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Marketing: a worthy investment

A layman’s definition of market research: an organized effort to gather information about key stakeholders.

Small faith-based organizations are often hesitant to invest in market research. It requires funds from already-tight budgets. It adds another layer to the planning process. It may duplicate information the organization already has.

Advancement Associates recognizes these concerns, but begs to differ. When done for the right reasons and in the right way, we believe conducting market research can be a worthwhile investment, even for small human service organizations as they seek to align programs and resources with mission. Our view is shaped by the results of the market research activities we have completed for our clients over the past decade. Here’s a snapshot of those projects.

• A private boarding high school completed an extensive image audit so that it could “better articulate its unique program and common vision; test the appeal of its distinctives with current and potential enrollment markets; and create strategies that strengthen the school’s efforts to achieve its enrollment goals.”

• A child services provider invested in exploratory market research because the organization needed to know the current “dynamics, trends and needs” shaping placement decisions for state and county agencies–and how the provider could better meet these expectations.

• A denominational education agency wanted to sharpen its fundraising capacity and results. As a first step, the agency completed a development audit, which provided a better understanding of what was motivating current support and what changes might capture constituent interest.

• A religious denomination wanted to learn more about giving practices and preferences among members of local congregations in support of broad, church wide activities. It did that by conducting an extensive research study of denominational giving that included surveys, personal interviews, and focus groups. Among other important findings, the study revealed that younger church members were less inclined to be “in the habit of giving” than older members, and wanted tangible evidence that their support would make a real difference.

• A number of individual churches and faith-based, nonprofit organizations tested the waters by completing feasibility studies before embarking on fundraising campaigns to underwrite new facilities, build endowment, and achieve other priorities. The studies identified stakeholder and community acceptance of the anticipated projects, prospective large donors, and possible obstacles to success.

• A private K-12 school faced decisions about the preferred location of its elementary grades. Should elementary students be included in the same facilities that house middle school and high school students, or would a separate location better meet parents’ expectations and provide for enrollment growth? A constituency research study provided helpful insights guiding facility planning.

• A continuing care retirement community faced stiff competition from similar options nearby. By conducting neurolingistic research among current and prospective residents, leaders gained a better understanding of their core needs, leading to an adjustment in strategy that averted a potential major mistake. The study also shaped decisions about the most important features and amenities that make a retirement community preferable and desirable.

• A faith-based disaster relief agency conducted a communications audit to address a number of priorities, such as strengthening its relationship with its constituencies; tracing the flow of information through the system; and improving the efficiency and morale of staff.

• A private 5-12 school faced significant decline among its traditional student market. Located in a sparsely populated area, the school invested in a market research study to find small pockets of prospective students and families and “assess sensitivity in these potential markets to price, distance and the concept of weekday and/or full time boarding.”

• A church-related relief and development agency recognized the need to engage the support of younger stakeholders as donors and volunteers to sustain the organization’s mission into the future. In a market research study, it learned that many young, new donors had interest in supporting specific projects, rather than the operating budget; preferred electronic communication; and valued opportunities for local involvement.

• Four colleges and universities affiliated with a religious movement collaborated on a market research project to determine the answers to seven key questions including, “what are the attitudes and aspirations currently shaping higher education decisions among youth in (our movement)?” and “what actions would increase endorsement of and support for (our) institutions among interested constituent congregations and individuals?”

What information do you need to better understand and serve your constituents? Consider conducting market research; it could well be a worthy investment.

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Informing strategic planning through market research

Phil Rush is Director of Donor Relations for Mennonite Central Committee U.S. AAI invited him to describe how market research is informing an extensive strategic planning exercise for his organization.

Originally founded in 1920 as a short-term effort to provide relief aid to starving Mennonites and others in Russia, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2020. The organization currently supports efforts in relief, development and peace in about 60 countries around the world. An effort of stakeholders in the United States and Canada, MCC is largely known for its well-regarded international work, although it operates various domestic programs across those two countries as well.

So what role does marketing play in an organization like MCC, if marketing is understood as helping to define–including through input from key stakeholders–and then advance an organization’s position, and thereby move it closer to success in its ministry?

One clue may be the interesting and enlightening responses people have when the word “marketing” is used in the context of a service oriented, church-supported, almost century–old organization.

