On this episode, T. Clay Buck, recovering actor and reluctant data geek, joined us to discuss what fundraising leaders should be focused on as we wade into this year and beyond. He is the Founder and Principal of Tactical Fundraising Solutions a fundraising consultancy that helps fundraisers and nonprofits raise money more effectively through a systems-thinking approach to fundraising.
Clay has thirty years of experience in fundraising from individual donors, and particular expertise in annual giving, database management, prospect research and development operations. He was the Vice President of Client Services for the highly respected consulting firm, IDC and has held the CFRE certification since 2010. He was a co-author of the Rogare Critical Fundraising Report for the United States, teaches fundraising and storytelling at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and was recently named one of the top 20 Charity Influencers online.
3 Best Practices for Fundraising
Facing a new year and new challenges can be intimidating, but Clay generously offered lots of great ideas and advice in this episode. Here are three best practices to start any year right.
1. Connect Where Donors Care
Are you centering your organization, instead of the cause your donors care about? This is a mistake. Clay says, “No matter how sophisticated we get, or how much we talk about branding or whatever it may be, at the end of the day, I still think and still see, donors are relating to a cause, to a feeling, to an issue, to an emotion they feel strongly about. The actual organization comes second.”
You bring donors in with the cause, the emotion it inspires, and the story that you tell about it. “This is, to me, the number one thing that any nonprofit should be thinking about at all times is: What is the story that we’re telling?”
Of course, just because your organization comes second, doesn’t mean you don’t talk about it at all. The organization becomes the “how” the cause gets tackled, an important part of the story. This is what connects donors to your nonprofit. First, they care about your cause, next, they learn how you are making a difference to the thing they care about.
You can’t know what your donors care about without knowing who they are. Clay says, “You can have the greatest story in the world, and the most beautiful letter, the greatest appeal, the best mission statement. But if you don’t know who your audience is…” Technology now makes it possible to get to know your audience quickly and accurately, helping fundraisers target donors and tell the stories they’ll care about most.
2. Start Fundraising with Data
What’s the number one thing to do at the beginning of the year? Audit your donor database and last year’s communications.
First, your donor data. What records do you have? Where were your contact rates low? And why? Is it time for a NCOA update? “Just take a real good look at what data needs you have right now to ensure as we get further into the year that the message is actually getting to people,” Clay says.
Then, take stock of your communications. What resonated? What didn’t? What was performed best? Whether it’s an email series or a social media series, what were the ones that resonated the most? What represented you best? Which communication streams did you approach without a real goal?
Once you have a handle on donor data and communications needs, you’ll be in a much better position to take on the new year. “It informs the strategy of what you’re doing by knowing what you have,” Clay says.
3. Look at the Bigger Picture
If you want to grow your fundraising, beware of hyper-focus. Keep the big picture in mind, including donors at all levels, not just major gifts. Hitting your fundraising goals is great, but building sustainable fundraising is better.
“Philanthropy should not be the bastion of the wealthy or those who can. We need to make fundraising as accessible to everybody in our community as possible, and that we value all gifts at all levels,” says Clay. Creating personalized donor journeys and using marketing automation can help you bring every donor the kind of attention that used to be reserved only for major donors.
The money you raise isn’t the only important thing. “We need to be looking at so many other things,” Clay says, “Like lifetime value, like response rates, like retention rates, like all of those other metrics that inform the ecosystem of generosity as a whole, not just what that high-value attention is.”
Full Episode Transcript
T. Clay Buck: Donors are relating to a cause, to a feeling, to an issue, to an emotion they feel strongly about. The actual organization comes second. That then makes it our responsibility to build that loyalty, right? It’s the cause and the emotion that brings donors and fast.
Noah Barnett: From Virtuous, I’m Noah Barnett, and this is the Responsive Fundraising Podcast. A show where we talk with fundraising leaders and thinkers to uncover how today’s top nonprofits craft remarkable donor experiences and build lasting relationships at scale.
In today’s episode, I’m joined by T. Clay Buck. He’s the founder and principal consultant at Tactical Fundraising Solutions. And during our conversation, we talk all about fundraising strategies for 2020.
