Improving Donor Relations: Getting The Right Message To The Right People With The Right Rhythm
Interview with Wordsprint CEO Bill Gilmer

Bill GilmerBill Gilmer is owner of Wordsprint, which is a marketing services provider with a graphic design studio, print shop, and mail house all under one roof. We specialize in marketing campaigns for small to medium sized businesses, and fundraising campaigns for nonprofit organizations.

A native of Richmond VA, Bill has a B.A. in Religion from the University of the South in Sewanee TN, and a Masters in English from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville VA. He spent a year at the University of Muenster in Germany as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar.

After working in Boston as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Bill became national sales manager for Dynamark Inc. in Charlottesville. He then taught English and coached wrestling at St. Christopher’s High School in Richmond for three years, before moving to Southwest Virginia in 1985 and founding Wordsprint, a marketing services provider.

Wordsprint specializes in marketing and fundraising campaigns for technology companies, colleges, and non-profit organizations. Utilizing state-of-the art variable data technology, and integrating web and email with print and mobile, Wordsprint helps clients build relationships with individuals rather than marketing to the masses.

Under Bill’s leadership, Wordsprint has won dozens of national awards.

Read the Interview

Hugh Ballou: Hey, folks, it’s Hugh Ballou. Another chapter of The Nonprofit Exchange. Russell David Dennis, last week you and I were in Florida. It’s a good thing we’re not there this week.

Russell Dennis: Yes, it’s a bit windy down there now. I’m hoping everyone is okay. It’s looking like the storm is turning off and it’s not going as far inland as they initially thought. Hopefully all of our friends and the wonderful people down at Kaiser who made us feel so welcome are okay.

Hugh: It’s called a hurricane, but it’s really a slowcane. It’s going slowly through there. Welcome folks to this episode. We have a special guest today, Bill Gilmer. He has been on the ride with us ever since we started the magazine. I think over five years ago. Bill Gilmer, welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange.

Bill Gilmer: Thanks. Glad to be here. Unlike Russell, I am in chillier Blacksburg, Virginia. No hurricane on my horizon, I don’t think.

Hugh: Yeah, we just are down the road in Lynchburg. Bill, we ask our guests to say a little bit about themselves. Some background. Why is it you’re doing this important work you’re doing today?

Bill: My background, I used to be a printer. I used to run a printing company. Over the years, we discovered that most of the work we were doing was for nonprofits. Over the years, we started tracking response rates on donor relation campaigns. We have put together a system of marketing to donors, and that’s what we do every day. Help folks build relationships with their donor base.

Hugh: You’ve been working with SynerVision five or six years ago. Let’s declare up front that Wordsprint, Bill’s company, is a sponsor of Nonprofit Performance Magazine and SynerVision’s work in general. We talk about you often on these podcasts. It’s a pleasure to have you here live and in person. This is not an infomercial for Wordsprint, but we know the value of your work.

We talk about the 30/30/30. That’s the secret for success. Just to be clear, people can do this on their own. They don’t need you. But if they want to do it the very best way possible, you know how to do that. I want to be clear on that. Explain what this 30/30/30/10 is all about.

Bill: What we discovered, and this is lots of data, we started tracking this back in the early 2000s. I think we’re up to 20 million touches, 15,000 campaigns. What we discovered is that there are three things that matter. It’s our three-bit marketing system. There are three things that matter when it comes to donor relations.

The first is having the right message. The second is getting that right message to the right people. The third is getting the right message to the right people with the right rhythm. We help clients focus their message, stay consistent with their message, stay on message. We help them with the right people by helping with database cleansing, database acquisition, all kinds of demographics and predictive analytics. But most importantly, we have developed a system for staying consistent and rhythmic with your donor touches.

We’ve observed through all our data that is where many nonprofits fail. It’s the rhythm and consistency. The right message to the right people with the right rhythm. That’s the 30/30/30.

Hugh: What do you say to people who say, “I’ve tried mailing. It didn’t work. We tried sending out a mailing at the end of the year, and we got a little bit of money, but it doesn’t work, Bill.”

