If you’re trying to change your community, take advice from someone who has changed the world. After sitting at the helm of multiple empires, including PayPal and now Tesla Motors, Elon Musk has this to offer as his “single best piece of advice”:
I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.
When it comes to fundraising, this “improvement question” can take many forms.
“Did it work?”
“Did we meet our goal?”
“Why or why not?”
Many nonprofits ask these questions more than they effectively answer them. By the end of a campaign, staff and volunteers have already invested a lot of themselves, and being self-reflective and even critical is challenging when energy is low and emotions are high.
Nevertheless, the willingness to look at your organization’s performance and figure out how to do better next year (even if you do meet your goal) is the hallmark of good leadership and a dedication.
Here’s how you can evaluate your development strategy and gather feedback—both qualitative and quantitative—to reach new levels of success year over year.
1. Begin With Data
A data analysis at the end of your fundraising campaign is a strong way to analyze best practices and areas of opportunity.
Begin with the essentials:
- Did we meet our goal?
- By how much did we exceed or fall short?
Once you’ve got these numbers in hand, you will also want to explore your year-over-year growth, volume of donors, and percentage of donors who increased (or decreased) their annual contribution. These secondary metrics can help you uncover hidden characteristics about your fundraising campaign, like whether you’re reaching new people or if you should start asking your existing base to give more.
For example, a strong year-over-year improvement may be evidence that your strategies worked, and that you have an attainable baseline goal for next year. A decline in the number of donors might indicate a messaging issue or a lack of demonstrating impact.
Funds for NGOs offers powerful insight on other metrics to analyze, particularly when it comes to demonstrating efficiency and accountability. Board members, volunteers, and corporate donors are often interested in these numbers to know if any funds allotted to promoting the fundraising campaign were effective.
Look at the data story first. It will provide a clear roadmap for discussion and evaluation, and compel your team to work with facts first instead of “gut feelings.”
2. Keep the Evaluation Going
Despite all best efforts to plan, a fundraising campaign can be a fast and furious attempt to raise a lot of money for pressing community needs. When an urgent need arises, or if annual giving statistics aren’t trending well, keeping track of numbers and performance might be the last thing on an organization’s mind.
In Fundraising the Smart Way, Ellen Bristol highlights a disheartening trend about fundraising and resource development organizations: “Fundraising is the function least likely to be touched by the benevolent hand of continuous improvement.”
In other words, fundraising is something of a “lather, rinse, repeat” activity. Rather than dynamically responding to what we see from our community and the data, we allow campaigns to go on year after year with largely the same structure.
Remember Elon Musk’s advice: you should be constantly thinking about what you can do better. Evaluate data in real time, and listen to and filter anecdotal feedback. If lots of supporters are encountering a certain difficulty, huddle with your team to find an interim solution. This can give you a chance to mitigate potential losses and perhaps even uncover new opportunities to succeed.
Additionally, ongoing fundraising evaluation means annual data collection and analysis. Keep your results in a file that is passed on from one year to the next. If you changed something major, such as integrating a new mobile giving platform, you’ll want to be able to correlate changes in data to changes in strategy.
Continuous reflection at the macro-level will help you see trends over time, rather than just discrete results from a single year. You’ll be able to look back and see which years performed best, and then look in your notes to see why.
3. Stay Focused on Your Mission
Jason McNeal is an experienced advertising consultant who works with corporate boards and C-suites on fundraising missions. McNeal’s take on mission-centered fundraising might be a radical departure from the sacred “donor-centered” approach, but he offers a compelling thought:
Our institutions should never be anything other than “mission-centered.” Our focus, energy, decision-making process, and donor-relations should sit on a foundation of mission. Why are we here? Why do we do what we do? Our mission-based center should evidence our values and our purpose. If we truly live out our mission, we will put appropriate focus, recognition, and stewardship on our donors.
McNeal believes that a mission-focused fundraising organization will inherently be donor-focused; one flows naturally from the other. This is not to dismantle donor-centered fundraising—surely, the source of funds deserves heavy consideration—but it does compel us to evaluate whether a campaign actually completed its mission.
Mission-centered evaluation offers you a chance to connect all the dots. It’s entirely possible for your organization to raise more money than it imagined. But there’s another bridge to cross: did those funds make it to where they needed to go? Did it create the opportunities or impact you shared with donors?
