Why we specialize in nonprofits and focus on fundraising
I started Big Duck in 1994. I worked out of my living room for the first six months, and for just about anyone who would hire me. But pretty fast there was more work than I could handle alone, and I started hiring people.
By 1995, we had an office and a lot of nonprofit work. We also did work in other sectors; we designed a couple of magazines, did marketing for a few small publishing imprints, even helped a few small and mid-size corporations with their marketing. We were a ‘jack of all trades’ type firm; masters of nothing.
Sometimes we lucked out, developing very successful brands and campaigns without really understanding our clients’ businesses deeply- just going on gut and hard work. But very early on, I could see that the most successful projects were the ones where we understood not just what the client’s goals were, but some of the variables that were unique to their industry.
By 1999, the majority of our clients were nonprofits. I was most passionate about helping them, and their problems felt complex and more interesting. For-profit businesses have clear goals and a fairly straightforward bottom line. Nonprofits, on the other hand, have multiple constituents who may not ever overlap (board, donors, volunteers, clients, partners), and even fewer resources at their disposal to reach and engage them. It became clear that understanding these audiences and complexities was key to doing this work well.
Here’s one example. Years ago, we had two branding projects kick off during the same month. One was for a corporation where the CEO’s assistant was our primary contact, and the CEO was the decision-maker. The other was for a nonprofit where we were working with a committee composed of staff and board decision-makers, and a development associate who was our primary contact. Three months later, the corporate rebrand was done: the CEO was a swift decision-maker, so we were able to move fast. His staff was used to embracing and implementing his decisions, so they integrated the new brand fast internally, too. On the other hand, the nonprofit rebrand was really just getting started; designing a process to involve the right stakeholders at the right junctures (not to mention schedule calls and meetings) took time. Along the way, ideas had to be vetted deeply across the organization: would the new visual identity work as well for fundraising as it would for the clients who benefited from their services? Making sure the right people had a voice in the process was also key to success, we learned fast, as was educating staff who had limited experience with marketing.
By 2000, I’d decided to specialize in nonprofits, and made it a goal to immerse myself deeply in the conferences, books, publications, and other resources that would help me become an expert. I found I had barely scratched the surface. I started hiring experts with nonprofit sector experience whenever possible.
Donor retention? LYBUNT? SYBUNT? Governance? Advancement department? Turned out there was a lot to learn. In particular, where fundraising is concerned, there were (and still are) a lot of useful data, best practices, and benchmarks. The more my (now growing and growing) staff learned, the more we found we were delivering strategies and creative work that hit the mark and achieved the desired results. We also got faster, which made us less expensive, as service firms like Big Duck set their fees based on how long a project’s scope will take.
This year, Big Duck is turning 20 years old! It’s amazing to think about the many organizations we’ve helped increase their visibility, raise money, recruit participants, and more. We’ve helped raise millions of dollars! We’ve had clients grow and sustain much larger annual operating budgets. We’ve seen huge advances in several areas because of our clients’ work, and we’ve been a part of it. That’s thrilling in a way I can’t even describe, and I’m very proud of. I am deeply content, maybe even smug, in the knowledge that I’m spending my working hours doing something that feels right.
But for a nonprofit that’s thinking of hiring Big Duck, what really matters is expertise; a track record of success. Working with an agency like us is a big investment of money and time. To me, hiring a firm to help you rebrand or launch a campaign that doesn’t specialize in your field is a bit like being operated on by a doctor who’s a generalist. I’d rather hire the surgeon who’s done a thousand appendectomies than the one who’s dabbled in them a few times. Wouldn’t you?