Bill: I tell them that I tried dieting once last year, and it didn’t work either.

Hugh: I tried working out once, and it didn’t work either.

Bill: I tried to exercise once, and it didn’t work. It really is like diet or exercise or physical therapy. These are things that work if you implement them rhythmically. It’s not a quick fix. Rhythm doesn’t become rhythm right away. It needs a few cycles. In fact, on average, for most of our clients, it’s really in the third year of repeated rhythmic touches that the donations start to snowball, that it really begins to build. This is not a showhorse thing. This is drip marketing, if you will. But it works.

Hugh: It works. I’ve seen it work. Dig a little deeper into the right person and the right message. I want to know more about how I can do this.

Bill: The right message, the first pillar, is your brand. It’s who you are. It’s why you go to work every day. It’s your mission. It’s your elevator speech. What we found that nonprofits who stay on message, who stay true to themselves about who they are, are the ones more successful over time as opposed to those who try to be all things to all people or try to repackage it or try to rebrand every year. I’m not saying you can’t rebrand, but you need to do so carefully. The right message is mainly a matter of consistency and articulating it clearly. Having the right taglines, having the right logo, having the right paragraphs.

The right people gets more complicated. It is all about relationships. We find that the nonprofits who succeed are those who create a database culture, where they take those relationships and get them into the database that everyone in the organization is empowered to update. Your best donors are the people you know. People donate to people. People donate to you because they trust you to fulfill your mission. It’s the people you know, the people you run into, the people who come to your open house. These are the best potential donors. The organizations who know how to capture that and bring them into their database so they get rhythmic touches and notifications are the ones who succeed.

You can also acquire data. We do a lot of this. Using some fancy predictive analytics, we can acquire names of people who are more likely to donate to your cause than others. That is almost a whole topic in itself.

Hugh: Talk a little bit about that. We constantly run across people who say, “I don’t know anybody.” If we do have people who are in nonprofits that maybe they get donations, but they don’t have a donor management program per se, or they work with a number of early stage. Talk a bit about how you acquire names legally. Is there a magic database program that I can use to connect them with?

Bill: It’s all legal. There are about six or seven big players in this game called compilers. These are companies who do nothing but purchase, massage, and resell databases. You’ve heard of some of them. Dunne & Bradstreet does this mostly with businesses. Experian. Equifax, the one that had the big data breach. InfoUSA. There are others. There are literally thousands of brokers and people who take the information from these larger players and resell it to folks like us and you.

Demographics are available. We as a society click a lot. We are on our computers and are clicking. We go to Amazon. We read the paragraph. We look at another book. We order this. We fill out a warranty card. We subscribe to a magazine. We join a club. All of those are data transactions that are public and can be sold and resold. The hard demographics have always been there, things like the value of your home, the car you drive. That’s public information. But these compilers gather so many data points on all of us as consumers that they are able with artificial intelligence help to see patterns and build logorhythms. They know if you’ve done this and this and this, then you are more likely to support a nonprofit that focuses on children and especially disabled children. That is how detailed it can get. Or you are more likely to support a local nonprofit that works in the music arts, like an orchestra or a symphony. We call this predictive analytics. This is data that indicates the likelihood of someone supporting your cause. This has gotten way better than it even was six months ago.

What we usually do—and Hugh, you have had some recent experience with this with one of your organizations—when we do a database acquisition like this, we then compare it to the organization’s existing donor database. If the predictive analytics have been accurate, there will be considerable overlap. Your organization had 3,000 names. We bought another 700-800. Three years ago, you’d expect 10-12 of those to be an overlap. We had a 250-name overlap in that case. Those analytics were extremely accurate. These are folks not just demographically speaking but in terms of propensity are more likely to support your cause. You still have to touch them and touch them rhythmically. That is where the rhythm thing comes in. That is where you need to establish a system of cadent touches over the course of several cycles. At the end of the second or the beginning of the third year, that is where you will start to see donations come in, and it will start to snowball over time.

Hugh: When you are talking about clicking, we’re talking about mail in the U.S. We are not talking about email with our computer.

