As someone who has been a fundraiser for more years than I care to admit, I have to say that the one thing I know for certain is that I don’t know everything for certain. The fundraising profession, like many others, has been transformed by the digital revolution, demographic shifts, “new economy” business trends and many other forces. The various new techniques made possible by email, texting, social media and other technologies/strategies are helpful and cost-effective tools, if properly used, and are essential for engaging the millennial generation through multiple channels.
But these tactics supplement “old school” fundraising; they don’t supplant it. I call it the Ball of String Theory. Today’s fundraisers must acquire new skills while maintaining the core of their craft. We keep finding new ways to communicate with donors and other constituents, but nothing has really been taken away. Fundraisers must address new audience—including donors with different philosophies about giving—while still appealing to donors with more traditional motivations. Peer-to-peer solicitation hasn’t been replaced with “likes” and “shares” on Facebook. But you have to communicate with donors in the manner they feel most comfortable with. These new demands are challenging for specialists and generalists alike.
One of the biggest challenges is to cut through noise and hype and focus on the truths you know about your organization and your audience. The video email that your Board member received from a competing organization looks slick and impressive, but does the prospect of producing a short video have a good return on your investment of time and cost, given your constituency? If you spend precious marketing energy promoting text to give, what other opportunities might you be missing—or is there a better way to engage your most mobile-friendly constituency? Of course, you need to know enough about these techniques to make an informed decision.
Here are some ways to address this need for more skills and background without overwhelming or diluting yourself:
1. Take a Team Approach
Make sure that your team includes professionals who have experience with some of the newer marketing and fundraising techniques such as digital, social media and face-to-face (it’s back!). You also need people who are seasoned fundraisers with experience in events, major gifts, direct marketing, institutional giving and planned giving. Don’t expect one person to have all of these skills. Instead, build a team of people who will complement one another—or go outside and get some help.
2. Stay Current
Look for training opportunities—and cross-train your team so people can evolve and grow. Professional development organizations such as the Association of Fundraising Professionals or the Direct Marketing Association are great resources for keeping up on trends and understanding how they work in practice. Sector-specific bodies (museums, education, health care, etc) can also help you grow in your field. From formal educational seminars to informal networking and list serves, your local chapter of these professional associations can help you stay informed.
3. Take an Industry View
The Chronicle of Philanthropy and other nonprofit media outlets also offer timely webinars and coverage of trends in fundraising. Your leadership may be reading the same articles, so it is important to be aware of the buzz and to know how you intend to respond if asked about implementing new techniques. It can also be helpful to watch how for-profit entities are using these techniques to engage customers and to follow “new media” blogs that address trends for communicating with the next generation.
4. Hire Help
As mentioned above, it may not be practical or even possible to have so much up-to-the-minute know-how in one place – especially for areas that are not a substantial part of your development program. Functions such as planned giving can be well supported by consultants, whose highly specialized expertise can be called up on an as-needed basis. Investing in a planning consultation from a social media expert, for example, can help you set up an action plan which can be executed by staff with basic technical knowledge.
No doubt the “ball of string” that fundraisers have to juggle will continue to grow, but fortunately there are many resources that can make these diverse techniques more manageable.