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The 2019 Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Summit hosted by NextAfter had a lot of extremely useful tips for fundraisers. At the same time, it had a major blind spot for providing comprehensive advice for nonprofit organizations.

Philanthropy Daily and American Philanthropic were proud to be sponsors of NextAfter’s Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Summit in Denver this week.

Our own Jeremy Beer gave a brief talk on “Identity, Belongingness, and the Craft of Fundraising.” Using leading social science evidence—about what motivates humans—Jeremy dispelled some trendy myths about good fundraising and advised NIO Summit attendees to focus on telling stories to activate donors and raise more money.

Excess wealth, guilt, ROI? These don’t motivate donors. Identity, attachment, and belonging to something bigger than yourself—this is how we build a strong development program.

In addition to Jeremy’s talk, there were numerous talks on digital marketing, digital fundraising, responsive fundraising, online analytics, website metrics, and much more. The NIO Summit is valuable for anyone involved in online marketing or online fundraising, experts and novices alike.

The Summit is not only engaging and fun, it’s also eminently practical. Speakers provide specific, useful, and actionable advice—things that fundraisers and marketers can put immediately into action to improve their organization’s web presence and data tracking. These are the kinds of tools that help organizations reach more people, more effectively.

As you know, employees at most nonprofit organizations wear many hats. So I wasn’t surprised that, as I met other attendees, most of them weren’t only working in the digital space. They were doing online fundraising and direct mail. Or overseeing the digital marketing team and the fundraising team.

One guest told me that her organization’s direct mail revenue is decreasing each year, but their online revenue is increasing. The latter isn’t keeping pace with the former, but it’s growing and—here’s the kicker—they’re okay with it, because they know that direct mail isn’t the future. Digital fundraising is.

This is where I can’t but object. Every organization is different, and I know that some groups clean up online. But it is far too soon to say that digital fundraising, not direct mail, is the future. That is the one thing missing from the summit: the fact that online fundraising across the board and across the country only accounts for 3-10% of all charitable funds raised (depending on which study you are using).

That’s nothing against online fundraising or digital marketing—and almost certainly the online giving space will grow. So kudos to NextAfter and their guests for being ahead of the curve on this one. But even as we improve our online fundraising strategies and operations, we need to keep focused on where the vast majority of funds come in: direct mail and major gifts fundraising.

The trick for today—and this received some attention, though I think too little—is integrating our “analog” and digital fundraising strategies. Online funds are very far from surpassing, replacing, or even competing with traditional fundraising strategies. However, leveraging new digital tools—for analytics, data tracking, or multi-channel approaches—can certainly boost revenue.

Donors, as Jeremy argued in his talk and Philanthropy Daily discusses frequently, give to organizations they identify with, those that cultivate a sense of belonging. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube are increasingly the places where our donors are spending their time. Let’s make sure we are reaching them there and reaching them in a personal way. This will increase donor retention and help with upgrading donors—but it can't be the main thing, and it’s unlikely to be anytime soon.

No one conference can be all things to all people, and the NIO Summit is top notch. I will be back, and I recommend it to others. Nevertheless, it paid inadequate attention to the way digital fundraising and marketing supports traditional fundraising practices that are raising the majority of an organization’s budget. 

The practicality bit? Make sure that your organization is keeping its foot on the gas with individual major donor outreach and strong direct mail practices. Work on improving this by integrating new channels—social media and email—into your donor communications.

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