Nailing Jello to the Wall
Using public relations and marketing to make fundraising strategies stick.
By Jack R. Soares
Photo illustration by Jennifer R. Geanakos
The slippery endeavor called fundraising isn't just asking people for money, it's telling them and showing them what your organization does. That would be pretty simple, except those prospective donors--and even many tried and true donors--tend not to listen. Or they listen to too much at once.
Marketing and public relations are specialties whose practitioners can draw us in, get us to desire particular scents or flavors, buy impractical vehicles, dress in a particular fashion, or crave almost anything.
Lacking the secret knowledge of those almost-rocket-scientists, fundraising can feel like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall--somewhere between impossible and not likely, with a whole lot of messy thrown in. To paraphrase the old saw, "When a fundraising campaign falls on a populace and no one pays attention, is there fundraising?" Probably not. Put another way: If the first time a prospective donor has ever heard about your organization is when you are asking for money, you are probably going to be disappointed.
The Internal Revenue Service has granted nonprofit status to more than one million organizations. That's a great deal of competition for charitable dollars. The good news is that Americans are extremely generous: We currently pour some $260 billion into philanthropies of every stripe. Typically, more than 85% of that generosity comes from the pockets of individuals. The challenge is that, unlike corporations and foundations, which generally have printed guidelines or tax records available for public scrutiny, individuals do not.
Capturing and keeping the attention of these free-range donors can be a challenge. Regardless of the size of a nonprofit organization and its fundraising program, the fundraising umbrella almost inevitably covers marketing and public relations--the same disciplines that help Procter and Gamble sell soap and Chrysler sell cars. But only the largest nonprofits have the luxury of staff and money to devote to those necessities, right? Wrong.
Although many in the fundraising trade consider marketing and public relations elusive specialties they neither have the expertise nor the time to fully implement, the less fundraising is supported by those twins, the less likely a development program is to capture charitable dollars. If the concepts of marketing and public relations are slippery for you--somewhat akin to trying to nail Jell-O to the wall--read on. The most surprising thing you will find in the following paragraphs is how much you already know.
This article captures some thoughts from dozens of people around the country on a subject that could be called grassroots, or seat-of-the-pants, or low-cost, or guerilla, or common-sense marketing and public relations. In a sentence or two, folks in the fundraising trade share what works for them. Their simple suggestions do not guarantee instant success, but some, if applied consistently over time, could make a difference for you.
Many suggest doing basic research before launching the effort, just like a feasibility study before a major fundraising effort. "Check it out: Would you contribute to you? Do a self-test, and ask questions you think a donor would ask," is one suggestion. "Use your answers to improve your marketing."
Another is, "Do market research with a group of donors. Ask what their concerns and favorite things are about your organization."
Once you know what your various constituencies want, says Gwyn Lister of Accelerated Income Methods, "Make a marketing plan for each segment. Focus on how you will reach them and include them in your organization."
Gail Meltzer, with Fund Raising Advantage, suggests, "Help your prospects and donors see what's in it for them by emphasizing how their values and your values match."
Of course, you say, but who has time for that? The better question is, who can't afford to find time for that? Here are some basics:
Proofread exhaustively. Your credibility hangs in the balance. Can you provide a good service to your clients, save the whales, or protect the environment--or carefully husband a donor's funds--if you cannot sprell correctly?
To relieve some of the exhaustion in exhaustive proofreading, one professional suggests proofreading "by having someone not directly connected with the piece read it out loud to you." Says another, "Use your volunteers to check your work. That both helps ensure accuracy and keeps them involved in the process."
While immersed in the business of your organization, it's easy to adopt its jargon. Is what you write understandable to the general public? One expert advises, "Read what you've written aloud, and ask yourself, 'Would my mother understand this?'" And would Mom find it compelling, even if she didn't know it was written by her absolute genius offspring who was selflessly toiling in the interests of a better world?
Planning for Publicity
Prospective donors, even regular donors, can be skeptical, as they should be. Questions are an indication of interest. The trick is gaining people's confidence that your answers are the right ones. How can you build trust? Accuracy in your communications is vital, but third-party endorsements help.
As much as it has been joked about, many of us put a great deal of faith in what the media tell us. Jennifer Conroy, Director of Development with Sunny Hills Children's Services in San Anselmo, California, says, "Plan your media the way you plan your fundraising so you can include print clippings or media excerpts with your funding requests."
Another expert suggests, "Send news releases on a regular basis." Don't wait for the media to notice you--tell them about your organization, its clients, the need for your services, your staff, significant gifts, and expansions of service. Use letters to the editor and submissions to the op-ed pages to comment on issues in the news that affect your cause.
