By Jon Howard

Your donor database: get a real one now!

OK, fundraisers and nonprofit people: you gotta have a real donor database. Seriously.

Not Excel. Not some do-it-yourself database patched together in Filemaker by your cousin Vinny. Not your Quickbooks accounting software. Not your Outlook address book or your MailChimp subscriber list. And I’m going to ruffle some feathers and suggest that you avoid Salesforce, even though it’s free for nonprofits.

These are all wonderful software tools. But….

These are not donor databases

Let me ask you this: would you try to build your own vacuum cleaner? Would you try to adapt your leaf-blower or hair dryer to clean your floors? Heck, no! It would cost too much, take too long and you’d have a lousy vacuum cleaner at the end.

never build your own donor database or vacuum cleaner

Gayle makes fun of our vintage vacuum cleaner. But it’s still the right tool for the job.

You can plunk down anywhere from $45 to $600 dollars for a vacuum cleaner at Target today and start sucking up dirt this afternoon. You can buy parts and get repairs almost anywhere or anytime.

It’s the same with dedicated donor management systems. Why use do-it-yourself solutions to a problem that professionals solved long ago? Anthony Bakker created the Blackbaud company (which sells Raiser’s Edge) in 1981. For the last 35 years, Blackbaud and its dozens of competitors have been refining, perfecting and adapting their donor database softwares. Every day they strive to meet the evolving real-life needs of frontline fundraisers at the world’s large and small nonprofit organizations.

There is no reason you should use anything but a dedicated, professionally developed, off-the-shelf system specifically created to manage nonprofit donor programs. A good fundraiser will have this tool open nearly all the time. It’s the system that organizes a fundraiser’s day, recording new gifts, taking notes on donor contacts, assigning tasks to staff and volunteers, setting campaign and donor targets, launching segmented emails, mailing and other appeals. And much more.

The more difficult question is which one to get. There are dozens if not hundreds of products described as donor management software. Costs range from free to thousands of dollars per month and the feature sets vary at least as widely. Some of them won’t work well for you. Some of them don’t work well for anyone.

No one can stay current on all the donor databases out there. These roundups at Idealware and TechSoup are years old. We can’t keep up either. And we’re not primarily database professionals. But we’ve worked with several of the most-used systems. In a next post, we’ll look at some ways you can zero in on the right donor database system for your nonprofit. But if you want to save time, here’s our current top pick for most smaller nonprofits: Little Green Light. We love Little Green Light. Tell you why soon.

Five Questions for strategic thinkers

The Fiver Most Important Questions You Every Will Ask“You’re a strategic planning consultant? You must use Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions a lot.”

Sinking feeling. As I stood by the grill with a beer in my hand at a recent summer party, I couldn’t come up with even one of his apparently essential strategic questions

I mentioned some of the business thinkers we often draw on, like Jim Collins and Peter Block. My new friend nodded politely, but I was clearly speaking to a Drucker man. He told me how Drucker’s business frameworks had guided his successful career as a manager. How they were now helping him transform the effectiveness of the nonprofit board he served on.

I was eager to learn more when I got back to the office. Amazon is taking its sweet time delivering Drucker’s book, but in the meantime here are Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask Your Nonprofit Organization:

What is your mission?
Who is your customer?
What does your customer value?
What are your results?
What is your plan?

These are all questions we ask and answer in the course of strategic planning with our clients, although not in Drucker’s specific terms.

For instance, the word “customer” was once a refreshing shock to nonprofit sensibilities, a challenge to those who automatically disdained commerce and marketing. Later on, calling donors and clients “customers” became a cliché. When a useful term becomes a buzzword, it shuts down the good thinking it once may have stimulated.

But it’s been a while since Drucker’s heyday and “customer” seems to have dropped out of frequent use in the nonprofit world. So, maybe it’s time to bring the “customer” back into our strategic discussions.