Some folks question if marketing has any application or is appropriate for a nonprofit organization. A common response of others is, “yes, I think we should do more marketing.” But if you push out what they mean by marketing, a large percentage of responses seem to equate marketing almost exclusively with advertising or sales.

The lack of understanding about marketing and market-based research in nonprofit organizations is not surprising. With so many pressing concerns for meeting human need, marketing activities may at first glance seem more applicable to the for profit world. However, MCC’s recent experience suggests that a marketing perspective is valuable–even for a church-related organization.

MCC is fortunate to have various income streams, although almost 100 percent of MCC’s income is dependent on contributions and/or volunteer efforts. Unlike some nonprofit organizations, we do not have any significant income from “fee for service” activities, so in the crowded nonprofit marketplace we must listen carefully to those who support us with their dollars, time, and other means.

While colleges and many other nonprofit organizations have had formalized development offices and functions for decades, this is a comparatively new priority for MCC. Grassroots support for MCC has always been and continues to be exceptionally strong; however, anticipated changes in the donor support base and in other external environments call us to new ways of listening to and relating with our stakeholders. The generation of loyalists are slowly passing from the scene, while the boomer generation is coming on strong. This generation tends to be less loyal to any one organization, and is more likely to comparison “shop” for organizations based at least in part on evidence of impact.

As noted, there are many ways “doors” through which donors can connect with MCC. As any organization does, MCC has attempted to listen to its constituents in a variety of ways over its history. These efforts were typically ad-hoc and anecdotal, rather than formal attempts to gain a broad, verifiable sampling. Perhaps ironically, the strength of its grassroots support at times isolated some parts of the organization from paying as close attention to stakeholder voices and opinions as commonly occurs in smaller, less geographically diverse organizations.

The first attempts to more systematically collect feedback and data from donors and other supporters began only about six years ago. Recent restructuring efforts did include the participation of various stakeholders, but focused more on articulating vision and restructuring, rather than market research. So, in broad terms, a recent survey done by Advancement Associates (AAI) is perhaps only the second known systematic attempt to gather survey data–and almost certainly the first that will significantly inform strategic directions for Mennonite Central Committee.

Entering into market research to inform strategic directions was (and still very much is) new territory for MCC. Some initial reactions ranged from “why are we spending money on this?” (perhaps with the attending assumption that we already have the answers) to “why are we only now engaging in this?” Ultimately, the support of leadership staff was crucial to the decision to go ahead with the study.

The three-month timetable for the study was extremely aggressive because the strategic planning calendar was already in place and the research had to fit within that window. Ideally, the research would have been factored into the planning process from the beginning. Due to the timing issues it was not immediately clear how the survey would specifically impact future directions and next steps. But in the end, the study became extremely important to the process of setting the strategic directions. By giving an objective sense of constituent interests and priorities, these could then be factored into deliberations when setting strategic directions.

As one who believes that successful development efforts are closely tied to alignment with strategic goals and direction, I am certain that the impact of the AAI study will be useful to advancing MCC’s mission and vision, beyond fundraising activities. For example, the simple process of naming and promoting a definition of marketing (as put forth by Mike Wiese of AAI) has already generated various new ideas and opportunities to better communicate our mission.

While none of the study findings were particularly surprising to most of our donor relations and communications staff, it has been very useful to move beyond an informal approach to determine key issues and priorities for our donors. Along with setting strategic directions for the MCC as a whole, the data will continue to be instructive to inform specific constituent engagement efforts, in internal discussions, and of course in providing a factual point of reference, rather than just anecdotal stories.

While each organization’s situation is unique, MCC’s experience suggests that every nonprofit would do well to engage in at least occasional–if not on-going–formal market research efforts. The nonprofit marketplace is more crowded than ever and the donor landscape is changing – in some cases very significantly. How the organization positions itself with regard to these changes is crucial as we seek to be faithful to MCC’s calling as a ministry of the church.

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Nine keys to successful market research

Dr. Michael Collette is Professor of Management in the Falls School of Business at Anderson (IN) University. Here is his list of ingredients that make for worthwhile market research.

