Ellie Burke
Ellie Burke
Library of books

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

Laura Schwecherl

Laura Schwecherl

Marketing Director, Possible

 Tweet

“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.”

Jorge Taveras

Jorge Taveras

Online Marketing Manager, Action Against Hunger

 Tweet

“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.”

Sam Kille

Sam Kille

Communications Manager, Bob Woodruff Foundation

 Tweet

“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.”

Susan Varghese

Susan Varghese

Communications and Marketing Officer, Shining Hope for Communities

 Tweet

“Believe in the potential of the communities you serve and partner with. Let them lead.”

Dan Haseltine

Dan Haseltine

Co-Founder and Director of Artist Relations, Blood:Water

 Tweet

“If we listen and know those we attempt to serve, we will value them and affirm their dignity. Sustainable development WILL happen.”

Cathy Herholdt

Director of Marketing and Communications, World Concern

 Tweet

“It’s not about you or your organization. It’s about the donor and what they can do with their gift.”

Chris Angotti

Chief Operating Officer, National Novel Writing Month

 Tweet

“Know your vision, know your next step, and empower your audience to help you get there.”

Yonatan Sklar

Yonatan Sklar

Webmaster and Director of Technology and Media Services, Camp HASC

 Tweet

“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!”

Nadja Borovac

Nadja Borovac

Director of Marketing and Communications, Worldreader

 Tweet

“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.”

Michael Sola

Michael Sola

Executive Vice President, Fight Colorectal Cancer

 Tweet

“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

Stephanie Kauffman

Stephanie Kauffman

Chief Communications and Digital Officer, Breast Cancer Research Foundation

 Tweet

“We found that one powerful, Instagram-able image can make a big difference when shared by influencers.”

Marvin Cadet

Marvin Cadet

Development Specialist, The Mission Continues

 Tweet

“Find new ways to create a dialogue online with your supporters. Help them share your organization’s story with their friends.”

Daren Wendell

Daren Wendell

Activewater Lead, Lifewater

 Tweet

“Classy’s platform interface allows for comments and encouragement leading to more successful campaigns and hands-on approach to donor care.”

Samantha Reeves

Samantha Reeves

Director of Web Strategy, National Jewish Health®

 Tweet

“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.”

Chase Jones

Chase Jones

Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Vs. Cancer Foundation

 Tweet

“Making the ask: a no is sometimes just as good as a yes. At least you know.”

Tom Silverman

Tom Silverman

Vice President, Global Chapters, buildOn

 Tweet

“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

Matt Scott

Matt Scott

Senior Development Officer, Team Rubicon

 Tweet

“Treat all supporters like seven-figure donors and track all interactions with them. Be bold, be different, be real.”

Lindsay Crone

Lindsay Crone

Director, Philanthrophy Campaigns and Online Marketing, The Y in Central Maryland

 Tweet

“Keep your donors in mind for every detail—aim to surprise and delight them, from choosing the envelope to crafting your donor page.”

Esther Chou

Esther Chou

Manager of Program Experience, Global Citizen Year

 Tweet

“Tiered incentives worked great for #Fellows2016 fundraising campaign. $50 gets you a postcard from Ecuador, $200 gets you an Ecuadorian meal.”

Pat Craig

Pat Craig

Executive Director, The Wild Animal Sanctuary

 Tweet

“Treat each donation as if it were the single largest gift you ever received—your sincerity and deep appreciation will foster many more!”

Ashley Dittmar

Ashley Dittmar

Development Officer, Annual Programs, PCI

 Tweet

“#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.


Work Together

Matt Patchell

Matt Patchell

Chief Development Officer, The Junior State of America

 Tweet

“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.”

Troy Yocum

Troy Yocum

Founder and President, Active Heroes

 Tweet

“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.”

Kevin Prine

Dr. Kevin Prine

Chief Executive Officer, Outreach International

 Tweet

“The transformative experiences that lead to true sustainability are found not in the outcome, but in the process of working together.”

Kevin Prine

Ned Breslin

Partnerships and Programmatic Investments Executive Vice President, Wounded Warrior Project®

 Tweet

“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

Richard Walden

Richard Walden

President and CEO, Operation USA

 Tweet

“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!”

Meredith Welsh

Meredith Welsh

Chief Executive Officer, Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children

 Tweet

“Define and refine. Define who you are as an organization and stick to it! Refine what you do through monitoring, learning, and adapting.”

Mindy Maschmeyer

Mindy Maschmeyer

Director of Marketing and Communications, Playworks

 Tweet

“Frame the issue, stay on message, and repeat, repeat, repeat.”

Marla Smith-Nilson

Executive Director, Water 1st International

 Tweet

“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.


Foster Innovation

Tonia Farman

Tonia Farman

Co-Founder and Executive Director, Athletes For Cancer

 Tweet

“#2015LessonsLearned: Mistakes made in programming lead to opportunity, creativity, and innovation. Be ok with it and share it with others.”

Melanie Dunham

Melanie Dunham

Communications Director, Boot Campaign

 Tweet

“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

Ellen Cleary

Ellen Cleary

Community Impact Director, YWCA of Minneapolis

 Tweet

“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 Paris

Emily Parris Sandler

Director of Online Engagement and Giving Programs, City of Hope

 Tweet

“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

Lynate Pettengill

Lynate Pettengill

Development Director, Citizens’ Climate Education

 Tweet

“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 Baker

David S. Baker, JD

Consultant, Giving Design Group, Inc.

 Tweet

“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

Natalie Ebel

Natalie Ebel

Director of Marketing, Pencils of Promise

 Tweet

“Be authentic, be human, do serious work. But don’t take yourself too seriously.”

Greg Harrel-Edge

Interim Executive Director, CoachArt

 Tweet

“A campaign that is fun, interesting, and inspirational to create is more likely to be fun, interesting, and inspirational to receive!”

Tom McIntire

Tom McIntire

Officer of Community Programs, Seattle Foundation

 Tweet

“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.

Glenn D. Banton, Sr.

Chief Executive Officer, Operation Supply Drop

 Tweet

“If you’re not growing, you’re dying. The most important people to listen to are your beneficiaries and their developing needs.”

Michelle Bouchard

Michelle Bouchard

President, HealthCorps

 Tweet

“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.


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  • These are all great tips! I love this post so much! Thank you for sharing.

    • Ellie

      Thanks for reading, Steph! Happy to hear you enjoyed the post.

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