Nonprofits aim to connect with donors

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Blackbaud.]

Fundraising is getting personal.

Whether big, small or mid-sized, nonprofits are looking for ways to better understand donors and focus their fundraising on creating opportunities for donors to support the particular causes and interests they care about.

Nonprofits use a broad range of strategies to focus their fundraising on donors. Those strategies can include segmenting appeals based on donor interest; giving donors the opportunity to create their own funds, and their own websites to raise money for those funds; and listening carefully to feedback from fundraising volunteers.

Roger Williams Park Zoo

Last year, the Roger Williams Park Zoo farmed out the marketing of its annual fund to a local mail house and marketing firm. The firm analyzed the Zoo’s mailing list and the results of a survey the Zoo had conducted that asked donors what interested them the most at the Zoo. The analysis found that donors who cared most about conservation and research, animal care, and general zoo activities gave more than other donors.

So for last year’s annual fund drive, the Rhode Island Zoo Society, which manages the zoo for the City of Providence, targeted those three donor groups.

The appeal raised $75,000, setting a baseline for what the Zoo expects will be significant increases in future years.

Fundraising at the Zoo has become “very, very donor-centric,” says Brooke Fairman, director of development.

Personal touch

Operating with an annual budget of $7.5 million, the Zoo counts on memberships, events and corporate sponsorships for a big share of its budget.

With over 17,000 household memberships that generate over $1.6 million in annual revenue, the Zoo uses a personal approach to encourage members to increase their level of membership.

With members paying $99 on average a year, 1,500 members known as “Zookeepers” pay $150, and another 250 known as “Zoo Guardians” pay $250 or more.

During the annual renewal cycle, the Zoo invites Zookeepers to become Zoo Guardians.

“We are constantly looking to upgrade people,” says Elizabeth Grover, development and member services manager.

For Zoo Guardians, for example, the Zoo takes a more hands-on approach to stewardship, with personal phone calls, handwritten notes, and invitations to visit the Zoo, “go behind the scenes, feed an animal, and lots of tours,” she says.

“We’re constantly trying to move people up, finding out where their interest is,” she says.

Events fundraising

Events also are a big revenue-producer, including an annual event known as Zoobilee the Zoo has hosted for over 20 years.

Last June, the adults-only, after-hours event featuring live music, “animal encounters” and over 40 restaurants, caterers and beverage providers, attracted 1,400 guests who paid $125 or more for tickets, and sponsors that paid up to $25,000. The event generated $250,000.

And as the largest tourist attraction in Rhode Island, Fairman says, the Zoo generates a lot of support from corporations that want to reach the Zoo’s visitors.

The main supporters of Zoobilee, for example, are corporate sponsors, and most of the people at the event are the sponsors’ guests.

“Corporations, knowing the amount of people who go to the Zoo, tend to want to be involved with the Zoo,” Fairman says. “We have very longstanding relationships that we continue to nurture. It’s a lot of communications, touchpoints, constantly checking-in.”

The Zoo also offers special events for potential corporate sponsors.

During the week when Rhode Island and Massachusetts public schools are on vacation break, for example, the Zoo offers events throughout the week for families, and gives its corporate partners the opportunity to distribute brochures or demonstrate their products and services.

And this year, it launched “Brew at the Zoo,” a new after-hours event for people age 21 and older who could sample beer from over 50 breweries, providing an opportunity for corporate sponsorships.

Social media

Expanding beyond direct-mail appeals, the Zoo is embracing multi-channel marketing through email and social media.

It has found, for example, that most visitors to its website use mobile devices to look at the website. It also aims to capitalize on the following it has generated on Facebook and Twitter.

And this year, the Zoo is producing a mobile app that visitors to the Zoo can download to get information about animals, programs and their location in the Zoo.

It also is posting information every day on social media about topics like camp programs it offers, or any fundraising campaigns or appeals.

Making it personal

What matters in fundraising is understanding donors and getting them involved, Fairman says.

“It’s really the personal touch in all areas, corporate and individual donors,” she says. “We’re constantly touching them. We’re looking for what makes the donors tick, not just treating everyone the same.”

For the annual fund, for example, the Zoo drafted three appeal letters — one each for members with an interest, respectively, in conservation and research, animal care, or building a new exhibit.

The letters focus on “how the donor can help, what the donor has done so far, and what their gift means, and here’s why we still need your help,” Grover says. “We’ve really moved to a donor-centric model. It’s really about the donors’ interests and the impact they’ve had on the organization. It’s not so much about what we do, but it’s only because of the donor that we’re able to do it.”

