Engaging donors directly? Brilliant!

Marketing works. I know this because periodically I catch myself associating real life things with television commercials.

For example, I was at city hall in Elgin, Illinois the other day trying to acquire my small business license. I thought doing something in person might be more efficient. Unfortunately, that was NOT true. I was turned away by a clerk who asked to me to do this online. When I turned around to talk out of the building, I saw this huge sign sitting on an easel. It advertised Mayor Dave Kaptain’s “Listening Sessions” and promoted public participation.

At that very moment, the old Guinness beer commercial came streaming into my head. Do you know which one I’m talking about? Click here to enjoy this flashback to the not-so-distant past.

So, why is this so “brilliant” and what does it have anything to do with non-profit organizations, which is at the heart of this blog?

For starters, I think it is brilliant because in this day and age of mass media, the answer always seems to be: send them a letter, advertise on television, put it on the website, “tweet” it, organize an email blast, and the list goes on and on. I haven’t heard anyone say in a very long time: “let’s go out there and engage people directly” on issues that are important to them.

As for the question about how this pertains to non-profit organizations, all I have to say is that non-profits should take a page out of Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain’s book. Here are just a few ideas for non-profits that I thought of as I walked out of city hall:

  • Organize a “town hall meeting” at your non-profit service site on any number of issues your agency helps address every day. Invite donors, volunteers, community leaders, and collaborative partners to attend and participate.
  • Organize a series of quarterly or monthly “brown bag lunch meetings” focused on one of the issues your agency deals with every day. Invite a guest speaker from the community to speak about some part of the issue (e.g. your state representative, city council member, chamber of commerce or hospital CEO, etc). Also invite donors to bring their brown bag lunches and participate in this lunch program.
  • Organize a small reception and honor someone in the community who works hard and does something related to your agency’s mission. For example, a domestic violence shelter could put together a small after-work reception to honor a local police officer for their commitment to working differently and compassionately with victims. Invite your donors and ask them to turn-out and help you honor this person.
  • Organize a petition drive around one of your issues and ask donors to help secure signatures.
  • Organize focus groups for each of your fundraisers and ask donors to provide feedback. Invite your donors to help you dream by asking them what they think it would take to “double” the funds raised from that specific fundraisers. After all, who else would know best other than the participating donor?

Non-profit organizations don’t always need to be out front, jumping around screaming “look at me . . . look at me!” Donors are capable of digesting subtle messages, and these types of activities will position you as a leader in your field. Mix in a few subtle “return on investment” messages, and donors will walk away feeling very good about their most recent investment in your organization.

Don’t charge any money. Resist the urge to solicit your donors during these mission-moments. This is about engagement . . . not about cash flow. If you find yourself saying “you don’t have the time or resources” to do these kinds of things, then I suspect you aren’t interested in looking at your donor loyalty numbers either (and with Halloween around the corner this could be a very scary activity to undertake).

Non-profit organizations need to get back to investing in personal stewardship and engaging donors in real mission-focused activities in between solicitation opportunities. I urge you to go beyond the donor database generated acknowledgement letter, email or Tweet. There are countless examples of how to do this if you just keep your eyes open. We can all learn something from politicians, for-profit corporations and our fellow non-profit friends.

This entire post aligns well with my teachable point of view that non-profits need to stop treating donors like ATMs!!! Of course, if you don’t commit to being a life-long learner on the subject of donor engagement, then you might start looking like Ms. Swan from this old Mad TV comedy sketch ย (albeit less fortunate than she turned out to be in the end of the sketch).

How is your organization stewarding its donors? How are you going beyond traditional stewardship andย engaging them? Have you done any benchmarking to see how your efforts impact your donor loyalty numbers? If so, what was the result? We can all learn from each other. So, please use the comment box below and share your secrets. Because failing to do so would not be BRILLIANT!

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC



    I’m very happy to have stumbled onto your blog. I’m also a nonprofit consultant, although very much younger than you, but I just had a meeting with a local neighborhood center where I was advising them to host some free seminars on their specialty (child resiliency) so that local leaders see them more as leaders in child mental health, instead of just another agency.

    I think anyone with a solid mission has something to share, don’t you? ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Kat . . . we are totally in agreement except for when you imply that I am “old”. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      NFPs need to do a better job around engaging donors, volunteers, and prospective supporters. In my opinion, contact seems to be getting less and less personal, and we seem to be drifting farther apart. I shared some ideas in today’s post, and I hope others would weigh-in with their ideas on engaging and stewarding supporters more personally. I do like your idea about hosting seminars tied back to an agency’s mission.

      I encourage you to stick around. Please subscribe to the blog, and don’t be a stranger about commenting. I think many of us would like to hear more about what you have to say.

      By the way, 41-years-old is the new 21 (or at least that is what I heard the other day at my grandmother’s assisted living facility). LOL ๐Ÿ˜‰

      1. I’ve heard it said that because grants rarely pay for volunteer management, marketing, and program development and it is equally difficult to make a compelling fundraising story for them, that NFPs feel helpless on how to pay for them. And time! No one has to the time set aside for meeting with donors and volunteers to develop relationships with them!

        I just got out of a meeting with two directors of a brand-new afterschool program who don’t have a donor base or enough committed volunteers. Now that the school year has started, they don’t feel they have the time to develop. But I advised them to use the hour before kids come in to call new people; to invite them to tour the facility and to talk about their mission and goals for the school year… And I would be calling people as well. ๐Ÿ˜›

        I’m just excited to work, but sometimes when I tell people I’m a consultant, their replies feel like being patted on the head and given a cookie. Because if 41 is the new 21, 22 must be the new toddler. Even the 28ish ones, the ones with graduate degrees and some official “experience” look at me funny… So I wasn’t implying that you are old. (41? Psh!) In fact, I showed your website to my mother to convince her that one really could make a living working independently for nonprofits. She wonders how you have health insurance, though.

        1. Kat . . . facility tours are some of the best cultivation work a NFP can do. When I was with Boys & Girls Clubs, I did the same thing and those kids can wrap prospective donors around their pinky finger. It is amazing to see! However, I trust that you facilitated an exercise that helped those two new after-school directors identify and qualify prospects. Otherwise, as I’m sure you know, they will just be shooting blindly in the dark.

          Thanks for sharing the https://www.thehealthynonprofit.com website with you Mom. ๐Ÿ™‚ I can use as much exposure as I can get. LOL Regarding health benefits, I am a lucky man because I qualify through my dometic partner’s plan with his employer. Without that there is no way in the world I could’ve started this new non-profit consulting business.

          Good luck in your endeavors . . . and please keep reading / subscribing to the blog.

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