It’s a new year and we dive into what you should be focused on right now, in January, to ensure you’re set up for success later in the year. Clay is a wealth of knowledge and has extensive experience in your seat as a fundraising professional. It’s an incredible conversation so let’s dive in.
Every year, December really stewards in a whirlwind of fundraising appeals, holiday events, last minute board requests, all this other stuff that nonprofits have to deal with. But then the ball drops, the dust settles and you reset everything.
Ultimately, you set all these new goals, these commitments. But then, we’re halfway through January and the reality and challenges of a fundraiser’s job starts to settle in again. And there’s all these new things that you have to deal with. And so, that’s what we’re going to talk about.
Because the challenge is, what should a nonprofit fundraiser do? How do leaders actually navigate a new year so that they’re effectively preparing to be successful, now for 2020? And I know you have a background in helping nonprofits and that are doing that as a consultant today. And so I’m eager to dive into that with you. But before we do that …
NB:… I want to start with a question that I think is interesting. I’ve been asking guests this, and I think it helps showcase some of the story line that is us as people in the generosity ecosystem business, why we’ve gotten into that. And so do you remember the first charity that actually resonated with you, or that you remember giving to early on? And what really drove that?
TCB: Actually I do. And I haven’t thought of this in a hundred years. This would have been 84/85, right? Early eighties. And baby seals were … that was the thing that everybody was talking about, the clubbing of baby seals in the Antarctic.
I was always an animal person, even then. And I remember getting, vividly, remember getting … my family got some sort of direct mail pack and I saw the picture of the cute baby seal and nothing would do, but that we started supporting protecting baby seals in the Antarctic.
TCB: I don’t know. I think I’ve always had-
NB: I remember those appeals.
TCB: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that’s the first one that I remember really resonating in that sort of large scale. I can’t even remember the organization, but I remember the cause. I remember the stickers, and I remember I wouldn’t have been so … yeah, I would have been younger. So this must have been early eighties, ’81, ’82.
Because I remember asking my parents for money because I wanted to support it, and I wanted to send it and they did. So the being a part of charities and being a part of helping and giving back was always part of the family deal.
Do Donors Care More About the Organization or The Cause?
NB: Yeah, for sure. And you said something really interesting there, that you remember the cause, but you don’t remember the organization.
NB: And we’re talking the early eighties when that starts to surface. And I think nonprofits today, just based on how fractured attention is and how ubiquitous access to information is, that in some ways the cause drives the discovery of organizations that work on that, rather than the discovery of an organization that then reveals the cause.
Which I think is a change that’s actually happened over the course of 10, 15, 20 years, where it has been this re-orientation of the discovery process for how people find new causes to invest in. Have you seen the same thing at all, or have you seen that firsthand?
TCB: Yeah, no. I mean, you know I’m based in Las Vegas and I still have to stick everything from … because I mean, I do a lot of work here in our community, which I use as a litmus test and a temperature gauge.
And I keep going back to this community on October 1, which was awful and terrible. And as a community, within a week, we raised over $10 million to help the victims of the October 1 shootings. And again, you have to tie the emotion in the community to it and all of that, and I don’t want to disregard that.
But take a step back to get it from the academic professional viewpoint and go, we put $10 million into a cause that quite literally had a couple of champions, a couple of very visible champions in the community. But nobody knew, “What organization is this going to? How is the money going to be spent? What does this mean, helping the victims?” Et cetera.
And indeed, after all of this, there was a council put together and they handled it very … but there was no plan. It was just “raise the money and we’ll get it to the victims.” And I think that speaks very loudly to cause over organization, right?
No matter how sophisticated we get or how much we talk about branding or whatever it may be at the end of the day, I still think and still see, donors are relating to a cause, to a feeling, to an issue, to an emotion they feel strongly about. The actual organization comes second. That then makes it our responsibility to build that loyalty.
It’s the cause and the emotion that brings donors in first. And I think that, personally, I think that transcends age, demographic, whatever. Millennial versus Boomer, whatever it may be. It’s the cause and the story that gets us first and then the organization and the how of that emotion.
NB: Yeah. And I think that’s a challenge that fundraisers have on top of a variety of other challenges. As we look into the new year, this is just one, how do you handle this kind of cause loyalty or cause driven acquisition versus organizational loyalty? How do you bridge those gaps?
