What I Learned at #AFPFC 2017

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), of which I am a member and President of the Las Vegas chapter, hosted its annual International Conference on Fundraising this week in San Francisco.  It was a long and powerful three days, full of inspiration, great insight and comparing notes with some of the smartest, finest people in the industry today.  I’ll be honest – it didn’t light me up like previous years have.  It was a little flat and didn’t pack as much depth as I’ve seen before, but it is always, always time well spent and you do come back feeling like you’ve been on the mountain and had a chance to recharge your fundraising batteries.

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So, my top takeaways:

1) Fundraisers are the kindest, warmest, most lovely people on the planet.

Everywhere I went people were smiling, talking, engaging with each other – introducing themselves and shaking hands and hugging.  Walking around on the streets near the conference center, everyone was open to conversation and willing and interested in talking.  The energy was high and the love was flowing.

2) There is a movement afoot and we’re ready for change.

There was an undercurrent, both from the stage and in the seats, that we, the fundraisers, aren’t just blindly accepting status quo anymore.  Maybe the donor retention message is finally getting through or maybe we’re ready to claim our space, but more-and-more you hear “This isn’t working, we need to do better.”

3) That said, we’re still talking about the same stuff.

We are still talking about:  how to find more donors, how to keep more donors, how to get more donors to give more.  There were a couple of times that I wanted to stand up and scream, “WE KNOW HOW TO DO THIS!!!”  Sure, there were a LOT of first-timers this year – and that’s GREAT!  Whole troves of college students coming to learn about fundraising . . . but there were a lot of people, too, who are seasoned development professionals drinking from the same fire hose. Why are we still having the same conversations?

4) We need more mentors and leaders on a one-on-one level.

Nobody has time; everybody’s busy.  But we make time for the things that we believe in and are important to us – somehow we find the time.  If we want the profession to advance, if we want to lead change, we have to make the time to mentor and be mentored.

5) You can’t live on the mountaintop.

Theory is great, but the practical day-to-day doesn’t always live up to theory and best practice.  We all have limitations – Executive Directors who MUST read every letter, Boards who aren’t interested in fundraising, co-workers who just will NOT update the CRM.  Our jobs are, more often than not, to create phenomenal, donor-centered experiences in spite of the limitations.  And implement the best practices we can.

6) Speaking of Best Practices – Get Rid of ‘Em.

Some of the best nuggets of info & inspiration can be found in the Rebels, Renegades & Pioneers track.  Simone Joyeaux dropped this little bomb during one of them and if I take nothing from this conference but this, I’ll consider it time and money well spent:

  • Follow the valid research
  • Do away with best practice
  • Always ask why
  • Be a critical thinker

Then she grabbed me by the lapels and blasted, “I HATE THE PHRASE ANNUAL FUND.”  I blacked out after that, don’t remember a thing. #FanBoy

Point is – stop doing things because it’s the way we’ve always done it or that’s the ‘best practice.’ If we stuck with best practice we’d still be fundraising off of 3×5 cards.

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7) Stop Fund Raising

Raising funds is transactional, singular and financial-based.  Develop relationships.  Develop boards.  Develop institutions.  Develop capacity.  All of which have a side benefit of bringing in the revenue needed to do those things, but stop fundraising.  We’re bigger than that.

8) Always Be Sure Your Tech is Functioning Order

My phone died halfway through day 1.  Not died as in had no power, but died as in:

This iPhone is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! Its metabolic processes are now history! It’s off the twig! It’s kicked the bucket, it’s shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX iPHONE!!

(With deep, deep apologies to Monty Python).  It was acting up, I thought it would hang on.  It didn’t.  I lost a lot of pictures, a whole bunch of texts and missed a whole session.

9) Data Remains An Opportunity

I was, truly, honored to be chosen to present a session and even more honored that people actually came! “Data Got You Down? Simplifying Donor-Centered Data Analysis for the Data Allergic.”  Phenomenally smart questions during and after the session, but even the other sessions I went to point out that we really have an opportunity to improve how we use data, what we do with it and being far more strategic about how we implement information in our fundraising.  You can tell the greatest story in the world, but if you’re telling it to the wrong people, you won’t get very far.

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10) Diversity and Inclusion 

There seemed to be a stronger focus on Diversity and Inclusion and the strengths of our differences was evident.  AFP Las Vegas is very proud to have received the Friends of Diversity designation, but I was even more encouraged by visibility at the conference and the acknowledgement that only in celebrating our differences – as people, as nonprofits, in our experiences – do we truly gain equity.