In my former capacity as vice president for marketing and strategy at a university , I led a division which was increasingly dependent on reliable market research to fully comprehend vital information needed to make strategic marketing decisions.

We used research consultants to understand the forces driving our primary markets, seize opportunities to create new and attractive programs, and assess the resources and capabilities of our competitors. This information helped us develop strategy to enhance differentiation and competitive advantage. Some of our projects were very successful, while others did not provide results worth the cost.

The learning curve necessary to produce successful research outcomes may be lengthy, and may come at an undesirable cost. From my experience, I can identify and address nine factors that might help your projects produce results that succeed far beyond your expectations:

1. PASSIONATE PROJECT CHAMPION — You must have an internal champion for the project at hand. This person should have the authority on behalf of the organization to make decisions and access data and necessary information. The success of the entire project often depends on someone with the passion to truly take the organization to the next level.

2. GUIDING COALITION — The internal champion will likely not have the base of power, range of connections, or time to complete the project all on his/her own. There are often inherent barriers to research projects, because they will result in organizational change. Your project champion needs to be supported by a guiding coalition of colleagues.

3. FIT — Find a research provider who has a heart for your institutional mission. Having a “feel” for the organization and project at hand is an intangible benefit that will lead to both stronger and more reliable data, conclusions and recommendations.

4. TRUST — You need to trust–and verify–that the market researcher shares a commitment to strengthening the future of your organization.

5. PURPOSE — You must be very clear regarding the purpose of the study. Even the very best provider is hindered when clear purpose, or consensus for that purpose, is lacking. Metrics are far more reliable when research goals have been established around clear and common purpose.

6. IMMEDIACY — The window of opportunity to set goals, gather information, and begin to implement research-driven recommendations is limited. Opportunities produced through a marketing study have a “half-life.” Unnecessary delays negatively impact the benefits of all this good work.

7. EXECUTION — Research recommendations that aren’t executed generally result in an unused, nicely bound study sitting in the bottom of some grey file cabinet. In other words, a wasted project.

8. STRATEGIC LEADERSHIP — Commitment for the research project must be top-down. Beginning day one, the strategic leader must strongly communicate the
organization’s support for your project.

9. EXTENDED CONSULTANCY — There needs to be a commitment to considering an extended relationship with your external marketing consultant, who can walk alongside. This external source of accountability is often important for effective implementation of market research.

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Marketing and nonprofits: like peas and carrots

Dr. Michael Wiese is an AAI Associate and Professor of Marketing in the Falls School of Business, Anderson (IN) University. Below he shares his belief that a marketing orientation is key for mission fulfillment of church-related, nonprofit organizations.

Question: With church-related, nonprofit organizations in mind, how would you define marketing?

Response: Marketing is everything that every person in our organization does to find, attract and retain key stakeholders who want to support our mission.

Question: What are your impressions of how church-related, nonprofits have understood and practiced marketing? Why have they been cautious, even suspicious?

Response: Marketing is often defined, even in popular media, as a “way to get people to buy something.” That definition perpetuates the mistaken notion that marketing is focused on transactions and is just about sales and advertising. If that’s the case, nonprofit organizations–especially those that are faith-based–have been understandably uncomfortable with marketing.

With the proper definition, however, we can view marketing as everything we do to serve our constituents well, so their loyalty and support are earned. If we have a meaningful mission and are achieving it effectively, we will likely draw financial support. But the primary focus is not on selling and financial gain; rather, it is on serving and serving well, as directed by our mission.

Often because they have not understood the term, many nonprofits have avoided any applications of marketing, to their own detriment. This often means that the organization does not listen to constituent feedback, respond to changing external realities, or tell its story effectively. Other nonprofits have embraced inappropriate tactics, often in crisis, with the hope that “marketing” will save them. In this case, they become too sales oriented and try to implement “business thinking” at the expense of mission. Neither approach is healthy or beneficial to mission fulfillment and success in the long run.

Question: Talk about the importance of communication as a vital component of effective marketing.

Response: We must tell our story and clearly communicate who we are and what we do to our constituents. We must also listen to changing and emerging needs, adapting as we can to better serve our stakeholders. If we do this well, we are more likely to have our services align with mission and the passions of our supporters.

