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Activating the network

By Sherilyn Ortman, communications associate

My son attends a local Christian school, which this year added a multi-aged elementary classroom to its existing 5-12th grade program. Just a few years ago, my husband and I were “on the fence” about whether or not to send him when he came of age.

But our decision to enroll him as a first grader has been affirmed in countless ways, and any questions we had going into the year have been replaced with this question: “How can we get more parents to send their students here?!”

Obviously, we have friends. It stands to reason that at least some of them are at a similar stage of life and hold similar values as we do. It also stands to reason that in our other associations (business, recreation, etc.), we cross paths with persons who have no other point of connection to the school. Finally, it stands to reason that every last parent at the school belongs to a similar network.

The AAI team has, on occasion, surmised about the potential power available to the nonprofit that can effectively activate these networks. In other words, assume each stakeholder in an organization knows five people who fit the organization’s preferred client profile. These “top five” each know five more people, who each . . . you see where I’m going.

Within this “friendship marketing” model, satisfied parents like ourselves are among our school’s most effective recruiters. Here are a few ways that I have tried to use friendship marketing in the last year:

1. Engage socially

Early in the school year, my husband and I invited about 30 peers to a progressive supper. The group was a mix of people new to the community (including our son’s teacher), long-time friends, casual acquaintances and complete strangers. We structured the evening carefully to maximize the number of people/households each participant mingled with. We provided conversation starters to each carpool to put guests at ease. We made sure that each prospective parent in the group had a chance to ride with the teacher at some point in the evening!

We also keep a running list of persons with whom we want to socialize, giving priority as appropriate to our “top five.”

2. Pay attention

I can recall several memorable conversations I’ve had in the last year. Memorable because, in each, a comment was made that I translated as, “Here is a relationship that needs nurturing!” Let me give some examples:

• At a scrapbooking retreat, a woman talking about the frustrations her family has had from a nearby school district unwilling to accommodate the needs of her 11-year-old daughter with Crohn’s disease.

• At a Christmas party, a man talking about the local business his wife has just purchased: “She always wanted to be a business owner. We didn’t know what direction it would take but we knew we wanted a Christian angle.”

• At a community theater rehearsal, an out-of-town choreographer: “[The multi-age classroom] is exactly the kind of program we’d be interested in if we lived any closer.”

• On the phone with a friend from church, discussing how she suspects public school staff members discriminated against her daughter: “My mom tells me she wouldn’t be treated like this at [my own son’s] school.”

Three of these people are in our top five; I have passed three of their names on to the school’s enrollment director; and the remaining name occupies the top spot on our social engagement checklist.

3. Promote without proselytizing

Recently I blogged about our son’s first year in his new school. I posted a link to the entry on Facebook, knowing full well that four of our top five are Facebook friends of mine. Moreover, they’re the sort of friends that would actually take time to read the blog. Rather than trying to best them in a face-to-face comparison of our children’s classroom experiences, or raising their defenses by saying derogatory things about our previous school, I let my entry speak for itself. And by posting it in a forum like Facebook, where people of all opinions have access to it, I avoid the appearance of challenging any one individual or mindset.

I would offer two additional ideas that I haven’t yet had a chance to use:

4. Strategically enlist expertise

My son’s classroom uses project-based learning, which presents a lot of opportunities for parent and community involvement. Remember the choreographer I mentioned earlier? What if I asked her to lead the class sometime in a movement-based activity? Another member of my top five is an outstanding visual artist. Inviting these people to share their expertise would also permit them to experience the classroom environment and the teacher, hopefully stimulating their interest.

5. Act as an intermediary

Our school recently hosted an open house for prospective elementary families. I desperately hoped my aforementioned church friend might attend, but felt I had already pushed her enough in our previous conversation. The enrollment director also felt awkward mailing an invitation to the family, since my friend had specifically said she was not yet ready to talk to anyone from the school. I suggested that in future years, the enrollment director provide each family in the classroom one or two invitations to personally give to someone in their top five. I would have felt differently approaching my friend if I could have said, “Each of us was given one of these to hand out. In light of our recent conversation, I thought of you.” Utilizing personal networks in this way allows an organization to maximize contact with prospective friends with whom it may have no other logical point of entry.

Hopefully, this article has sparked some ideas your nonprofit can use in your own setting. One thing is sure: be they satisfied clients, volunteers, donors, advocates or other friends, helping your stakeholders identify ways to activate their network is time well spent.


