Ideas for Donor Involvement

April 17, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 12:36 pm

I once talked to an Executive Director who resisted inviting major donors to volunteer or become more involved because “I don’t want to seem like I’m bothering them. Their gift should be enough.”

I thought that was backwards. Of course, you could make the ask poorly in a way that’s bothersome. But as a general rule, inviting people to get involved is a key way to enhance the commitment of your donors to the organization.

Here are 6 ideas for how to engage current/potential donors, in no particular order.

1. Hold a conference call briefing for them. New technology allows opportunities for people to be on the call and ask questions, without it being disruptive.

2. Invite them to volunteer on tasks that could be done by staff or board members, but don’t have to be done by staff. This will vary wildly by the type of organization, but could include everything from having them help out in the office, to assist with an event, to lead a hike or tour.

3. Hold a “focus group.” Whether as part of strategic planning or otherwise, pick some topic where input from those beyond the board/staff would be helpful and invite enough donors to have 8-10 participate and lead them through a conversation.

4. Hold a “Salon.” Pick a book, article, or even a TedTalk video for them to read/watch and have them join a board member at their home to discuss it over a glass of wine. Obviously, you’d want to pick a topic that’s relevant for the organization.

5. Participate in a committee. This could be an ongoing committee or it could be a short-term committee charged with answering a specific question.

6. Send them an online member survey. Ask for their feedback on how the organization is doing and priorities for the future.

I’m always looking for more ideas, so let me know what else your organization has done to make donors feel involved.

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Guest blog: 5 Questions to Ask When Using Marketing to Grow Your Non-Profit

March 31, 2014

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 11:18 am

Guest Blog by Natalie Henry Bennon  —

Marketing gets a bad rap. And sometimes it’s deserved. I don’t like being told I need a new thing when really I don’t.

And yet, marketing is key to successful for-profit businesses. Non-profits have finally taken notice. Some are hiring marketing staff. Some have shifted budgets from media relations to marketing and social media. Others are hiring marketing firms under contract.

Whatever your non-profit growth challenge, here are five questions to ask in determining how marketing can help your non-profit grow:

1)    What are your measurable goals?

This could be: We want to attract 1,000 new members in 2014. Your marketing goals could also be recruiting new volunteers or board members; retaining members, volunteers, or board members; or raising awareness and attention to your issue.

2)    Who is your target audience?

Let’s assume you are trying to recruit more members, and you know you want younger and more diverse members. Your target audience might be women and men between the ages of 20 and 35 making $30,000 to $55,000 per year. It may help to give this person a real name and picture and persona. Think about what s/he does for a living and for fun.

For example, let’s say you are creating a marketing plan for The Sierra Club. They want to recruit more members. This might be a useful target audience persona:

Meet Chris. He is 28, works at a company that manufactures solar panels, buys mostly organic food, and has in the past volunteered at his local beach cleanup. He likes to ski, hike and cook.

3)    What is your value proposition?

For this, it’s helpful to actually define the difference between marketing, branding, advertising and sales. For non-profits, Arizona State University’s Lodestar Center for Philanthropy defines “marketing” as a process that brings about the voluntary exchange of values (as opposed to goods) between a non-profit organization and its target market. For example, it could be a transfer of a donation in exchange for addressing a social need.

What value is your audience getting? A value proposition helps you articulate this.  It names your target audience, what you want them to do, what benefits they will receive, and why.

Keeping with the Sierra Club example, here is a specific example: When you donate to the Sierra Club, you get peace of mind that your money is going toward proven, effective environmental advocacy that will help provide clean air and water, improve human health, and protect wildlife and wild places.

4)    What is your position in the marketplace?

Now it’s time to consider your competition. Non-profits don’t always like to call it competition, because we don’t actually want other groups doing important work to fail. But you are competing for members and volunteers. So what is your position in the marketplace? How are you different than other non-profits? A positioning map can help with this.

For example, the Sierra Club engages in advocacy, lobbying, and litigation. The club works nationally, but also has local chapters, and even some international programs. Compared to other international environmental non-profits, it positions itself as more reasonable than Greenpeace, which is very confrontational, but more aggressive than The Nature Conservancy, which is less confrontational in its tactics.

A non-profit’s position in the marketplace will help establish trust from different audiences. Moreover, a non-profit’s positioning, combined with it’s value proposition and its target audience, help non-profit managers make a cascade of other strategic decisions including messaging, partnerships and how to get the message to the audience.

5)    How will you reach your audience?