But over and above that, over the last 10 to 15 years, and I think it’s probably related or correlated in some capacity, technology has really infiltrated every aspect of our lives. And this has drastically changed how today’s donor really discovers and connects with and supports causes they care deeply about.
Even the response that you mentioned, like a devastating event, but the community was able to rally together and mobilize instantly in a very quick way. And I’m sure that was powered by technology, you could probably speak to that. And so those changes of technology and donor preferences are, I know at the top of all of the fundraiser’s challenge lists that I talk about.
How Should I Fundraise in 2020?
NB: But we’re in a new year and so the same challenges are here. So my question is, what should nonprofits be doing about this? What should they be focused on right now? What are you advising your clients to do as they step into 2020?
TCB: Let me answer that question, but let me take just a higher view and work into it for a second. I think you’re exactly right and I do agree with you. And I really didn’t need to spend, right now, two responses talking about age, and timing, and talking about fundraising in the early eighties.
I started in fundraising, and quite literally my first job we had just implemented the second version of what is now a major CRM in the space. The term CRM didn’t exist. We just had this thing on our computers that tracked things and our master of reference point was still the hard file.
So I have enough of a perspective to say, “Look, we did it with carbon copy and three by five cards in my career history. And we did it as well then as we’re doing it now.” So I’m a little hesitant on “technology has changed fundraising or it’s changed donors.”
We were attracting, in that organization, the one that I talked about, whichever one it was with the baby seals, got my attention and my family’s attention long before the era of technology, and email, and digital, and social, and et cetera.
So I hold to the principles that were true then, are still true now. And they are, tell a great story. This is, to me, the number one thing that any nonprofit should be thinking about at all times is: What is the story that we’re telling? Not only about the beneficiaries that we serve and the cause that we’re here to support, but also about us as an organization. What is our organizational story that tells the public how we’re tackling it?
And then the second part of that is, you can have the greatest story in the world and tell the most beautiful letter, the greatest appeal, the best mission statement. But if you don’t know who your audience is, and that’s where now the tech helps us even more than it did before, but we did just fine before, right? Where the tech helps us even more is being able to target that message.
So what I’m talking to clients now about is, you have just a little bit of breathing space here at the beginning of the year. Just a little bit, to breathe, to rest and relax and take a deep breath and go, “Okay, what are we focusing on? “The two things that I would focus on is, what’s the story that we’re telling and who are we telling it to? And gaining that how. That real, very precise of, the how and the process, using systems that support the fundraising investing in that to ensure that-
NB: Yeah, no. And I definitely think you’re right. It’s not the technology has shifted, because the first principles of fundraising have not changed. It is about that purpose and people coming together to make that happen. And I think it’s important that you clarified that. Because I do think we get caught up in the conversation of, “Oh, what’s changed? How have things changed? What do I do now?” Rather than looking back at those first principles.
And you said it in a different way, but how I’ve seen it is that as an organization, if you don’t know what your purpose is, which is what you referred to as the story, and who the people are that you’re trying to engage in that purpose, and then have the processes or processes, depending on where you’re from, to actually make that happen nothing else really matters at that point. So it’s kind of, the purpose, the people and the process are so essential.
How Do I Evaluate My Nonprofit’s Effectiveness in 2020?
NB: And I think you’re right to remind people that, hey, let’s do a quick pulse check on those three things as we step into a new year. And so I’m curious, not to go beyond what is important, but how do you do that? How would you advise? What are some practical things that nonprofits should be doing to evaluate those 3Ps?
TCB: Sure. And I think you have to look at this too, in context of two things actually. Number one, where are you in your fiscal year? Because a lot of nonprofits run that, and everybody is slightly different, but in general, you get two variations. You get the July to June fiscal year, and you also get the calendar fiscal year.
So if you’re talking about an organization that has just ended their fiscal year, December 31st, their planning needed to be done six months ago, four months ago. So they should be in month one of executing a new plan. For those orgs, they don’t have as much of that breathing space right now, as others do.
For the ones that are on the July to June, you’ve just had this major year-end push. And evaluating … right now it’s, how did that resonate and what did we hear from donors or what do those results look like?