Bill: I don’t think I caught the last part of your question. In terms of what we advise for donor relations, it’s a combination of mailing and emailing.

Russell: It’s so systematic to your approach to keeping and maintaining donors. Especially small nonprofits will be overwhelmed when they start thinking about all this data, and maybe a little confused as to what a touchpoint is. Lots of folks like me get lots of mail and email from a lot of the same folks. Maybe they think, “Oh, I don’t want to be this person who is bombarding something with emails a day.” When you talk in terms of touches, there are certain things you are accomplishing with each touch. Let’s take a generic year or quarter and talk about what touchpoints there are and the methods behind them.

Bill: Let me give you a common example of a mid-sized local nonprofit. Let’s say they have 10-12 staff. On average, our clients would have several touches. They would probably have one event every year. In the spring, they will do a luncheon where they talk about their cause and ask people for money while they are there. They might have a monthly blog. The first Monday of every month, they put something out on social media. They might have a fall appeal mailing. Here is where they write a letter. “Dear Dr. Smith, Here is what we do. Please give us money.” If they are smart, they will have that appeal mailing coupled with an auto trigger email, where the day after Dr. Smith gets the letter, he gets an automatic email that says, “Hey Dr. Smith, did you get our letter yesterday? I bet you trashed it, didn’t ya? You can still click here to support our cause.” Once in the winter and once in the summer, they will do an e-newsletter. They are sending out information two or three times a year. Information only. They are asking for money in a hard ask twice a year. In the example I gave, once with a mailer/email and once with an event. Something like that.

We have some clients who do mailers and ask for money every month. We have others who do it once a year with a hard mailing. What we don’t have is much success with straight email solicitation. People do like the convenience of donating online, but they don’t trust it unless it has something based in the physical world, whether that’s a letter they got and threw away, then they get the mail. They will trust it a lot more because they have the mail piece. They go to an open house, and they then trust the email because they associate it with the real-life physical experience they had.

That would be typical. A hard ask twice a year, information only two or three times, and maybe something monthly on social media.

What we find does not work is the single big blast. So many people want to put all their eggs into one basket. We will have this big shindig and send out 200,000 invitations. It doesn’t do that well. It is better to touch 200 people rhythmically than 200,000 in a blast. Is that helpful?

Russell: The key is to spread these over with ask, non-ask. Give them information about the programs they were talking about in the newsletter. How the dollars are impacting, how many people were served, what the shift is.

Bill: Impact is huge.

Russell: If we’re talking about contacting 200 people at a time, this probably means for a medium-sized nonprofit they are sending stuff out weekly to different donors.  

Bill: Most of our clients, an average database for our clients is in the range of 2,000-10,000 donors. We often do mailings of 3,000. Sometimes we do 100,000. On average, let’s say 5,000. Most of our clients would do one or two mailings a year. A fall appeal and a spring appeal. In lieu of the spring appeal, sometimes they would do a spring event. The other touches, the social media and the e-newsletter when they are not asking are information only. That would be a balanced mix.

Let me get to another key point. This is the magic right here. Rhythm is important. Understanding the rhythm that your clients respond to. Most of you know this. Most nonprofit organizations have a pretty good understanding of how often their donors and potential donors want to be asked. Once a year, twice a year, once a month sometimes. The organization usually knows what the rhythm should be. Rhythm is so important that you sustain it over the years that our biggest piece of advice is adjust the scale to match your budget so that you can sustain the rhythm.

We actually help clients with spreadsheets so it says we want to mail to 20,000 people twice a year. The postage alone exceeds your budget. You can’t do that. “Let’s try it one time.” Don’t do it. Adjust that scale. If you can’t afford the postage of 20,000 appeal letters, can you do 10,000? No. 5,000? You play with that spreadsheet and settle on we can sustain 2,500 twice a year. That’s the amount you go with. You have this pool of 10,000. How do you target down to the 2,500? That’s how you do predictive analytics. Mail to the 2,500 who are most likely to donate to your cause. It’s a budget thing. You adjust your scale to match your budget so you can sustain that rhythm because if you sustain the rhythm through several cycles, it works. This is based on data of what actually works, not what makes you feel or look good, but did the donations come rolling in.

