40 Lessons Learned by Nonprofit Professionals in 2015
We all look for advice from our role models. Up-and-coming writers read quotes from the greats, and aspiring athletes watch tape after tape of their favorite all-stars. Similarly, younger nonprofits can learn from those who’ve made a mark in their respective field.
That’s why we’ve asked the experts to share their hard-earned lessons, tips, and insights on how to grow and make an impact. It’s incredible that even across sectors, nonprofit professionals share very common experiences and develop similar strategies in their work. Check out what these 40 nonprofit professionals would say to an organization just starting out, and discover the common threads uniting the top lessons learned in 2015.
Focus on Your Audience
Marketing Director, Possible
“If you try to be relevant to everyone, you’ll be relevant to no one. Define who your audience is, what they want, and what you can teach them.”
Online Marketing Manager, Action Against Hunger
“Use social and web analytics to learn who your audience is. Whether it be demographics or interests, tailor content to your audience for better engagement and conversions.”
Communications Manager, Bob Woodruff Foundation
“Get to know your audience. Empower them to be a part of your mission. And even if it is subtle, always provide them with a call to action.”
Communications and Marketing Officer, Shining Hope for Communities
“Believe in the potential of the communities you serve and partner with. Let them lead.”
Co-Founder and Director of Artist Relations, Blood:Water
“If we listen and know those we attempt to serve, we will value them and affirm their dignity. Sustainable development WILL happen.”
Director of Marketing and Communications, World Concern
“It’s not about you or your organization. It’s about the donor and what they can do with their gift.”
Chief Operating Officer, National Novel Writing Month
“Know your vision, know your next step, and empower your audience to help you get there.”
Webmaster and Director of Technology and Media Services, Camp HASC
“Build a committed and loyal base of supporters that is so strong that the biggest challenge will be keeping up with their desire to help. Good Luck!”
Director of Marketing and Communications, Worldreader
“Set yourself up for success. Have the right infrastructure in place so that you can maximize your outreach and learn even more about your audience and their preferences.”
Executive Vice President, Fight Colorectal Cancer
“An end of year campaign is putting oneself into the mindset of a potential donor. Sometimes you have to roll the hard six to connect to your cause.”
Editor’s Note: In order to create significant change, it’s important to remember the driving force behind your organization: your audience. A tight-knit community is an invaluable asset that will sustain your work as you continue to grow and develop.
Create Meaningful Dialogue
Chief Communications and Digital Officer, Breast Cancer Research Foundation
“We found that one powerful, Instagram-able image can make a big difference when shared by influencers.”
Development Specialist, The Mission Continues
“Find new ways to create a dialogue online with your supporters. Help them share your organization’s story with their friends.”
Activewater Lead, Lifewater
“Classy’s platform interface allows for comments and encouragement leading to more successful campaigns and hands-on approach to donor care.”
Director of Web Strategy, National Jewish Health®
“Mobile-friendly, easy ways to engage with you are critical. Combine this with real stories about the impact you have on the lives of others.”
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Vs. Cancer Foundation
“Making the ask: a no is sometimes just as good as a yes. At least you know.”
Vice President, Global Chapters, buildOn
“While social media has impacted nonprofit stakeholder engagement strategies, it is no substitution for building meaningful connection and authentic community.”
Editor’s Note: It’s important to make it easy for donors to interact with you. Develop your online presence and make sure your pages are mobile-responsive to ensure you aren’t missing any opportunities. But remember, certain “old-fashioned” efforts to show genuine appreciation, like taking the time to pen a thank you note or pick up the phone, are considered more meaningful than ever.
Delight Your Donors
Senior Development Officer, Team Rubicon
“Treat all supporters like seven-figure donors and track all interactions with them. Be bold, be different, be real.”
Director, Philanthrophy Campaigns and Online Marketing, The Y in Central Maryland
“Keep your donors in mind for every detail—aim to surprise and delight them, from choosing the envelope to crafting your donor page.”
Manager of Program Experience, Global Citizen Year
“Tiered incentives worked great for #Fellows2016 fundraising campaign. $50 gets you a postcard from Ecuador, $200 gets you an Ecuadorian meal.”
Executive Director, The Wild Animal Sanctuary
“Treat each donation as if it were the single largest gift you ever received—your sincerity and deep appreciation will foster many more!”
Development Officer, Annual Programs, PCI
“#GivingTuesday is the day to celebrate all your philanthropists, big and small, for their efforts. At PCI, we stewarded all donors the same day and treated them like our biggest donor, regardless of the size of their gift.”
Editor’s Note: Nonprofit leaders agree that it’s critical to treat every donor as if their contribution is just as impactful as the largest gift you’ve ever received. This attitude is an excellent donor retention strategy because it shows your donors how important they are to the success of your programs. A delighted donor will remember how much their gift meant to your organization and be much more likely to donate again.
Chief Development Officer, The Junior State of America
“Hire the most talented, committed, and emotionally intelligent team members in the world. Then, support them to your utmost… and get out of their way so they can create, produce, and change the world.”