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To Sum Up:

At the end of the day, the biggest takeaway is the connections with people – with other professionals who are in the same trenches, fighting the same battle and doing phenomenal good.  We feed each other and uplift one another when we’re together.  And that is what I’m most grateful for.   Go do good, wonderful, powerful things!

P.S. My favorite fundraising message of the week?  This:

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Rant on Retention

I like to think that professionals in all fields get together and rant and complain about their profession.  I have to believe that there are forums for pipe fitters and physician’s assistants and marketers to get together and go, “They’re hiring people with no experience as experts! Nobody takes the profession seriously!  These CEOs think they can hire somebody with Fundraising experience and that’s as good as 25+ years in Marketing!”  Grumble grumble, rant rant, etc.

Because it can’t just be us.  Can it?

And every other rant lately is about Donor Retention.  It’s the most significant problem facing the profession today.

I agree.  It is.  Based on the data and reports we’ve all seen.

But . . . .

BUT . . . . . . .

First – can we just stop beating each other up?  Please?  “The worst fundraising mistake you can make!” OR “Fundraisers aren’t paying attention to the fundamentals!” or any other number of alarming headlines.

There’s a lot of fundraisers doing really great work, making great relationships and helping find the funding to tackle some of society’s toughest issues.  Should they be paying a little closer attention to their retention rates?  Sure.  But let’s praise what they ARE doing.

And just because a development officer is not measuring specific retention rate, doesn’t mean that they’re not conducting great donor stewardship, wonderful relationships and hitting goals.

Objection:  If development officers are doing great stewardship, why are renewal rates across the industry so low?!?

Me:  I haven’t seen the actual data those reports come from, but I do think they’re approached with pretty broad brushstrokes.

Second – some donors aren’t MEANT to be retained.  And most CRMs and reporting tools just take a straight, one-shot look at it on a year-to-year basis.  I have yet to see a report that said, “Retention rate was 47% for annual fund donors.”  Maybe there was a whole lot of campaign giving or specific project funding that went on last year and those donors very specifically gave a stretch gift and that CDO is already working the next gift for five years from now.  Some gifts, some giving just ISN’T multi-year.

Is a fundraiser a failure because they didn’t renew their capital campaign donors?  They are if you take a one-shot approach to measuring retention.

Third – and most important – measuring retention is not as straightforward as it seems.  The CRM that I use is possibly the #1 or #2 most popular.  It does not have an extant donor retention report, but recommends you compare the results of a query of last year’s donors to this year’s.  Just compare the counts in each query and you’ve got it.  Indeed, the instructions for this do not factor the fund/allocation of the gift – JUST the year it was given.

Another way to do it is to export the data into Excel and run a VLOOKUP (after pivot tables, the fundraiser’s most useful analysis tool, but I digress).  VLOOKUP will compare Unique IDs (or names or other fields) between two worksheets.

Hang on . . . . first is the time, here.  I’m pretty decent with Excel, but that takes me about an hour or so to do.  And so many shops don’t have a dba or analyst to run these kinds of reports, or the Excel skills to do it.

“But if you knew your retention rate and focused on retention, you wouldn’t have to work so hard acquiring new donors.”  True.  That’s truth.

But . . . let’s look at an example from real life (true story – names changed):

– In 2014, Jack Spratt made a personal $1,000 introductory gift, God love him;
– After some extended cultivation, Jack made an additional $10,000 gift from his family foundation, later in 2014;
– In early 2015, Jack’s wife Eileen leveraged a $5,000 gift from her company restricted to a specific program
– Later in 2015, Jack renewed his $10,000 and made it through a donor advised fund
– Eileen did not renew her $5,000; Jack, however, increased their support to $20,000 which he made through a mixture of soft-credit from a corporate gift and a gift from a different source . . . . .

Guess who doesn’t show up in a retention report?  Jack and Eileen, because they change the source every year and Accounting requires gift entry to be tied to the actual source of the gift and soft-credited to the donor.  Every year they look like new donors and would get “lost” in a direct unique identifier comparison.  But guess who was also the subject of intense stewardship and cultivation – isn’t that focusing on retention, too?

Unless the retention report recognizes soft-crediting OR the query/export combination you use appropriately designates soft-credited gifts to the donor . . .

Does this account for a lot of gifts?  No, not on the overall whole.  But I’ve seen situations like this be 5% – 6% of a database, so it has an impact.  And I’ve seen it – a lot – at lower levels.  One year one person in a household gives, the next it’s the spouse who writes the check.  (And householding (how a database looks at individuals in the same household, i.e. spouses, domestic partnerships, etc. ) is a massive problem in fundraising CRMs – that’s a whole other blog post.)

