This Is Awkward, but Your Data is Leaking

I get it. You’re a small nonprofit. Your budget is stretched to lengths you never knew you could manage. It’s hard to find and pay talented people enough to stick around. To raise money you need to hire people for fundraising, communications, event planning and execution. Paying someone to run your database? You’ll just have to figure it out, there’s no money for that.

And yet…what do your fundraising, communications and event planning people rely on to do their jobs most effectively?

Your database.

In my work with nonprofits of many sizes over the years, I have seen data leaking from the most unexpected areas. It takes a person who knows and works with data to ask the questions that need to be asked to ensure that your organization is using your most important tool most effectively.

Here are some situations I’ve encountered this past year alone:

  1. The organization that didn’t put event attendees in their database unless the attendees also donated, because they didn’t want to pay a higher price to store “non-donors” in their database.
  2. The organization that allowed the website team to capture email sign-ups without looping those people into fundraising messaging, just mission-related content.
  3. The donor team that did not share email addresses of donors with the communications person because they didn’t think about the fact that it’s important for the organization to communicate with their current donors.

Nonprofits are often juggling a variety of tools to accomplish goals — for small nonprofits, the number of tools is infinitely more complicated. They don’t have the budget to purchase an all-encompassing product that acts as donor database, email service provider and website host, where all tools talk to each other and data flows seamlessly between them. So they use an email service provider that works with their website, but not with their donor database. Or their website sends donations directly to their donor database, but doesn’t share the contact information with the email service provider.

When these things happen, donors make gifts but never get emails from the organization. Or the organization sends emails but never asks for donations to support the mission work nonprofits write about so passionately.

In the past several weeks I’ve asked the right questions and finally told a client that they were leaking data everywhere.

When you leak data, you leak dollars.

Going back to fundraising basics, there are three critical elements to a successful fundraising ask:

  1. The Audience
  2. The Offer
  3. The Creative

Or rather, to emphasize in order of importance…

These things happen at no fault of the people in their chairs. The communications person is communicating. The fundraising person is fundraising. The event person is executing successful events. But how much better could each of these people do at their jobs if someone else was helping them make sure they had the right audience?

Ask yourself if data is flowing in all ways, and keep the most important people in your organization in the center of these discussions: your donors.

I remember you! (kind of)

I love analyzing direct mail. I am the penultimate geek. Good news for you is that I do this so you don’t have to learn the tips and tricks that others are doing.

Like this piece.

I received this piece in September, well before I was thinking anything about Thanksgiving or holiday cards. To give you history on my relationship with this company, I ordered my daughter’s graduation announcements this past spring from this company. That’s it. I’ve never ordered from them before, I used to order from their competitor and then had a bad experience with product quality, so when it came to graduation announcements, I chose someone else to print them.

They could have sent me a coupon, an oversized postcard with a coupon or “XYZ off” on it. I would have glanced at it and thrown it in the trash. But this? This made me read it.

The envelope looked like a personal letter. I didn’t remember the name of the company I had ordered invitations from, so I was curious which made me open the envelope. (Psst…this is the first hurdle to overcome, getting your letter opened!) But they were kind enough to remind me in the very first sentence of the letter that I ordered graduation announcements from them. Of course! They knew I was a new customer and were happy to have me as a customer. And would I please order from them again using the enclosed coupon for 40%, as we near the holiday card season?

Yes. Yes I will.

Not because their products are superior. They might be, but their customer service was exemplary from the very start of this communication. Bravo!

Now I ask you, when someone donates to your organization for the first time, what do you send to them? Do you send them your standard receipt letter, and then another letter asking for a second gift?

This is where welcome packets or a welcome series comes into play. If you’ve got the resources, create a welcome packet with a personalized letter, a brochure that talks about the mission of your organization and how donations support it, and a little reply device which, if the person is so inspired by the piece, they can send in another gift. If possible, you can send in multiple steps, reminding people with everyone mailing that they donated to you and what their dollars are doing. If you don’t have a lot of resources, sending a hand-written “welcome and thank you!” note will suffice. Or, make a personal welcome thank-you call.

Tight on time? Write the copy and ask volunteers to write these letters for you. If you choose to make calls, nothing says “I matter” to a donor more than a welcome call from a board member hungry for ways to support their favorite organization.

No matter the size of your organization or the resources available, growing your donor base by welcoming each and every new donor is key to growing the future support for your mission and is worth the time.

If you like this idea, send me a message via my contact form with your postal address and I’ll send you this year’s holiday card, thanks to Simply to Impress!