Question: In your mind, how can an effective application of marketing principles strengthen, rather than compromise, the mission of a nonprofit? Can you give some examples of how a marketing approach made a positive difference for such organizations?

Response: I think of many examples from my work with AAI clients. Currently, we are helping a church camp organize its work around a formal strategic plan that will guide next steps toward achieving the camp’s vision for the near future. More specifically, the plan will inform advancement, marketing communications, staffing, program, and facility decisions, and is likely to help that organization move toward a more secure and effective future.

A recent donor study we completed for a relief and development organization is another example. In this case, market research will inform the strategic plan for the next five years. This organization understands it must be more market oriented as demographic, denominational, societal and economic changes reshape the nature and expectations of its constituency–including donors. The result is likely to be continued mission achievement into the future.

Question: What are first steps for an organization that wishes to move toward a marketing orientation?

Response: Marketing is a philosophy first and then a way of operating. Here’s what I mean: First, determine your organization’s current definition of “marketing” and how it is being practiced. If you find a self-centered view of marketing that involves getting people to do what you want them to do, then major philosophical changes are in order.

Next, if leadership is committed to a marketing orientation, it is important to listen to your constituents and let them help inform strategy. That usually means taking a research step.

Finally, it is critical that staff applies marketing concepts correctly and has the wherewithal to implement the strategic plan. And you must understand that a marketing orientation represents a long-term commitment, rather than a short-term fix.

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Important, worthwhile, reading

Advancement Associates specializes in serving church-related, nonprofit human service organizations. While many of these organizations are small, their missions are vitally important to the communities and constituents they serve. Another attribute held in common: they highly depend on the charitable gifts of their stakeholders.

With our clients in mind, then, we came across some important research that caught our attention: Bell, Jeanne and Marla Cornelius, UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising (San Francisco, CA: CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, 2013).

To highlight the key findings of the study, conducted among more than 2,700 executive directors and development directors, we’ve pasted in some summary statements found in the report.

UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising

Many (nonprofit organizations) are working on the edge of a knife. Relying on voluntarily provided support, they struggle year in and year out to keep the money coming in and to identify new, more sustainable sources of funding. Many can’t find the right people to build and grow their development operations, and most feel that their fundraising results fall short of what they need to realize their aspirations.

Revolving Door: Instability in the Development Director Role
Our data suggest a high level of instability and uncertainty in the development director position in nonprofit organizations. Among the concerns: high turnover, long vacancies, performance problems, and the fact that large numbers of development directors are not committed to careers in fundraising. Most concerning is the combination of long-time vacant positions–especially among smaller organizations–and high rates of anticipated departure among current development directors.

Help Wanted: An Inadequate and Uneven Talent Pool
Our data confirm that the supply of qualified development directors is smaller than the demand for them across the nonprofit sector. Executives report a lack of credible candidates for open positions, and many are dissatisfied with the performance and the skills of their current development directors. In addition, smaller nonprofits are finding they can’t compete for experienced fundraising talent with larger organizations that offer considerably higher salaries.

It’s About More Than One Person: Lacking the Conditions for Fundraising Success
Development experts have long cautioned that having a skilled development director is not enough. Beyond creating a development director position and hiring someone who is qualified for the job, organizations and their leaders need to build the capacity, the systems, and the culture to support fundraising success. Among the signs that an organization is up to the task:
It invests in its fundraising capacity and in the technologies and other fund development systems it needs;
• The staff, the executive director, and the board are deeply engaged in fundraising as ambassadors and in many cases as solicitors;
• Fund development and philanthropy are understood and valued across the organization; and
• The development director is viewed as a key leader and partner in the organization and is integrally involved in organizational planning and strategy.

All of these are widely accepted indicators that an organization is doing what’s needed, and yet our survey results indicate that many nonprofits haven’t created the conditions for fundraising success.

Defining a “Culture of Philanthropy”
• Most people in the organization (across positions) act as ambassadors and engage in relationship-building.
• Everyone promotes philanthropy and can articulate a case for giving.
• Fund development is viewed and valued as a mission-aligned program of the organization.
• Organizational systems are established to support donors.
• The executive director is committed and personally involved in fundraising.