The number one thing, honestly, with the volume of year-end giving and #GivingTuesday and everything that happens through the last quarter of the year, honestly, the number one thing that I would recommend, the number one thing that I’ve seen be very effective right at this point of the year is to stop and take stock in both a database audit and a communications audit.
In other words, take the time to really dig into both your databases. What records do I have? Where do we need … where were our contact rates low? And why were they low? And what addresses? Do we need to send it through NCOA ? Just take a real good look at what data needs you have right now to ensure as we get further into the year that the message is actually getting to people, number one.
And number two, it’s time to take stock of those communications. What resonated? What didn’t? What was our best performing? Whether it’s an email series or a social media series, what were the ones that resonated the most? What represented us best? What communication streams did we just get out there, because we needed to get out there? And so, let’s abandon that approach and tackle this. But I would say data first, but that tends to be where I come from-
NB: Yeah. What you’re describing is really getting in the moment to stop and do a post-mortem on what has happened.
NB: You can call it a bunch of different things, but that idea of actually looking back and doing an audit of, what just happened? And I think that’s a great point though, because a lot of times we focus so much on, “What do I need to do?” rather than, “What just happened?” And I think getting that insight into what just happened, actually helps you inform what you need to do. And we tend to skip over that.
And it’s understandable, the people listening to this that are in fundraising leadership roles or nonprofit leaders live in a hair on fire environment, typically. And so doing that is sometimes a challenge because you do feel so desperate, but it is essential and it makes you so much more effective at the things that you do end up investing in. And I know I’ve seen that firsthand.
TCB: Absolutely. Yeah, no, absolutely. There was one organization that I worked with that did a general audit and really felt that digital was the platform they needed to be on. They needed to be doing more email, more digital newsletters and so forth, and so they really wanted to invest.
That was their plan for the beginning of the year: to really invest more in digital. And we sat down and went through their databases, about a 20,000 new database, and we did an actual database audit. It essentially takes every field in the database and says, “Is it populated, is it not? Is it valid, is it not?” Et cetera.
And out of 25,000 records in the database, only 2% had actual email addresses. And then when we compared that to the email server of those 2% that actually had email populated, the contact rates and open rates were less than about 6%.
Suddenly it was, “Okay, great idea guys. But do you have the data to support the plan you want to execute? Because your audience is telling you, they are a print audience. They’re not interested in hearing from you digitally. You need to invest more in getting those digital permissions.” It informs the strategy of what you’re doing by knowing what you have.
NB: Oh, that makes so much sense. Sometimes it’s like, “Oh, this is the right thing to do because we think so.” But do we really have the, A, the capabilities, B, the resources and C, like you mentioned, the data?
NB: And I think the thing about data, and I know you mentioned you’re a data guy, is that there’s a growing conversation around data. Because in some cases we actually have access to much more data than we ever had, and new data. We even have things like big data ,or AI and predictive modeling.
However, ultimately, again, this adds many new layers of complexity to the fundraising task. And what I’ve seen personally is often, people don’t know what to do with it all, and just opt back to a traditional “mass, blast, pray” tactic. –
TCB: Yeah, it’s “spray and pray.”
How Do I Leverage My Fundraising Data in 2020?
NB: And so, I’m just curious, I know you’re digging a lot with your clients when you’ve been in fundraising roles, so how do you advise leaders to really view and leverage data within their fundraising? I know you mentioned one tactic of just, hey, we need to look at this, but what about going forward? How do they tap that?
TCB: Right. Great. I mean, it’s a great question and you’re exactly right. I think we’re fundraising in the most exciting time.
NB: You might have to convince listeners of that.
TCB: So for me, 2020 means-
NB: You’re going to have to make a big case for that.
TCB: I will. And again, I don’t know, I think this is just heavy on my mind here, at the first of the year. 2020 marks, for me, this is 30 years that I’ve been in fundraising. I started when I was two. And so I know there’s a little bit of career reflection happening for me right now, looking back on 30 years.
I think it’s exciting because number one, we have more and better tools. All the tools that are out there help us fundraise better. That said, they’re only as good as we implement them. There is no system, and all due respect to you and every CRM provider, and every data provider, and all of that, there is no magic bullet. It is only as good as how you use them and how you implement them.