No Geographic Bounds to Talent

Photo of a rough-hewn desk with an open laptop on it on a beach with the ocean in front of it.

We have a new neighbor on our street who moved into her home in April, at the height of the shutdown across the entire nation. She is a graphic designer for a magazine in the Washington D.C. area and in mid-March her entire team began working remotely. She looked around at her tiny, expensive apartment with a view of an alley and remembered her roots back in Minnesota, where her dollars would go farther and her view greatly improved. She found a house in a friendly neighborhood and is renting an adorable story and a half with a porch the width of the house. I’ll wave to her from the sidewalk as she sits on her porch, coffee at her side and laptop in front of her, working away on whatever project is next on her list.

The current pandemic has changed the way the world works, possibly forever.

With a Covid vaccine on the horizon and businesses talking about plans to return to the office, an honest assessment of why work offices exist is needed.

Is it to collaborate? With tools like Trello, Basecamp, Wrike and others it’s easy to manage projects virtually.

Is it to have work meetings? Welcome to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, or one of many other video conferencing tools that allows people to meet from virtually anywhere. It takes effort to have side conversations in virtual meetings, be it through a chat function or on a separate device, so meetings are shorter and more effective.

Are people working in offices to share data or projects? Welcome to the cloud where documents, projects, spreadsheets and data are all stored for anyone in the organization to access. All you need is an internet connection and a login to access any of the documents you need.

Clearly one reason for in-person work environments is the benefit of getting to know your co-workers on a personal basis, in having casual conversations at the coffee machine and creating the comradery and teamwork many employees find fulfilling in their work environment. And yet, there are always team members who would rather get their work done and go back to their homes and families, valuing time spent outside of work with loved ones above connecting with their co-workers.

This doesn’t make them a less valuable employee, but it makes a work office a less valuable asset.

Ask the person who spends 2 hours every morning commuting to their office if the benefit of connecting with co-workers face-to-face was worth being on a train for 4 hours.

Companies in some fields have embraced remote work environments for years, while others believe that their work is best done in a formal office environment with cubes and offices filled with people. Companies that do not embrace remote employees will lose talented people to companies that embrace remote workers.

Working remotely during a pandemic has its challenges, especially for those with children at home for whom child care is closed, schools are also in distance-learning mode, or other aspects of their lives have been temporarily suspended due to the safety measures that are needed to contain the spread of the virus. But imagine the world after the pandemic, when schools can safely re-open, child care centers are operating again, and gatherings with family and friends fill our lives with the social connections human beings need.

Wouldn’t this improve workers’ work-life harmony and overall happiness? Doesn’t that make for better employees and human beings?

Data Drives Strategy: Rainmaker Podcast

I was thrilled to sit down with my friend Andrew Olsen to talk about data-driven strategy for “The Rainmaker Fundraising Podcast,” which was published today.

We recorded this in February, and then the pandemic happened, and honestly, data didn’t really seem important in the midst of everything that nonprofits were facing.

Yet those organizations that have their data in order have done the best in the past 9 months, in reaching out to those who want to hear from them and ask for their help, in telling others what their needs are and how they can get involved so the organizations can fulfill their missions.

I’ve had the opportunity to help a client in the past few months to get their database in order, creating clear definitions of active donors, build a lapsed donor strategy and launch new fundraising initiatives for them. I’m excited for their future fundraising success built on a data-driven strategy.

In order to have a data-driven strategy, you have to understand the data. One of the reasons why I love talking to Andrew is because he and I have similar “battle stories” of working with data, we geek out together about data and fundraising. I think he and I could exchange stories for hours.

Take a listen to learn about the “peggy rule,” how arbitrary suppression rules cost nonprofits money, and some of the quick tactics nonprofits can do to prevent these kinds of issues.

Failing to Succeed

The road to success is paved with failure.

— Rashida Rowe

I thought of this quote the other day as I sat at my client’s place of business, trying to figure out how to undo a mistake I had made in their database.

It wasn’t a massive mistake, it was a relatively small one. I am working with this client to assist in their fundraising efforts at the critical year-end giving timeframe while their organization is going through staffing changes and transitions. I had made a record-keeping error, uploading hundreds of recent gifts to their prior year’s campaign, not the current year’s. There was no one to ask about how to fix this as all of the database knowledge had walked out the door with their previous employee.