CureSearch for Children’s Cancer

With events generating roughly 48 percent of the $6.1 million it raised in 2014 to support research, CureSearch for Children’s Cancer faces a big challenge in converting the 20,000 individuals who participate in its events into ongoing donors.

Among individuals who participate in a CureSearch event for the first time because they are family members, friends, neighbors or co-workers of parents who have children with cancer and who help raise money for the event, 60 percent agree to participate a second year. But only 20 percent to 30 percent agree to participate a third year.

“We’ve got a limited amount of time to capture them,” says Christine Bork, Chicago-based chief development and communications officer for CureSearch, which is based in Bethesda, Md.

CureSearch has developed a strategy to convert event participants to donors to its annual fund over 18 months to 24 months. The strategy includes five to seven “outreaches” that do not ask for money but provide educational materials and other information, as well as six to eight requests to give.

“The events are a portal to our individual giving strategy,” Bork says. “We bring them in through events, then have to retain them using other strategies.”

Events strategy

In 2014, CureSearch raised money through 50 community walks, and four 28-mile hikes. For the community walks, the nonprofit provides staff liaisons that help guide local volunteer committees that plan and raise money for the events.

The number of volunteers can range from 15 to 20 for an event that will attract 200 to 300 participants in a community like the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania, to 30 to 40 volunteers for an event in a community like Chicago that will attract 2,000 participants.

CureSearch handles all the planning and logistics for its four hikes, each of which typically attract 25 participants who each must contribute at least $2,500 and sometimes give as much as $5,000 to $6,000, mainly through fundraising.

Annual fund and major gifts

CureSearch generates $700,000 a year through its annual fund, and $600,000 from major donors, or those who give $10,000 or more.

Fundraising for the annual fund consists of eight electronic appeals, with the average gift totaling $160, while its major-gifts strategy focuses on personal visits to donors or prospects by one of the nonprofit’s two major gift officers, or its CEO or Bork.

For major donors, CureSearch in 2014 launched two events — one at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, and the other at the University of California at San Francisco — at which scientists presented the results of their research, and donors toured the research labs. It also held a research symposium that attracted mainly scientists but also a few parents.

Customized fundraising

The biggest success for CureSearch among major donors has been an initiative that identifies event participants with the capacity to give at least $25,000, typically by raising those funds.

Using a Blackbaud template that carries the CureSearch brand and can be co-branded with the name of the donor family, CureSearch lets parents of children who have died from cancer or who still have it create funds to support research, along with a website to raise money for those funds.

In the past two years, the number of funds has grown to eight from two, including two that raise six-figure totals annually. Collectively, the eight funds gave roughly $600,000 for research in 2014.

“What’s working for us right now is the customization of fundraising for different audiences, giving a very small but very important group of people exactly what they’re looking for,” Bork says. “We give them their own website, and we’re maintaining and supporting that and giving them the resources to help them fundraise.”

Using the same Blackbaud product, CureSearch offers similar opportunities for families that might raise much less, such as $500.

“We’re allowing people to do whatever they want to do to raise money for this cause whenever they want to do it,” she says.

Cultivating donors, showing impact

Using simple tools, CureSearch is working to better inform and engage donors.

It offers simple language donors can use to provide for CureSearch in their will, and received bequests totaling $250,000 in 2013, and $20,000 in 2014.

It distributes an electronic newsletter four times a year that focuses on the results of the research it funds, and sometimes a story about a donor who has raised money.

And it publishes an annual report and, twice a year, an “Impact Report” that features information graphics, optimized for a mobile device, on the research it has supported, such as the number of cancer cell line studies it has funded or the number of genes investigated with its support.

“You would think in cancer research it’s hard to demonstrate results because it might take years to show impact,” but the Impact Reports are generating “great feedback for us,” Bork says.

A key lesson is to “meet your donors where they are,” she says. “Give them 24/7 access, and help them understand the results and feel like they’re part of the results, that what they’re doing is truly meaningful.”

Darlington School

In its recent comprehensive campaign that raised $97 million, exceeding its goal by $7 million, Darlington School in Rome, Ga., learned about the value of listening to its volunteers and adapting to changing circumstances.

On Sept. 17, 2008, just before an event at the Capital City Club in Atlanta that attracted 300 guests for the campaign’s public kickoff, the school’s development staff met with the 40 members of its local campaign cabinet to talk about their assignments over the next 18 months to ask for gifts from the school’s top 200 prospects in the region.

That day, however, the Dow plunged nearly 500 points, triggering a collapse in the capital markets.

In the following weeks, campaign volunteers were “reluctant to call on their assignments and ask for a contribution,” says Joe Montgomery, chief advancement officer.