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Advancement’s new vocabulary: “Tweets” and “likes”

By Mike Wiese, associate

Should your organization consider using social media to engage young people’s support and involvement? The answer is yes. While in the past this generation may have primarily been reached through a printed letter, newsletter or advertisement, today’s young people are more apt to communicate via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Instagram, Pinterest and other such platforms as well.

Before considering specific tools, let’s understand why social media as a whole works. Young donors like social media because they want to be personally connected with things and people that they care about. Relationships matter to them and they want to stay in touch. If young people are passionate about your mission and want to be active on your behalf, you need to communicate via their tools and let them use those tools to spread the word. Social media is the most effective way that young people share word of mouth endorsements.

Here we offer pros and cons of the two most used forms of social media today—Twitter and Facebook—along with one suggested way your organization can begin utilizing these tools to build relationships with younger donors. As the previous paragraph suggests, however, many younger donors are seeking, first and foremost, not a repository for their funds, but a connection and a relationship. Social media allows them the opportunity to stay in touch with your organization and to be active on its behalf in other ways as they establish their own habits of charitable giving that may benefit you in the future.



• More than one quarter of online adults between 18-29 use Twitter—nearly double the number of users age 30-49.*

• In a short message (tweet) you can let followers know about an activity to generate attendance.

• Followers can easily share information, ask questions, get questions answered and pass your information on (retweet) to their followers.

• You can follow other experts to learn from them and share with them.

• One can monitor keywords (through hashtags) to see what others are saying about your organization.

• Account set-up and use are free.


• Messages are limited to 140 characters.

• Time is required to build community and post meaningful tweets.

• Tweets need to be meaningful and in line with specific marketing objectives and brand.

• Although you can include a link to visual items, Twitter is not good for visual content.

Example: A group of constituents follows your organization on Twitter. On the morning of a major event, you want to remind your followers that the event is later that day. You send a tweet to your followers, some of whom retweet to their friends that they are going, and invite those friends to come with them.



• Users include over 1.1 billion individuals—67% of all adult internet users—from a broad demographic.*

• Visual content can be shared easily.

• Facebook is interactive and allows people to respond to your posts (through comments and likes).

• Content can be linked to websites or other social media sites such as Instagram (sharing photos) and Pinterest (“a tool for collecting and sharing things you love”).

• Ads can be purchased that align to a profile of people who are likely to be interested in your organization.


• Setting up a “Facebook Fan Page” and getting fans for your organization requires time and resources. (People become fans by liking your organization’s page.)

• Posts need to be meaningful, informative and to support your marketing objectives/brand.

• Pages must be kept up to date and regularly monitored.

• Facebook ads require a budget.

• Having reputation management policies in place is important if someone places a negative post on your page.

Example: After your event you post an informative update and photos on your Fan Page to let your fans know what happened. Fans respond to the post by “liking it” and sharing a comment. Some fans post your message on their personal profile page to share with their friends.

Major companies are shifting large portions of their communications budget away from traditional media to social media. If you haven’t already, you may wish to consider adding a social media component as part of your next advancement plan. The two examples listed here just scratch the surface of what is possible. AAI is prepared to offer additional ideas for faith-based nonprofits who wish to incorporate social media into their overall advancement strategy.


*Statistics according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Post-Election Survey, November 14-December 09, 2012.


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Former clients respond: How are you intentionally nurturing donors under 40?

We asked a dozen advancement officers to respond to the question, “How is your organization intentionally nurturing relationships with donors 40 years old or younger?” Their replies revealed an impressive understanding of the needs and desires of this age group, coupled with creativity in their various approaches.

Photo courtesy of Hinkletown Mennonite School

Ruth Leaman, Hinkletown Mennonite School (Ephrata, PA): “We sponsor a business networking breakfast. About 80 local business owners attended, many of them young. The event provides connections for the school with business owners that we would otherwise not have opportunity to connect with, provides a professional presentation of the school and creates collaboration within our community. This is an entry point event for new potential donors and we have had good results in moving new business owners into support for HMS within 6-12 months of our last breakfast, including two new friends who became major donors to our capital campaign.

As a follow-up to the breakfast we have developed a mini-course on entrepreneurship, in which we take groups of students to visit some of these businesses. Students benefit from learning outside of their regular curriculum and business owners are happy to share their knowledge.”

