Fundraising lessons I learned (or re-learned) in 2013

Amy Stephan headshotThe end of the year is always a good time to reflect back on the last 12 months. This past year I learned many things from many people and was reminded of a few things that sometimes are buried in the hustle of the here and now. Below are the top fundraising lessons I learned (or re-learned) in 2013.

1)    Never assume that someone who recently gave a major gift won’t donate again. I am always telling my board and volunteers that you will never get if you never ask. You can’t just assume someone doesn’t want to give – even if you think you know it’s true. The lesson inside this for me, however, came when thinking about donors who had recently given a major gift. We tend to be hesitant to go back to those who have already given a large gift during the year, and for good reason. We never want to wear out our donors. There are, however, good ways and reasons to reach out to donors who have already given to you recently. A short time ago, I forced myself through the self-doubt of asking a recent major gift donor for another gift. The result was another very generous gift! Lesson learned. There is a time and place for asks and knowing your donors is everything.

2)    Finding the elusive donor with link, interest, and ability is more important than ever. The sweet spot of giving comes from a donor who has a link to your organization, an interest in what you are doing, and the ability to give a gift. We are all looking for those donors all the time. The need to hit that sweet spot is greater than ever. With so many organizations competing for the donor’s dollars, we have to work twice as hard to not only make a connection with donors, but match their interests to specific projects we need funded. It’s no longer enough to have a great mission and good story. People want specific things that move them and evoke their passion. That’s really what our job is about at the end of the day…making that connection.

3)    Cultivation and stewardship is how you get the gifts; solicitation is just the vehicle. This really wasn’t a new lesson for me; it’s something I’ve been preaching for a long time. But in the fundraising climate of today, it seems more important than ever and worth mentioning again. How you treat a prospective donor and how you build that relationship is what will determine whether they give you a gift. The tactic for soliciting a donor matters, of course, but most people know what they are going to give you before you ever sit down for the ask. The way you steward that donor after the gift will determine whether you get a second gift and how large of a gift you might receive. Solicitations are about sales. You will only get so far in this business if that is how you approach all of your donors. Fundraising is about relationships. Build them, nurture them, make them important and the solicitation will be the easy part.

Year-end appeal is out the door, now what?

Amy Stephan

Amy Stephan

You’ve been working hard to craft the perfect annual appeal letter and it’s now finished and in mailboxes. It’s time to kick your feet up through the holidays, right? Wrong! Nonprofits that drop their year-end mailing and just wait for money to roll in the door are missing opportunities to secure more cash.

There are three things that all nonprofits should be doing after the appeal goes out the door. First, make sure your appeal is complimented with online materials. Tracking donations and running reports throughout the next few weeks is a must. And following up with past donors you haven’t yet heard from is a way to boost your bottom line.

The cheese shouldn’t stand alone

Even if your year-end appeal is the best letter you’ve ever written, it alone isn’t enough in our technology driven world. While many people will still fill out a response form and stick a check in the mail, more and more people are turning to online donations as their preferred method of donating. Creating an online aspect to your year-end appeal is something all nonprofits should be doing this year.

Online appeals can consist of many different aspects. You can feature an abbreviated version of your letter on your website with the option to make a donation online. Sending an email appeal to previous donors is a great way to get in front of people a second time. Use social media sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn to feature pieces of your appeal with a link to see the full version. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure you choose something. Getting your appeal online will help you reach more people and remind those who have already received your letter that it’s time to give.

Track, track, track

Nobody likes paperwork. We all hate completing reports. Do it anyway. The year-end appeal has a limited window of opportunity. Once the clock rolls over on December 31, the last minute tax incentive for donors ends. Knowing who has given and which of your past donors are missing is important for your next step – the follow up. Make sure you are running reports and thanking donors as the donations come back.

Don’t leave past donors in the past

With all the reports you’ve been running, you already know which of your past donors haven’t responded to your appeal. Follow up with those folks before the end of the year arrives! There are several ways nonprofits choose to do this, but the two most popular options are creating personalized letters and making phone calls.

