• October 24, 2014

What Nonprofits Should Start Doing in 2014: Advice From the Experts

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This article is part of our Outlook 2014 package. See more advice and ideas for the year ahead in our special section.

Keep an eye on the numbers

To improve performance, nonprofits should pick out key pieces of data from each of their departments and review them regularly at staff meetings, says Amy Sample Ward, chief executive of the Nonprofit Technology Network, who calls the measures “canary metrics”—figures that show the canary in the coal mine that could be a sign of future trouble.

Looking at important data regularly, she says, helps organizations stop making decisions based on hunches and identify potential problems early. She says, “That way you can always look up there and say, 'Gosh, tons of people are signing up for our e-newsletter. No one has registered for an event. Look at how low those numbers are. What’s happening here?’”

Think about the second gift

Instead of putting so much time and energy into winning new donors, charities need to do a better job getting gifts from the supporters they already have, says Farra Trompeter, vice president of Big Duck, a communications-consulting company that works with nonprofits.

She recommends that nonprofits start by reviewing exactly what happens after someone makes a first gift to determine areas that need improvement. Organizations should then seek to personalize the way they thank donors and better report on the impact of their gifts.

The goal, says Ms. Trompeter, is for donors to think, “Wow, I feel part of this organization. I’m not just this random person that’s disconnected and the organization just sees me as a credit card or a checkbook. They see me as a partner.”

Experiment with raising money from the crowd

Campaigns to raise money for specific projects on sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are a great way for nonprofits to attract young donors, says Alia McKee, a principal at Sea Change Strategies, a fundraising consulting company.

The opportunity to contribute to an individual project, she says, is particularly enticing to millennial and Generation X donors who want to know exactly how their contributions will be spent and the impact they will have. Charities, on the other hand, are reluctant to let supporters direct their gifts because they need unrestricted funds, which, she says, younger donors are often unwilling to give.

“Organizations are going to really need to play with this,” says Ms. McKee, “maybe using a restricted-giving campaign to then start the conversation about unrestricted institutional giving.”

Step up efforts to show impact

Too often donor stewardship is an afterthought, and it shows. Nonprofits need to start thinking about how they will thank donors and show them the impact of their gifts when they are planning their fundraising campaigns, says Theresa Pesch, president of Children’s Foundation, which is the fundraising arm of Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

Her group’s fundraisers develop individual plans for how the institution will thank major donors and show them the difference their gifts have made and discuss stewardship activities at their weekly meetings.

For example: Less than a day after a couple made a donation to pay for a powerful new laser, the parents of a young patient with a brain tumor wrote the donors a letter telling them what laser surgery would mean for their son and what he hoped to dress up as for Halloween after he recovered.

Says Ms. Pesch: “We mobilize quickly.”

Think multigenerational

To tap into the growing number of donors who want to involve their children and grandchildren in their philanthropy, charities need to develop more opportunities for people of different ages to volunteer and learn about their work, says Ms. Pesch.

In 2014, Children’s Foundation is planning customized family tours and meetings with doctors for donors who made large contributions, as well as a wider gathering to celebrate the impact of philanthropy at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

Says Ms. Pesch: “The event will allow donors and their children and grandchildren to see, feel, and touch the change.”

Take visuals seriously

Making a good impression is critical, so charities need to get more professional about the way they present themselves visually, say nonprofit communications experts.

Instead of using stock photos, experts recommend that nonprofits train employees to take photographs of their programs in action. Groups should also consider working with graphic artists and designers when possible.

And once organizations determine the key messages, colors, and typefaces they want people to associate with them, groups need to stick with them, says Ms. Trompeter.

“As soon as things start getting boring for you­—ugh, everything’s pink, everything’s blue, everything always says the same thing,” she says—that’s when supporters are just starting to get familiar with them.

Send an e-mail to Nicole Wallace.

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