A few months ago, a nonprofit reached out to us to start what we like to call the “roadmap.” It’s basically a massive data and analytics review to figure out where to start testing.
During these roadmaps, we often get some tough questions. These questions aren’t just around donor data and optimization. One question we received recently sound like this (I’m paraphrasing):
Is there an ideal organizational structure that would help improve the effectiveness of our fundraising?
I wrote this partner of ours a long answer about what factors we’ve seen can set up a nonprofit for success that’s trying to grow their online fundraising. And I wanted to share those factors here because the more fundraisers we talk to, the more we hear the same types of organizational issues crop up that are holding nonprofits back from being as successful as they could be.
Here are the 4 key factors that I’ve seen help lead to online fundraising success – regardless of staff size, resourcing, and team structure, or hierarchy at a nonprofit.
1. You have to build a culture of optimization
I’ll admit it: I’m biased. Our entire company and business model is based on testing and optimization. So in a sense, it’s in our best interest that nonprofits start optimizing. But there’s a reason we think it’s so important. Time after time I’ve seen the transformative power of testing and optimization disproportionately impact an organization.
Here are some ways I’ve seen optimization affect nonprofit culture:
If you embrace optimization, it makes failing ok (it’s just a test). Being able to accept and learn from failure instead of rationalizing or blame-shifting has in immediate positive effect on team dynamics and effectiveness.
Let’s face it—we often learn more from our failures than our successes, because we don’t want to believe it when we’re wrong. . . so we dig deeper looking for answers below the surface.
A culture of optimization protects organizations from being set in their ways or overly risk avoidant. It also keeps them from jumping headlong into every new tactic, technology, or fad. Testing limits risk while also demanding a proof of value.
Many organizations struggle most with resources and capacity, and they have difficulty prioritizing organizational objectives that are often contradictory. Testing lets you fail early and move on to a better option before betting the farm on any one path.
Optimization keeps us humble. The reality is that none of us has all the answers, and the world that we’re serving is constantly changing. We’ve all been certain beyond doubt that a certain strategy or tactic would make a big improvement . . . just to have it go the opposite way when tested. This reminds us that we’re students of our donors, not the other way around.
It redistributes the weight of opinions. Testing presents an opportunity to actually draw out new perspectives and ideas from any and every level of the organization. And it often uncovers solutions (and results) that you wouldn’t have otherwise. The goal isn’t to democratize the process, but rather to inform stakeholders so that they can discern the wisest path.
It helps people ask the right questions. By its nature, testing and optimization is a feedback loop—both with the user and within the organization. It teaches stakeholders to ask not about what you’re doing, but about what you’re learning.
2. You have to be able to execute on strategies and decisions
This is a key differentiator of successful teams. Often despite having good data and a solid action plan, organizations get caught up in the busyness of serving their cause. That often leads them to become unable to seize opportunities in a timely manner.
There needs to be a reasonable balance between effectiveness and efficiency in order to run a successful online fundraising program. Being able to get things done quickly sets you apart and allows you to capitalize on things that others miss out on.
Often times, the key element in the ability to execute is having the right systems in place. When set up in a correct way, the right system can allow individuals to best accomplish their job. With current technologies, there is no reason that a marketer should have to rely on IT to create a landing page. The same could be said for a fundraiser wanting to send a segmented email. If the right systems are in place, it makes everyone’s jobs easier.
If you’re having trouble getting things done, it could also come down to hiring. We conducted a research study on what makes effectives nonprofit fundraising teams this past year that has some good insights on how to build an effective team using human data. This finding was pretty staggering:
There’s also a lot of other insights into how nonprofit executives tend to have a hard time driving new ideas forward, as well 4 concrete ideas to help you create a more effective team. You can check out the full study here.
3. You must have clearly defined goals (and the ability to measure them)
The most effective teams I’ve worked with didn’t just have goals, but they had specific, realistic, and actionable goals. But a good goal means nothing if you can’t measure your success. The most effective teams make sure to create goals that are able to be tracked regularly and accurately.
Maybe most importantly, your goals and your progress towards your goals need to be visible to everyone on the teams that have ownership or responsibility to hit the goals. As the old adage goes, “If you aim at nothing, you’re bound to hit it every time.”
4. Each team member needs to understand their contribution to the mission and vision
Whatever your mission or vision is (ending world hunger, curing a disease, supporting impoverished communities, etc.), every single team and person needs to understand how their day to day work is contributing.
When a person (regardless of responsibilities or level at your organization) knows how their role is tied back to the mission, it will help to avoid contention and mission creep.
For example, you might have a goal of increasing your web traffic by 5%. But the people responsible for creating the content, setting up advertising, and building landing pages need to know how a 5% increase in traffic relates to the cause.
It could be that the increase in traffic leads to greater awareness of the problem you’re trying to solve, or more students enrolled, or more donations to help provide a meal for someone in need. Without this understanding, these goals just turn into vanity metrics.
One way to help this is to be able to clearly articulate your value proposition – “Why should your ideal donor give to you, rather than to some other organization, or not at all?” If your team members are all equipped to answer this question for your donors, it can be much easier to understand how their day to day work leads to real impact. If you need some ideas on how to answer that question, you can dive deep into the Why Should I Give to You? study.
Each factor works together
When these 4 factors are working together, you’ll be very well equipped to start seeing some major results. A team that is connected to the mission and vision and can help work around or break down organizational silos. Even if you have directives flowing from the top down, data and insights can flow back up the chain of command in a highly effective feedback loop leading to more data driven decision making.
The best part is that this effect is contagious. Often times, when one team sees another’s success, they want to figure out how to do that themselves. And ultimately, if your leadership catches the “optimization fever,” that can lead to full organizational buy-in. And when everyone is testing and optimizing, that means more proven learnings about what works to increase effectiveness, raise more money, and multiply your impact.
If you want to take some concrete steps towards optimizing and testing, you should check out the Nonprofit Optimization Guide. It will give you a quick synopsis of what testing and optimization is. It will also show you some of the most important factors to test right away to start seeing growth.