Aaron Adelsberger, Adriel (West Liberty, OH): “We have been moving away from blanket requests for our annual fund, and doing much more in the way of purpose driven requests. This is specifically to attract and engage a younger generation of donors. Rather than just writing us a check and saying, “I hope you put it to good use,” we find that younger donors like knowing that they were a part of purchasing a new piece of equipment, or that they were a part of funding a specific program, and are more likely to respond to that request and to be engaged in a meaningful way.”

Photo courtesy of Freeman Academy

Vernetta Waltner, Freeman Academy (Freeman, SD): “We have hosted a dinner with a special program and provided child care for our local young donors, aged 20-35. One year I hosted an evening that included a supper and time to play volleyball or basketball for alumni who were getting ready to leave for college. Our annual holiday alumni fellowship includes basketball games and a time to visit with those of all ages who are in the community for Christmas. As I plan visits to specific cities or states, I try to meet with young alumni over coffee or a meal. Sometimes that is a group of college students and other times it is young couples.”

Photo courtesy of Christopher Dock High School

Susan Gingerich, Christopher Dock High School (Lansdale, PA): “At the senior breakfast I place a card with a penny on it at each senior’s place, encouraging them to make their first donation before they graduate by turning in the card with a $5 bill attached. I promote the Golden Anniversary endowment gift at each class reunion. This concept is to set up a class endowment with the school so that by the time the class has its 50th anniversary, it will have donated $50,000 to their class’s endowment. We provide food and space for a one-year reunion of graduates. We encourage and assist with five-year (interval) reunions for all classes each year.”

Bruce Drayer, Gateway Woods (Leo, IN): “During the summer, we have many young people spend a week or more with us. They work on our campus and interact with the residents during the day. In the evenings, there will be volunteer events to encourage fellowship. Also, every other Monday we play sports with our residents and young people in our church. These events drive participation and passion. We also keep an updated Facebook page and Twitter account. Many of our former volunteers and friends regularly check these accounts.”

Larry L. Swartzendruber, Iowa Mennonite School (Kalona, IA): “We’re using things like Facebook and other social media more. Since the under-40 crowd is increasingly mobile and more tech-savvy, we’ve also made it easier to make online donations by accepting credit cards, automatic withdrawals/deposits, etc. I continue to believe that personal relationships and one-on-one conversations are the best way to engage donors of all ages, but it requires establishing that relationship to know what method of contact and interaction is best. That applies to each and every donor.”


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Supporting advancement through communications

What vehicles does your organization use to communicate with its constituencies? How do you use each of them? To share about campus life? To inform of upcoming events or opportunities to get involved? Simply as a means of staying in touch? The answer is likely “all of the above”—and perhaps more.

On some level, we hope that our communications foster in our constituents a sense of goodwill that translates to ongoing support of our mission. Sometimes new professional print pieces are called for—to introduce a capital campaign or reveal a program initiative, for example. But AAI encourages organizations to think more intentionally about how their existing communications tools can also effectively support their advancement goals.

Communications refers broadly to all the ways an organization brings matters to public attention, including

• print media (newsletters, bulletin, inserts, annual reports),

• comments made by the CEO at various events,

• electronic media (website, e-newsletter),

• social media.

We also define the word support in broad terms. AAI often reminds clients that there are at least five primary ways constituents offer support: through money, time, participation (as a resident, student, client, etc.), prayers and advocacy. Finding ways to appeal to each of these is the aim of effective communications.

Let’s examine some concrete ways various communications can give more attention to advancement.

Highlight development. Consider including a personal message from the development department in each issue of a newsletter. At the very least, make sure to include contact information for your development director; this should also appear on your website.

Re-think the “wish list.” Many publications include a wish list of new/used items. Consider also listing projects to which persons may donate time or skills. Examples include reading to residents, offering transportation, stuffing envelopes or providing labor for a simple renovation. Sharing prayer requests demonstrates to stakeholders a level of transparency and invites their sympathy, support and/or celebration for specific situations you face.

Reveal your strategy. Do you have a current strategic plan? Keep it in front of your constituents and, at appropriate stages, invite participation for special projects like landscaping, scholarships, or creating a benevolent fund. Would an honored class like to donate toward a need or hold a working reunion at your annual auction? Perhaps a major donor would be willing to match any gifts that come in within a certain time frame.

