Sometimes You Must Go Back, Before You Can Go Forward

Which way do I go? (Image c/o Microsoft Office Online)

Keeping donors up-to-date regarding your nonprofit’s activities is essential when it comes to building support for major gift fundraising campaigns. Traditional letters, newsletters, social media, in-person events, meeting and e-mail can each play a part in keeping donors engaged and interested.

How important are regular communications, really?

Here are three examples from prior experience that suggest your nonprofit should not go forward with a major fundraising campaign without making sure you have kept your current donors and wherever possible, your prospective donors fully informed.

What I propose is not only that you use the above-mentioned communication methods, but consider a more formal, business report. This is not a “slick” publication, but a well-written factual report concerning what you have accomplished and what you hope to achieve in the future. This kind of presentation can help your constituents better understand your needs, and encourage them to make significant contributions later. And, do not be shy of conveying challenges or failures. Most donors and potential donors understand life is not perfect and that nonprofit organizations are always striving to make improvements. In fact, a failure may end up being the very reason for which you are seeking financial support.

Donors Who Gave But Never Heard Back

I was engaged by a zoological society to develop, launch and manage a greatly-needed $10 million capital campaign. I discovered the records from a prior capital campaign, one conducted five years earlier, were nowhere to be found. Undaunted, I began conducting research, unearthed what information I could, and I began meeting with a select group of past contributors I felt sure would support the new campaign.

During my initial meetings, however, I hit a wall. The prior donors told me they had not heard from the nonprofit in five years, they did not know what was going on, and they were angry!

I stopped what I was doing, researched what had occurred during the previous fundraising campaign (and the exhibition it had funded), I drafted a five-page, single-spaced report illustrated with photographs, had the report attractively bound, put a personalized cover letter on each copy (thanking them again with no “ask”), and mailed the report to each contributor. The result was that we were able to secure the funding for the new campaign. But we had to take a step back, before going forward!

Religious Organizations are Not Perfect, Either

A religious organization hired me to prepare for a $18 million capital campaign. As I began my research, I discovered contributors to the prior, successful multi-million dollar capital campaign (concluded two years earlier), were not aware the campaign was completed. In fact, many of them had lost interest in the work of the religious organization.

I drafted a well-researched, four-page report regarding the prior campaign, provided the glowing news that it had been completed, discussed how the funds had been spent, and presented the concept of the second capital fund drive. This was attractively produced and mailed with a personalized cover letter to each prior contributor. In addition, the text of the report was delivered verbally during a region-wide annual conference (by the Development Board Chair), and on the heels of the mailing, we hosted a private dinner with current and prospective contributors to celebrate the conclusion of one effort, and the launch of another. We knew it was truly inappropriate to go forward, without taking a few steps back!

Too Much “Design” is Unnecessary

I was hired by a successful art museum with a prospect list “to die for,” to lay the groundwork for multiple capital campaigns and a greatly-needed general operational fund. The problem I discovered was that the museum’s standard annual report looked gorgeous (exceptional high design), but few people were reading it. This cutting-edge “art document” was not successful at conveying the work of the museum to its core supporters. When I approached some supporters to see if they would reinvest in the organization, they seemed chagrined. They said they hadn’t heard from the organization in a long time, and had several had lost interest.

I sat down with the director and wrote down what had transpired over the past year, and what the museum planned to do for the remainder of the current year. This was again a single-spaced, illustrated Microsoft Word “business” report that shed light on important guest visits and lectures, trips to other museums, conservation projects underway, new grants awarded, special events upcoming and the like. The result was that we were able to re-recruit numerous high level members ($1,000 to $5,000 range), and we brought in several significant special project grants (five and six-figure). Yet again, we could not move forward without taking a critical “communications” step back first!

Certainly, you can communicate some of this information via other printed publications, websites and social media. These tools reinforce your nonprofit’s relevance and instill a greater sense of your worthiness to donors and prospective contributors alike. Sometimes, though, a little extra communication is required in the case of major gift contributors. They need professional documentation to understand the great things you have accomplished and what your current needs are before making a meaningful donation.

In the end, communication is central to a successful development program at so many levels. Review how your organization has been communicating and while you do not want to overdo it, develop an updated communication plan that includes straight-forward, factual reporting about what has already transpired and about what the future holds. This kind of report does not have to be a glamorous production, but it must be professional, clear and honest. And it should ultimately make your work raising significant donations more successful.

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