Many reporters maintain a list of experts they can tap for quick quotes. How do you get on those lists? Watch and listen for bylined stories that relate to your mission, and share the views of your staff experts with those reporters.
Before you rush off to grab the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol said we'd all have, make sure your spokespeople are ready. Set up practice interviews. Lob them easy questions, but once they're warmed up, throw in some challenging queries. Lure them off the subject. Be prickly and insistent. Probe for irrelevant and minute details. Ask them about living wages for support staff, or your agency's recycling program, or the latest United Way scandal. The point of the exercise is that even the friendliest media people are not necessarily our friends. They have a job to do, and so do we.
Giving your spokespeople practice staying on subject and handling hostile questions will pay off. Teach them when to say, "I don't know," without being embarrassed or defensive. These skills can even come in handy during question-and-answer sessions after talks to the local Rotarians.
The arrival of new staff and board members provides an opportunity to send out news releases. Many publications have columns on "people in business" or "people on the move." Emphasize their qualifications to deepen readers' understanding of what your organization does and how it draws significant human resources to further its cause. Include a photo.
And that brings up another easy technique: photo displays of your top staff and board of directors. Posted on your website and in your reception area, the photos help put a face to your organization. This is a dramatic way to show constituents your organization's leadership represents the diversity of the community it serves.
The names of the companies for whom your board members work may be more recognizable to constituents than the board members' names. If there's room on your letterhead for corporate affiliations, include them. If not on the letterhead, definitely include affiliations in the newsletter, on brochures, in your annual report, and on your website.
Give your board members business cards with your mission statement printed on the back. Help them talk about your organization by providing a pocket-sized list of general information and talking points. Revise the talking points regularly, and have copies available at every board meeting. You want them to promote your organization at every opportunity, so give them what they need. Groom your board chair as a spokesperson.
More on the Media
"Be persistent with media groups in your area" one fundraising expert advises--both your geographic area and your area of service. The local press is good, but a magazine that touches on your organization's area of interest reaches people who already share that interest. "Make sure your press release is newsworthy. It must be compelling to editors who read zillions of them."
As with grant proposals, a development professional notes, "When looking for publicity, be selective in sending press releases." Hitting a farm journal with a story about your organization's planned beach clean-ups is just so much fodder. Even a well-written story that doesn't meet the particular outlet's deadline is a candidate for the round file. When you are successful, "use the reprints as marketing materials," mailing them to your donors and prospective donors.
Speaking of donors, "Increase personal contact with donors as much as possible," says Roy Quanstrom, Planned Giving Director for the Salvation Army, Heartland Division, in Peoria, Illinois. "Fundraising is friend-raising." How do you do that? "Join chambers of commerce, associations, and networking groups, and attend on a regular basis. Ask to present or be on the program committee."
Just in case the media arrives at one of your events--invited or not--be ready to greet them and spend some time with them. It is a good idea to have a packet of information handy that includes your board list (with their affiliations), a brief biography of your CEO and any other staff with a key role in the event, background on your organization, and current brochures and newsletters.
- "Network like there's no tomorrow. Give everyone your business card, and write on theirs when and where you met them, then work those contacts!"
- "Hold an open house at your organization, and invite both donors and prospects."
- "Offer a free seminar or workshop on a topic of general interest related to your organization."
- And, for public events, "Send out a news release and invite the media."
The News About Newsletters
A newsletter can be a great tool for keeping in touch with current and past donors and educating prospective donors. "Create a newsletter filled with interesting, short copy," seems like common sense, but it's easier said than done.
Advises one fundraising executive, "Once you commit to a newsletter, keep it coming regularly." That means integrating the collection, writing, and distribution into your work plan, budget, and calendar. Your news releases to the local media should appear in some form in your newsletter. Likewise, newsletter articles may be worthy of news releases.
The newsletter is more effective when it promotes upcoming events rather than reporting on what has already happened. Schedule distribution around planned events and campaigns, and use it to build the credibility of your organization, staff, and volunteers. A story about the employee of the month might mention the person's favorite color and the name of his or her pet, but the stronger message is the employee's passion for your cause and what makes that person an invaluable member of your team. Remember people's fascination with lists of names. Squeezing in lists of recent donors can be worthwhile. Above all, says one expert, "Make sure your newsletter is informative and covers a variety of topics."
Newsletters make great fodder for your website. Stories that have to be shortened for the print edition can appear in all their glory online. You can toss in sidebar articles to provide commentary on or expand your print articles. Direct your print readers to the website for that enriched content. Promote the benefits of the electronic version of your newsletter to your print subscribers--and don't forget to mention that one of the benefits is the cost savings to your organization. In the process, you'll also capture their e-mail addresses.