Don’t resend your appeal letter to donors who didn’t respond to the first one. Create a new, personalized letter to these people. Make sure you include the amount they gave last year and specifically ask them to repeat their gift this year. Make sure you address it specifically to them and not “Dear Friend.” Depending on how many letters you have to send, consider including a handwritten note or at least handwriting the envelope. Personal touches like these are appreciated by donors.

For your top-end donors who have yet to respond to your appeal, make phone calls. Which donors get a phone call will be different for every organization, but a good rule of thumb is to call the top 20% of your donors. Create a script and have your board members help make phone calls. Remember to say thank you when you are talking to donors.

The year-end appeal is an integral part of most nonprofit organization’s annual budget. Making the extra effort after the letters are mailed is just one more way to boost your bottom line.

Are you struggling with your year-end appeal? Not seeing the results you expected? I can help make your appeal a success! Email and find out how I can help your organization meet its objectives.

Social media is a tool, not a strategy

Amy Stephan

It’s been an incredibly busy few weeks, but one thing I’ve been asked about numerous times in the past month is using social media for fundraising. I’ve had a couple of students reach out to me this month about papers or projects they are working on for class and want to know what I think about social media as a viable source of fundraising. I always say the same thing – it’s a great tool, but it’s not a strategy. This is my blog from August that explains what I think about the topic.

Social media is a tool, not a strategy. Fundraisers often ask what kind of income spike they can expect from social media involvement. My answer is always the same: none – at least not directly or immediately. Social media isn’t a fundraising strategy like major gifts or special events. It’s a tool to develop relationships.

Social media is a tool, not a strategy

Nonprofit organizations that base their decision to get involved with social media on the dollars they think it will bring in are completely missing the point. While there may be small donations that are spurred by a Facebook post or Twitter chat, it’s not why people give.Nonprofits and Social Media Fundraising: Chasing the Mighty Dollar Down a Dead End Street” talks more about why using social media alone to fundraise doesn’t work. Engaging people is how you get dollars in the door and to do that you have to find them and talk to them.

Using Social Media for Outreach

Social media is an outreach tool that can connect you to people who don’t know much about your organization, to a younger generation of donors, and to those who are involved but want to be more involved.

Social media is an excellent tool to reach outside your mailing list or volunteer pool. While your first Facebook friends and Twitter followers will probably be people who are already involved with your organization, their online engagement can lead to access to people you aren’t connected to yet. When they share a post or retweet a message all of their friends and followers can see it. They in turn have the opportunity to share it further. And when hashtags and blog tags are used people who are even further outside your inner circle can find you and connect.

Direct mail appeals don’t resonate with younger donors, but telling your story on Google+ or posting photos on Instagram does. Using social media to reach out to a younger generation can help build your volunteer base and start creating relationships that will lead to future donors.

Advertising is Expensive, Social Media is Not

Social media can be used as an advertising stream and the cost is nothing more than a little staff time. Using social media to promote special events and programs is a great way to find new people who want to connect. By using keywords, hashtags and tagging relevant people or organizations in posts, you can discover new volunteers and donors.

Everyone has to have an introduction to an organization and many times this is done through programs that provide free resources or special events that are fun. Using social media to talk up these things will allow people to easily share their excitement and reviews about what you do and how well you do it. Word of mouth is always the best press!

At the End of the Day It’s All About Building Relationships

There are many ways for nonprofits to use social media, but at the end of the day it comes down to one thing: relationships. My blog last week talked about how no matter what you’re doing in fundraising, it’s all about the relationships. Social media is no exception.

Use social media to get more attention for your organization and find new people who you can help and who can help you. Use social media to introduce people to services you offer and the mission you’re supporting. Use social media to engage people who are interested in learning more. Use social media to build trust and develop a real relationship and then (and only then) will you start seeing that spike in donations.

