insight magazine

Follow the Nonprofit Leaders

Three strategies to engage donors, boost donations and reach the top of your game. By Sheryl Nance Nash | Winter 2014

Non-profit leader

We can be thankful for one thing above all else: American philanthropy is finally moving beyond recession levels, with Americans giving $335 billion to nonprofit organizations in 2013—a 4-percent increase from 2012, according to a 2014 survey conducted by Giving USA.

“Americans want to give, but they are not always inspired by nonprofit organizations that are doing the same things they always have,” says Robert Evans, president of Evans Consulting Group. “But within a year or two Americans will surpass the high watermark for giving set in 2007, just before the Great Recession. The economy is on an upswing and it’s actually a good time to be fundraising.”

That said, donors and consumers are more conservative in deciding where their contributions go. Certainly today, more than ever, strategy is what differentiates the nonprofit that thrives and the one that struggles.

With that in mind, here’s a look at three strategies launching some of Illinois’ nonprofits to the top of their game.

Find strength in partners

One word keeps coming up when experts talk about what successful nonprofits are doing: Collaboration.

“There was a time when nonprofits could work independently on their own programs, largely because any single nonprofit was the only one in its geographic area doing that work,” explains Laura Waller Miller, program manager for the Office of Gift Planning at the Ohio State University Foundation. “Today, however, nonprofits have proliferated to the point of making isolation ineffective. They must collaborate—not just programmatically, but on the funding side as well. That means coordinating efforts, sharing costs, sharing the population they serve, sharing donors. That may seem to be blasphemy for many nonprofits, but it’s critical for them to open up to this in the future,” she says.

Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW) is proving to be one of the savviest regional nonprofits in this area. Since 1985, the organization has given more than 3,000 grants totaling $24 million, and has earned a leading 5-star Charity Navigator rating for its efforts to improve the lives of women and their families. CFW does so by fundraising for organizations that strive to help women and girls with issues such as economic security, violence and healthcare.

What’s made CFW such a success? “We collaborate to ensure more resources are directed to the women and girls who need them most,” says Sharonda Glover, CFW’s manager of communications. In 2012, for example, CFW formed a strategic alliance with the then 110-year-old Eleanor Foundation to maximize its efforts to combat economic insecurity amongst women. Through the alliance, CFW merged the former Eleanor Foundation’s programs, board members and assets with its own to create the Eleanor Network at CFW, which now supports an array of economic security strategies, from after-school programs for girls to grassroots advocacy campaigns with grandmothers.

In 2013, the Eleanor Network awarded 52 economic security grants of more than $1 million. At the same time, the organization saw fundraising growth of 27 percent from diversified sources.

Get your story out

You can do all manner of amazing things on par with CFW, but what if nobody knows you’re doing them? Much like the corporate world, reputation is everything, and nonprofits that don’t manage their public image will lose out.

Experts advise using a mix of strategies: Update social media regularly; blog about your initiatives; email newsletters and mail out a print newsletter or magazine. “The more donors hear meaningful information from you, the more connected they feel towards you,” says Catherine Chapman, a certified fundraising executive with philanthropic advising firm Fullanthropy.

Lack of recognition in the public eye isn’t an issue for Northbrook, Illinois’ North Suburban YMCA (NSYMCA), an organization that has fully embraced the power of PR.

“We have an active, super-fueled public relations initiative. The Y prolifically writes and distributes feature stories that cover the unique attributes of YMCA programs and the Y’s never-ending commitment to serving the community,” says Nancy Gerstein, a marketing consultant with the NSYMCA.

“Our marketing and public relations have been vital to the success of our agency, our program participation, and our face in the community. We’re fortunate in that we create lots of news—from the events we hold to the grants we receive, to the partners we work with, to our members whose lives the Y has touched. Our community recognizes the value of ‘their Y,’” adds Howard Schultz, NSYMCA executive director/CEO.

Beyond traditional PR lies ever-powerful social media. “Failure to embrace contemporary technology often means doom for many nonprofits,” says Evans. No doubt any organization not taking full advantage of social media is missing mega opportunities to engage with potential donors, maintain relationships, raise funds, and more.

The Y, for one, posts on Facebook and Twitter up to four times a day. Social media is used to notify members and program participants of class and program changes; alert followers to community concerns; link to local agencies, outside vendors and government institutions; repurpose press releases and link to articles in the press; post photos and videos of events, members and staff; and more.

See donors differently

These efforts are particularly significant when you consider that overall donor retention is less than 40 percent, says Larry Johnson, author of The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising. It’s less expensive to retain a donor than it is to capture a new one, and savvy nonprofits are starting by treating donors as individuals rather than simply throwing money at retention efforts.

“Organizations need to think of donors as investors and treat them the same way that fund managers treat their top investors,” says Frank Jakosz, CPA, partner, Sikich LLP’s nonprofit accounting team.

Part of that includes respecting how donors want to communicate. “Give them choices for channels of communication. You might have acquired a donor through direct mail, but you retain them through social media, for example,” explains Bill Sayre, president of Merkle Response Management Group, a provider of response processing and fulfillment. “Ask donors what they want and listen to them. If you don’t, you’re not likely to keep them.”

It’s important, too, that not every communication is about an ask. “In the old days, nonprofits would send an annual birthday card and Christmas card thanking donors and inviting them to the next gala, where they again were asked for money. The new strategy is to communicate in ways that are meaningful to each person— stewarding relations before and after the gift in a way that allows for active engagement and influence,” says Miller.

“One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is to rely too heavily on special events and not take the time to really get to know their donors,” adds Charles McLimans, president and CEO of Loaves & Fishes Community Services, a Naperville, Ill. hunger relief and anti-poverty organization that provides groceries and essential support services to low-income families.

“One thing we’ve done very successfully is get to know our donors and fully engage them in our mission,” explains Barry Horek, CPA, immediate past chair of Loaves & Fishes’ board of directors.

Judging by its recognition as the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago’s Safety Net Impact Agency of the Year for 2014, its 30 years of existence, and its record-breaking year of serving nearly 20,000 residents from the western suburbs, Loaves & Fishes is doing a lot of things right.

“We reach out to our donors in a variety of ways, in one-on-one meetings, tours of our facilities, through events, and more,” Horek explains. “Simply, we make it easy for them to volunteer their time at Loaves & Fishes and invite them to serve with us. Our donors become engaged in our mission when they see firsthand the work we do and hear from those we serve.”

“One of the secrets to nonprofit success is having a clear mission and making sure volunteers, employees and the board of directors understand and believe in that mission,” says McLimans.

“When the plan is clear, the organization makes it plain who it is, what it does, where it’s going, and more,” adds Miller. “Clarity translates to influence, which leads to impact.”