But number two, we have more data than we did. We have more data on data. In other words, we know more. There’s more research and we’re borrowing from our sister fields in marketing and communications and others to know all of this about brain chemistry and how we respond and how donors respond. And there’s far, far, far more academic research going on to really know, what do digital trends look like? What do direct mail trends look like?
Whatever it is, we have much more data to take a truly informed approach versus the, “We’re doing this because we’ve done it for 30 years and we know that it works.” Which is honestly how I learned when I came into the profession. That’s number one.
Number two. Yes, I’m a data guy, but I’m not a data guy. I failed algebra twice. There is nothing in my makeup. I’m a trained actor, for heaven’s sake. So I approach data as a non-data person.
And that’s how I respond to, how does any nonprofit with multiple priorities, with a thousand things going on and all this information and all of these tools coming out, how do you discern what your most immediate need is? And what’s going to get you the fundamentally best results? And that’s why I say, we have to take a data informed approach and know where we are and know what our results have been, before we know where we can go.
We have big goals in front of us, and whether that’s a dollar goal or whatever the goals of our budget dictate, we’ve got to know where we are before we can head into it. Does that make sense?
NB: Yeah. No, absolutely. And I can’t help but make the comparison. You mentioned being a trained actor and many people listening to this are trained fundraisers. But there is this demand today where you can’t just be the person on stage meeting with donors, or performing in front of an audience out and about, which is still key to being an effective fundraiser. You really have to understand the other dynamics and the other elements of the production that are helping to create the end result.
I feel like there’s almost that mix between relationships and data, and fundraising is very similar to maybe like an actor in the production side of it. Especially in today where technology is so infused into a production where you still have to have an understanding, but you don’t have to be the expert. And I think that’s what you are sharing personally as well.
What Are the Fundraising Challenges of 2020?
TCB: I am, as so many are. And as we all rightly should be, very concerned about what we’re seeing through things like the Fundraising Effectiveness Project and others that are tracking this donor retention rate. And we still haven’t hit 50% in donor retention overall.
I’m also concerned about the reports that we see frequently from multiple sources, that fewer households are giving charitably. There’s a bunch of different ways and the true numbers analytics folks write can really dig into those numbers and what they mean, and I trust them and lean on them. But I think we all agree, these two metrics are the things in the sector that are really alarming in some ways.
I have no data on this. This is personal anecdote stuff. This is Clay’s opinion, but what I have seen so much increasing is this emphasis on major gifts. And I see so many nonprofits abandoning or moving away from solid, good acquisition and retention streams. Because we’re focused on this, we’ve got to get the big win, we’ve got to get the big dollars in the door.
And we’re placing so much emphasis on getting those major gifts and those large high-value gifts, that we’re almost potentially ignoring our other donors at all levels.
I am very big on equity in giving, but philanthropy should not be the bastion of the wealthy or those who can. We need to make fundraising as accessible to everybody in our community as possible, and that we value all gifts at all levels.
I really think for a data-informed approach to fundraising, and this has to come from our leadership, and our boards and our CEOs need to be looking at this too, is it’s not just about the dollars raised.
It’s not just, “Hey, we are an organization that has to raise one and a half million dollars. Since we raised that one and a half dollars, we’re successful.” We’ve got to look at all of those other metrics that go into it and look at … Your goal is a million and a half dollars, and you get that from, I don’t know, 10 donors. Great. You’ve hit your goal. Are those 10 donors going to give that same level again next year?
So we need to be looking at so many other things, like lifetime value, like response rates, like retention rates, like all of those other metrics that inform the ecosystem of generosity as a whole, not just what that high-value attention is.
This, I think, is what the next decade of fundraising is going to be about and has to be about, is encouraging that philanthropy across the board.
NB: Yeah. And I agree 100%. I think we’re beyond the age where we can just say, well, we’re just fishing for the biggest ones. Because I think most strategies have proven that it’s like, “Oh, let’s go look and prospect for people that give a lot of money and let’s continue to do that. Swap lists, let’s do all these other things.” Which it’s not the practices in and of themselves that are the challenge, it’s the use of them, which ultimately comes down to strategy and people.
NB: But it’s just this idea that we’re like, “Oh, let’s keep going after the same people.” Which I think is what’s driving, again, this is no one’s opinion, but it is what’s driving this idea where people are just opting out.