A couple of things I’ve learned about the mistakes I’ve made in my career:

  1. Most mistakes can be fixed. The first step is to admit that you made a mistake so you can start working on a solution. Thankfully I’m not a brain surgeon so my mistakes don’t result in someone dying. That perspective is also helpful and keeps a person from panicking.
  2. Walk away for a while to think things through. There’s a reason why some of the best ideas come when people aren’t looking for them. I took the opportunity to step away, get some food (it was around lunch time anyways), change my scenery for a while. The solution came to me while I was driving back to the office.
  3. Trust yourself. Tell yourself “I am capable of solving things.” I know this about myself because — don’t act surprised — I’ve made mistakes before and fixed them. Or, I had someone show me how to fix messes I’ve made and now I know how NOT to make those particular mistakes again.

After getting some food and fresh air I returned to the task of fixing the error and dabbled in this new-to-me database. Thankfully I have a host of screw-ups I’ve done in other databases in my past that I could rely on for experience. Within 30 minutes I had crafted a solution, tested it out and voila! Fixed. And now I know how to query data and run mass updates in another software system. Imagine that, new knowledge that I got from making and fixing a mistake! That’s success right there.

Thinking About Starting a Nonprofit? Take my advice…Don’t.

We are swinging from one crisis to another in this country right now. No matter your political leanings, your take on the pandemic or the cries for racial justice across the country, people are passionate for change.

In the midst of our nation’s multiple problems, well-intentioned people want to change the world, and some think the best way is to start a nonprofit. I caution people to ask themselves some hard questions before they take on building an organization from the ground up.

1. Is there a nonprofit already out there doing this work? If so, you may be better off connecting w/them and fundraising for them rather than starting your own. Starting your own is a lot of work and has its own set of labor costs until you can afford to pay staff, plus across the entire industry it duplicates and replicates jobs. How many executive directors of organizations raising money for breast cancer research do we need in order to eradicate breast cancer? The answer should be one, possibly two, but right now it’s more like 20 or 30. That’s a whole lot of salary, staff and leadership duplicating work other nonprofits are doing. There are already 1.5 million registered nonprofits in the United States. What will one more organization do that others aren’t already doing?

2. Why are you considering starting a nonprofit? Is it to make a difference? Fill a need not currently being filled?  Do some soul-searching on why you’re considering starting a nonprofit and how much of your life and time you’re willing to dedicate to it. I can’t tell you the number of people who start out passionately throwing themselves into the task and burn out within a year, brought down by the grind of trying to organize and raise money.

3. Is your nonprofit for a short-term need or a long-term need? Once the nonprofit is up and running, is it sustainable? Short-term doesn’t need a nonprofit, it needs a fund. Long-term, see question number one.

If you are interested in a specific area of fundraising, then you can partner with a nonprofit and create a fund under their umbrella. A great example of this is the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund, which is managed by the Children’s Cancer Research Fund. Zach tragically died of osteosarcoma at the tender age of 18 — you may be familiar with his song “Clouds” which he wrote and recorded. Children’s Cancer Research Fund raises money to research all pediatric cancers, but Zach’s family wanted to raise money specifically for the kind of cancer that took their son, so they created the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund. They raised more than $1.5 million in the years since his passing and the resulting research has made breakthroughs in the treatment of this type of cancer.

Because of their partnership, Zach’s family could focus on telling his story, on fundraising and raising awareness around the need to research this rare disease. They did not have to recruit, train and work with a board, hire an executive director or fundraising director, or manage all of the operations of a nonprofit. Because of that, their son’s life truly made a difference in the treatment of osteosarcoma.

Ask yourself these three questions. And then if the answer is still yes, there are a lot of resources out there that can help you. Throw me a line and I can connect you with those in your area.

Business is Business, but People are People

Recently I had the opportunity to catch up with a former co-worker and good friend, LeAnn. She and I met 25 years ago when she became the fourth person hired at the then-fledging ParadyszMatera office in Minneapolis.

We reminisced on some fun times — brainstorming sessions while standing around in a large open space between our offices, using golf putters to hit a beach ball from person to person as we talked through client challenges. That beach ball became our mascot for a while, finally dying on the end of a well-executed drive from the putter.

We also told stories on our fearless leader, Mike Cousineau. He founded the Minneapolis office and is a strategic, smart, quirky guy. We talked about how we all had to take turns making the coffee in the morning and according to Mike, no one made it strong enough for him. When it was finally strong enough for him, none of the rest of us could drink it. Finally he started buying his coffee from Dunn Bros. and bringing it in every morning and the rest of us made the coffee the strength we could tolerate.

