At bbcon 2015, some of the top minds in the nonprofit industry came together to present Big Idea sessions. These high-level discussions focused on key thought leadership topics and trends shaping the industry. In this npENGAGE blog series, top Big Idea presenters recap the topics they presented on so you can use their insight to build your next Big Idea.

On December 31st, 2015, the busiest day of the year for online fundraising, we had just one email queued up to go out from NTEN. We anticipated a good response, because even though we technically had just one email set to go out, it relied on ten or so variables to create custom content for each recipient—from giving history to membership status and even conference registration.

Messages sent earlier in the year-end fundraising campaign similarly relied on a dynamic set of variables to ensure that NTEN’s supporters received messages based on who they are, and how they participated in the community. Technology facilitates smarter messaging, smarter asks, and more personalized experiences with our organization. But NTEN is certainly not the only organization leveraging advances in technology to make fundraising a donor-centric process.

There are a number of shifts taking place throughout the nonprofit sector, in organizations of all sizes and missions, which serve as indicators of this accelerated change.


First, let’s talk about data. To do so, let’s use an example that isn’t about technology at all: an annual gala. Many organizations hold large fundraising events offline where community members, leaders, board members, and donors are all gathered together in one room. Seeing each other is critical for success.

Board members and staff may be mingling and even making personal asks with individuals. Silent auctions let supporters see how much others are offering, and encourages a bit of competition for a good cause. The paddle raise (oh, the paddle raise!) combines the ask with the peer pressure.

Now, what if we turned out the lights and the entire gala was in the dark? Some people may give—just to keep the lights on! Many, though, wouldn’t feel the connection, the pressure, or the personal touch necessary to make a donation.

When we move to online fundraising, if we aren’t capturing and using data well, we are effectively fundraising in the dark.

Data supports us first in planning for fundraising campaigns. With a rich and complete view of both our constituents and our outreach, we can set realistic goals, evaluate past outreach for trends and success, and identify targets in the pipeline as new potential donors.

In campaign implementation, capturing and using data also allows us to create the same dynamics as the offline gala. We can make personal and meaningful asks if we use our constituent data to help us segment our list based on actions and previous contributions. Plus, don’t forget that non-donation engagement history is critical for fundraising appeals – if I already signed your pledge and came to your event, I want to be thanked and recognized for doing so before you ask me to give. It can also help us add peer pressure by bringing in real-time stats so individuals see how others are already contributing. Think beyond the fundraising progress thermometer, though, and consider live donation lists on the website or social media messages of thanks from staff, board members, and community leaders.

Using data well to make personal asks and bring individuals together to see the campaign moving in real-time moves the donor to the center of the campaign, not you. If we don’t really know who we are talking to and we send out blanket asks, we have no other message to share than one about us, the organization. Personalizing messages based on activity, interests, and behavior lets us transform a generic message about the organization to one about each donor, their contribution to our mission, and our collective impact.


Taking advantage of all that data and creating truly personal messages can be a lot of work. In order to keep your focus on the most valuable tasks, you need to rely on automation to take on those tasks where your time and attention aren’t well spent. I like to think of this as letting the robots do their work so staff can do theirs.

The possibilities with automation may feel either too complex or too overwhelming, so let’s start with prioritizing efficiency. What do you have to do every day or even every time someone donates? That action is probably a great one to be handed over to the robots!

These actions are often administrative messages like donation transaction receipts or subscriber confirmations. You don’t want to set these messages up and forget about them, of course; but if they can get sent out on their own then the better.

Automation isn’t limited to database messages out to donors. Organizations focused on the personal touch for donors are using automated notifications to alert staff or board to critical actions. For example, in your organization, a major gift may be one that is $500 or more. If someone makes a donation of that size, a board member receives an email notification and then can email or call the donor with an immediate and personal thank you.

We know that first-time donors need a different kind of follow up than those who give regularly. An automated welcome series can move messages and outreach off your plate while maintaining the donor experience you want to provide. Set up messages to be triggered over a series of days and weeks after a new donor contributes to thank them, introduce your programs and services, and invite them into your community with other non-financial actions.


Technology is a critical component of successfully transitioning to donor-centric fundraising. As much as we may think technology is about the latest device, trending smart phone app, or social media platform, technology is really about people. As a team or organization, you will not be able to adopt a donor-focused model if you haven’t invested first in your staff.

All of the data in the world is worthless if we aren’t looking at it, if it isn’t in a format that we can use it to inform our decisions and strategies, and if we aren’t sure what any of it means. Likewise, automation of messages, notifications, and reporting only saves you time when you’ve invested time to make the messages relevant, the notifications valuable, and the reporting readable. Before we focus on the donor, we need to focus on our staff.

Training can’t be reserved for the first week on the job. Training on the specific tools, learning from sector best practices, and evaluation of what is working and what isn’t in your own campaigns all need to be a part of ongoing operations.

Before you focus on the next technology trend, be sure that your staff have the knowledge and training to make the ask, the process, and the experience all about the donors.



Amy is dedicated to educating and supporting organizations in using technology to create meaningful community engagement and make lasting change. Whether it is by connecting individuals, organizations, campaigns, or possibilities, Amy hopes to facilitate the nonprofit technology sector transitioning into a movement-based force for positive change.

In addition to serving as NTEN’s CEO, she is a speaker, author, and trainer having worked with groups and spoken at events around the world. In 2013, she co-authored Social Change Anytime Everywhere: How to implement online multichannel strategies to spark advocacy, raise money, and engage your community with Allyson Kapin. She previously co-authored Social by Social, a handbook in using social technologies for social impact, and has contributed to various other publications about social change and technology.

After opportunities to live and travel around the US and beyond, she is happy to be back in her native state of Oregon. Offline, Amy is hiking, biking, or exploring with her husband and dog, with a preference for Oregon’s coast or wine country.

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