Russell: What is the best path to help a new organization or client when they come to you? They may have some stuff they kept on Excel, but they don’t necessarily have a donor database or CRM. They looked at these things and thought they were hard to use. They know they need to get better information. Talk about that process where you help them look at the most important factors and how to organize that data and how you guide them to build that so they get effective data from what they are collecting.

Bill: There are lots of databases out there as you know. We deal with lots of them. People are constantly asking us which one is the best. All I can honestly say is the best one is the one that someone in your organization is willing to dive into. The right operator, any of these databases can sing. They really can. Some of our biggest clients use Salesforce for their nonprofit data. There is a whole spectrum. It’s not so much which CRM system you use. It’s do you have someone and a back-up or two who know how to use it?

If you have no money and can’t do anything, use Excel. It’s not so much what you use as how you use it. We can assist. We understand a lot of the databases. We love working with Excel in terms of immediate back-and-forth with our clients. They will export their database to a CSV or Excel file, and we will update the addresses and run through a deceased person’s filter. Make sure that list is scrubbed and clean. But we do all that from Excel.

Russell: It’s a robust program. Microsoft itself. What trips people up more than anything else is understanding what are the most important pieces for me to collect, and then once I collect all of these, what is the best way to categorize or shift my people around or look at now I have it, how do I use it?

Bill: This leads into something new we have been doing within the last couple of years. Let’s say you inherit a nonprofit. You come in as the new executive director. There has been some staff turnover, and you have three or four huge Excel files with all your donors. You don’t really know your donors. You have some record of who gave when, but you don’t know why the other people are in there. Are they good prospects? We can actually take that database, those Excel files, do all the usual stuff, combine, de-dupe, update the addresses, make sure they aren’t deceased. Then we do something called data append. We send that file—let’s say you have 3,000 names but you only know who 50 are—confidentially to some of these national compilers. They can run it versus their data banks and come back with demographic data filled in where you get age, education level, the value of the home, household income, gender, political persuasion, all sorts of things you can add back to that list. That can be a target. You can say, “Listen, these 300 people don’t match the profile of our donors. I don’t see why we’re mailing to them. They haven’t given to us in five years. Let’s drop them. But these 400 look really good. They match the profile. They are active in the community. Let’s keep them on our list.” We call it scoring data or modeling data. There are all kinds of things like that.

Russell: There are so many nuances to relating to donors. They come from different backgrounds, education levels, parts of the country. They are in different age groups. When people look at this and say, “I have a lot of different people,” what is the best way for me to organize these groups? What are their touchpoints that are more effective for some groups than others? How do we go about looking at that?

Bill: One thing I haven’t talked about yet is what channel you use. Is this a demographic that will respond to a Facebook post or a physical newsletter or an e-newsletter? You can ask them. That’s a good question. “Would you prefer to receive this?” Make some age and generation assumptions. Millennials actually like direct mail more than you think. Some older folks don’t like it as much as you think.

The one thing we do advise people to do is do what we call a scattergraph. That’s where you sit around the table brainstorming and make a graph of your best donors in terms of age, income level, value of home, education level, geography. As you start graphing this, you will have people all over that graph. You will have young kids who donate to your cause. You have great-grandfathers. You have uneducated and educated. But there will be, the more you plot those dots on your graph, a cluster in the middle. That is your sweet spot. If you want to go after and acquire more donors, acquire more who match those demographics. Add those predictive analytics. It’s good to have a profile of who is our sweet spot donor, and how many.

Russell: Very helpful. When you start working with an organization, what type of organization are you most effective at helping? What are some of the things that the organization can do that will help you get them results a little faster?

Bill: That’s a great question, Russell. We find that most nonprofits are pretty good at the first 30%, the message. Nonprofits know most well why they do what they do. It’s their passion. It’s why they go to work. They usually have that part nailed down. They have that elevator speech. You can’t shut them up. They got the message.