So in early October, the School reconvened its Atlanta cabinet, advising the volunteers not to “waste good prospects on a bad economy,” Montgomery says.

“Cultivate those relationships,” was the advice given to the volunteers, he says. “They’re your friends. If you’re tentative about asking, and they’re uncertain, then take them to lunch. Don’t avoid them. Cultivate them.”

Darlington also modified its campaign plan, focusing on markets west of Mississippi and north of Virginia.

And after exceeding its $90 million goal by its deadline on May 31, 2012, the campaign added a “Go the Extra Mile” segment that ended Dec. 31, 2013, and raised another $7 million.

Peer-to-peer fundraising

Volunteers were key to the success of the campaign, and to overall fundraising at Darlington, a coeducational day and boarding school that was founded in 1905, and has 800 students from 25 states and 30 countries in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Nothing works more effectively than peer-to-peer fundraising, and there’s no substitute for the personal visit,” Montgomery says.

After raising $35 million during a year-long feasibility phase, and then securing approval from the school’s board of trustees to raise another $30 million during a one-year quiet phase that began in September 2007, Darlington kicked off the $90 million campaign with the Atlanta event after raising a total of $65 million.

It held similar events throughout the U.S. in communities ranging from Miami and New York to San Francisco and Seattle. It screened a campaign video in each market, and assigned local volunteers to ask for contributions from peers.

“The video presented the case and the needs for the strategic plan, and set the stage for volunteers asking for gifts in those markets,” Montgomery says.

Early in the campaign, most donors were giving cash and appreciated securities. But as the markets sank, most major donors — those giving $25,000 or more — made planned gifts.

“In 2009, ’10 and ’11, donors became more tentative in making multi-year commitments because of the uncertainty of the economy,” Montgomery says. “But in order to achieve the level of commitment they desired, they finally got around to making that estate gift.”

Of the total raised in the campaign, planned gifts accounted for nearly $40 million, while cash and appreciated securities accounted for the balance.

Darlington, which has nearly 10,000 alumni and an endowment of $35 million, also sustained the level of giving to its annual fund during the campaign. The annual fund now has generated over $1 million a year for 17 straight years.

Campaigns within campaign

During the campaign, two donors each agreed to give $500,000 to support endowments — for faculty professional development, and for financial assistance for minority students, respectively — if Darlington could match those gifts with contributions from other donors.

“In a bad economy, if you can double your money, you might dig a little deeper,” Montgomery says. “That was a tactic that resonated well and attracted donors of all sizes ranging from $25 to $200,000.”

The “campaigns within the campaign” also gave the school an opportunity to talk about two important needs, he says.

Each endowment challenge exceeded its goal.

Trustees and leadership

Of the total raised in the campaign, $50 million — or over half the total raised — was committed by trustees, former trustees and life trustees of the school. And every current member of the board of trustees made their largest gift ever to the school.

That trustee support also was important in securing grants from foundations, particularly in Atlanta, which claims Darlington as its boarding school, Montgomery says.

“When you’re sitting in a foundation board room and delivering a proposal, and you can say every member of the board has made their largest gift, that’s strong,” Montgomery says.

Overall, foundations contributed $20 million to the campaign.

Equally critical to the success of the campaign was its top leadership, Montgomery says.

The two campaign co-chairs were a former CEO of a Fortune 500 company and a self-made businessman in the Atlanta real-estate market.

“There was never a place too far for them to travel get the job done,” Montgomery says.

Social media

While peer-to-peer fundraising powered the campaign, Darlington used social media to promote big gifts and help fuel the work of its fundraising volunteers who were asking their friends and peers for donations.

“One of the key elements for success in our campaign, which was uniquely challenged by the downturn in the economy and the headwind that created,” Montgomery says, “was sustaining positive momentum by using social media particularly, and keying in on big wins on a regular basis so our volunteers didn’t get discouraged and kept their enthusiasm for working for us.”

And for younger donors, the school held text-a-thons, with small groups of alumni convening at “hotspots” and then texting classmates, raising money, and enjoying a social event.

Broader lessons

Securing and promoting big gifts should be a fundamental strategy for fundraising at any nonprofit, Montgomery says.

“Be thoughtful about engineering big wins and early victories to create positive momentum for the effort,” he says.

Equally important is valuing the work of volunteers, and their feedback.

“Listen to your volunteers,” he says, “and don’t be hesitant to modify your campaign plan or even recalibrate expectations.”

In the end, he says, meeting an organization’s fundraising goal depends on effectively cultivating the people critical to meeting that goal.

“Actively steward the relationships that will ultimately define your success,” he says, “whether they be trustees, campaign volunteers or major donors.”

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