Tell your stories. What made a recent gift so special? Why do three generations of one family volunteer to serve together at your annual fundraiser? What’s the story behind a unique silent auction item? How is one recent graduate making a difference in a new setting? When did the tradition of resident-led Bible studies begin? Who spoke at this year’s appreciation dinner and what key points do you wish all constituents could hear? How did a distant alumna decide to send her student to spend his senior year at your school, and what has that student’s experience been? You get the idea. A good story can describe an otherwise ordinary event in ways that interest and inspire. (See Associate Dan Hess’ tips for crafting such stories.)

Note preferences. Are a lot of your constituents opting to receive communications from you electronically? Take that as a sign of internet savvy and, if you haven’t already, consider setting up the capability to receive online donations through your website. You can also seek feedback from constituents via your website, Facebook or Twitter. What would they like to hear about in future correspondence?

We recognize that none of the ideas mentioned here are particularly earthshaking. And most are easily implemented. If you are already including many of them in your communications plan, keep up the good work! But if not, we encourage you to be more intentional about selecting content for your various publications. Does each item somehow serve to reinforce your mission and purpose, and invite stakeholder support? If not, consider our ideas; they will make a difference.

Read more about AAI’s communications services, including written communications plans, here. If you would like objective (and, for a limited time, free!) feedback on how effectively your organization’s publications are currently supporting advancement , contact AAI associates Sherilyn Ortman or Dan Hess.


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Selecting the best software for your development needs

For the last 15 years, Peter Graber has helped to lead the fundraising work of Mennonite Mission Network and its predecessors. Mission Network works from the Mennonite Church USA offices in Elkhart, Ind. and Newton, Kan. Prior to that role, Graber spent 10 years as a computer consultant and programmer. Given his expertise in both fields, we asked him to share what he considers the most important functions of fundraising software.

If you manage a nonprofit, someone has certainly tried to sell you one kind of fundraising software or another. As the capabilities of computer hardware have expanded, as the “web” has become ubiquitous, and smart phones nearly so, fundraising software continues to adapt and offer new capabilities. With so many choices–and each with a price tag—it takes some careful consideration to determine how you want to use fundraising software in your organization.

The primary task of fundraising is to build a relationship of trust and appreciation between the organization and its supporters. And the gold standard for accomplishing this task is personal one to one interaction. Since that is only possible for a limited number of people, we engage in many other relational strategies to maximize the connection between supporter and organization. The strategies you use will depend on many factors including the size of your organization, the nature of its work, the size, demographics and geography of your supporter base and the participation of volunteers in your organization. Fundraising software can be used to enhance your productivity and increase the level of personalization you can provide in almost any situation.


At a minimum, fundraising software provides a place to store information about each donor in a way that it can be easily retrieved. Much of the time you will be working with this information in an office environment, but because development work happens at all hours of the day, sometimes across a large area, you will need access to your donor information from remote locations. As mobile devices become more capable, remote access is becoming even more robust. There is a cost, but when you are on the road half of the time, it is important that you are able to stay well connected.

While development principles remain constant across organizations, each organization is unique and often requires keeping track of special bits of information about donors that other organizations would not need. The more customizable the software, the more likely you will be able to use it effectively for these unique purposes. It is also important to consider what kind of security systems are required. Often, almost everyone in the organization needs access to the “name and address” information, but only a few need to see gifts, and fewer still, personal information.


Because you want to personalize your relationship with each donor, especially major donors, it is important that your fundraising software allows you to develop a broad and deep profile of donors through recording notes of personal visits, information about relationships, education, employment, etc. This information will be especially useful at times of staff transition when new staff members must learn to know donors quickly.

Contact records

Keeping good records of each phone call, letter, or personal visit will provide valuable information for your own reference on future contacts or for other staff members when you are gone. Contact records can remind you of the names of your donor’s children and what you talked about a year ago. They are also an excellent way to track development office productivity. Only a very limited number of people should have access to these records and they should not contain information shared by the donor in confidence.

Contact planning

One of the most important questions development people ask themselves is, “Who should I visit or call?” Out of the pool of possibilities, which contacts are most likely to result in increased funding for my organization? The answer to this question is a complex mix of factors including:

• the timing of the last contact,

• the history of giving,

• the size of gift,

• the potential for increased giving,

• the presence of a planned gift,

• etc.