Consider a simple mission example from a local grassroots campaign: “The neighborhood high school can’t subsidize the extracurricular sports or arts program as it has in the past. Without this campaign, students might not have those programs, which hinders their current academic success and future opportunities.”
Using this example, the nonprofit should assess whether the campaign was able to reinstate any of these opportunities, and if the communication strategy was compelling. Here’s where you begin to ask qualitative questions like:
- What was the tone of the campaign?
- Did we engage more donors through this mission?
- Did our community believe in our “why”?
Seek success stories throughout the year to evaluate this component, and solicit honest feedback from your volunteer community on how to modify or improve the mission for future campaigns. Remember, the mission is the source of inspiration for development staff and donors alike. Keep the mission relevant to the needs. Even the most foundational visions warrant revisiting now and again.
4. Don’t Wait Long
Once the pledge forms are turned in, the money counted, and thank you letters distributed, it can be tempting to close the book until next year.
Evaluating your fundraising results—including data, qualitative components, areas of opportunity, and best practices—within a month of your campaign end ensures that details and even frustrations are still top of mind.
Schedule ample time for your debrief and ensure everyone who contributed has a chance to give their feedback. A well-rounded perspective offers informed strategies for improvement.
Consider giving your fundraising staff a clear-cut worksheet of specific pieces of data to evaluate. Frame it in terms of annual performance, and then zoom out to have them look at trends. Note changes in approach, messaging, and donor engagement opportunities. With time to prepare, your discussion can be rich with concrete ways to improve.
5. Be Forward-Thinking
In any fundraising campaign, data and anecdotal evidence are components that tell you how you performed. The tendency in evaluative exercises is to give a grade or make a judgment call about how things were done in the past.
But the answer to every question about how your fundraising efforts performed this year should have an immediate follow-up: what do we want to maintain or change?
When assessing your campaign, think about next year’s fundraising efforts to look ahead and enter a problem-solving mindset. Rather than stopping at measuring the problem, open your team up to the possibility of building on success or changing the way something is done.
Evaluating your fundraiser with a forward-thinking mindset means setting goals for next year, now. Fundraising consultant Karen Eber Davis offers insights into goal setting and development that can help your team have an effective future-focused evaluation that builds on what you’ve learned from your most recent campaign.
6. Be Honest
Getting unflattering criticism (and responding well) is part of maintaining trust and transparency with stakeholders.
Organizations often have high volunteer engagement through boards and other affinity groups. These constituents generally are extensions of the development team in their own networks, lobbying friends and corporate boards for significant investments. Nonprofits go to great lengths to keep them coming back, which often means sacrificing truth and improvement for loyalty.
On an emotional level, however, the sheer gratitude for the time and labor can make it difficult to have an honest and open dialogue about how to be better. Nevertheless, a successful evaluation is one that will be critical, but not crippling. Your greatest gift to yourself, your organization, your team, and the people you serve is looking at “failure” and reframing it as an “area of opportunity” without risking demoralization.
Businesses and fundraising organizations often find themselves in this predicament. With traditionally lower salaries, fewer resources, and higher demands, it can be hard to tell an employee to “do better.” Effective teams, however, employ diverse tools to self-analyze and offer up suggestions that can benefit everyone.
Honest evaluation is another reason why beginning with data is critical. Numbers tell an important story, but not the entire story. To supplement, investigate tools like those offered up by Council of Nonprofits for organizational self-assessments. Guided resources like these can shed light on ways for team members to personally improve and create a safe way to enter into honest conversation.
Additionally, consider anonymous feedback forms with questions about roles, logistics, communications, and more. Allow your team to complete these and submit without identification. Compile and share the results with the team, and make this feedback a priority in strategizing for next year’s campaign.
No matter how successful your campaign, there’s always room for evaluation and improvement. Fortune 500 companies and small business owners alike will stress the importance of capitalizing on strengths and learning from failure—two things that can only be achieved through actively reflecting on how a project went.
As with all aspects of leadership and project management, evaluation involves a thoughtful balance of critical improvement and positive reinforcement, as well as a dedication to the mission of improving the quality of life for children and families in your community.
Clay Boggess has been designing fundraising programs for schools and various nonprofit organizations throughout the US since 1999. He works with administrators, teachers, as well as outside support entities such as PTA’s and PTO’s. Clay is a Senior Consultant at Big Fundraising Ideas.