Steal These Ideas from Top Fundraisers

Associations don’t always have all the answers. (We know, you’re shocked!) We definitely have some major advantages, not the least of which is that we are highly a cooperative and collaborative community, in large part because there’s not a lot of intra-industry competition. But there are some areas where we lag and where other industries—charitable fundraisers, for example—do things better than we do.

Major Donor (Member) Relationship-Building

In the association world, we tend to want to treat all our members equally: nobody is more important or special than anyone else. That’s a noble impulse and helpful … up to point. After all, you don’t want your association to seem cliquish or for any member to feel like the association doesn’t respect or value her.

But, again, only up to a point.

Because the fact of the matter is some members ARE more important or more special than others. Some members only date your association casually and then move on. Some make significant, long-term commitments. Those two types of members are not equally valuable.

Fundraisers, who manage relationships with donors that range from those who give $25 one time to those who make six- and seven-figure legacy contributions, have figured out how to make everyone along that continuum feel known and appreciated in a way that’s commensurate with their giving level. They’ve done that by prioritizing ongoing two-way communication to find out what really matters to their donors, and using that information to deliver experiences for them that focus on treating people equitably rather
than equally.

Creating and Running Outstanding Campaigns

Your (campaign) baby is probably ugly. But it’s not your fault!

You set up the campaign, and your association management software and marketing automation software run in the background, sending notices out on schedule to everyone who still hasn’t renewed her membership, registered for the meeting, or bought the webinar or book.

But those highly automated campaigns aren’t compelling. They don’t tell a story. They aren’t personal. They don’t make a connection. Because of that, they often don’t live up to expectations.

Fundraisers are experts at doing all of those things. They have to be. They’re not asking for people to give them money to get a direct personal benefit (a membership, a conference experience, professional development, access to vetted information). They’re asking people to give them money for some sort of greater good. And they do it really well, by making personal connections and making their donors the heroes of the highly engaging stories they tell.

Attracting Millennial/Young Professional Supporters

Just about every association we know of is struggling to recruit younger members. Part of the reason for that is that associations have erected barriers to entry rather than removing them.

What’s required to be considered part of your association’s community? A certain degree? A license? A certification? MONEY?

Those are all barriers to entry that a young person may not be able to clear—at least not yet. What you’re telling them, in effect, is: “You are not welcome here.”

Fundraising organizations know that if they can establish a relationship and loyalty up front, the dollars will come. Even if they don’t, those committed young fans will contribute in all sorts of valuable ways: volunteering to help with the mission-driven work of the organization, recruiting other supporters, and amplifying messages and stories online and on
social media.

Putting It All Together

Probably the most important lesson fundraisers have for association executives is this: Don’t get lazy.

It’s tempting to do just that, particularly if you’re organization is not in crisis. And many associations are NOT in crisis. According to the 2017 edition of the Marketing General Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, nearly three-quarters of participating associations are either holding steady or increasing membership. Renewal rates are generally solid. Participation in programs, products, and services—particularly white-label social networks, virtual and in-person event attendance, and credentialing programs—remains robust.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Well, no. To quote Steal Like a Fundraiser (the whitepaper on which this article is based):

“It’s easy to get lazy. We urge you and your team not to, though. The association industry’s operating landscape is shifting rapidly and in unpredictable ways. That’s why it’s important, at least at times, to turn outside the industry to see what other organizations are doing to attract audiences, particularly younger audiences; to build relationships with those audiences on their terms, not the organization’s terms; and to recognize their contributions equitably and make people feel known, heard, special and appreciated.”

Authors Sohini Baliga, Director of Communications, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, CEO & Chief Strategist, Spark Consulting LLC. To learn more, download your free copy of Steal Like a Fundraiser: Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations at Also, mark your calendar for Wednesday, March 21, 2-3 p.m. ET. Sohini and Elizabeth will be delivering a webinar on the whitepaper, graciously hosted (and free for attendees) by Wild Apricot. You can find out more about the webinar or register at
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