Calls to Action
1. Embrace fund development
2. Elevate the field of fundraising
3. Strengthen and diversity the talent pool
4. Train boards differently
5. Apply the transition management framework to the development director position
6. Invest strategically in grantee fundraising capacity
7. Leverage technological innovation
8. Set realistic goals for development
9. Share accountability for fundraising results
10. Exercise fundraising leadership

We encourage readers to read the entire report, review the supporting data and consider the accompanying recommendations, which is available at (under Research & Publications). Is your organization “stuck in a vicious cycle?”

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‘Good work’ realized

A favorite topic among Advancement Associates colleagues is “good work.” What makes work “good”? We’re not sure of the exact answer, but agree it has something to do with using our skills and interests in collaborating with organizations that are making a positive difference for others.

Whatever the definition, we agree that the list of our recent, current and anticipated advancement projects reflects “good work,” and we are both appreciative and energized:

• Guiding capital campaigns for two retirement communities.
• Conducting donor research that will inform the updated strategic plan for an international relief organization.
• Leading a planning exercise and writing a strategic plan for a church camp.
• Presenting ideas for how the operating and foundation boards of a psychiatric center might work together in support of the advancement function.
• Mentoring an executive director of an agency that combats homelessness as she relates to major donors.
• Writing and helping with implementation of formal advancement plans for a church conference.
• Consulting with a private school about its priorities for enrollment and endowment growth.
• Assessing and recommending changes in communication approaches for a disaster relief agency.
• Mentoring young professionals in a mission organization who are new to fundraising.
• Leading a visioning retreat for a community nonprofit.
• Designing fundraising strategies for several retirement communities that wish to secure charitable gifts for benevolent care.

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4 keys to finding and keeping effective development directors

AAI E-news readers should take a close look at the Bell/Cornelius study featured in this issue. The research findings about the fundraising challenges faced by many nonprofit organizations are enlightening, interesting, helpful, concerning–and not surprising. In fact, the study directly reflects my own perceptions and experiences as a development officer over many years and an advancement consultant since 2002.

Some of our AAI clients came to mind when I reviewed the data about the difficulties many small nonprofits face in finding and keeping effective development directors; setting realistic fundraising expectations and goals; and involving organizational leaders in the development program. But I also thought of those who have successfully addressed the obstacles identified in the study, and are now reaping the benefits of strong stakeholder support.

Bell and Cornelius include a helpful list of recommendations at the conclusion of their report. Below I underline some of those suggestions and add several of my own.

1. Grow your own development officer. A number of years ago, I wrote an article that described how small nonprofit organizations should consider “growing their own” development officer, instead of just looking for someone already in the field. They can do this by paying more attention to the essential qualities a successful fundraiser must have, rather than be fixated on previous development experience. (Read the entire article under the “Resources” tab on the AAI website.)

This approach may lead to a candidate currently connected to your organization who has the potential to be a great fundraiser. Why? Because such a person already fits the culture of your organization, believes strongly in your mission, can build positive relationships with major donors, and is committed to a long tenure. As the Bell/Cornelius study found, those attributes are vital for success in fundraising.

2. Invest in your development director. Particularly if you have hired a fundraiser with little previous experience, provide adequate resources for professional development–consultation, mentoring, development conferences. Require a written advancement plan each year, read through it, ask useful questions, and use the plan for reference in annual evaluations.

3. Consider your chief fundraiser as a key organizational leader. The development director should report directly to the CEO and have a seat at the senior executive table. The director should be invited to present the annual advancement plan and give fundraising reports to the board at strategic times throughout the year. These arrangements promote realistic goal-setting and ensure that the “donor voice” is heard directly as major decisions are made.

4. Understand that development is a team effort. Yes, the development director is the team captain. But there are distinctive roles both the CEO and board must play in a successful fundraising program, particularly with major donors. Clarify these roles and responsibilities. Provide training so that everyone is prepared and comfortable. Finally, create the expectation that board and executive staff members will be regular givers themselves.

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Millennial fundraiser thrives in the Buckeye State

Bethany Nussbaum is the advancement director at Central Christian School in Kidron, OH. As Bethany is a Millennial thriving in the field of development, AAI asked about the route she took to find her role–and what excites her about the profession.

