October 31, 2018

How can communications help development?

Sarah Durham and Farra Trompeter head to Fundraising Day to ask development professionals one question: “What can communications do to support development?” You’ll hear answers at the beginning of this episode from Samantha Coolidge, New York Area Director of Advancement at Moishe House, Margaret Fredrickson from Graham Pelton, Leslie Weber, Deputy Executive Director for External Relations at Hudson Guild, Gary Weinberg, President of DM Pros, Cathy J. Sharp, Director of Development and Communications at Care for the Homeless, Simone Joyaux, author and consultant, and Arik Thormahlen, Director of Development, New York Eye and Ear Infirmary at Mount Sinai Health System. Then, Farra and Sarah have a candid conversation about the relationship between development and communications, sharing tips for building stronger donor communications.


Sarah: Every June, this crazy thing happens in New York. About 2,000 plus fundraisers descend on the Marriott Marquee Hotel in Times Square for a fabulous event that they like to call fundraising day in New York. Fundraising Day in New York is the single largest one day conference of fundraising in America, I believe and it is organized by the New York City chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals or AFP and every June, we usually go to fundraising day; and we like to learn from fundraising experts. We often lead sessions and we’re always interested to hear how fundraisers are perceiving communications. So this year, Farra Trompeter and I brought our podcasting equipment along and we went around and asked a series of fundraisers the same question. And the question was, what can communications do to support development? Here is some of what we heard.

Speaker 2: I think the number one thing is really great supporting materials and listening carefully and making sure our stories are told really well in a way that our donors will love and respond to.

Speaker 3: I think it can spread a nonprofits message to those who really care and help them raise money which is what they really need and spread the message and spread the mission.

Speaker 4: So I think the most important thing communications can do is really work collaboratively with the fundraising staff.

Speaker 5: Well, the most important part of the messaging is talking about the impact of the gift. Because of you, we were able to accomplish so much. So to quantify it, to be able to say because you donated, we were able to feed so many children, clothe so many children, house so many people, and each time spelling it the impact not just at the time of appeal but also through all the stewardship functions when you are not asking for money. Keep that conversation going so that each time you ask and do an appeal that they see how far your gifts go.

Speaker 6: Communication should support the development and fundraising efforts by telling our story one person at a time to help us raise more money and help donors understand what it is that we do.

Speaker 7: So I actually think that donor communications is the single most important strategy or element of relationship building with donors. So when I talk about donor relationship building, I am talking about there should be donor centered communications. That, of course, includes solicitation letters; but it really includes the missive I get, the newsletter, the whatever, that tells me how you have spent my money and how important I am in my investment. And then I also want extraordinary experiences which are beyond the newsletter. But there are tons of people who will never connect as donors around other extraordinary experiences like those thank you calls or that insider update visit or whatever. I want donors to open the newsletter and go oh my gosh. This is what I did

Farra: Communications needs to be the bridge between my donors’ passion and the mission and vision of our organization.

Sarah: So now we’re back in the studio here at Big Duck; and Farra Trompeter and I are sitting down to talk about what we learned and, more specifically, how communications can help fundraisers in their year end appeals, throughout the year with all kinds of things, fundraising, and just in general. Welcome Farra.

Farra: Thanks Sarah.

Sarah: So this is a topic that I think is near and dear to my heart and to yours because we both are very passionate about fundraising. But often times, their seam is really separate. Why do you think that is? Why do you think communications and fundraising aren’t more aligned?

Farra: Frankly, I think for many organizations it comes right down to the budget, where communications staff and resources for communications are allocated very differently than communications; and with development and communications being allocated differently, there is a natural tension into how the resources are spent, who gets to do what, who gets to make what calls. And there is almost a conflict that is built in to how most organizations structure their approach to development and communications, and I think that very structural difference has led to what is the natural phenomenon we often refer to as silos in these organizations.

