I have noticed just how many nonprofit executives, fundraisers and volunteers are overwhelmed by all of the possible marketing channels they could be using to reach their constituents and donors. These brave leaders are trying to keep up with all of the various marketing channels, but their valiant efforts may be taking away from their progress on an even more effective fundraising strategy: the personal ask. In an era where there is a lot of buzz about mobile platforms and crowdfunding, it helps to understand how real nonprofits are navigating the complexity.

I recently came across a report published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy earlier this year called “Fundraising in a Multichannel World: How the Explosion in Technology is Transforming the Science of the Ask.”  The report is based on a survey of 500 nonprofit development professionals and executive directors conducted by Campbell Rinker and written by Peter Panepento.  In a nutshell, even with all of the current tools to reach donors, the study finds that the personal ask is still the most effective even in a multichannel fundraising world.  This blog post highlights some of the findings of the study that I found most relevant for my clients.  Many clients are not sure how to navigate in a multichannel fundraising world with limited resources, but here are some things that may be of interest in your organization.

  1. Personal Appeals Still Perform Best

Guess what? The personal ask may be even MORE effective in an era where it costs nothing to send an email and where donors feel like they are just another record in your database.

The study finds that while “donors are more connected to technology, the most effective fundraising approaches are still decidedly old school. Nearly seven in 10 survey respondents report that personal solicitations are more effective than they’ve been in the past, and 50 percent say peer-to-peer campaigns have grown more effective.”

Peer-to-peer campaigns have long been the preferred method of fundraising in higher education due to their alumni networks, but it’s interesting to note that other fundraisers are seeing the effectiveness of personalized, peer-to-peer campaigns, especially with some of the sharing and network activation features that are inherent in social media. It’s still those long-time personal relationships that make make peer-to-peer campaigns work though.

So why don’t more nonprofit staff members and volunteers make the personal ask?  I would say that making a personal ask takes strategy, preparation, support, and bravery to name a few key elements. Technology certainly has a role to play in developing personalized strategies for each donor and preparing for the ask. The savvy nonprofits (large and small) embrace these new tools in support of the gold standard of the personal ask.

The study also finds, “But while these evolving channels give fundraisers more opportunities to earn the attention and trust of donors, they also create unprecedented challenges for even the most well-organized and well-funded development offices. Investing in one channel often means less time and money can be directed toward another. And as donor preferences change, it’s often difficult for fundraisers to place their bets on the most effective channels.”

If your organization has the experience and resources to take on many marketing channels at once, then by all means use those tools. But, please evaluate whether you are also taking away your focus on the personal ask. It may be wise to scale back your multichannel approach if it’s detracting from the personal ask that your donors would appreciate.

2. The Future is Digital

Another conclusion of the study is that the future is digital.

In fact, “Nonprofits are investing much more in digital fundraising channels — often at the expense of more traditional approaches. Nearly three in five organizations reported investing more in social media during the past year, and more than half expect to step up their investments in this area during the next year. While a much smaller number of organizations are still investing in radio, public service announcements, and print advertising, nearly nine out of 10 respondents say they will either invest less or the same amount in those channels during the next year.”

My observation has been that even if nonprofits are investing more in digital, it really means that they are learning and trying new tactics with social media. Again, back to the first point of the study, I don’t think that those investments will outperform the personal ask in the end.  They can help with cultivation if done well though.

3. Direct Mail Isn’t Dead

As I discussed in my last blog, this is the time of year when many nonprofits are preparing their direct mail appeals even if they don’t send direct mail at other times of year.  The report supports that direct mail still has a role to play.

“Fundraising experts have long been predicting the demise of direct mail, but survey respondents are not expecting to end their relationship with the U.S. Postal Service any time soon. Direct mail remains one of the most popular fundraising channels—with 87 percent of survey respondents saying that they employ the tactic. What’s more, one third of respondents say they expect to increase their investment in direct mail over the next year.”

I would add that when nonprofits do a direct mail appeal, it’s really important to follow it up with email reminders and links to online giving pages—especially December 30 and 31 when the volume of online transactions are at their peak as the tax year deadline looms. Bottom line: Don’t abandon your direct mail just yet.

4. Mixed Opinions About Mobile

While mobile phones have become ubiquitous, mobile as a fundraising channel is still in its adolescent phase:

“Mobile phones are having a big impact on communications, but they aren’t a preferred device for many fundraisers. Only a small percentage of survey respondents report using mobile or text messaging as part of their multichannel programs. Of those who do, 40 percent reported that their efforts were less effective during the past year than in the previous year.”

5. Dollars and Donors

You might think that new technology tools give greater options for measuring success, but the study finds that most nonprofits still use traditional metrics like dollars and donors.

“Despite greater public calls for nonprofits to show a strong return on investment for their fundraising efforts, the vast majority of survey respondents measure the success of their campaigns on revenue raised and donors acquired, while fewer than half consider return on investment.”

In Summary

While your nonprofit may feel compelled to learn about and use multiple marketing channels, I would encourage you not to lose sight of the importance of the personal ask. The study concludes, “Even as donors grow more dependent on their mobile phones and computers, the most powerful interactions are often face-to-face. Personal relationships — often built over years and cultivated through a number of channels — are what drive giving.”

The other conclusion of the report is that authenticity is an advantage: “No matter the channel or medium, organizations that are able to effectively tell their stories with emotion and truth will always have an advantage.” Being authentic with your communications whether in an email or during a lunch with a donor goes a long way in establishing the kind of trust that donors need to make bigger investments year after year.

If you work for or with a nonprofit that is struggling to allocate marketing resources across channels, I would love to work with you to maximize your cross-channel efforts, especially your personal ask. I provide free consultations to nonprofit executive directors and board members to see if I could be a good fit for your organization.  Here is the link to sign up for a time to chat.

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Stephanie Blackburn Freeth is the creator of The Strategy Tango.


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