Jolene Miklas, Associate Creative Director  ●  9/23/2020

What 6 Nonprofit Pros Wish They Knew: How to Stay Ahead of the Curve

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If you’ve never worked for a nonprofit, then you might not understand.

  • You might not know what it’s like to work straight through the night, knowing your vision and hard work will help someone who’s hurting …
  • You might not know the feeling of finding your tribe among like-minded colleagues, volunteers, and donors — and forming friendships that long outlast your professional title …
  • And you probably couldn’t know the satisfaction of lugging the trash to the dumpster — in your ball gown or tux — at the end of a successful gala!

For better or for worse, most people haven’t experienced the highs and lows of nonprofit life. Those of us who have wouldn’t trade our experiences for anything!

Today, I’m grateful that my love of charity work brought me to the agency side, serving nonprofit clients at TrueSense Marketing. I only wish I’d known THEN what I know NOW.

Here, we’re steeped in donor marketing expertise, data, and new insights. I wish I could go back in time and put it all to use for the charities I served!

I recently spoke with some of my colleagues, each a nonprofit veteran, about this. I asked:

What do you wish you’d known when you worked at a nonprofit?

Account Director Carly Thalmann says she sees now that when she worked for a nonprofit, there were often too many cooks in the kitchen.

“On the agency side, fundraising strategy is rooted in data and what we’ve learned through rigorous testing,” Carly says. “In the nonprofit world, it’s easy to keep involving more and more people in your approvals process. But there is a science behind fundraising language and design. Too many preferences can dilute proven tactics.”

Elyse Haines, Marketing Director, agrees. She raised funds for a university, where the donor marketing focused on things the internal team found exciting, like new student programs and ribbon cuttings. “Our donor marketing was not about the donor,” Elyse says. “Knowing what I know now about how to build strong donor relationships, I would place a greater emphasis on reminding alumni about their experience at the university, and how their generosity would make their experience accessible to a new generation.”

Elyse and Carly’s hindsight reminded me of one of the low points in my nonprofit days. I was thrilled when I got to redesign a donor newsletter. It was black and white, and, in my opinion, it looked too old-fashioned. I worked with a graphic designer to modernize the newsletter and print it in our brand colors. My boss and Board loved it! But imagine my dismay when a top donor told me she’d always loved reading our newsletters cover-to-cover, but she couldn’t read the new issue. As she’d gotten older, her eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, and she couldn’t see the new color design well. What good is a sleek donor newsletter if your oldest (and often best) donors can’t read it? An agency partner would have helped me design a piece for my donor audience, not my internal audience.

Jacqui Groseth, Vice President of Client Development, has a unique perspective, having gone from the agency to the nonprofit side and back. She says, “Knowing how an agency worked made me a much better client. Understanding the impact of missing approval deadlines or sending less-than-clean data was eye opening. Learning what drives up printing costs and recognizing the importance of balancing response rate, average gift, AND cost per package matters. An additional penny per package can be a BIG deal.”

Here are a few more lessons my colleagues shared:

“My charity was very proud of our accomplishments. Our donor marketing focused heavily on statistics like ‘X tons of litter and debris removed.’ But now I know that it would have been more compelling and effective to share stories about the communities and waterways that were improved because of our work.”
Melissa Rohm, Copyediting Team Supervisor

“I wish I had known more about the tactics that can drive response rate. Often times we fell into tactics like bounceback cards, not knowing kind of impact they could have on response rate. They were always used for some other reason. Knowing what I know now, I would more strongly advocate for those components for the sake of increasing response.”
Chris Burnikel, Account Manager

“It’s very hard to prioritize testing when you work for a nonprofit, with shoestring budgets and Boards of Directors keeping you accountable for every penny. With the experience I have today, I would have made a case for investing in testing. Our donor marketing and our results were stale, because we were too afraid to try something new.”
Elyse Haines, Marketing Director

So how can a nonprofit professional stay ahead of the curve? Here are 3 ways:

  1. Attend conferences. Industry experts are still gathering online and offering the most up-to-date information on best practices and donor behavior. I remember the first time I attended a conference and spent a whole session dissecting remit forms. Up to that point, I’d had no idea how slight changes to a donation form could dramatically impact revenue.
  2. Read fundraising blogs. You can subscribe to free, regular insights from Heroic Fundraising, The Ringer (our Salvation Army blog), The Nonprofit Alliance, Future Fundraising Now, and many others. 
  3. And of course, you can find an agency partner that’s right for you. At TrueSense, we understand your passion for changing the world. We’re here to help you find the donors who want to join you!

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