Where do they spend time? What do they like to do?

If you are aiming for the 20-35 year olds in my example, I think the things they are doing are trying to build a career, and find a mate. So perhaps the Sierra Club would offer professional networking events, or young and social volunteering and hiking events. The club might also create a community online where young people engage with Sierra Club actions. The club could also become a news and action resource for all the things this age group cares about regarding the environment (this is a kind of content marketing).

My number one advice: don’t just answer these questions in your head. If your non-profit has plans to grow, try drafting a marketing plan that identifies at least one quantifiable growth goal.

Start today.  What is one goal for your non-profit’s growth? Leave a comment below.

Natalie Henry Bennon’s consulting firm Springtale Strategies specializes in non-profit marketing, media relations, and grant writing. You can email her at

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Have you sharpened your axe lately?

March 27, 2014

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 12:49 pm

A friend was recently describing to me a challenge he faced as a new board member of a relatively healthy organization, but one that seemed to have a frenetic culture.

He said the situation reminded him of an allegory a colleague once told him and I liked the story so much I’m repeating it here.  (If anyone knows the source of this allegory, please let me know).

Once upon a time, there was a woodsman who made his living cutting logs into firewood.  People kept coming to him requesting his work, so he got very busy.  He complained to his neighbor about how busy he was.

The next day, when he had a lot of wood to cut, the neighbor came by to observe his work and asked him why he didn’t stop to sharpen his axe. 

The woodsman replied: “Can’t you see I’m too busy to sharpen my axe?”

Of course, the moral of the story is that the woodsman would actually cut more wood in less time with a sharper axe.

This lesson applies to organizations and not just individuals.

I’ve known many nonprofit organizations with a culture of “getting it done” that are constantly overwhelmed with “stuff to do” so they never take the time to “sharpen their axe.”

In the organizational context, sharpening the axe can mean many things:

  • Professional development/training for staff and/or the board.
  • Strategic or other long-term or short-term planning
  • Team-building exercises/retreats

So organizational leaders out there as you plot the year ahead, don’t forget to build in multiple ways in which you’re sharpening the axe and not just swinging it.

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Building your donor prospect list

November 15, 2013

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 2:46 pm

One of the biggest mistakes I see made by both nonprofit staff and board members (and political candidates) is to underestimate their own personal list for who to ask for donations.

Invariably, when you push them, more names emerge.

So how do you “push” yourself if you’re the one needing the list.

Most importantly, don’t build your list purely by asking out loud: “who do I know?”

Instead, run through an exercise like the following:

Go through Your Rolodex: old fashioned, your email address book, your Facebook or LinkedIn connections, etc. Who among these are prospects?

Then ask a series of questions design to bring to the forefront of your mind people who might not have already been captured. Questions can include:

Do you attend any religious institution?
Do you socialize with others from the institution?
Are you involved in it beyond attending services?

Are you in any clubs or organized activities?
What is it?
Who’s in it?

Who do you hang out with socially?
Social networks
Outdoor activities
Watching/playing sports
Book Clubs

What’s Your Professional background prior to your current role?
Do you have co-workers from previous jobs who believed in you?
Were you part of a professional association?
Who are your past employers?
For each, what’s your relationship like with the employer?

For each, list the 5-10 people with whom you most closely worked? What are they doing now/where are they?

Do you have any friends or colleagues from your higher education?
Social Clubs
Honor Societies
Extra-Curricular Activities

Odds are overwhelming that an exercise along these lines will yield a significantly more robust list from whom to fundraise!

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Don’t make this membership fundraising mistake

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 2:19 pm

I recently was speaking with an organization that had gone to great lengths to identify different levels of membership benefits that would be received by their members based on the level of dollars donated as part of their membership.

Donate $40 and get X.

Donate $75 and get X and Y.

Donate $120 and get X, Y, and Z.


They wanted my advice on how to further boost up the X, Y, and Z to make membership more attractive.

My advice — start over and ditch the concept entirely.

This wasn’t  a professional association — it was an organization that could be loosely described as progressive and ideological.  People aren’t joining the organization to gain “benefits.”

They are joining to advance the mission.

The difference between larger and smaller membership gifts isn’t about offering them more benefits.  It’s about (a) the donor’s capacity, (b) the donor’s  understanding of the organization and the impact it’s generating, (c) the donor’s emotional connection to the organization and/or the people involved, and last but not least, (d) whether the donor was asked to give more.