In any case, I’m glad to be challenged to learn more about the amazing Peter Drucker and I’m looking forward to learning more about his Five Questions.

Donor difference-makers: more, better and new

Stuck for something to write about in your year-end e-mails or mail appeals? The best fund appeals show the donor how a contribution now will make a significant and specific difference in the not-too-distant future.  Three simple words help me isolate and describe that donor difference-maker clearly.

More:  Every dollar helps you do more great work. Donors will help you educate more children, serve more meals or provide more immunizations, making a difference in more peoples’ lives.Improvement

Better: Contributions help you create better outcomes and experiences. Through improved programs and services, new technology and upgraded facilities, your donors make the difference between good and great.

New: Contributors will invest in new locations, new programs and innovations. Donors create the potential to dramatically change the landscape in your area of concern.

New icon roundStay focused. You can often apply two or even all three terms to the same subject. But resist that urge. Don’t waste your donor’s precious attention with more takes on the same story. Help your donor understand and focus on the single most important difference she will make by giving today.

For example, a new program location could have better facilities than older locations and help you serve more people.

If the new location will double your caseload or impact with little change in your service model, more will be the best theme for your appeal. If growth in client numbers is modest, perhaps you should focus on how the change will be better for those you serve. But if the new spot will truly be a launching pad for innovative methods, consider stressing the newness.

Good luck with that appeal! Call me if you get stuck.

Budget like a rock band

Bands are businesses, too.

By VectorOpenStock (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Who knew we’d be getting an object lesson in fundraising event budgeting from a alternative music band today? But check out this great article at Medium. In it, musician Jack Conte runs down the  profit and loss on a 28-day concert tour by Pomplamoose the multi-talented California pop duo consisting of Jack and Nataley Dawn. Then ask whether you could track the monetary success of your most recent event as well as these musicians.

Like nonprofits, Pomplamoose is more about the mission – music – than the money. And, like many nonprofits (and quite a few diners), just staying around to do great work from year to year can be a worthy achievement in itself. Pomplamoose has been making it for seven years and seems likely to keep on going, judging from their clear-eyed perspective on the business side of being professional artists.

Their 2014 tour was a highly calculated business risk. As it turned out they lost money on the tour. But they know exactly how much: $11,819. And they know exactly why – the $48,094 they spent on bandmates and crew instead of touring as a duo. By delivering a big concert experience, the pair are confident they’ll make that money back on future tours. Pomplamoose could afford the risk because they make most of their income from crowdfunding of their videos and online music sales.

Few nonprofits could similarly justify the risk or tolerate a loss from an event. But any nonprofit can learn from Pomplamoose’s acceptance that to make their art, they must also be a business. And any organization can do the simple math to project future costs and revenues and track net profits from events.

And check out their Pharrell Mashup video – showing how Pamplamoose does great work on a slim budget.

Donor messages stick better on paper

Screens create distance between readers and your words.

Before you drop your direct mail donor appeals and donor newsletter, consider these findings by literacy scholars in Norway and Canada. Paper beats computer screens at making written information, ideas and emotions stick in readers’ minds.

Of course, fundraisers already know this: printed direct mail still does better than email in terms of donor response rates by wide margins.

A new study from Norway takes a deeper look at the difference between paper and screen. Using both fiction and factual articles, researchers compared comprehension and retention between groups reading the same material from PDFs on monitors and from printed pages. The group reading from screens understood significantly less than those reading print. Anne Mangen at the Reading Centre of the University of Stavanger in Norway and her co-authors speculate Read more

Saving civilization – are you a Roman or a saint?

Thomas Cahill’s marvelously humane history How the Irish Saved Civilization tells how a handful of inspired monks isolated at the far edge of a crumbling empire first preserved and then replanted the most precious seeds of ancient civilization – the ideas and knowledge contained in its greatest Hebrew, Greek, Roman and early Christian books.