Sarah: I totally agree with you. I also think there is this dynamic about who owns the relationship that contributes to that silo or turf like phenomenon. One of the ways I think about it, and we often talk about it, is in terms of a ladder of engagement. Where it is often the job of the communications team to feed the pipe line, to start to get people into the ladder of engagement, to reach people who are unaware of the organization, get them to start thinking about, knowing the organization but as they start to come in that relationship kind of transfers over to the development staff. The fundraisers are the people who actually determine how those people get solicited and whether it is personal or whether it is a big gift or a small gift. And so there is this kind of murky line between what is the communications turf and what is the development turf on a lot of projects. I think particularly with year-end appeals. Are there other projects where you see that tension?

Farra: I think even just in the year round communications some organizations will split it by relationship status like you said so is somebody a current donor or a prospect, are they an activist or are they a volunteer and depending on their action and previous engagement with the organization is how it is defined. Others are by channel. So you talk to people who visit our website or who are our Facebook followers or check us on Instagram, but I am going to talk to the people who come to our gala or who may have made a bequest. And it is divided by the size of the relationship or again that communications channel. It can happen all the time not just in year end, but I also see the turf issue where who owns that relationship within development. Right so, not just as development members come, but is it someone who is dealing with individual donations, major gifts. Again planned giving and there is just a lot of tension between because again I these staff are required to meet a bottom line. And you know we don’t like to say quota or think about a quota in the nonprofit world but there is budget realities that you do have to generate a certain amount of revenue and people approach generating that revenue different ways, and I often find there isn’t one universal plan to do that.

Sarah: At fundraising day in New York, I led a session on capitol campaign communications with Bonnie Epstein, who is the vice chancellor for development at the Jewish theological seminary. Bonnie leads a large team and raises a lot of money on that team. One of the things she has worked hard to do on her team that she talked about in the session, is to have individual goals for people on her team. Also, team goals to incentivize the fundraisers on her staff to really work collaboratively and not to be too competitive. Which, I think is a great strategy for getting people aligned. Although, usually that sense of targets or how the team functions versus the individual functions exists only within development. It doesn’t also extend to how communications plugs it seems.

Farra: Yeah, I think it comes out to how big the organization is too. Do they even have Comm staff? Or is the communication staff a whole department? Again, we talked about this I think before, does communication reports to the department, do they report to communications, or all they under one umbrella? We worked with an organization where comms reports to the CEO, but development also reports to the CEO, there’re almost on pure lines. They are in two different literal locations, and that can make it just very difficult.

Sarah: So, if part of the job of the communications team, is to chum the waters, so the development staff can go fishing. Those two teams have to work really closely and collaboratively. We’ve talked a lot about should comms report to development or not in different contexts. We’ve seen different organizations do all kinds of ways. You know, where I’ve sort of netted out on that question, is that it doesn’t necessarily matter if comms is a separate department or rolled into another department. What really does matter, is the quality of the relationship and how well people collaborate because whether they’re in your department or not, if the fundraising team views the communications team as adversarial or challenging or that they don’t get it, it’s going to be hard to collaborate and vice versa.

Farra: Yeah, the worst part of that is, we always talk about having strong relationships with our donors. If, you don’t have a strong relationship inside with your team, you are never going to have a strong relationship with your donors.

Sarah: Absolutely, So, we heard in those clips from the people we talked to at fundraising day, and we will link to who they were in the show notes. They were some pretty exceptional people, with a lot of rock stars in the fundraising world that we got a chance to connect with. What you don’t hear in those clips are tactics. You don’t hear, “they should make things look pretty” the comms people or “they should write snazzy copy”. You hear a narrative about impacts, about helping articulate the message of the organization. Turned out, not to be an easy question for fundraisers to answer, but I thought the answers that we did hear from the people that were willing to actually be recorded, were pretty substantive, and it makes me wonder what you think are important ways that communicators should help development beyond what we heard at fundraising day.

