Photo by Girl with red hat on Unsplash
4 min Read
February 23, 2022

Encouraging a culture of experimentation in your fundraising

“The only lasting truth is change.” Octavia E. Butler

We’ve all gotten accustomed to some degree of change in our personal and professional lives over the past two years. Some of those changes have felt–and still feel–daunting, less than ideal, and heavy. However, some of those changes have also felt welcome, offering challenges and opportunities to be more imaginative and give fewer f*cks.

The nonprofit sector has been doing a whole bunch of courageous adjusting to change–and creating new practices as a result. We are seeing more organizations embrace a culture of experimentation as well as throughout the sector as a whole thanks in part due to disruptors like those at the heart of the Community-Centric Fundraising movement. We think about experimentation as taking a risk to do something different while being aware of positive, negative, and unknowable outcomes at stake.

Fundraising practices and donor communications stand to benefit from incorporating a broader point of view, including moving away from the standard donor-as-hero saviorism rampant in appeals. We hear many fundraisers are intrigued to try things that intellectually sound right or values-aligned, but are afraid of challenging “best practices” guaranteed to bring results. So how do we foster a culture of change within fundraising? How does experimentation become “in the water”?

Here are a few conversation starters.

1. Let’s name the fear (scarcity).

It’s important to candidly name the biggest barrier to experimentation in fundraising. It requires the raising of funds, from individuals, foundations, government agencies, and companies. Organizations rely on the money that they raise to pay staff, run programs, advocate effectively, change behaviors, provide services, and so much more. Nonprofits need money to exist.

So we’re pretty well trained to stick with what we know “works.”

However, this perspective fails to take into account the sage and proven wisdom of one Octavia E. Butler (see the quote at the top of the post). Change is always happening, whether or not you want it to. Risk is inherent to the game. The attention paid to your issue area or mission changes. The scope of your programs changes. The players in your ecosystem change. The audiences you need to reach or their motivations change. So it follows that your role and responsibilities as a fundraiser change, too. Perhaps even your markers of success.

Ask yourself and your colleagues: What are we most afraid of? What is the worst thing that can happen if we change some of your fundraising approaches? Are there small experiments we can try or bold moves that are worth exploring?

Get inspired: On #GivingTuesday this past November, we saw more organizations use this global philanthropic movement to amplify other nonprofits their donors can support. Consider how you can share the spotlight with these examples from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Friends of Waterfront Seattle, and Forward Through Ferguson.

2. Let’s respond with imagination (abundance).

Before you can shift the relationships your organization has with its donors, you have to start with the relationships within your organization. How are you promoting learning and innovation on your development team? What new skills are you or your colleagues developing? How have you expanded our team’s capacity or revisited your internal workflows, reporting tools, or processes? Try to remember a time when you embraced risk or were more nimble and ready to adapt to change. Picture what it would look like to do that this year and what could happen if you inspired change in other teams. Now consider your larger community.

Ask yourself and your colleagues: Instead of focusing solely on racking up the dough, what other outcomes would be meaningful or impactful to our organization, community, and mission? Where have we made strides or seen a positive uptick? What have we learned about our audiences? What motivates our supporters, volunteers, program participants and why do they want to connect with us?

Get inspired: Listen to this episode of The Ethical Rainmaker podcast series to hear what happened when the Oregon Food Bank started measuring love instead of traditional fundraising goals.

3. Let’s stay learning (reflection).

“It’s data, all this learning. Tender data.” says the great adrienne maree brown. When we take risks, we should be rigorous in the pursuit of understanding how it all turned out.

Some experiments may lead to great and unforeseen results, and some might fail. It’s important not to judge your activities based only on outcomes tied to donations and dollars, but to consider other long-term results.

There are often fears that if you adopt approaches that center equity and antiracism, you may alienate supporters who are used to being the only ones that matter. Perhaps it is time to educate those donors or be ready to let them go.

Ask yourself and your colleagues: With each new experiment, who new people did we attract or bring back… and who did we lose? Seek to uncover the why behind any gains or losses and look for trends year over year. What fails into the typical cycle of retention and attribution, and what can be tied to content, channel, sender, or another factor?

Get inspired: Book a regular time to pause and reflect. Use the questions in this post to improve your communications through research and reflection. Identify any trends or insights, share them with others, and keep trying new things!

Hannah Thomas

Hannah Thomas is the Former Director of Learning and Innovation at Big Duck

More about Hannah
Farra Trompeter

Farra Trompeter is the Co-Director, Worker-Owner at Big Duck

More about Farra