Because a lot of the tactics we’ve used actually push the average giver out of the system and really just says, “We don’t value you here.” And when we look at data that says, “Why do donors keep giving?” versus, “Why do donors stop giving?” what we’ve found even in our research here at Virtuous is that it’s about connectivity and connection to the cause and to the commitment with the organization.
But that’s built, if you look at relationship signs, through responsiveness. Which to us is actually what has driven a lot of the essence of this podcast. And a bunch of the other work that we’re doing is around this idea. We believe a world where nonprofits are more responsive to donors is a world that’s going to help expand the generosity ecosystem for ages to come, and ultimately help provide funding that’s super important for the world’s most important causes. Because we have so many of them.
And I think we can’t look at it and say, okay, well this is that, funding is still good, we’re going to keep going. Because there’s other stats, and we mentioned some of them on the donor side. But the fact is that fundraisers themselves as professionals are opting out of the career.
TCB: Yeah. Which is alarming.
NB: And I know. I know and I listened to … I forget what it was. But they were like, “If the amount of professionals that are opting out of the fundraising profession was doctors, or lawyers, or police officers, it would be a national crisis.”
TCB: Correct. Yes.
NB: And in some capacity, it is a crisis for our global citizenship in a world where these professionals are the ones that help steward resources in a way that helps move and make progress on some of the world’s most important causes. And so it is a huge crisis, not only on the donor side, but as the profession in general.
And so I think … and I don’t want to end on that note, but there’s this essence where there’s this collision of all these factors. And I think as a fundraising leader previously, and as someone that dedicates a lot of time on this, I’m like, man. How do we move forward practically? How do we continue moving the task forward? I don’t want to push that back on you. We’ve talked about fundraising planning, we’ve talked about data, and we didn’t even get to the fact that there’s an election this year.
TCB: Oh, my gosh. Right.
How Should I Focus My Fundraising in 2020?
NB: I would love for you to distill down for listeners maybe three focuses they should really have as they head into 2020. We’ve talked about a lot, but where should they really focus in on, as they think about 2020 and beyond?
TCB: I think for fundraisers, right? For frontline fundraisers at any level, whether it’s the chief development officer, or the development coordinator, whatever that position is, for them, learn. Make sure you know your stuff.
Because there’s so many opinions about fundraising. It comes from the board, and it comes from the CEO, and it comes from external, it comes from the public. Know what the facts and the data is showing. Again, there’s so much information out there that we can quite literally look at many aspects of fundraising and say, this is what the result is in this channel. This is what the results are when you do this or X or Y or whatever it is.
So knowing that, and having that strength and confidence to not only say, “This is what I have seen in my experience, but also, here is the data and the research and the history to back this up.”
So again, “We want to go all digital!” Well, every study shows that direct response is still … mail is still showing a slightly higher acquisition rate than digital is, and so we should invest in digital. And to the fundraiser, standing confident in that knowledge and being able to say, “This is what we know.”
For the more global perspective, for every nonprofit, and especially since you brought it up in an election year, and with what you’re talking about with Responsive Fundraising, Seth Godin says it. We are in a relationship economy now. The success is going to be in really telling the story well and keeping our core group, our core supporters with us and moving forward through it.
So it’s got to be about, I hate this analogy, but it’s like digging in, well, okay. Here’s the actor in me. Polonius speaks to it in Hamlet, “Those friends thou hast and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy heart with hoops of steel.”
In other words, hold those close to us who’ve already demonstrated they love us, and they support us, and they care about our missions. We’ve got to invest in making that relationship as absolutely strong as it can be, because they’re going to be the ones that stick with us.
NB: Absolutely. And I think it’s so important. And I think it just circles back to what we said in the first five minutes of the conversation. Which it comes back to, what is your purpose? Be super clear about that. Who are the people that care and could care about your work, and then create processes and systems that work to basically engage those two things. And ultimately, that’s the task.
And I know, I think the closer you can bring the giver to the good, which is something that we feel is so important, the better. And that’s really the task that you’re describing.
How do we make that happen for all donors? Not just major donors, or corporate donors, or whatever, but how do we hold tight to that? And I think that’s a call to action that I think all listeners and anyone regardless of their role in nonprofit can really hold on to. So I really appreciate that reminder, Clay.