift, informing them about the good their gift has done, and involving them in our work.

Being Good Enough for Us

We often take pride in being good enough. We get thank you letters out in a time that seems reasonable to us. We publish a newsletter that looks good to us. We invite people to get involved in the ways we want them to be involved. We do what we think will keep our donors happy. And when those donors aren’t happy, we bemoan the fact that they just don’t understand.

Here’s the thing: there are about 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, and the average Baby Boomer gives to about four of them (the average Millennial gives to about three). We are always competing with a lot of other organizations for a very limited number of slots in our donors’ philanthropic inventories.

Being good enough for ourselves won’t work. We need to be better than the vast majority of those other organizations. We need to thank better. We need to inform better. We need to invite better. We need to stand out.

That’s how you get one of those four slots.

Being a Business

There was a time when nonprofits were businesses. There was a time when appeals eschewed contractions because they were too informal. There was a time when it was okay to talk about ourselves. That time is over.

Donors want to know that we’re professional. They also want to know that we’re people and that we’re passionate. They want to know that we’re passionate people who care about the things that they care about and who will help them realize their own charitable goals. Businesses don’t have that personality. They’re cold. They’re impersonal. They care about themselves.

That’s part of why so many businesses are leaving behind the business image; they know that people want to be involved in people.

We are people. We’re passionate people. We shouldn’t be afraid to show it.

So, What’s Not Working?

This is a short list and – let’s be honest – if it were a different day I might pick three other things that aren’t working.

As fundraisers, we face a lot of options about what we can do. We face a lot of rumors about what will work and soon won’t. How many times have I been told about the wonders of text-to-give or the demise of direct mail? It’s important to take stock of the things we’ve gotten used to and separate the wheat from the chaff.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is this: the chaff usually isn’t our activities. It’s our attitudes.

Monday, February 8, 2016


I’m a pastor, an author, and a nonprofit development and communications professional. My passion, my mission, and my calling is bringing people together to do good, with a particular focus on serving people who are experiencing poverty and other forms of marginalization.

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