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  • Writer's pictureAcademy Street Workshop


I hate telling this story because in order to share it, I have to admit that I was watching the X-Factor!

We’ve all seen X-Factor. A few years ago I was sitting watching it with my wife (I’m outing her too). One of the talented young women came out for her brief chat with the judges before her performance. She made the comment that there was so many other amazing contestants backstage that their talent made her nervous. The response from Simon Cowell made me stop:

”In the real world you compete with the greatest. That's the mindset you've got to have!”

Now Simon Cowell may not be somebody to be relied on for common sense and advice but in this case, he was spot on.

He meant that if you think the other contestants are good at this level don’t forget that if you win this competition you’ll be up against Beyonce, Rihanna, Madonna and all the best performers the world has ever seen and the public doesn’t care that you’re from a small town with little experience in the music industry and you’ve just won a competition. 

No, they only care about whether they like your music and if they want to buy tickets for your show. And if Beyonce is in town around the same time you are then you are in direct competition her.

So how does this relate to the nonprofit sector?

Simply put you are in competition for donations with every single nonprofit that is fundraising. 

You may be a small organisation with no paid staff: raising money for an orphanage in Belarus but the donor doesn’t know that and really doesn’t care.

They may have €20 to donate this week and they will choose who to give their money to. 

This means that your small, unstaffed nonprofit has to compete with fully professional organisations doing equally important and awesome work.

But while you mightn’t have the brand profile, the fundraising budget, the consultants, staff etc you are offering the same thing. The opportunity to make the world a better place and to feel good about it. This is the essence of fundraising and of the whole nonprofit sector. 

The household names are good at this and as a small organisation, you can do this too.

You need to do it too because if a faceless mega organisation can make a donor feel special and you can’t then how can you ever compete.

You have some advantages to this. You may know your donors. You can be nimble in creating appeals, events and campaigns in response to need or opportunity but often we fall down in meeting the professional piece of the fundraising cycle. Accepting the donation, processing it timely and saying thank you.

This is what we were facing when we began fundraising for Don Bosco Care. There was a small donor base (approx 30 people). We had no profile and big ambitions so we decided to invest in building our donor base via direct mail.

Question: If you send a cheque to the Irish Cancer Society, Concern, Trocaire, Focus Ireland how long would you be happy to wait for a thank you letter?

Don’t give me “I don’t need a thank you, I want all the money to go to the cause” because while you might think that, you are also just as likely to say “I sent a donation to x last year and I never heard anything back from them!”

Personally, if I post a cheque (also people post cheques don’t go on about bank transfers, online giving etc - most people most cheques) on Monday I’m expecting to hear back by the end of the week and most organisations will do that happily - the best ones will do it faster.

So, we went out with our first dm campaign and received over 2000 donations over a couple of months. With this regularly hitting 150+ donations a day for a couple of weeks.

Yes, it was awesome but we couldn’t process the donations fast enough. 

We couldn’t record the donation, therefore, we couldn’t issue a thank you and very quickly we were three weeks behind in our data processing.

People were calling asking had we gotten their cheque, they’d never heard of us before but they liked our appeal and now they were worried if we were legitimate. 

We were living in the real world, competing with Greenpeace and got our ass kicked.

As a result, our data entry was poor because we were under pressure, we got poor second gift rates and it took about 6 months to finally get on top of the mess.

Time to regroup and build a more streamlined process to meet donor expectations.

We stuck with Salesforce - we only use three of our 10 free accounts. We use out of the box Salesforce for nonprofits and it is more than capable of handling all our DM campaigns, producing all the reports we need, keeps us GDR compliant and all the fun stuff.

We made Salesforce simpler but that wouldn’t help us with donation processing. One person can probably input 100 donations a day but then how can they issue receipts, identify key donors for personalisation etc? And there’ll be another 100 donations tomorrow.

Salesforce has a batch uploading system but its limited in the number of options you can use and not suitable for what we needed.

What was our aim?

We set our goal of inputting all donations, printing thank you letters, personalising all ty letters for over €100, identifying donors who meet the CHY €250 threshold to receive a separate note to sign a CHY form, pack them all in an envelope and get in the post on the same say that we receive the donation.

So getting back to my earlier question our goal is that if you put a cheque in the post on Monday you get your personalised thank you on Wednesday morning. 

So what do we do?

Before a campaign goes out in the post we create a campaign in Salesforce and include all the members in this to put into a campaign sheetAs donations come in we add the donation to a Google Sheet - copying and pasting the campaign details and contact ids from the prepared campaign sheet. Once the day's donations have been recorded we can batch upload them to salesforce using G-connector (a free Google add ). This step alone probably reduced the time spent processing data by about 80% from manually inputting donations.After this, the same Google Sheet is used to supply the data for a mail merge using another add on called Autocrat. This identifies which campaign each donation is from and pulls the correct letter for that campaign, inserts the address details, donation amount etc. and can then print the letters and address the envelopes (don’t use windowed envelopes you look like a bankWe also use Google Sheets to flag using the Salesforce data any large donation (>€100) who’s letter will be pulled out for personal hand signing, little note written on it etc) and to calculate anybody who has made (>€250 worth of donations to us this year and for whom we don’t have a CHY form on file) All we have to do is print the letters, pack the envelopes and put a (real) stamp on them. 

It's a lot more complicated to set up than just downloading some apps and hitting go but here are some facts:

We are using: Salesforce, Google G-Suites, Autocrat, G-Connector and now mailer lite (for eblasts but that's just new) all of which allow incredibly sophisticated data processing and analysis and which we haven’t spent a Euro on.

We are not developers, coders, database admins - we have reasonably decent computer knowledge but we are self-taught and followed online tutorials to implement the systems, build the spreadsheet strings etc - It took time but it was doable.

We built it all from scratch over 6 months for Don Bosco but we’ve implemented the exact same system in another organisation in about 2-3 weeks.

We are providing a personalised thank you letter to every single donor that sends us a donation and most are sent by return of post and at worst they go out in the post the day after we receive the donation.

As a small organisation, you have some huge advantages over the bigger nonprofits. Your donors know the work you do locally, you can ask them directly for support and react quickly to changes in the environment. But if you can’t match this flexibility and charm with ruthless efficiency people can quickly think that you’re not professional or you don't care about them.

If you can use freely available, relatively easy to use tools to process your donations and send thank-yous to your donors then more than competing with the greatest you can become one of the greatest.

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