The point?  Donor Retention is incredibly important and we should be doing everything possible to hold on to the donors we have.  We DO need our Boards and Leadership to understand that keeping a donor is a far, far better investment than seeking new ones.  And, yes, that is our job to tell them.  More importantly, it’s our job to show them.

 

What we’re really saying is, “We – as a fundraising industry – NEED to take better care of our donors.  We need to thank them more, get our arms around them more and treat their giving with the respect and care and awe that it deserves.”  Like all things, if we focus on the metric and not the action, we miss the point.

So, yes, absolutely – focus on donor retention.  But spend less time tracking the number and more time loving on donors.

Why Data Like a Lab – It Just Wants to Make You Happy

We had to take a tough break from blogging for a little while.  We lost one of the Buck-White Boys on February 15.  The original Buck-White Boy, the lab by which all others will be measured and the Dog That Started It All.  Tucker.

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Tucker was the best.  He was the best part of a Pet Partners  Animal Assisted Therapy team.  One of the sweetest, kindest, most joyful animals you would ever want to know and he took a huge part of our hearts with him.

On his therapy visits, Tucker didn’t do well sitting still – he did better in situations where he could go from room to room and visit with people.  He’d turn a corner and walk into a hospital room, where someone would be desperately ill, and the whole room would just light up. He’d smile and wag and soon everybody was smiling and wagging.

He just wanted people to be happy.

That’s labs, man.  They just want everyone to be happy.

Now, I’m not going to anthropomorphize data so much that I’m going to compare it to a therapy dog, but . . . your data pretty much just wants you to be happy.

Data doesn’t want to be difficult, it doesn’t want to be messy and complicated and tough to deal with.  It just wants you to be happy.

Your fundraising data is the single greatest tool you have – well, other than your rock star personality, amazing charm, superior intellect and dashingly good looks.  Without good data, all of that goes to waste because, without information, who are you sharing all of that awesomeness with?

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Clean, structured, secure data makes your job 1,000 times easier.  If you don’t have to worry about your data, you can spend your time loving on donors.

That’s what I mean by your data wants you to be happy – it wants you out there changing the world, not sitting in the office crunching data sets or cleaning up salutations.

We were fortunate to get Tucker as a nine-week-old puppy and we invested a lot in his training and development.

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The older he got, the fewer bad habits he had and we could always revert back to that training to remind him what good behavior was.  He ultimately passed the AKC’s Canine Good Citizens Test.

Invest in training your data, keeping it clean and up-to-date and don’t let the bad habits accumulate – that’s a happy database.  And a happy database = a happy and successful fundraiser.

 

 

 

At Home in the Annual Fund

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C’mon, sing with me now, “Our house.  In the middle of the street.  Our house . . . ”  Or we could have gone with, “Our house is a very, very, very fine house . . . ”  This is a multi-sensory blog; great info and musical ear-worms.  You’re welcome.

If you don’t know Helen Brown, I’d encourage you to get to know her.  Really a leader in the world of Prospect Research, super smart, writes a great blog and a couple of months ago had a mic drop moment with “Why wealth screenings – and prospect researchers – are so reliant on real estate.”

Go read it; I’ll wait.

Right?  Wasn’t that good?  She’s so on point.  My favorite bit:

You may be right, you may be wrong, but at least it’s something to go on in this business where we’re all operating on uncertainty, every single day. We attach ratings to and hang our hopes and our cultivation strategies on people who may or may not support our organizations. It’s a guessing game to which we apply the most solid things we can to a sea of uncertainty.

The rating is a just starting point anyway.

Preach, sister.

I reached out to Helen and got her blessing to riff on this a little bit.  I love prospect research.  I think it’s one of the coolest things in our arsenal, but it’s certainly not my forte.  Nor is it the end-all, be-all panacea of solving all our fundraising issues.  Research and predictive modeling take the guessing game out of the equation and turn a shotgun approach into a laser focus.

The Rating Is Just a Starting Point Anyway

Folks, there’s no certainty in Fundraising.  OK, there’s one – nonprofit organizations will always need  to do it.  Other than that, anything’s possible.  Every technique, best practice and sacred cow is just there to help reduce some of the variables.

That’s what prospect research does.  Especially in higher-end major gift work.

But we don’t often use it in the Annual Fund, especially in segmentation.  Why?  Because usually all we have is real estate.

If you’ve done a screening of a whole bunch of names – 300 or 300,000, doesn’t matter – you skim off the top tier, those with the highest ratings.  Funnel them into Major Gift portfolios for next steps – identification, cultivation, etc.