Farra: One of the things that I think is important is, just to remember to put yourself in the minds of the donor. It can be hard to do that when you are working day in and day out for an organization. I often recommend to organizations, if you are in charge of development, ask your significant other, your best friend, whoever it is, to read the thing you are about to send out, to make a donation, and watch them go through that process, almost like a user testing, to take a look at information they get over email or what they see on the screen because often we forget these things we set up. We forget to look at it with a critical eye; and many times when we are viewing that together with an organization, we see that it is written in an organization-centric tone. So, it is all about the organization, how great they are, which is of course important, but doesn’t get into either things like that impact. Really helping me understand why I should invest in you, but also appealing to the heart. We always talk about the head and the heart, you want to makes sure you keep both in mind. I will pause there for that one tip.

Sarah: I think that was a great tip, we talk about it as being audience centric not organization centric, but when you live in work inside the organization. It can be difficult to not approach copy or messaging in an organization centric way. An example of an organization centric way of communicating would be to say, “We help 150 people every week, do XYZ, We do this. We do that. We have this great thing, we really need your help”. Where as audience centric would help the donor see themselves in it, “so by supporting our work, you can help us feed XYZ. Here is a story about somebody, who is going to benefit. Here is what it is like for them. Here is how that affects you”. So, it is kind of putting the organization in the back seat of the narrative as oppose to having the organization in the front seat.

Farra: Right, some organizations even remove the word help. It is sort of like, “You feed 200 people, you do that”. Now, there is criticism to that approach because donors are not literally doing the work of the organization, but they want to feel like they are. The organization that have found that right balance, that make it feel like, whether it is my 50 dollars or 50 thousand dollar gift. I am genuinely helping that organization carry out the mission, those are the ones that seem to resonate and build that relationship. So, the donor hopefully remembers them, that next email, the next Facebook post, whatever it is that comes up, and things that connect with them.

Sarah: So, you have for 3 years now, maybe 4 years. You have been leading an all day workshop on donor communications planning. This is a workshop that is designed to help people really think about how to communicate with donors all year long, so that they stay engaged. I’m curious you know, in those workshops, who shows up? Are they fundraisers? Are they people with fundraising jobs? Are they people with communications jobs? What are some of the big things you see those people struggling with as they try to get better at donor communications?

Farra: You know, it continues to be a mix. I would say probably choose toward development people, that come to those workshops because the word donor is in the title. Again, I think most organizations think about who does communications based on their relationship the person has with the organization. So, you do the activists. You talk to our prospects. I’m going to talk to our donors. So, I would say it leans more towards development. Honestly, the biggest thing I hear is time. People don’t have enough time to do it well. There is just pressure to get things out. Yes, I understand this is the right why to get it done; but I have all these other things that I have to do. When I last taught that workshop, somebody flagged just an issue with stakeholder engagement. Which we also talked about where they had written all these appeals, that were ready to go out to donors, but their boss hadn’t read and approved them. So, they were sitting on materials, that they couldn’t even send out and it is that problem when donors don’t hear from you, they will forget about you. Making sure that, not only do you have the plan to communicate well, but there is relying from your team to help you move it along. You can’t do this by yourself.

Sarah: So, this is another piece of where I think communications, the hat of communications. Whether it is worn by a development person or worn by somebody with communications as their job title. It’s super important because part of what the communication’s perspective is about is first, helping the organization speak with a clearer, consistent voice. Secondly, maintaining top of mind awareness, which is what you are talking about, you know. Donors forget, if we aren’t in touch with them. This is why we see over and over again, the same products advertised all over the place, so we don’t forget about them. Part of the job of the developmental staff or the communication staff is to make sure they’re on the radar of the donors. So, my question for you is, if you could wave a magic wand that might relieve some of the challenges that in house fundraisers and communicators have, that get in the way of their donor communications, what kinds of things would you want to remove? I mean, it sounds like you would want to make more hours in the day for sure. Is there a challenge with leadership high end or what else gets in the way?

Farra: Again, I think, that just thinking by department or by function and not by person. Really, getting people to take the time, whether it is in a quarterly planning session, a weekly or monthly meeting to just stop and look at the big picture; just say okay, what is the theme? What are the communications we are sending out? Yes, it is important to make sure our newsletter doesn’t go out within an hour of an email appeal, which I have seen happen because again controlled by different people. Maybe in different systems, but really, what is the story we telling? What are the opportunities we’re giving to our community to engage with us? That is one of the biggest challenges we see as donors feeling like they’re an ATM machine for people who still use those. An ATM non anyway. You get the jest

Sarah: ATM machines exist still I think.