Instead of saying your $75 gets you X where X is something the donor gets, you should say $75 will help us make impact X — by framing it as part of a larger campaign.

And make them feel part of a larger community of like-minded donors so they’ll feel emotionally connected.

If you get them thinking analytically about the size of their donation as one of costs/benefits to them, my guess is you’ll almost always depress the size o their donation, not increase it.

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Outcomes Schmoutcomes

October 3, 2013

Filed under: Fundraising,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 4:20 pm

I am a big believer in nonprofit organizations measuring the outcomes they achieve.

It’s an essential tool for any staff/board to know they’re having the impact desired over time.

And if not, to adjust their strategy.

I also understand quite a few foundations are looking at demonstrated outcomes as part of their grant criteria.

However, I recently had the experience of having a nonprofit Executive Director tell me (and separately tell one of their board members) that their biggest challenge with major donor fundraising is they haven’t measured outcomes, so they can’t go make the case effectively to potential donors.

To that I say “outcomes schmoutcomes.”

In my 13 years of directly raising major donor money for a not-too-dissimilar organization, I can count on one hand the number of major donors for whom documented outcomes was a big deal.

This particular organization has a great brand, lots of long-term donors in the right age and income bracket to give, and lots of passion.

For donors giving at the $500, $1,000, and $2,500 levels — which is where this organization is focused — the key factors impacting a major donation are: do they share a passion for the mission, do they feel personally connected to the person asking, do they feel the organization is generally competent, and do they feel a sense of urgency that the donation is needed now, not some far off time in the future.  Emotion, not reason, is the dominant force in these donations.

Most likely, if the organization were to start talking with potential major donors with a focus on “outcomes,” eyes would glaze over and major donor meetings would be even LESS successful.

If the organization is not achieving the success it should with major donors, almost certainly there is something else askew.

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12 tips for getting fundraising meetings

August 16, 2013

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 3:53 pm

One of the biggest keys to successful fundraising is asking people in a meeting for money.

Events, letter, phone calls, and emails all belong as part of a robust, comprehensive fundraising system.  But thriving organizations almost always find that one-on-one solicitations are where they secure most of their unrestricted funds.

Many fundraisers I train believe that making the ask at the meeting is the easy part – where they profess to get held up is in getting the meeting in the first place.

Here’s  a dozen tips for how to get the meeting

1. Make sure you’re working connections and not cold prospects.  If they’re not current donors, you should focus on people you know, or having someone who knows the donor connect you (either by making the meeting request directly or at least letting you use their name).  If you’re counting on your board to supply connections and they’re not being helpful, find others who will be.

2. Make the request via phone, not email.  It’s too easy to duck an email and in an email you can’t engage them, motivate them, and respond to any misapprehensions they might have about the meeting.   Or worse, they may give in response to the email, but at a much lower level than you would secure in a meeting.

3. Start the process far in advance of when you really need the meeting to happen.  If you need the ask to take place in November, start requesting the meeting in October.  The further out you set a proposed date, the less likelihood that conflicts will get in the way.  Or, if you ask for a time 10 days out and they say they are already booked, it gives you an easy (and hard to refuse) follow-up ask for a later time when they’re not booked.

4. If they say it’s a bad time to talk, ask if you can call back “in an hour/tomorrow.

5. Start by thanking them if at possible.  For past donations.  For past volunteer work.   For some other community work they’ve done even if not for your organization.

6. Be passionate and upbeat.  Passion is contagious and people are more likely to want to spend time with someone if they perceive you as upbeat.  You are selling yourself as much as the organization in trying to set up the meeting.

7. Make clear you’re looking both for their input and to see how they can help.   Propose some topic where you’re seeking input (your upcoming or new strategic plan, your communications, ideas, some specific organizational issue, etc.).

8. Focus on their convenience, not yours.  Always offer first to meet them at their home, office, or a nearby coffee shop or restaurant.  Let them choose.  Be willing to meet early in the morning, just after work, or during the evening.

9. Use peer pressure.  If you know they’re friends/colleagues/rivals of someone else who you’ve met with or are meeting with, figure out how to drop that into the conversation.

10. Propose a specific date and time.  Don’t ask: can we meet?  Ask: Can we meet on Tuesday the 22nd at 3 p.m.?   This “assumption of yes” will get them focused on when you should meet, not whether.

11. If they say something that divulges something personal (e.g. I’m going to my son’s wedding”), don’t be afraid to follow up with a question designed to make the relationship more personal (e.g. “Congratulations!  Where is he getting married?”  You should be genuinely interested in them as a person, not just a checkbook.

