Over a decade ago the first book in the Eat This, Not That! (Wikipedia, Amazon.com) series was published. Inside, the authors offered audiences many food substitutions designed to allow the reader to save calories while still enjoying a meal out. Much success followed, not only because of the easy method which eliminated tedious calorie counting, but also because of the mental shift that goes along with it. It’s much easier to do something if you’re connected across both the body and the brain. Mentally, small changes are easier to enact for the long-term, and that’s when the real change happens.
I bring that up because many of the questions I hear discussed in the current nonprofit world are, I believe, the wrong ones. They are questions which distract from the real substance of the problem, they put a focus on immediacy rather than long-term value, and they lead to treatment of symptoms rather than fixing the underlying malady. So, in an effort to redirect the conversation, at least a little bit, I offer up a few that probably should no longer be asked. Instead, I offer alternatives which can change your mindset and focus your efforts in areas which will produce healthy, sustainable results.
Q1 – Don’t ask, “How can we increase donations?”
This question implies that the nonprofit is the one in control of donations. The mindset that asks this question views the donor as an ATM. All you have to do is punch in the right PIN, and everything flows from there without a hitch. If the Executive Director pushes on just the right community leaders – if the Development Direct mails at exactly the right frequency – if the Program Direct can get just the right results to prove the program worth – if the Grant Writer comes up with just the right language for that next new innovation grant application – then the money will flow like manna from Heaven. This is quite presumptuous and ignores the reality all around us: that nonprofits are in the business of begging, and when you’re begging, you are not in control.
Instead, ask this: “How can we strengthen our relationships with our donors?”
This mindset change recognizes that the donor is in control of the money, and the nonprofit can only do their own part. They can only be the best organization they can be, providing the appropriate interventions at the right times to the right people. They don’t control the donor’s wallet or heart. But when you view the world through the lens of strengthening relationships, and actually doing the same, the donations will naturally flow. They will come in the form of higher donor retention, stronger advocacy and easier recruitment of volunteers, and, most importantly, more long-term partners rather than one-time hand-outs. So, to get more, focus not on getting, but on giving: giving your audience a better relationship experience, one that gets them to fall in love with you over and over and over again.
Q2 – Don’t ask, “Why do people give?” Instead, ask, Why do people avoid?
We know that acquisition rates are under 2% for naive direct mail. With renewal rates under 50%, those that do give a first time aren’t very likely to give again. Overall, the United States directs only 2% of GDP to philanthropy. This includes giving to religious institutions, which, for many, may be up to 10% of their income. So if some are giving 10%, and the average is only 2%, there must be a lot of the audience that’s giving nothing.
And yet, a vast majority of the surveys reported in the public space, and many of the internal studies that nonprofits commission, consider only the 2% of the audience that is actually giving. They try to identify “ideal donor profiles” and create a “donation likelihood index” to improve their acquisition efforts by targeting cultivated, maximized lists. I get it – that makes sense. Because it’s the data that you have, so you do the best you can with it.
But, what if you could find out about the other portion of the audience that is giving nothing at all? What if you could find out where their priorities lie? What if you could offer them a solution to the problems they see in their neighborhoods, and do so in such a compelling way that they would feel remiss if they didn’t give? It would be well worth the investment of any nonprofit to understand more about those who haven’t given and tailor their approaches to acquisition and retention in such a way that targets the other 98% of GDP instead.
Q3 – Don’t ask, “Can I afford this in my budget?”
I’ve run across multiple nonprofits that have struggled to advance because a project “wasn’t in the budget”. Again, I understand that Executive Directors have to answer to Boards, and they have to be responsible stewards of the funds entrusted to them. They should not be spending wildly or on programming, material, or services outside of their mission. However, if an opportunity comes along which would significantly improve your nonprofit’s position, either in the community, or financially, or with a certain supporter segment, you would be unwise to ignore the value in such actions.
Instead, ask “What would be the ROI on this investment?” When you view expenditures in this way, as an investment in the programs you provide and the people who deliver them, it’s acceptable to go over a hard-limit dollar budget. I mean, if I could guarantee you $10,000 for a $1,000 investment, that sounds like a great reason to go over budget by $950. And while there may be no guarantees in things like new copiers, outside consultant reviews, or a membership in a professional association of like-minded organizations, simply saying “it’s not in the budget” is not a good reason to ignore the opportunity.
Q4 – Don’t answer, “What do you do?”
This question, when asked by someone learning about your organization, is often answered with “Well, we service A, B, and C with programs X, Y, and Z.” And while that may answer the question that was asked, it’s a missed opportunity. It’s analogous to cough syrup suppressing the symptoms of deeper problems. You can apply medicine to make the cough go away and no longer be a bother without actually fixing the underlying issues. When the medicine’s effects wear off, the symptoms return because the problem never got solved.
In the same way, answering the question with programs and services is speaking about the surface solutions to long-term problems. Instead of answering this question immediately, consider rephrasing. When someone asks, “What do you do?”, try answering with, “Allow me to rephrase the question. What is it we want to see in our community?” Then, you can talk about the goal of a poverty-free region; or a community in which all kids read at grade level; or a neighborhood where abandoned pets can find love and homes with holes in their heart can find companions to fill them. It allows the chance to talk about the future you wish to see, and the long-term goals of the group, rather than just the here and now.
Here and now is important; you don’t get to where you want to go with just ideas and dreams. You have to put the effort in. But when you focus on just the programs, you miss the chance to inspire your audience to join you in making the community that they want, too, even if they would never consider supporting a program that you’re promoting right now.
Consider a mindset redirect – instead of asking questions about the now, about what’s immediately in front of your eyes, try reframing. Focus on where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and whether or not you can inspire partners to support you all along the way. With that kind of long-term mindset you can ask, and answer, the right questions about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.