Farra: But, the “M” is machine. Anyway, so an AT machine. When all you do is ask donors to give, give, give and your not giving them opportunities to send them the word, and serve a survey get their feedback on a poll. Get their feedback to something you’re asking them about that maybe you are struggling with as an organization. Then, they tend to feel frustrated, that all you care about is their money, and I think if I could wave my magic wand, it would just be on for people to talk more and take a little bit of time to plan. I don’t want to see them spending their weeks in planning sessions, but periodically, not just making a plan, but reviewing it. Making sure that there is communication internally, so that external messaging feels so much more coordinated and compelling.

Sarah: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I think that little bit of time you spend to proactively plan, whether it’s sitting down with your colleagues once a month or once a quarter, talking about what’s coming up, making sure everybody is on the same page. Mapping out some things that you know you should be doing based on what’s happening within your organization or what’s happening within the world. Maybe also using that time to report back, I mean I think one of the great ways to build love between people with different job functions, is to celebrate successes and say, “hey, you know that email we tried last month, that felt like kind of a risk? Well here is what the open click through and conversion rates were. Look at all the new donors we got from this thing”. That will be off and a way you can build trust, and kind of the connective tissue between people in your departments.

Farra: Yeah, one of the other things that I heard at fundraising day, in one of the sessions, I had attended in which I really liked was, actually a session for major donors and about big transformational fundraising capitol campaigns, was the idea of trying to get fundraisers to move from a brain space of pit and sell to listen and learn. Again, it comes back to that idea of not just throwing a bunch of things that donors or prospects, but actually asking them, “what do you care about? Why do you even support us”? It is one of the first things I talk about in that donor comes workshop. Why do you support organizations you care about and that most of us actually have no idea why our donors support us. If we don’t know, then how are we ever going to create communications that resonate?

Sarah: That is one of the reasons, I am not generally a big fan of people with job titles that reflect channels. Like, social media manager or email marketing specialist or something like that because if you give somebody a job that is channel specific. Essentially, their mandate is to just always be using that channel, and it kind of takes the focus away from the relationship as you talked about earlier. It puts it on a medium, but it is not about the medium, it is about what the donor, the donor’s experience. What they are looking for from you from you.

Farra: The medium is the message, Marshall Mcluhan.

Sarah: So, just as we wrap up, are there any other parting tips or recommendations you have for communications to serve development better?

Farra: Yeah, I mean, you spoke about who we are for a moment. You know, I grew up professionally starting off in fundraising. I was doing direct response fundraising, thinking about things like direct mail and telemarketing. Then got into the early days of online fundraising, then became a broader, communicator, and a brand new person and it is because of that, I look at look at fundraising through a communication lens. One of the big important lessons that I think is helpful to remember, is the idea of vision and that every now and then, it is also really helpful to zoom back out and remember, why does your organization exist? What is the change you are trying to create for the world? What is your why? Again, there is that great TED talk with Simon Sinek, that start with why. We often talk about that in our branding work with positioning as well as your vision, like why does your organization exist? If we distilled it down to really, what is the essence of who you are and why you are needed? What is that and making sure you don’t lose sight of that in the very specific appeals you send out or the messages you send because it is that why that really motivates donors to give. So, if you haven’t thought about that why or figuring out the last time you even talked about it, that is a really important step.

Sarah: That’s awesome. Yeah, that I would bet if you got that why conversation, that vision conversation and values alignment, which is another thing you and I have talked a lot about and written a lot about, probably 90% towards a great relationship with a donor.

Farra: Definitely.

Sarah: Farra Trompeter, thank you for joining me today.

Farra: Sarah Durham, thank you for having me.

Sarah: Look for us both at fundraising day in New York any many other AFP conferences, we would love to talk to you about what you think communications can do to support development.