SOAPBOX MOMENT:  Major Gift folks, please, when you’re done with your identification/qualification process, pretty please release those unqualifieds back into the Annual Fund pool so we can get ’em solicited and not let them stagnate.  We all know you can’t manage a portfolio of 500+ prospects, even though you’re a Fundraising Rock Star.  #pleaseandthankyou

Typically what you’re left with is a whole mess of mid-range prospects and donors that have one piece of data from public information – real estate. (And then a whole lot more that have no publicly available data at all).

Sometimes Some is Enough

To Helen’s point – it’s something.  It’s something we now know about this individual.  We have an idea of what they’re like because we know what real estate they’ve purchased.

Does it tell us what to ask them?  No.

Does it tell us what their capacity is?  No. (Although you can surmise a capacity based on real estate, there’s no way to tell what their debt-to-income ratio is).

Does it give us a clue on response?  Possibly.

In a direct response acquisition or renewal campaign, prospects with real estate can out-perform those with no rating at all.  Most likely in average gift vs participation.  There have been many tests and programs that have shown that those with higher real estate values tend to give a higher level gift than those without it, especially when you’re using an ask string.

Because it’s something.  It’s something that says, “Hey, there’s some capacity here.”  And sometimes some is enough to make a difference.

As Helen said, “We can use it to form well-educated guesses.”

It’s worth testing.  It’s worth the investment of having, and using, that data – at all levels.

It’s worth not dismissing just because “it’s just real estate.”  If you’ve got nothing else, it’s at least something to help an educated guess.

Donor-Centered or Data-Driven

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Google “Fundraising Buzzwords” or “Nonprofit Buzzwords” and you’ll get a whole list of the phrases we like to kick around the industry.  Fortunately, “Donor-Centered” is one that’s stuck around for quite some time.

Data-Driven seems to be losing some of its popularity.  “Big Data” is taking on different connotations (really, Big Data refers to databases so large that most computers can’t process them – most of us aren’t really working with true Big Data, no matter how large our database is).

But you can’t be donor centered AND data driven.

At least, that’s the common misconception.  We tend to think of these two things as being different parts of the brain – left-brain/right-brain, science/art, emotional/rational.

How many DODs or MGOs do you hear say, “I’m just not a data person!” Or, “I can’t even deal with that – it sounds so boring, I’d rather talk to people!” Or “What’s my password for Raiser’s Edge?”

So, what is data?

This one’s the best.  From www.mathisfun.com

What is Data?

Data is a collection of facts, such as numbers, words, measurements, observations or even just descriptions of things.

“Or even just descriptions of things.”

At its very basic level, data is simply another word for “information.”

So, data-driven means “Guided by Information.”

Think of a donor, one you know well.  Don’t look at your CRM.  What do you know about them?  Or think of a group, a segment, a subset, something – what do you know about them?

You just conjured up a whole bunch of information – kid’s names, home address, giving status (Current, Lapsed, LYBUNT, etc.).

Data – information – can also be very unconscious.  You’re not thinking about it right now, but when I say Your Birthday, the date immediately pops to mind.  Or if I say, “Your Mother’s maiden name,” boom, there it is.

We’re processing data all the time, without even thinking about it.

When we’re truly being donor-centered – stewarding their gift, cultivating them, listening to them – we’re processing a lot of information about them.

Being Donor-Centered means putting the needs of the donor at the forefront of our relationship.  In order to do that, we need to know what their needs are – we need to know who they are.  And, of course, we can’t do that without information.

Even simple information – data – helps get us there.  Spouse name, kids names, their job, their last gift, who they’re connected.  That’s all data is and most of us are just carrying that around in our heads all day.

Donor-Centered and Data-Driven are two sides of the same coin.  Can’t have one without the other.

Just, please, for the love of all things, get that data into the CRM.

 

How to make (Fundraising) Data Fun

I was inspired this week by a colleague, a very talented and smart fundraiser, who was talking about some of the challeng . . . er, opportunities . . . we’re both facing and she says, “How do I make data fun?  How do I get my data person to get INTO it and really WANT to dig in, get it right and find joy in it?

And I thought . . . .

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Because you can talk about the HOW until the cows come home, but if we don’t have the WHY and we don’t find some joy in it, it won’t get done.

So, here goes . . . how do we Make Fundraising Data Fun:

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Admit that Data is (probably) your Single Biggest Opportunity

Data quality and usage have a larger impact on our fundraising outcomes than anything else.  Seriously.  If we don’t have correct addresses or phone numbers or emails, we can’t contact donors or prospects.  If we don’t have visit/call notes or prospecting information, we can’t carry the relationship forward as effectively.  If we don’t enter the gift information, we can’t track results or donor intent.