AAI: Tell us about your development experience thus far.

Bethany: I’m starting my eighth year in fundraising. After serving five years at Mennonite Mission Network (Elkhart, IN) as a development associate, I am now beginning my third year at Central Christian School as advancement director.

My focus is on fundraising and marketing. Our advancement team consists of a superintendent, business manager, enrollment director, and advancement assistant.

AAI: What attracted you to the development profession (as a young person)?

Bethany: After graduating from Goshen (IN) College in public relations, I knew that I wanted to work with people to promote a cause I believed in. At first I was uncertain about the profession of fundraising, but I felt a nudge to take the risk. It’s been an amazing journey that has blessed me beyond belief.

AAI: What do you enjoy about your development work?

Bethany: This profession has deepened relationships with my community in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I’ve had the chance to become friends with some of the most giving and talented people in the church who are committed to doing their part to raise new leaders.

AAI: Why do you think it’s rare for young adults to consider development work as a career?

Bethany: I really knew nothing about it myself when I was in college. But now I want to spread the word that it’s a dynamic profession—communications, marketing, public relations, fundraising—everything wrapped into one! Plus, there’s a great need for young people in this field. We should encourage young adults to consider development work at an earlier age, in order to keep the pipeline flowing with qualified, committed professionals.

AAI: What would you tell a young adult considering getting into the profession?

Bethany: It’s one of the most inspiring and challenging vocations you can find—and there’s such an opportunity for young people to step up and lead in this field. Working in development offers experiences in many activities, including business, marketing and ministry.

AAI: What attributes do you think an effective development officer should possess?

Bethany: Basic people skills. A love for the mission of the organization. The ability to connect an individual’s passions to an organization’s needs. Unapologetic boldness. Thick skin.

AAI: Thick skin?

Bethany: Yes, it takes persistence to get people to say “yes” in fundraising.

AAI: What challenges do you encounter in your work?

Bethany: The economy has been a challenge, but some results have been encouraging as well. When people have less to give, but still give at the same level—that’s inspiring. One of the greatest challenges has been juggling various hats in a small shop, where fundraising, marketing and alumni relations all fall under one office.

AAI: What are some of the major misconceptions about fundraisers?

Bethany: We can be seen as beggars—asking and scrounging for money. People don’t always see that we simply create opportunities for them to support great causes.

AAI: Why is it important for Millennials and Generation Xers to step up their giving habits over the next several decades?

Bethany: The reality is that most church agencies and organizations are facing a lopsided giving demographic in relation to age. Unless we simultaneously steward relationships with our current supporters and intentionally cultivate new relationships with younger generations, a good number of the organizations we love will not be sustainable.

It’s also important for Millennials to identify their passions and philanthropic interests early on. I see a lot of that happening now, which is encouraging. Additionally, educating our children about giving is the key to this discussion, and sometimes it’s overlooked. What are our families, churches and schools teaching our youth about stewardship and generosity? Are we teaching them about the joy and responsibility that givers experience?

AAI: How may nonprofits better connect with donors between the ages of 20 and 40?

Bethany: Excellent question. I’m 31 and still ask myself this question, as I have much room for improvement in this area at Central. As young adults, our preferences can change rapidly. It’s almost as if we play this “catch me if you can” game with organizations.

People appreciate being asked for their advice and opinions, and young adults are no different—you simply have to meet them where they’re at. Just become their friend. Once trust is established, you may find that financial support isn’t far behind.

AAI: Do you see fundraising as a long-term career?

Bethany: I feel fulfilled in my current position. I think it’s vital to have a board and staff that support your work and understand the fundraising cycle. Without colleagues providing encouragement and investing in one’s professional development, fundraising can end up a lonely field.

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Top 5 tips: Attracting millennial donors to your mission

By Ben Gerig, communication director

Millennial donors—adults between the ages of 20-35—aren’t as enigmatic as many development directors think. In fact, several studies indicate that we are a magnanimous lot—happy to be respectfully courted by nonprofits with a clear mission. Research shows an upward trajectory in millenials’ giving habits, making this the right time for nonprofits to engage this generation more effectively; following are five tips to help your organization do just that.