Newsletters and direct mail are fine for providing general information to large numbers of prospective donors and ongoing supporters. Major donors--regardless of your definition for that elite group--deserve major marketing and public relations attention, however. "Call major gift benefactors who have named spaces, and let them know the role that space is playing in your activities," suggests Phil Schumacher, Executive Director of Development, Lutheran Medical Foundation. That goes for programs funded by major donors, too. Share compliments from clients. Handwritten notes can have a big impact.
When marketing to major donors, don't fall into the trap of good intentions. Most people find lavish attention addictive and will certainly notice when it stops or even lessens. As with any fundraising activity, give some thought to sustainability when planning to upgrade activity with major donors.
Sticky notes can make even routine, nonpersonalized material seem personal. For small numbers, a personal note on a sticky is great, but what happens when you want to give that same kind of special attention to 50 or 150? Simple. Fold a sheet of copier paper until you have eight small rectangles. Hand write a general comment such as, "Thought you'd be interested" in each section, and sign your name or initials, or however you would be recognized by the recipients. Duplicate the sheet on yellow paper to give you as many multiples of eight notes as you need for your mailing. Lop the sheets into individual notes. Use a glue stick to attach the notes to invitations, articles, or copies of letters from clients. Scanning the sheet of notes into a computer and printing the notes in blue ink enhances the personal look.
A website can be an invaluable tool in your marketing and public relations effort. If you don't have one, get one. Says Margaret Guellich with the American Life League, "Create an easy-to-navigate website. Ask for contributions on every page, and make it easy to donate."
Another development professional says, "Keep your website up-to-date, interesting, and informative." Make sure the home page draws people in with good graphics and lively copy and that the site has the kinds of things visitors will be interested to see spotlighted and just one click away. Check the websites of organizations similar to yours, and of other nonprofits and businesses in general, to see what approaches they use.
Electronic communication opens whole new vistas for inexpensive and easy public relations and marketing. A website can be a portal to virtual libraries packed with information. You can provide visitors with links to other sites that will expand their understanding of your area of expertise. (Get permission for those links.) Do you encourage your supporters to write their congressional representatives? Give them e-mail links to those officials. Are articles, support groups, or suppliers of possible interest available to donors or clients? Link 'em up. Give visitors to your website the opportunity to make the spotlighted activities happen by making a donation.
Viral e-mail--an electronic "take one and pass it along" concept--presents more opportunities. The idea is to encourage your supporters to send your message to everyone in their e-mail address book, and to make it easy for them to do so. The message might be an invitation to an event, a rallying cry urging donations or letters and e-mails of support, or a heads-up on breaking news. Because these messages will be sent on your behalf, make sure your request is simple, straightforward, and thoroughly proofread. You don't want to embarrass yourself or your supporters with thousands of misspelled, grammatically incorrect, or off-topic missives.
And then there are serial letters. Like the Burma Shave signs of yore, serial letters, postcards, or e-mails end midthought, building anticipation of the next communication. Before launching this sort of project, plan the promotion's entire run so you know how many letters you'll be sending and, at least generally, what you'll be saying.
A variation on this theme is to send some small item along with each letter to pique the reader's interest. Enclose puzzle pieces, for example, in each letter so the reader can assemble a picture of your new building or something that illustrates a service--something that says, "Help us solve the funding puzzle." One business mailed a mystery object to customers and offered a prize to the first to guess its use.
And What About the Jell-O?
In the end, integrating marketing and public relations in fundraising is not all that hard. Businesses and other nonprofit organizations do the same sort of thing every day; just pay attention and emulate the best. Make no mistake, even the simplest of these efforts takes thought, time, and commitment, and maybe even some funding. There are few magic solutions. But pick the right option, and the effect on your fundraising will be as dramatic--and as easy--as nailing Jell-O to the wall.
Oh, and for the literal-minded, Jell-O can be easily nailed to the wall. Use three times the amount of gelatin called for in the recipe. Let it set. Find a suitable nail and a wall, and hammer away.
Jack R. Soares is the former Chief Development Officer of the Lincoln Child Center in Oakland, California, and a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE). Special thanks to Susan W. Merrill for her help in gathering, organizing, and presenting the original list of "101 Ways to Nail Jell-O to the Wall." For a list of "101 Ways to Nail Jell-O to the Wall," or to add your suggestions to the growing list, e-mail JackSoares@sbcglobal.net.
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