Founder and President, Active Heroes
“People are the most important thing for any startup organization. Without dedicated people, you won’t accomplish your mission. Work hard to find the right people for your board, staff, and volunteerism. A charity is only as good as the dedication level from the people who want to see the mission succeed.”
Dr. Kevin Prine
Chief Executive Officer, Outreach International
“The transformative experiences that lead to true sustainability are found not in the outcome, but in the process of working together.”
Partnerships and Programmatic Investments Executive Vice President, Wounded Warrior Project®
“No organization can go it alone. Be creative and work with other nonprofits—even some that might be considered competitors—to magnify and amplify results. At WWP we are aggressively investing in and with nonprofits to reshape the charity landscape and reimagine new ways to collaborate for greater impact in the lives of wounded service members.”
Editor’s Note: The people your organization chooses to hire and collaborate with are a big deal. Your team and partners are ultimately responsible for the success of your organization. Invest in acquiring talent and actively search your network to develop strategic partnerships. These investments will reap a considerable return and expand your ability to serve your cause.
Never Lose Sight of Your Mission
President and CEO, Operation USA
“Stay focused on your mission and take pleasure in small, useful achievements. Remember, you work with someone else’s money, so do good by doing well!”
Chief Executive Officer, Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children
“Define and refine. Define who you are as an organization and stick to it! Refine what you do through monitoring, learning, and adapting.”
Director of Marketing and Communications, Playworks
“Frame the issue, stay on message, and repeat, repeat, repeat.”
Executive Director, Water 1st International
“Shape the work you do around the opinions and priorities of those in need, not a funding source.”
Editor’s Note: Every decision you make should ultimately support the larger goals of your mission. To stay focused on the needs of your cause, stay close to the individual stories of those you serve and let that guide your way.
Co-Founder and Executive Director, Athletes For Cancer
“#2015LessonsLearned: Mistakes made in programming lead to opportunity, creativity, and innovation. Be ok with it and share it with others.”
Communications Director, Boot Campaign
“At Boot Campaign, flexibility and agility help us advance our mission of patriotism, awareness of veterans’ issues, and assistance for military families. We work hard, try new things, fail fast, and listen to the needs of our constituents. We’re not afraid to take risks, but measure everything against our WHY to ensure we’re efficient and effective in what we do.”
Editor’s Note: Risking failure is a necessary component of innovation. Develop a process to learn from mistakes quickly and adapt to evolving situations. Every failure can be embraced as an opportunity to learn and try a new method.
Support Your Peer-to-Peer Fundraisers
Community Impact Director, YWCA of Minneapolis
“Support and recognize your peer fundraisers, and give them the tools to be the very best spokespeople for your mission. Their voice amplifies the reach of the organization!”
Emily Parris Sandler
Director of Online Engagement and Giving Programs, City of Hope
“New peer-to-peer donors are a potential pipeline for your organization’s future, invest in building a relationship with them.”
Editor’s Note: Peer-to-peer fundraisers offer incredible funding potential for your organization. With the right tools, these cause champions and evangelists expand the reach of your network exponentially. Take steps to engage third-party donors who donate to your fundraisers in a targeted way, so you can turn them into lifelong supporters.
Leverage Major Gifts
Development Director, Citizens’ Climate Education
“Securing ambitious matching funds was key to our success. Our volunteers were eager to meet the challenge, and blew past the goal we’d set.”
David S. Baker, JD
Consultant, Giving Design Group, Inc.
“Special project fundraising tied to compelling outcomes desired by the donor is the secret to new donor major gift success.”
Editor’s Note: Major gifts are always a big win, but a careful strategy can turn them into something much greater for your organization. A matching campaign, for example, is a great way to leverage a major gift and challenge your individual donors to meet a specific goal.
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
Director of Marketing, Pencils of Promise
“Be authentic, be human, do serious work. But don’t take yourself too seriously.”
Interim Executive Director, CoachArt
“A campaign that is fun, interesting, and inspirational to create is more likely to be fun, interesting, and inspirational to receive!”
Officer of Community Programs, Seattle Foundation
“Sweat all the details, but remember this is fun. You have changed the world! #haiku #Base2Space”
Editor’s Note: Your organization does serious work to make real change in the world. But as serious as your work is, it’s important to take joy in serving your cause and share that joy with your community. Put the “fun” in fundraising, and engage your audience in ways that let them do the things they love and support your cause at the same time.
Keep Moving Forward
Glenn D. Banton, Sr.
Chief Executive Officer, Operation Supply Drop
“If you’re not growing, you’re dying. The most important people to listen to are your beneficiaries and their developing needs.”
“Never get comfortable. Always examine your product and throw out whatever is not working. Reinvent yourself if needed. Never lose your hunger.”
Editor’s Note: Our dreams and goals for the future are what push us forward in life. Stay energized by making the choice to always be learning. Look to your network, peers, donors, community, and cause for the daily inspiration you need to keep moving towards your dreams.
What lessons did you learn at your organization in 2015? Let us know your biggest tips and insights in the comments below.