Getting Intimate with Your Donors: Fundraising Trends of 2012

Submitted on Tue, 12/4/2012 - 1:08pm
As you wrap up another year of working toward your mission, here are a few things to add to your 2013 to-do lists.

If you ask me, nonprofits will remember 2012 as a year when communities connected and mobilized with newfound moxie. With the help of data-informed personalization, online agility, and personality-driven movements, we saw big donations and big changes happening all over the place. Here's my take.

The President knows the color of your underwear.
Companies are compiling information about us in ways that will make you want to sell your computer, pack your VW camper bus, and live in the woods off the grid. Target often knows when a consumer is pregnant even before she's told her family. Using that data, they market specific products and attempt to make her a customer for life. Sure, big, fancy businesses have been collecting and leveraging personal information for a while now, but the rest of us, particularly nonprofits, simply couldn't afford to collect and analyze it. In 2012, however, we saw a rise in data collection and analysis being used to raise money and spark social change much closer to home.

In 2008, the Obama campaign knocked our socks off by integrating social networking and data collection into what most of us assumed would be election-year business as usual. In 2012, they took it much farther, building a mega-database that helped them target donors with sniper-like precision. For instance, did you know that George Clooney is catnip to women ages 40–49 who manage their family's paychecks? Obama's data nerds did. They also deduced that these women like Sarah Jessica Parker. Depending on where you lived, you could win a chance to dine with her or George. Really, this data is pure fundraising gold, and it helped the Obama campaign reach an almost inconceivable goal of 1 billion dollars. 

The 2012 presidential campaign is a great case study for how sophisticated data collection and analysis can inform fundraising. Sure, both parties had a team of data scientists working on this stuff for years, and you don't. But back in 2008 you probably didn't expect that social media would become a serious element of your organization's communications, either. Over time, we staff, budget and manage differently as new priorities emerge.

Good things come to those who wait for technology to become accessible and the trailblazing to become mainstream. But nonprofits like charity: water and Do Something are already mining data with sophistication and using the results to motivate volunteers, inspire gives, and spark action. You're next.

Donors know what's stuck in your E.D.'s teeth.
Another byproduct of social media is a newfound sense of intimacy with celebrities, notable personalities, and other people we generally put on pedestals. (Personally, following Ashton Kutcher or Lady Gaga on Twitter doesn't float my boat, but following Cory Booker, Atul Gawande, and, of course, Holly Ross does.)

Once upon a time, gaining access to our heroes was hard work. Now we know what they're thinking about and working on in real time. This sense of standing side-by-side with leaders and innovators makes it easier than ever to spark movements and action of all kinds. When they talk, we're listening—and ready to do what they ask.

In 2012, we've seen executive directors of nonprofits of all sizes regularly using Twitter, Facebook, and video to break down the wall separating us from their work. Earlier in the year, Nancy Brinker (Founder and former CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure) and Cecile Richards (President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America) both used social media to connect with supporters during the controversy surrounding Komen for the Cure's decision to pull funding for breast cancer screenings from Planned Parenthood. Following a massive public backlash, the decision was reversed and, a few months later, Nancy Brinker stepped down as CEO. Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, raised $650,000 in just 24 hours, $400,000 of which came in online.

Even the President broke down the third wall. Before this election, having dinner with the President and First Lady was a perk accessible only by invitation to luminaries and major donors. But data shows that middle-aged women who donate also love contests and intimate dinners, so dinners they got—and not just with George and Sarah. The “Dinner with Barack” contest required a small donation—only $3 to $6—to enter. The Obama campaign hasn't disclosed how much this contest specifically raised, but it's clear they contributed significantly to the bottom line. (Videos of the dinners were also released so the rest of us could see what an intimate meal with POTUS and FLOTUS includes.)

Today is the new next month.
It's not just the organizations and their leaders who are stepping up. Existing networks and communities (online and off) can also mobilize lightening-fast these days. It makes me laugh out loud to recall all the hours we spent wondering if certain donors would ever give online. First, we thought only the ‘digital natives' could handle it. Then, gradually, we raised the age ceiling. These days, your grandma may not buy dinner with Google Wallet or Venmo yet, but odds are good she's game to make a donation online. She's already friended me on Facebook.

With the Sandy recovery effort, we saw nonprofits of all different shapes and sizes, not to mention individuals, mobilizing faster than you can say ‘flashlight'. Occupy Sandy, an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, had a site built, a ‘wedding registry' on Amazon you could use to donate relief supplies, and an archive to capture stories online within a few days of the storm. You could also make a donation to one of many different organizations working on Sandy relief via crowdrise.com and have it matched by Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist), or donate $1, $5, or $10 as you checked out while shopping at Whole Foods. Online and off, ways to volunteer and donate are plentiful, and designed to make the donor's experience easy and fast.

As of November 9, less than two weeks after the storm, the American Red Cross had already raised $117 million for Sandy relief, from a combination of corporate support, individual giving (some via their text-to-give program), banner ads, and an NBC telethon and benefit concert. Having a highly regarded brand and a solid network of big relationships in place certainly helps, too.

With all of this increasingly affordable and user-friendly technology at our fingertips, motivated individuals can move mountains fast. Small, large, old, and new organizations are demonstrating speed and agility with their fundraising and crisis communications. I'm impressed—and, as a native New Yorker—very thankful.

So as you wrap up another year of working toward your mission, add a few things to your 2013 to-do lists:

  • Collect AND analyze data. Take what you learn and try new approaches informed by what you know about your supporters. Not sure what that means? Check out Beth Kanter and Katie Paine's new book, Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, for a jumpstart.
  • Open up. Share more of who you are—from the executive director to the intern. Everyone represents your organization, and your supporters want to know you. Help and encourage them to represent you in ways that make sense based on who they are.
  • Act fast. Hopefully 2013 will be a year that's free of crisis. But just in case, be prepared. Role-play how you'd handle a crisis before it happens, so you can respond quickly—and in multiple channels—if it does.