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When guests see 12 microphones in a row at an event, they cringe and look for the exit!

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.

Burk’s 6 year intensive research into donors, including fundraising events, is analogous to the many conferences lawyers host for clients. These are some of Burk’s guidelines from her seminar last week:

  1. Getting invited: The most important effect on a donor of receiving an invitation to a fundraising event is getting invited. No matter how many they are invited to, they still appreciate being invited.
  2. Few Speakers: The best donors are invited to so many events, they know more about what an event will be like than most professionals organizing them. When they see a long table with a row of microphones they run.  They don’t want to listen to 12 speakers.  Experience tells them it will be long and tiresome.
  3. Choose speakers carefully: On the subject of speakers, donors consistently respond that people who cannot speak should not. Too often because of leadership positions in an organization, people who can’t speak publicly do and the results are obvious – less donors.
  4. Too long; too late: Fundraising events should be short, about an hour max.  The earlier the better. Breakfast meetings are the most popular because they present few conflicts.
  5. Donors are people too: Even though some donors may have many friends and contacts, they dread going to events and being left alone. At many events, donors are left alone while staff is grouped together chatting away. Greet them personally and never leave them alone. Introduce them to other guests and don’t miss talking to any of the donors.
  6. Treat donors as if they were guests at your house: introduce your donor guests to each other and to influential leader volunteers of your organization. Sit them at tables with compatible people that they can talk to.

Seems common sense when someone else does the research and presents it so simply.  It’s not that we don’t know; it’s that we forget and someone needs to reminds us.  Thanks, Penelope.

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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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