Cultivation isn’t an overnight process. It takes time and energy. Social media can help with discovery and cultivation, but your plan has to be broader. Social media is a tool, not a strategy, so make sure your organization is using it as such.

Do you work for an organization that is just starting with social media or needs a social media overhaul? I can help! Email me at and let’s talk about how I can help craft your social media presence.

Nonprofits and Social Media: The Power of Video Story Telling

Amy Stephan

I’m taking a break from blogging this week, but pulled this from the archives of my blog from Neal Schaffer’s WindMill Networking site. Video is a GREAT tool for nonprofits and one that isn’t used enough!

Nonprofits and Social Media: The Power of Video Story Telling

Nonprofit organizations (NPOs) around the world strive to tell their story to potential donors and volunteers every day. We strive to come up with that powerful message that will move people to action. Video is one of the most vibrant ways to paint that picture and create a lasting impact. In the past, NPOs avoided using video because it was expensive to create and challenging to broadcast. New technology and the onset of social media have changed all that.

Creating video has never been easier. Just about every cell phone comes equipped with a video camera these days and free editing software is available online and through software packages purchased with new computers. Windows Movie Maker is one example of software that will walk you through the process of using your photos and video clips to make a movie. The sky is the limit when it comes to creating unique ways to tell your story.


Accountability is for everyone

Amy Stephan

Shared accountability is one of those phrases that could be a buzzword if it wasn’t such a large part of the success of nonprofit organizations. It’s a phrase that is too easily glossed over by staff and a phrase that holds the key to meeting your mission.

Everyone on your staff needs to understand shared accountability and why it is necessary to be successful. As nonprofit leaders, we are charged with teaching volunteers to embrace the idea of being held responsible without making them feel like they report to us – because they don’t. Staff members can’t blame volunteers when things go wrong and we have to give them all the glory when they go right. We have to get them to own the goals and be willing to do whatever it takes to get results. None of these things are easy, so why don’t we just take charge and hold ourselves accountable?

Why shared accountability is important for your staff

Shared accountability is a huge factor in the success of anything a nonprofit does. If staff members own an event, a goal, or a program in its entirety it won’t be long before that person is the only one left standing. Volunteers who aren’t invested won’t stick around for long.

No staff person can meet goals without the help of the board and lead volunteers. Staff members should be held accountable for finding key people and bringing them to the table. The key people at the table should be held accountable for taking the right steps to ensure success. A staff member that is alone at the table will fail. A staff member that fails will leave.

Why shared accountability is important for your organization

In order for an organization to be effective in fundraising they must have good volunteers who accept shared accountability for goals. Without them an organization will not grow. Top level volunteers and board members are involved because they have a link and interest in what you do. More than likely, whatever your organization does impacts them personally. If you don’t get them to accept responsibility, however, you’re left with little more than someone who thinks what you do is a good cause.

Volunteers and board members who aren’t given accountability may care about your mission, but they won’t care how you meet it. Without someone championing the cause and bringing more of the right people to the table, you can’t sustain growth.

A lack of accountability also creates an “us and them” mentality for volunteers. If staff members hold all the decision making power and all the responsibility for meeting goals, your volunteers will start thinking in terms of “us” – the volunteers – and “them” – the staff. Sharing the accountability forms a “we” mindset. The volunteers become a vital part of the organization and know if they don’t succeed, the mission won’t be fulfilled.

Success comes much quicker when a nonprofit has staff and volunteers who are sharing accountability. An organization that has multiple people taking ownership of outcomes will be able to build sustainable programs and long lasting revenue streams.

Are your volunteers and staff holding themselves and each other accountable for goals and success? Find out more about the volunteer, staff and board trainings I offer that will teach accountability and boost success. Email and find out how I can help your organization meet its objectives.