12. Be prepared to pivot back to a second ask if they initially say no.   Most eventual yes’s and successful donor visits will start out with donors initially saying “I’m too busy” or “Don’t waste your time with me, I’ll donate regardless” or some similar statement.  Make the case why it’s valuable and ask again.

Above and beyond these tips, the most important thing is to be relentless.  You will often have to try to call a donor a dozen times before reaching him or her.  Don’t leave messages and don’t give up.  Just keep trying at different times and dates.

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Tips for fundraising letters

July 31, 2013

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 2:15 pm

Clients regularly ask me what goes into a good fundraising letter sent to previous donors.

Here are some tips, in no particular order:

  • Spend time thinking about the opening sentence or two.  It should be engaging, interesting, and provocative.  Don’t save your most engaging material for a third of the way into the letter.  Open with your strongest stuff.
  • Make the ask.  At least once per page in a multi-page letter.  Letters that provide an update and then just softly suggest donations are almost never effective.
  • Make the ask specific.  Don’t ask for “generous support” or other similar wishy-washy terms.   If you can, segment your list to make the ask at an appropriate level for different levels of past giving.  If not, you can ask for a several specific levels (e.g. “give $35, $50, $100, or whatever you can afford.”).
  • Personalize it.  Don’t send it to “Dear Friend.”  Send it to “Dear Susan.”
  • Thank them.  If the thank you can be personalized, all the better.  For example, some organizations as part of a mail merge can personalize based on how much they last donated (e.g. “Thank you for your most recent gift of $50” – with $50 being a field inserted from the mail merge unique to that donor).
  • Write it from a person, not the organization.  It should be first-person singular from the author, not “we” from the organization.
  • Create urgency by noting some monetary need of your organization with a deadline.  Create an artificial deadline if necessary.  Make it clear donations in the next few weeks are critical.
  • Tell a story with visually arresting language.  But the story shouldn’t be over – the ending should depend on donors stepping forward to complete the story.   The donors should be the hero(s) of the story, not the nonprofit.
  • Focus on the mission-impact you’ll be making on the world with more resources, not the process or internal organizational benefits.
  • Close with a strong repeat of the ask.
  • If the author has time to actually sign each individual letter instead of printing one, then it’s worth doing so.  I found this to be a painless activity to do while watching a movie or tv show at home and am pretty sure donors appreciated when they could tell an individual signed it, not just the computer.  This also gave me a chance o write 1-2 sentence personal notes on any letters where I knew the person receiving it.
  • Use a PS that once again repeats the specific ask and the urgency/deadline.
  • If the volunteers are available, experiment with having half your letters hand addressed by volunteers and sent first class.  See if the extra dollars generated by higher returns justifies the extra postage and volunteer time.   If so, make this part of your standard practice.

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Tracking time

May 9, 2012

Filed under: Fundraising — Tags: , — jonathanpoisner @ 10:16 am

To manage your time, you need to know where it goes. The only way to know where you spend your time is to log it. Your memory tells you that you spend time where you think you should spend your time, but it’s wrong. — Peter Drucker.

Drucker’s wisdom strikes me often when I start asking clients and potential clients about their fundraising strategies. Too often, they their time fundraising, but don’t break it down by fundraising strategy. So they have no idea really which fundraising strategy is performing well, since they’re not taking staff time into account when calculating the net profit from any particular strategy. Of course, you can take this too far, but you can reasonably track 4-5 different major fundraising strategies with decent time sheets without putting excessive burden on staff.

Don’t make these mistakes in selecting a donor database

March 15, 2012

Filed under: Fundraising — Tags: , — jonathanpoisner @ 11:00 am

I recently came across a great summary from TechSoup on mistakes organizations make in selecting a donor database.

I can personally attest to making a couple of them myself.

In my experience, most small-to-medium sized nonprofits fail to invest sufficient time and money into utilizing a good donor database, and thinking through the integration of that data with other data the organization uses (email advocacy for example).  (Of course, many databases integrate these two functions from the start).

Of the two (time or money), I actually think time is the biggest failure for organizations.  They ask the tech people to figure it out, without recognizing the tech people haven’t a clue what your real needs are unless your fundraising and program staff invest real time into thinking through your real needs.

When we finally did the process right in my last job, it was by investing a lot of time into creating a document outlining in excruciating detail our needs and then vigorously checking potential vendors for how they could meet them.

Here are some further thoughts I previously wrote about investing in information management systems.

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