Take a good, hard assessment on your data and systems – are you getting what you want out of them?  Are they working for you?  Is your reporting accurate and helpful?  Do you feel confident going into a donor conversation?  Are you books balancing?

The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.  And let’s use the phrase “Data” to mean not only the individual points of information, but your whole infrastructure – reporting, data entry, list management, all of it.  Is it what you want and need it to be?  Is it supporting you or is it a chore?  Invest in a SWOT Analysis on your whole data construct and if it falls short, own that you have an issue.

And hold everyone accountable for their role in managing and using data.

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Make it a Part of the Culture

Forgive this soapbox moment, but we are way past the point in the industry where anybody in the shop can have a negative or lackadaisical attitude towards data.  And this includes the Chief Development Officer or VP or whoever is in charge of the department.

If there is anybody that’s part of the team who says, “I don’t deal with data, I don’t like data, I just don’t understand it” that’s a big clue to whomever is in charge of it that it’s not  a high priority and it’s not valued.  They don’t need to the key data expert, but they do need to understand it and appreciate it.  And understand the constructs and limitations of the system so that they can better manage it.

Everyone has responsibility for data hygiene, for note taking, for accuracy and for comprehension.  Everybody needs to understand what’s in the data, what it shows, how to use it and some basic level access to it.  And that means in reporting, too.  Are your reports valued?  Are they discussed and praised and reviewed?  Or are they just a rote practice some somebody spend a lot of time and energy on, but nobody really reads or uses.

Make data something everybody talks about, works to understand, uses and values.

Treat it like a Great Big Puzzlepuzzle2

This is the only way I know how to make it fun.  Data analysis does not come naturally to me; when I first started, I didn’t enjoy it, it was a chore and it was boring.  Hence the “reluctant” in the “Reluctant Data Geek” title.

But if you treat it like a puzzle, a mystery to be solved rather than a chore, it becomes a lot more interesting to a lot more people.

Don’t you want to know who your longest lapsed donors are?  Do you want to find out how many donors renewed?

It’s like a great, big Choose Your Own Adventure story.  Make it a game and keep the end goal in sight, not the steps you have to take to get there.  It’s the mindset of “I’m going to spend the next half hour ensuring I take care of my donors by entering what we discussed at lunch today” rather than “Gaaah, I’ve got to sit down and do all my notes in the CRM because the boss makes me.”  It’s “I’m going to try to find any donors that haven’t renewed this fiscal year” rather than “Yawn, I’ve got to spend the next 2 hours building complex data queries.”

Get Rid of the Fearkeep-calm-and-data-on-26

You can’t break your CRM, you can’t break your data, there is very little that you can actually do that is irreparable or catastrophically damaging.  (Assuming that you know not to hit the ‘save’ button if you do accidentally change some data.)

Unless you’re using Excel as CRM, in which case, I’m sorry.  Godspeed.  (Really, invest in a CRM – you’re losing money if you haven’t).

Get. Over. It.  Seriously.  Get in and start digging around, sign up for training with your CRM provider. (Side note: I wish every CRM developer in the world would stop this “self help” model with videos and FAQs and all that and give us free, person-to-person training.  More than any other field, data/CRM training really needs to cater to different styles of learning.  I’m a physical learner; webinars do me no good.)  Even so, if you’re completely lost on how to use your system, call your provider and tell them you need some individual training – just enough to get you going and used to it.  Do anything you can do to start getting familiar with your data and your system.

The best thing you can do is log in and start poking at it – “Hey, what does this button do?!?”  I promise you, even if you do manage to break it, it can be fixed.

Invest the Time

You don’t have time NOT to be invested in making your data fun.  Truly.  If it is, indeed, one of your biggest opportunities, invest the time for you and your team to really get it down.  Tell yourself, “I’m going to set aside 30 minutes this week and do nothing but getting familiar with data.”  Order a team pizza and everybody gather together and work on it.  Whatever route you choose, invest in learning something new about your data regularly. Take a free online Excel class – or YouTube video.

Make the time sacrosanct and see it as an investment in your opportunity.

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There are some people who love vegetables.  Others who hate them.  But, nutritional science tells us vegetables are great for us and we should eat more of them.

Data’s the same way.  But what we do know is we won’t be healthy without consuming more vegetables.  And we won’t be as effective in our fundraising if we don’t pay some attention to our data.