The Power of Labels

During Minnesota winters all the cars tend to become a similar shade of gray. Slush splashes onto vehicles with every trip, road salt and sand make the side panels and doors a grimy mess. And really, there’s no point to getting a wash until the forecast says we’ll have a spell with no precipitation which, let’s be honest, usually means April.

I recently drove somewhere with my daughter who informed me that someone had written “a**hole” in the dirt on the passenger side of my car. It likely would have happened in a public parking lot, since my car is parked in a garage at home. At first I laughed it off. Whatever, clearly someone was just having fun, being juvenile, they obviously didn’t know me.

But then of course, doubt creeps in. Did I accidentally cut someone off in a parking lot and they wrote that as retaliation? Did I offend someone somewhere? I tried to shrugged that off. I’ve worked hard to always be my true authentic self, if someone doesn’t like me, that’s their problem.

Of course more snow and freezing fog (freezing fog?!) was in the forecast, so there was no opportunity to get my car washed. While getting gas one day I tried to rub it off, but it was quite literally hardened onto my car in the salt grime, so I left it.

I found myself thinking about it every time I drove somewhere. It wasn’t a good feeling. I felt like I had been besmirched, slandered. It was a dark cloud came over me every time I drove somewhere, and I started dreading every trip.

Finally, we had a spell of clear weather and I breathed a sigh of relief as my car went through the car wash. She came out all shiny and pretty on the other side, scratches and all, my reliable car that both girls learned to drive in.

As I drove away, I thought about the power of that one label on my car. It was on my vehicle, not me, and yet…it bothered me so. It made me wonder…if that flippant remark written onto my car could have such an impact on my outlook, what impact do the labels I give to myself have over me? What do I tell myself everyday about myself? Are those positive or negative things?

What labels do you give yourself?

Why data integrity matters

My husband and I have been donating to an alma mater of his for years. Decades, actually. And when I say “my husband and I” I mean my husband. I have asked him to not make these recurring monthly donations, that there are other, more worthy causes in the world that we should be directing our dollars to, but he really wants to support this institution, and so we have for the majority of our long marriage.

Eventually we hit a cumulative giving threshhold and combined age that we attracted the attention of their major gift team, and I began getting phone calls. Me. The one who has been saying for years that I don’t want to give to this institution.

I spoke to the gift officer, who was kind and grateful for our gifts, and explained that he really needs to talk to my husband, I personally would not still be sending money their way and that it’s my husband who is directing the donations. I even provided his phone number so he could call him directly. He said he would make a note of it and thanked me for taking his call.

Then, about six months later, I began getting phone calls again from the institution. I let them go to voicemail for a while, but finally started picking them up. The cheerful person on the other line said, “Hi, may I speak to Wayne?”

Uh, no you may not. Because you reached me on my cell phone at work. But this time I wasn’t so helpful to explain that Wayne was my husband and to give his number.

I replied, “This isn’t Wayne’s number.” No explanation that I knew Wayne, was his spouse, no additional information was given, simply that it wasn’t his number.

Now, hopefully, they have marked the phone number in their system as a “bad” number. But they missed the opportunity to actually connect with the person who wants to support their organization.

What I’m imagining happened is that the gift officer put text into a note field that said “wife does not support, husband Wayne’s number is XXX.” And there it stayed, in a text field. Unsearchable, unattached to Wayne as a person.

This is why I am passionate about helping nonprofits build and maintain databases, so that the personal information that can connect a donor to a single potential major donor is not lost in the clouds. All it takes is one donor, one connection, to make a difference to an organization. Maintaining the data to make those connections is critical.

A Change of Heart

It’s been four years since I began my consulting business. I’ve talked to a lot of nonprofits, some of which became long-term clients, others I worked with on a project basis, many of which determined that my skills were not what they needed at that time.

The world has changed…a lot. I feel like our lives are now divided into “pre-pandemic” and “post-pandemic” norms. Black folks are rising up and demanding equality, for systems of opppression to be torn down and re-built. The impact of climate change is happening every day around the world, affecting millions of lives. There is so much work to do, so many ways in which to help others live better, more fulfilling lives.

Which brings me to my latest development.

I have recently taken a position as the engagement and communications manager for Crescent Cove, a respite and hospice home for kids based in the Twin Cities. I will be shuttering my business…for now. I have gotten to know so many incredible organizations doing good work, and after 4 years of being on the periphery of many of them, I want to dig in to this particular one.

Welcome to Crescent Cove! Crabapple trees in full bloom.

Crescent Cove is the third such pediatric hospice and respite home in the United States. It has only been open for 4 years. But back in 2011, it was an idea that the founder, Katie Lindenfelser, was passionate about opening. And in 2011, I worked at Gillette Children’s, a hospital serving children with disabilities, the same population of kids that Crescent Cove would eventually serve. I got connected to Katie then and was a part of a group of dedicated volunteers who helped to raise money, gather support, and help make Crescent Cove a reality.

Back in 2015, during a short-term project stint to get their database up and running, I was looking for a full-time position but Crescent Cove had none to offer — their only employee was Katie who was technically a part-time executive director, even though she was working 60 hours a week to make her dream a reality. I said back then that some day, they would need someone with my skills when I was in a position to take that position.

That day is now.

This is not just a job, it’s a calling. Nothing less than that could convince me to shutter my business, resign my clients, many of whom I’ve developed, close, personal relationships with, and give up my flexible part-time working hours.

While I truly enjoyed helping so many organizations in a variety of ways, I’m looking forward to getting deep into this one, to making a difference for the families of children with shortened life expectancies who come to Crescent Cove for sanctuary, for retreat, and to make every moment count.

The home faces Twin Lake. Neighbors on the lake are amazingly supportive of the Home.

Let’s keep in touch.

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.

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.

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.