Across the world, nonprofits are tackling major problems and working toward big visions. They’re on the frontlines of change that is urgently needed right now. The work they do every day is essential, and it doesn’t stop, even when things get tough.
If, like many nonprofits, your organization has ambitious goals to make major changes in the world, you don’t simply need donors. You need a community of passionate supporters, a team of advocates, donors, and people committed to helping you get there. You need a movement mobilized for lasting change.
At the Responsive Fundraising Summit we were joined by three leaders at nonprofits who have committed to that kind of mobilization, to talk about where they’re focusing and how they engage their supporters.
Maritza Mejia, Major Gifts Officer at Preemptive Love, Ryan Corry, Chief Strategy Officer at St. Vincent de Paul, and Cameron Bartlett, Director of Digital Marketing at The Exodus Road had a robust discussion, full of wisdom and insight for nonprofit leaders. Their conversation revealed five key actions for any nonprofit trying to create a movement to take.
Your donors support you because they want to be part of your mission to make big changes in the world. Don’t miss that by getting caught up in the details of fundraising. Keep bringing your communication back to the thing that inspires them, and invite them to share in the vision, not just receive it from you. “We’re asking our donors bigger questions,” says Ryan Corry. “We want to know their hopes for the world.”It can feel vulnerable to invite this kind of engagement with donors, but that vulnerability can result in a deeper relationship. “Ask bigger questions. You’re going to get better retention, you’re going to get to know your donors in a better way,” Ryan says.
“This is the year to take big risks on your organization,” says Maritza Meija. “This is the year that your community is going to give you a pass if you don’t hit a certain mark or you don’t do it exactly the way you did last year. So if there’s something that you’ve been thinking about doing, some new initiative, some way of reaching out that’s different…whatever that risk is that you’ve been thinking about that you’ve put some research into but you haven’t been able to take the big leap with, this is the year.”
Maritza points out that for Preemptive Love, organizational risk and fundraising results have gone hand-in-hand. When she reflected on past years when fundraising stalled out, she found that was when the organization wasn’t taking the kind of risks their community expects of them.
When you’re tackling big problems, it’s easy to overwhelm your audience. The whole scope of world hunger, or environmental destruction, or poverty can be hard for people to take in. It can feel paralyzing, even for people who care a lot.
Cameron Bartlett says, “Our role is to figure out the most strategic thing for people to do.” What is the next step you want your supporters to take? They can’t solve the entire issue, but what is the one small next step? Whether it’s sharing a video with their network, calling a senator, or making a donation, define what the next action should be.
Once you’ve determined what the action is, connect it to impact. Show people what a real-life difference they’re making. It doesn’t just improve fundraising results, it guards against burnout with your cause.
Storytelling is about connection. It bridges the gap between the givers and the good they want to see in the world. When you tell personal and emotional stories, you help supporters understand your cause in a new way. “It’s easy to attack ideas,” says Ryan. “It’s a lot harder to attack experiences and faces.”
Nonprofit storytelling doesn’t just teach supporters about your cause, it answers a real need for human connection. Ryan saw that need before the COVID-19 crisis, but social distancing has brought the point home: connection is important. In light of that, St. Vincent de Paul created a “Reflecting Hope” event in order to share stories with their donors. This was not a fundraising event, but one focused on decreasing the distance between people in need and people who can help, and decreasing the distance between donors. Stories can foster meaningful connections between people.
Maritza has also used storytelling to connect supporters with each other and with the issues Preemptive Love addresses. The organization’s film, “Love Anyway,” tells the story of the organization, its work, and its impact. After screenings of the film, they host workshops to help supporters build connections, particularly with people they wouldn’t have otherwise met. Storytelling, Maritza says, can “create action and movement instead of heaviness.”
Sometimes storytelling gets written off as “warm and fuzzy,” without much to do with hard data or fundraising goals, but Cameron sees it as part of the digital journey donors take with The Exodus Road. Everything can’t be a fundraising ask; donors need to be engaged in a series of steps that include stories and inspiration. When the fundraising ask does come, supporters are already emotionally activated and educated about the cause, because of the storytelling they’ve experienced.
Donors are more than their dollars. They bring passion and commitment to your cause. If you’re trying to build a movement, you need to connect with your donors in a real and authentic way, that recognizes them as whole people, not just a contact in your database.
Ask your donors what they think. Ryan recommends doubling-down on real-time connection. Instead of relying on produced presentations, get your donors on the phone for a real conversation. “I think you’ll get better answers,” he says. Lately, he’s been inviting donors to join him on hikes in the mountains to really talk.
Maritza agrees. “If all that you expect from donors is a check, that is all you’re going to receive, but if you engage them there’s a really beautiful opportunity to create a lifelong partnership with them.” She recommends reframing fundraising “wins.” Even if you walk away from a fundraising meeting without a gift, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. If a supporter truly understood your mission, felt comfortable asking questions, and is able to effectively tell other people what you do, that’s something to celebrate. The relationship is likely to continue, and who knows what the future might bring?
More contact and engagement in your work are always good news, whether they result in an immediate gift or not. Cameron says that every time a supporter moves to a new stage, that’s a win. When someone goes from just getting your emails to clicking the “read more” link, or shares a social media post, instead of only clicking “like,” they are deepening their connection. Everything is part of the journey to a stronger relationship.
The causes nonprofits champion can take us to dark places. Our panelists work with organizations that deal with violence, war, homelessness, poverty, and human trafficking. They have to tell their supporters about a lot of difficult things. This makes it even more crucial for them to celebrate when the opportunity arises.
Celebrate every win with your supporters, and show them how they made that win happen. Cameron says that when The Exodus Road rescues someone who is enslaved, they celebrate abundantly. It shows current donors what kind of impact they have, shows active supporters what they were a part of, and invites prospective supporters to consider what kind of impact they could have. It also provides needed relief to keep everyone engaged in the cause, instead of pummeling supporters with non-stop traumatic information.
“People want to do big things, and they want to belong,” says Ryan. During the COVID-19 crisis, St. Vincent de Paul created a new community of donors, which provides rapid-response support as material needs arise. These donors sign up to be on an “on-call” list, and when someone St. Vincent de Paul serves needs help, like rent assistance or food, the next person on the list gets called to contribute. This community of givers is directly connected to the need in the community, in real-time. “They want to know that their support is doing something today,” says Ryan.
Whether it’s celebrating together or forming communities of donors, look for ways to bring your supporters together around joy. “People want to belong, be a part of something that has much deeper meaning and joy that just being a donor at the end of the year,” says Ryan.
When everything is in flux, it’s counterintuitive to make big goals, take big risks, and tenaciously promote hope and joy. But thinking small won’t make the kind of change the world needs. To hear all of the real-life stories from these nonprofit leaders who are doing the work, watch the Responsive Fundraising Summit on-demand.
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