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Penelope Burk is the fundraising market’s foremost authority on fundraising research, training and strategic planning. Burk’s research into donor relationships is the considered the most important innovation in fundraising today.  Her book is Donor Centered Fundraising.  Although, not exactly a catchy title, Burk’s research into donors is perfect advise for anyone in professional services and business.  Last week, before I went on vacation, I was invited as  a Board member at Harvest Food and Outreach Center to attend Burk’s seminar.

Burk’s 6 years of research on donor communications found that direct communication with the donor is the most important activity for any fundraising professional.  These are some of the points Penelope made in her seminar:

  1. All communication must be personal, prompt and only occasionally to ask for funds.
  2. A prompt response for large donors is best within 48 hours after donation. Preferably a personal call.  No longer than 45 seconds.
  3. Handwritten letters are almost always the best option if you know the donor personally.
  4. Details… details… details….nothing irritates a donor more than failure to get the name right. Some charities have sent thank you notes to husband when it was the wife that donated.
  5. Letters must capture the reader in the first line – 15 words. Use strong, relevant headlines.
  6. If not handwritten, make the donor feel like it was written for them only.
  7. Keep letters to 1-2 paragraphs.
  8. Keep coming up with original letters that allows your personality to shine through. Be interesting and have interesting hobbies to talk to the donor about.
  9. Use “beautiful” paper not the standard stuff from the laser printer.
  10. Explain exactly what the funds were or will be used for.
  11. Include contact information of who to contact and how.
  12. Future of all donor communications is intelligent phones: learn to communicate in 15 words or less!  Enough to maintain their attention
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You’ve all heard that fable of the wind and the sun wagering which one could get the traveler to remove his coat. The wind blows and blows faster and stronger, and the traveler holds on even tighter to his coat. Then the sun bursts forwards and the traveler gladly strips off his coat. 🙂

Moral of the story: “As you can see it is easier to influence people with gentleness than with force.”

On Wednesday, I was invited by the non-profit I’m on the board at to listen to a star in the fundraising word, Penelope Burk.  Ms. Burk has spent years since her active fundraising days testing, interviewing and collecting massive amounts of data in North America about fundraising – what works and why.  What she taught me applies perfectly to lawyers.

I will break down some of Penelope’s wisdom and hard data into a few points directly relevant to anyone who is marketing themselves or a small firm. The overall theme never changes but it seems we have to hear it over and over again in different contexts to keep remembering it:

Over soliciting your donor (client) will work once.  As a long term strategy it is the most certain path to failure. The most cost effective ROI is communicating with the client often without asking for money (offering services), building trust so that when you ask (or offer) it’s welcomed.

It remains a mystery why we need Penelope’s hard data and hundreds of interviews to tell us something we essentially already know. Aren’t we all consumers too? I guess we need to be shown with objective data what the results of spam, endless service announcements and oh yes…the infamous “look what I did recently newsletters”.  🙂

Yet, many professionals will panic and fall victim (can I say victim if it’s totally conscious), to this tactic.  They will crash into the rocks with the sweet siren sounds of impressive short-term revenue, from aggressive and impersonal marketing campaigns. Given the fable above, could we call  this between us as passing wind??  Bloated windiness will cost more and more, and one can guarantee a decreasing return on investment, year in year out, from the increased attrition of clients.

Monday I will break down some of Penelope’s work with philanthropy and how it applies to ALL professionals.  Have a great weekend.

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