How Irish Saved CivilizationCahill’s concluding chapter reminds us that we cannot know the hour of our own civilization’s great catastrophe, but that we are more like the late Romans than we want to consider: technologically advanced, but living on the fruits of accelerating injustice, violence and corruption that leave more and more billions of people envious and destitute. Cahill foresees an inevitable crisis. “But we turn our back on such unpleasantness,” writes Cahill (in 1995), “and contemplate the happier prospects of our technological dreams.”

“What will be lost, and what saved, of our civilization probably lies beyond our powers to decide”, Cahill concludes. “No human group has ever figured out how to design its future. That future may be germinating today not in a boardroom in London or an office in Washington or a bank in Tokyo, but in some antic outpost or other – a kindly British orphanage in the grim foothills of Peru, a house for the dying run by a fiercely single-minded Albanian nun, and easygoing French medical team at the starving edge of the Sahel, a mission to Somalia by Irish social workers who remember their own Great Hunger, a nursery program to assist convict-mothers at a New York prison – in some unheralded corner where a great-hearted human being is committed to loving outcasts in an extraordinary way.” 

“Perhaps history is always divided into Romans and Catholics – or better catholics. The Romans are the  rich and powerful who run things their way and must always accrue more because they instinctively believe there will never be enough to go around; the catholics, as their implies, are universalists who instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family, that every human being is an equal child of God and that God will provide… If our civilization is to be saved… if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.”

I know I’m too much a Roman, too little a saint. Still it’s been my privilege to work with a few saints among my colleagues and clients during a career in philanthropy. Cahill reminds us that their dissent from selfishness is not eccentric or futile but essential to our fate. Thank you.

 

 

Make your appeal donor-friendly – a checklist

People give to people. Use a personal voice in fund appeals.Before you sign off on that spring mail appeal to donors, take one last look. Have you really done everything you can to help friends like me respond with a donation?

Have you addressed me personally? Have you used the word “you” in nearly every paragraph? Have you thanked me? Have you shown me how important I am to your work?

Have you used a human voice? Use the singular pronoun “I,” not the snooty “We.” Speak the everyday language you would use with a neighbor or friend. Replace insider jargon with words your Mom would understand.

Have you asked me clearly for money? Don’t try to sneak up on me with your ask. Tell me up front that you’re writing for my help with an important need and what specific amount or range of contributions you’re hoping I’ll consider. Then remind me again at the end (after you’ve made me care).

Have you explained how my donation will make a difference and to whom? A story or testimonial from someone who benefited from my past donations adds credibility to this promise.

Have you created urgency? Why do you need my money right now? To earn a matching gift? To be sure you can serve every deserving student when school opens?   Read more

2013 set records for charitable giving

If you’re waiting for a rising tide of charitable giving, you may already have missed it.

Charitable giving in the U.S. reached an all-time high of $416 billion in 2013, according to the Atlas of Giving’s latest report on giving in the last 12 months, an increase of 13.3% over 2012. Looking ahead, the Atlas projects giving growth of just 4 percent for 2014.

The 2013 Atlas of Giving report was released today, via a live stream announcement featuring Rob Mitchell of the Atlas.

Giving to philanthropies that receive most of their gifts from major donors and foundation grants grew the most. Human services received 19.1 percent more gifts and grants than in 2012. Environmental organizations saw giving grow by 18.5 percent. That’s because a booming stock market and recovering real estate caused a huge jump in the value of assets, according to Mitchell.

Religious organizations did not fare as well, reflecting their reliance on the current incomes of less affluent donors. With employment high and wages flat, giving to religion rose just 8.8 percent.

Looking ahead, you still have a chance to claim a piece of 2013’s stock market Read more

Best questions for 2014?

Reflection questions for the year past:

What did we think was impossible this year, but accomplished anyway? What made it possible?
Of all that we accomplished, what makes us most proud? Why is that important to us?
What question was I asked in 2013 that was so powerful I couldn’t stop thinking about it? Why?

Read more