When it comes to communicating with donors, Marcie Hillary stresses the importance of simply staying silent.
“It’s important to try and listen to what it is our donors want to accomplish with their gifts,” said Hillary, the vice president of community relations for Hospice of Michigan. “Sometimes we just need to be quiet and listen to what is important to them.”
Yet in an era when potential donors are constantly bombarded with barrages of mission-touting e-mails, social media posts, videos, mailings and more, it seems many nonprofits fail to follow that advice.
In fact, a nonprofit’s messaging and content strategy with donors was recently put under a microscope by Austin, Texas-based Abila, a software provider that develops resources for nonprofits, mission-driven organizations and government entities.
Abila’s Donor Loyalty Survey examined, among a variety of donor trends, the effect that communication and content had on donors, with a primary focus on what strategies resonated with them and what tactics turned them off.
The findings revealed that the potential pitfalls for nonprofit organizations included messaging that was vague, providing information on programs donors were not interested in and dull or boring content.
In the report, which polled 1,136 donors who had made at least one donation over the last year, 72 percent of respondents said organizational content factored into their decision to donate.
The study found that 35 percent of donors stated they would be inclined not to donate to an organization if the messaging was too vague, while 24 percent said dull and boring messaging would also turn them off from donating.
Another 19 percent of respondents said messaging delivered via inconvenient formats could sway their donation decisions. In particular, they listed videos over the 10-minute mark and podcasts as the least favorable content formats.
The findings presented in Abila’s report demonstrated that donors want brief, easy-to-consume information on how their gifts would be used.
These are two trends that Hillary and her staff at Hospice of Michigan have really tried to embrace.
“We just sent out our spring appeal to 18,000 people, and it included just three short bullet points and a dollar figure along with information on what that gift would be used for,” Hillary said.
Mary Ann Sabo, president of Grand Rapids-based Sabo PR, works with about a dozen nonprofit organizations in various capacities. Sabo PR’s work with these organizations covers overall communications strategies, whether talking with donors, volunteers, the community or members of the media.
Sabo has developed a loose formula that helps nonprofits communicate with their donors effectively.
“The same donors you are going after are probably being [targeted] by other nonprofits. West Michigan is a very generous community and home to thousands of nonprofit organizations,” Sabo said.“There is a lot of overlap in the asks they have, so to make sure yours resonates with a potential donor, you need to have a story, be succinct and be specific on what you want from them.”
A TARGETED APPROACH
While donors’ potential pitfalls included vague, dull and boring messaging, they also dislike receiving information on programs that didn’t interest them.
That’s something Hillary learned to counter just by listening more to donors.
“I sat down with a long-time donor and I was really intentional about trying to stay quiet and listen,” she said. “I found out that this person really wanted to support another geographic region and I never knew they did. They had family there that needed specific care. It was a real eye-opener.”
To remedy problems related to disconnected messaging, Sabo offered that organizations need to be more intentional and conscious in their outreach.
“You really need to understand who your audience is and how to reach them best,” she said. “We all get bombarded with increasing amounts of information. We need to make sure, when a nonprofit is reaching out, it’s a really targeted and specific approach.”
Sabo PR recently teamed with the Children’s Healing Center in Grand Rapids for a campaign that married together the key tenants outlined in the Abila report — brief, consumable content delivered in a preferable format.
The campaign was dubbed Family Fridays, a 12-part series that, each week, told the story of a family who uses the Children’s Healing Center. The facility welcomes children with low immune systems and provides them with a germ-free environment in which to play, interact and learn.
Many of the stories featured a roughly three-minute video, including interviews with the children and their families.
“As the Children’s Healing Center, we can tell you about all the great things they’re doing or we can tell you about Lola (DeYoung), who is an 11-year-old going through cancer treatment,” Sabo said. “She calls her house a prison because she isn’t allowed to go anywhere. … (S)he can tell you in her own words what the Children’s Healing Center means to her, and video lets you do that.”
Generational differences play a major role in crafting the right communication strategy, said Sabo, a finding that also appeared in the Abila study.
For instance, millennials prefer more frequent communication with organizations — as often as weekly — while the majority of respondents stated they would rather receive monthly or quarterly communication.
“One of the challenges is that there are so many generations you have to address,” Sabo said. “My mother-in-law will read every word of every appeal letter. I’m sure some people in their 20s won’t even open it. I think nonprofits need to have targeted strategies to meet everyone.”
All the content and communications best practices aside, there is arguably no substitute for what Hospice of Michigan’s Hillary says is her organization’s best fundraising tool: the work of her team.
“[We don’t receive donations just] because of a fundraiser, but because of the work of our staff,” Hillary said. “Our professional caregiving staff does an excellent job.”