A few days ago, I spoke to a person who was interested in helping a nonprofit organization raise funds. As far as I could tell, he did not have any fundraising background; he was a matchmaker, linking nonprofit organizations with resources. He quickly told me that he had no interest in direct mail as it was totally irrelevant in 2015.

I bit back a world of arguments; yes, online donations are rising, but direct mail is still doing the heavy lifting in terms of direct response income. Are the ratios changing? Absolutely. Will online keep growing while direct mail keeps shrinking? I believe so. Will direct mail be totally obsolete in my lifetime? I doubt it.

Feeling like a dinosaur (at least in this man’s eyes), I started thinking — yes, about direct mail, but also about fundraising in general and a career in fundraising in specific. I asked myself, “What would I focus on if I wanted to begin a career in fundraising today?” Here is my answer to myself—and to fundraisers everywhere who want to remain relevant for the length of their career, be that five more years or 50 more years.

Be a storyteller.

Storytelling is critical for fundraising. Be it a 140-character tweet, a direct mail letter, an eAppeal, an online video or a face-to-face visit, being able to tell a story is a game-changer. “Just the facts” is fine if we are trying to learn how to replace our furnace filter, use a formula in Excel or grow roses. But when it comes to a head + heart experience like making a donation, a story is a vital component—not the only one, but often a necessary one.

Yet, nonprofit organizations large and small seem to struggle with finding stories to tell, in words, in video or in photography. Some use privacy issues as an excuse. Others claim time restraints. For others it’s not knowing where the stories are. As fundraisers, we have to constantly be listening for stories. We may get a clue in a throwaway comment, or in a formal report presented by a colleague. But wherever the story is, we have to recognize the breadcrumbs that point the way. We also must learn what is visually compelling to the donor audience, and not accept shots that are obviously posed or techniques that cause the end user to focus on the method instead of the message of the visual.

Being a storyteller also means learning to interview:

  • developing questions that are not leading but do lead to great information that is useable
  • putting the interviewee at ease so he or she opens up
  • recognizing the small comments that can lead to great quotes (think of them as strings that can be pulled to unwind the story further)
  • being comfortable with emotion (the interviewee’s and ours)
  • listening instead of talking
  • putting a person at ease

And finally, we have to make gathering and telling stories a priority and invest the time.

Get to know real donors.

Those who work one-on-one with donors get to know them—their likes and dislikes, their families, their passions, and more. Those of us in direct response can fall into the trap of thinking we are dealing with “People Out There in Donorland.” We have a statistical profile or a model that we accept as our donor. Or worse, we think that our work needs to satisfy the CEO, the board chair, the program manager, and of course, the fundraiser. Sorry—that’s not the target audience.

Getting to know people who give to the organization tells us what people living the cause 24/7 don’t (well, it seems that way sometimes, doesn’t it). Sad to say, the average donor may not even think about our organization until they get the next mailed or electronic offering. So when we break into their busy lives—interrupting their relaxation, bill paying, housecleaning, TV viewing, family activities, or whatever—what makes them stop to read/hear/view our message?

As long as there are causes that need money and people who are passionate about helping them achieve their goals (on both the donor and the fundraiser side), fundraising isn’t going away. And despite the significant changes in our methodologies, storytelling and knowing the audience isn’t going away, either.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pamela Barden, CFRE, is a Direct Response Fundraising Strategist and Copywriter. With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations.  She specializes in writing fundraising copy, P.R. materials and instructional articles, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy.

As Vice President and Group Director at Russ Reid (2006–2009), she was responsible for the management of the largest single account for this marketing agency specializing in nonprofit fundraising.  Her nonprofit experience includes leading the fundraising work for International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (2001–2006); World Relief Corporation (1988–2001) and Youth for Christ/USA (1979–1988).

Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from the DMA, a Distinguished Instructor for UCLA Extension, adjunct instructor at University of La Verne and a weekly columnist for “Today in Fundraising.”

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