Harnessing Chaos: Three Recipes For Success in the Not-for-Profit World

not for profit

The not-for-profit world is vast and makes a vitally important contribution to the economy. Yet it is being buffeted by a shrinking donor base and unpredictable government support. To suggest these are “chaotic” times for not-for-profits is no overstatement.

A recent bellwether conference for the industry was entitled “Harnessing Chaos – Bold thinking in an unpredictable world“. This conference was organized by the Data & Marketing Association (DMA), an industry group whose mission is to be: the “leading source for non-profit marketing and fundraising professional education and industry advancement”; and the “premier agent for improving public awareness and receptivity to philanthropy.”

While bold thinking was clearly on display at the conference, so was a sense of industry unity. It’s a refreshing change from the dog-eat-dog world of corporate marketing. Speakers brought a rare ‘abundance mentality’ and were eager to share tips, strategies, and best practices for others to leverage.

Here are three takeaways:

1. Embrace the un-orthodox

Fear is not a recipe for success. In fact, what we say “no” to is more important than what we say “yes” to, noted Cherian Koshy of Des Moines Performing Arts. That’s music to our ears at Maru/Matchbox, because we know it can work wonderfully well.

He advocated for embracing relatively controversial ads. In his experience at the Arts Centre they can be effective. It makes sense. These campaigns can have good recall, create an emotional connection, and offer high share-ability—three standards for campaign success.

Cherian also suggests not letting risk of complaints be a reason to shy away from groundbreaking content. Not only do controversial campaigns have a good track record for acquisition, “when donors complain, it usually does really well in terms of reactivation”.

We saw that ourselves in our analysis of an aggressive and controversial campaign by Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. The campaign features “Battle scenes lifted from Braveheart, fight scenes akin to Rocky and a motorcycle peeling down a hospital corridor. Those are among the scenes of a big, bold and very intense new campaign by the Hospital for Sick Children”, according to the CBC.

Our research showed that this bold new campaign was not only attracting attention, is was likely to draw in new donors—particularly amongst millennials. Not only was it effective, the industry loved it too. It was awarded eight Cannes Lion’s—a coveted international advertising award. That’s strong evidence of the power of embracing the un-orthodox

2. Donor journeys are the DNA of any fundraising program

Donor journey research provides fundraisers with a map which traces the steps people take from having no relationship with a charity through to donating and developing an ongoing giving relationship. It identifies the touchpoints and influences along the way—providing fundraisers with powerful insights into where and how they should connect with donors and potential donors. It is a big part of our not-for-profit work at Maru/Matchbox.

What’s a common denominator for successfully utilized donor journeys? Alan Thornton, CEO of Rescue Mission Alliance, says its making it easy for staff to understand and being budget friendly. He also stressed the need to anchor the journey in the context of guiding donors through the experience in a way that contributes to donor satisfaction.

In our practice we have found that is it also important to include not just where and when people connect, but also why. People’s emotional connection to a charity and the people it is helping are powerful predictors of donating behavior. That’s why we developed Connection Compass. Our solution provides direction by revealing what is going on with people’s emotional connections to charities.

3. The opportunity in political uncertainty

Few predicted a Republican victory in the U.S. Presidential election of 2016. Vicky Barrett-Putnam, Director of donor development at the Sierra Club was, however, ready just in case.

She had a strategy prepared and it was put into action immediately. Her campaign, which reiterated the importance of giving now more than ever, was a success of historic proportions and still paying dividends today.

For Sam Parry of the Environmental Defense Fund, “scripts that highlight an urgent update” tend to be successful, but were especially effective right after the election.

Both these speakers reinforce how important it is to be prepared. From a research perspective, it underscores the need to work with a team who understands the sector, and the current forces that can shape its realities.

Taken together, these three themes reinforce the need for exploration, measurement, preparedness. All three of which are core tenants of any strong insight program.

Insight must be the true north to harness the chaos, ensure forward momentum, and ultimately do the most good.