1. Invite a millennial to join your board, already!

Select a promising millennial who has the right attributes and has already contributed time, money and/or ideas to your nonprofit. Placing a young adult on your board helps increase your credibility with this demographic and indicates that you value millennials’ drive for professional development and are interested in actualizing our intrinsic leadership gifts.

A millennial board member will provide real-time, nuanced insights about how to better cultivate relationships with his or her peers. Lower the age barrier to entry for board members, and watch this person bridge generational communication gaps between staff, board members and your younger constituencies.

2. Go “old school” to tap millennial giving

This is especially true if your organization has yet to adopt online giving tools. The overriding message here: millennials hold tightly to time-honored values, most notably, trust. And what better way to cultivate this than by going old school? If you can effectively communicate this way, try sending millennials a personal donation request letter!

Our generation numbers more than 90 million, and a huge percentage of us are ready and willing to give to organizations who actively seek out (and will appreciate) our support. In a 2010 study of nearly 3,000 millennials, “93 percent gave financially to nonprofit organizations.” We are ripe for the picking, and we enjoy donating even when approached outside of the digital bubble.

3. Maintain a “mothership” website

While this may be a no-brainer, I’ve personally volunteered for nonprofits that are too distracted by the ever-evolving social media landscape to infuse enough professionalism and functionality into the most effective organizational marketing tool—their website!

According to Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates, nonprofit websites should provide users

• a unique, purposeful and concise mission,

• easy to use navigation,

• a clear call to action, and

• photos that help them show—not just tell—what they do.

Strategically choose two social media tools (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, blog, etc.) and use them to drive traffic to your website. Don’t overextend yourself in untargeted digital marketing forays; simply identify the channels that your communication team can implement, regularly maintain/monitor and then deploy them with a clear purpose in mind (i.e. increasing millennial interaction with your mission).

4. Celebrate online gifts par excellence!

Millennials who are committed to an organization’s cause will find a way to give; however, we tend to prefer donating online. According to the literature, entry level givers are more likely to offer gifts of $100 or less, but by acknowledging them in a more personalized fashion, you will respectfully motivate them to shimmy toward the upper end of millennial giving—$500 and above—and hopefully empower a connection for life.

By honoring their online gifts in the same ways you would thank upper echelon supporters (through personal letters, calls, appreciation events, visits, etc.), nonprofits can build more sustainable, long-term relationships with millennials as their income potential—and desire to give back—continues to rise.

5. Where is our dinero going?

Detail specifically how our gifts will help your nonprofit achieve its goals. Did you feed 522 extra people last Saturday? Send 12 more under-served youth on a wilderness trip in July? Teach 34 additional people sustainable farming techniques this year? Tell us about it and break it down—because we love transparency when following our dollars.

Millennials are more willing to give to new nonprofits if they speak to our hearts and inspire us in the moment. However, one of our biggest pet peeves is when organizations don’t describe how our contributions will directly benefit their mission.


In my survey of ten millennial donors (friends, colleagues, former classmates), 100 percent of the respondents were active nonprofit donors—typically supporting three to five different organizations, including human services, faith-based, and arts and culture nonprofits. Here are my most quotable findings:

  • “As a small donor, I often do not feel I get the recognition larger donors get. However, as a proportion of my disposable income, I probably donate more than these larger donors. As my income grows, so too (theoretically) will my donations. Organizations should really work to cultivate and welcome small donors as potential large donors in the future.”
  • “I pay the electric company extra each month to help heat the homes of people who can’t pay. I donate a percentage of each paycheck (biweekly) to the United Way. I contribute to nonprofits in the area by paying an annual membership fee that supports summer camps/children’s activities. Sometimes I volunteer at local food banks, etc. I prefer to donate my time rather than my money whenever possible because I like to participate in the process, but I also understand that these places need money to operate (plus with a full-time job I don’t have as much free time to offer). Overall, it’s important to think of others and to offer the time and money we can to support missions that aim to improve lives and communities and environments.”
  • “I am a huge fan of regular charitable giving. It is a way of giving back, and it reminds me that the purchasable things that I would like to have for myself really are secondary to my desire to make a positive contribution to the things that really matter in my community and my world. In this way, charitable giving helps me to reaffirm the kind of person I want to be.”


Works cited:



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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.