Creative engagement and the real life example that worked

Amy Stephan

Engagement with your audience is such an important piece of what nonprofits should be doing. Whether it’s at the level of discovery, cultivation, or stewardship, organizations need to find ways to interact with people and not just talk at them. Even when you’re attempting to reach a large audience, such as through direct mail, you need to get creative and find ways to make communication a two-way street.

I did this recently with a cultivation mailing that was sent to more than 12,000 households. The desired outcome was to identify possible new donors and cultivate current donors of both large and small gifts. A mass mailing made sense in order to cast a large net, but I knew it needed to be more than just informational. We also needed a call to action that was deeper than just “donate now” and would encourage people to respond.

This particular organization is Catholic and the nuns who founded it have a long history in the community. I decided that the tradition and familiarity rooted in that was perfect for discovery and cultivation. With it being so close to the end of the year and the annual appeal being planned, I knew that we could do a mailing that was more about connection and less about donations; at least on the surface.

The truth is that everything we do is about creating a relationship that will eventually lead to a donation. Sometimes, however, our best bet is to not immediately ask for money and take the time to fully develop a relationship that will result in a bigger gift. I talk more about that in my blog, “To Ask or Not to Ask, That is the Question.”

With engagement as the objective, I wrote a letter to the community reminding them of all the wonderful things the Sisters had done over the years and how they continue to invest time and money here. The letter came from the Board chair and asked people to stop and remember why this organization was important to them and then write a letter to the Sisters to say thank you. We didn’t ask them to send money or come to an event or even send us their contact information. We simply asked them to send a thank you letter to the Sisters.

The response surprised me. The hand written letters full of stories of the Sisters caring for family and friends, the memories people shared of how the Sisters made them feel, and the genuine gratitude people had for what the organization stood for and contributed to the community was inspiring.

It was a feel good moment for the organization and opened a line of communication with people who had a clear interest. It was the best possible lead you could have for donor prospecting. It was an excellent cultivation tool for those who had given a gift and needed to be reminded where that money was spent. And it was above all else, an engagement tool that started many conversations in the community.

Engagement and interaction with potential donors is how you create relationships that bring in major gifts. Determining where the connecting point is for people is how you get engaged donors. Stop and consider what your objective is and then start a conversation with your donors.

Looking for ways to engage with your donors or discover new donors? Find out how I can help your organization get connected to the people who will help you most. Email and find out how I can help your organization meet its goals.

Nonprofits need leaders not managers, and there is a difference

Amy Stephan

Every nonprofit has a manager but does your organization have a leader? Contrary to what many believe, they aren’t the same thing. To manage someone is very different from leading. Leadership is a skill and a talent and one not nearly enough people take the time to learn. Instead we settle for managers who direct and command rather than teach and guide, leaving our organizations with staff who can’t think on their feet or resolve problems on their own.

A lack of leadership in nonprofit organizations is a key factor of underperformance and failure. It creates a weak staff, poor donor development, and an environment based on the ideas and processes of just one person – the manager. In an article published in the Wall Street Journal discussing management versus leadership, Alan Murray points out many differences between the two, including the fact that “managers maintain and leaders develop.” This is significant because it’s the difference between status quo and growth.

Organizations wanting to raise more money, have more successful events, and see growth year over year need to take note of what to look for when hiring a leader.

A leader…

  • Has the ability to check their egos at the door and be a team player
  • Teaches people by example
  • Empowers employees to think on their own
  • Offers insight and advice while allowing people to create their own unique path to success
  • Provides the tools and canvas to be successful
  • Allows others to take the credit
  • Makes you want to exceed goals and be the best you can be without having to use pressure tactics and panic as a motivator
  • Focuses on big picture goals instead of micromanaging day to day tasks

I see far too many managers at the helm of nonprofit organizations. They can stifle creativity, require a one size fits all mantra to development, and squash the morale of employees. The key to success starts with leadership and so should your organization.

Is your organization in need of staff development and training? Are you looking for ways to boost morale, get more productivity from staff and develop leaders? Email and find out how I can help your organization meet its goals.


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