He then developed the habit of leaving those Dunn Bros. coffee cups around his office, to the point that his desk and table were littered with dozens of slowly disintegrating paper cups in various stages of growing mold. With no cleaning staff and no one else willing to touch his office, he would finally go through it once a month and dump them all in the garbage. He called it his “great experiment.” We joked about the strains of mold that he may have accidentally created in his “experiement.”

Mike was passionate about business — hungry to grow, focused on the bottom line, always the first one in the office. But he also understood that people were people. There was no one more compassionate and caring than Mike. In typical Mike manner, he found ways to ensure that his people grew as professionals and human beings.

I recall struggling one time with a project he had assigned to give me. I wrestled with it for a while in silence at my desk, not understanding exactly what it was I was supposed to be producing or where to start. He could sense my frustration and stopped by to see how it was coming. I told him it wasn’t, I was terribly confused and struggling. He then told me something that followed me for the rest of my career.

“Jenny, you are the smartest person I know. If you can’t figure it out, then you don’t have all the information and need to ask more questions.”

As I retold this story, my co-worker and I both laughed about the fact that he told everyone they were the “smartest person he knew.” He was diligent about surrounding himself with people who had different skills than he, different strengths than his to build a comprehensive team that — together — could do more than any one individual could accomplish. Perhaps to him they were all the “smartest people he knew,” just in areas different from where he was steeped in knowledge.

From that day on, I never doubted myself when a situation was unclear.

I would go farther in life by asking to learn, than pretending to know everything.

This was an incredibly helpful thing to learn as a young adult, and I applied it professionally and personally. I am so grateful to have had Mike in my career, guiding the way.

We worked together happily this crazy group of four, tethered by a long, 254MB modem cable to the main New York office which we interfaced with daily, but seemed unrelated to our culture. About a year later we merged with another company and grew from an office of four to 30. The days of hitting a beach ball around the office were gone, but the teamwork and compassion were not.

LeAnn and I both agreed it was mean to talk about Mike so much without him there to defend himself, so we invited him to the next get-together. It was hilarious as expected and filled with small gems of wisdom packaged as stories. Sometimes business goes beyond business and becomes friendships. What a gift.

Destruction by Database

My very first job out of college was at an agency that called itself a “database marketing” firm. They didn’t market databases; they used data to make informed marketing decisions. I had the glamorous job of working in the Response Center, answering inbound telemarketing calls and entering direct mail leads generated by the smart marketing that had been executed for their clients.

I never got far from data the rest of my career. From analyzing client direct response results to understanding how a nonprofit was capturing data so I could later request it, using data has always been a part of my job. I’ve seen data managed with kid gloves, every piece of information carefully captured, updated and reported as it comes in. I’ve also seen great measures of data be shredded rather than entered into the database, thousands of potential relationships rolled out the door in a bin after years of lingering in a drawer.

From all of this, I have one piece of advice for nonprofits, and you can quote me on this:

Invest in your database.

— Jenny Floria

Pretend you just bought a new car. Congratulations! You have a car! It runs smoothly, it’s quiet, it is awesome. But you don’t change the oil, put air in the tires, or do anything to maintain the car. It gets louder and louder over time, the ride gets bumpier and, well, in no time at all you’ve got a clunker on your hands.

The same thing happens when you don’t regularly invest in your database. Here are some of the ways in which I’ve seen nonprofits pay in the long run for not investing in their databases.

Nonprofit A purchases a highly-recommended and relatively expensive database. The person put in charge of the database often ignores the upgrades the software company recommends installing, figuring the updates aren’t worth the time or money. Before they know it 10 years have passed and the database doesn’t capture more than two phone numbers per household (because who’s got more numbers besides “work” and “home?”). They re-invest in a new database and move the data, losing much of it in the conversion as the fields were not properly mapped since the old database was so antiquated.

Nonprofit B uses a free database. This meets their needs for the first few years when they’ve only got a couple of hundred donors. They grow quickly and need to raise big money for their expansion. They realize they don’t have current addresses on many of their founding donors, they have phone numbers captured in one of four different fields and can’t do any wealth screening because their data can’t be matched due to its inconsistencies. They have to pause their campaign to make an investment in a database, something they should have done earlier.

Outside of the initial purchase and licensing expenses, how should nonprofits be investing in their databases?