A very good use of donor software is the ability to view this information on a range of donors in a way that the most important potential contacts are apparent. At my organization, we select donors that meet a set of criteria and export a large set of information to a spread sheet. Logic within that spreadsheet then categorizes donors based on the information supplied. In addition to automatically highlighting key contacts, it allows the user to look more closely at the donor’s attributes and history to make a judgment about the need for a contact.

Recording and receipting gifts

Another major purpose of fundraising software is to record gifts. Of course the finance office can easily record the date and amount of gifts, but for effective tracking, much more needs to be included. You will need to be able to track memorial or “in honor of” gifts, gift designations, pledges, recurring gifts, matching gifts, on-line gifts, estate gifts and gifts of stock or other assets. None of this is simple and all of it requires the participation of finance staff as well as development staff.

Whatever system you use, it must be capable of receiving and receipting a gift within 48 hours so that a timely acknowledgement can be sent to the donor. If practical, I recommend that the receipting be done by development staff who is more in touch with donor communication issues than the finance staff. Finance staff often records the gifts and makes the bank deposits and the development staff uses these records to produce the receipts and other acknowledgments.


You will often want to communicate with your donors as a group rather than individually. Good use of software will allow you to do a mass mailing (electronic or paper) in as personal a way as possible. It will allow you to:

• select and combine groups based on a variety of characteristics,

• format names as donors have requested,

• mark records as to who has received what mailings and

• include personal information such as recent giving.


Once you have collected a significant amount of information in your database, you will have many options for reviewing this information. Most systems come with 100 or more standard reports and you can usually customize many more. One of the most difficult decisions will be to decide what information you want to track on a regular basis and how often you want to review the reports. While many different reports are interesting, not as many are actually useful. You should ask yourself what will actually make a difference in your decision making and when is that information needed?

Action tracking

Most fundraising software now has action tracking as an option. This lets you make a note about what needs to happen next with each donor, usually as part of recording the contact. That note can then be stored and you will be reminded at the time you have selected for that next step to be initiated. You are also able to look ahead and see how many calls, visits, and other follow up steps you have scheduled for yourself in the next week, month, etc. If the software is well integrated, the planned action can easily be turned into a contact report when it is completed.

Other uses

In addition to these primary uses of development software, there are many additional uses that may apply to your development environment.

• Events – If you plan donor events, there is software to help with invitations, registration, nametags, etc.

• If you use volunteers, there is software that helps you to manage volunteers by recording their skills and availability, hours worked, leadership tasks, etc.

• Donor research – Many companies now provide donor research, giving you information about people’s interests, past giving and capacity. Some of these are separate services and some are integrated into donor software packages.

• Planned giving – Encouraging planned giving is one of the most important tasks of development staff. Planned giving software allows you to produce illustrations specific to the people you are visiting. It is not a substitute for understanding planned giving, but an excellent tool that has proven effective in moving people towards planned giving decisions.


Once you have fundraising software installed, it is important that you make good decisions about how to use it. Without a good training program, you are likely to never really use your investment to its full potential. Training will allow you to explore the ways you can search and sort and manipulate information. It is then up to you to choose how to use the software to best enhance your relationships. Some of us are tempted to get lost in all the nifty things we can do and lose focus on our primary objective, building relationships. Training doesn’t end when the software is installed. Users need regular training to keep expanding their knowledge and proficiency. New users need hands-on training so they can become productive as quickly as possible.

In conclusion

Using fundraising software well is a complex undertaking. I have a few rules that help me deal with this complexity:

• Start with the most important functions and add more as you go.

• Remember that people are the most important resource and have no patience for software that wastes their time or fails to provide them with good information arranged in a usable way.

• Don’t scrimp on training. It does not save money in the long run.

• Insist on great training by people who know the business, not just the software, and who are good teachers, not just good salespeople.

• Keep reevaluating how you are using the software, that the information you record is truly useful and that you are actually using it to inform your work.

• The cost of software is not necessarily an indication of its quality.

Those of us old enough to remember the days before computers realize that while it would be more difficult to do development without our computer systems, it could still be done, and done well. Fundraising software should not require you to compromise good practices in order to fit into the requirements of the software; rather, it should enable you to engage in good development practices in an efficient manner.