  • Put the right people in charge of the database. Give the job to a professional who knows the ins and outs of databases and what is needed to keep them running effectively.
  • Treat the data like your nonprofit depends on it…because it does. No matter how insignificant it may seem, every piece of information could be a treasure. Evaluate every source and make sure your database has the ability to capture it, even if you choose not to.
  • Update update update. Unless the initial purchase decision was completely disastrous, it is nearly always more effective to continue working with your current database than move to a new one. Budgets have been blown, deadlines extended, good employees resigned, and potential revenue left on the table in the midst of database conversions.
  • Train people on how to use the database. This includes training your database manager, who should stay up-to-date on the latest developments. When updates occur, make sure users are aware and know how to use the new features.
  • Have consistent data capture. Where data is stored and how it is used should not change every time a staff member walks in the door. Have written documentation of when, where and how data is captured so that it continues to flow regardless of who is working at the nonprofit.

Data is at the heart of your business. You want your major gift officers to reach donors at the right phone number, your appeals to reach people at their current address, and to understand the relationship between donors and your organization. Make these investments in your database for your team to succeed.

Brand-Forward ≠ Fundraising Writing

Who’s doing the writing, a person or an organization?

In my career, I have seen and personally experienced a tug-of-war between marketing and development departments. It’s not because marketing people are mean or bad at their jobs, they are some of the smartest people I know. It may be familiar to you, here’s how it goes:

The development team asks the marketing team to write a fundraising letter for them. The marketing team produces a great piece that hits on all the high points they’ve been trained to write about: how many lives they’ve impacted, how what the organization does is better/faster/more efficient (pick your unique selling proposition) than other organizations, how much money people give to them, and appropriately use of their name in at least four mentions. Yeay us!

The piece is mailed and surprisingly, does not raise as much money as was hoped. Everyone scratches their heads and commits to doing better next time.

What happened?

Here’s the truth about brand-forward communication: Donors. Don’t. Care.

What do donors care about?

What organizations have done with the money they’ve already given. Why the nonprofits still need donors’ support. How donating to the organization is changing the world.

Here’s the difference, in a real-world example.

I was asked to help a client write a fundraising piece that would be mailed to current donors. As a starting point, I was given the piece that was mailed the previous year, mostly for the facts and figures. This is a human services organization that employs people with disabilities.

This was the original opening sentence: “Our mission has never been as important as it is now. Nationwide, only one-third of working-age people with disabilities are employed.”

Who have we talked about so far? The organization first and the people we want to help, in general.

The letter went on to quote many facts and figures, backed up by the Department of Labor, on the number of people with disabilities who are unemployed, and asks for a donation because this organization employees people with disabilities. Reading this, I’m still not sure why this organization needs my donation to hire employees.

Instead, let’s try this:

“I am writing to you because there are people right here in our community who cannot  find meaningful work, and you have the power to help them.”

Wait, me? People who live by me need my help?

The letter goes on to tell the story of one particular person who found himself out-of-work after a health crisis, and how the organization helped him find meaningful work again after two years of being unemployed. It talks about how the company provides special accommodations and training to people with disabilities so they can be successful not only at work, but also in life. The employee gushes about how grateful he is to be able to work again and provide for himself.

Now which letter would convince you to make a donation, the one filled with facts and figures, or the one about an individual whose life was changed due to this organization’s work?

The result?

More money raised, but, more importantly, more donors chose to give again to support the mission. Unless nonprofits can retain the donors they already have, they will find themselves on a sinking ship of ever shrinking donors and revenues. But that’s a post for another day.

Point is, there is a crossroads between brand-forward and fundraising communications and many nonprofits have a hard time finding that intersection. Keep at it, keep searching for that crossroad. If you need help, call me. 🙂

Coming Soon!

When I was little girl, my life’s dream was to be a world-famous author. I imagined myself living in the woods somewhere, enjoying my many dogs, spending beautiful days in thoughtful reflection, scribbling down ideas and following through with the most brilliant writing anyone has ever read. My books would FLY off bookshelves, money would roll in I would have no worries, and would be able to spend my time however I wished.

My vision did not turn out exactly the way I had imagined. (Me? Live in the woods? You’ve met me, right?) But…I do write and people read it. I know they do because my writing raises money for nonprofits. I love seeing passages I’ve written on clients’ websites, in email or direct mail pieces. Even though my name isn’t associated with those pieces, I know I created them and I get a little spark of excitement every time I read them.

Then my friend Andrew Olsen presented me with the opportunity to actually *be* an author. I’m contributing a single chapter, but it’s enough!

In about 45 days the book “101 Biggest Mistakes Nonprofits Make” will be published. Be sure to read my chapter on how you need to dig into data to make smart fundraising decisions — the devil truly is in the details!

After you read it, you will find me in my mountainside retreat in the woods. With my dogs.