We find that we can help a lot with the rhythm. We can build these Excel sheets. We can send reminder notifications. “Make sure your blog is written. It’s due tomorrow.” “Your e-newsletter should launch next week.” We send reminders that keep them on track, like how a FitBit reminds you to hop up and walk around. These notifications keep you on track.

The one that is hardest is the data. It’s relationships. We don’t know the people in their database, but they do. They know more of them than not. Say the thing in the organization could do is the best results is to go through their database with as many constituents involved as possible: your volunteers, your staff, your key donors. Break it up into small bits, and do a little bit at a time. Try to understand who your donors are. That would probably be the best.

Leverage your board. Every board member should have a gun to their head that says, “Who do you know who might donate to your cause? Give us their names.” Leverage conversations. Your whole staff should be encouraged.

You have a new administrative assistant who is helping you with this. She bumps into someone at the grocery store who says, “Hey Sally, I haven’t seen you in a long time. What are you doing?” “I’m working at Habitat for Humanity now. We are doing this and this.” That person says, “Wow, that sounds interesting. Tell me more.” Sally needs to know to come back and get that information in the database. That person she just bumped into in the grocery store is a better prospect than any of these purchased names we are talking about. Everyone in the organization from the board to the staff to the volunteers should realize it is their personal relationships that lead to the best database.

Russell: It’s a warm referral that is good. One of the things that I’ve seen information on and talked to people about in having people on your team, you want to have good tools for them to use to go out and talk about your organization. If you can take a few minutes, talk about some of the tools, printed tools, the toolkits that you make the board members and volunteers and people with information on the organization, how they organize that, and the tools they have to talk about the organization in the best way.

Bill: Funny you should ask. We just worked up some handout cards as old-fashioned as that sounds, a little bigger than a business card. The organization calls them the “Get Involved” cards. On one size is the logo and a truncated, poignant abbreviation of the mission. The back features three ways to get involved. You can go to this website and do this. You can become a volunteer and do this. You can call this number and do this. They give these cards to everyone on staff, their volunteers, and encourage them when you are in the grocery store and your old roommate comes up to talk to you, you give them one of the cards. Something as simple as that.

Russell: It’s important to have those pieces. Is there a way you have people who have these tools, a simple system for them to keep track of how many people are coming? How do you help them document the effectiveness of these tools?

Bill: We haven’t done a lot of that. The organizations themselves usually keep a database of how many cards did you hand out, and did you talk about it? Ideally you are getting some address/city/state/zip/phone number/email into your database from that encounter. That’s the ideal. When you bump into the old roommate in the grocery store, you ask for a business card or a text so I can keep in touch with you. “I’d like to send some information about XYZ charity.” The ones I know do this on a regular basis have weekly staff meetings and go over contacts. It’s the most important thing. You’re an ambassador for your charity. It’s those contacts. People give to people. I know you think they give to your organization because you do all this good. They give because they know and trust you to carry out that mission. It’s all about trust.

Hugh: Underlying that is relationship building. I can’t tell you how many nonprofits out there get a check and wait until next year to ask for another check. I don’t know what the average is, but 70% of most nonprofits get the bulk of their money from donors. There is a large percentage.

Bill: Yeah, we really do need to take care of our donors better. We recommend the pyramid where you take your database and have your top donors at the top. At some point, you draw that line where everyone above this level of giving gets the personal visit from the executive director or the personal phone call or the three phone calls a year, whatever that appropriate nurturing touch is. The ones at the bottom get a thank-you card. The top people, your key donors, need to be acknowledged, need to be thanked. They need the recognition. You can’t do that with all 3,000 names, but you can do it with the top 50. We recommend that pyramid approach.

Hugh: It’s the old Pareto principle, the 80/20 rule. 80% of your money comes from 20% of your people. The leader is challenged to be able to spend enough time with too many people. My rule of thumb is what you said. You want to spend individual time with your 20%, but you want to stay in touch with the other 80%. Your program is a good way to do that.

Bill: We slice and dice it even further. I’ll give you an example. They won’t mind me talking about them. It’s a local arts nonprofit that does theater and plays. They have a huge donor database. The ones at the very top get the personal visit, the handwritten note, the crème de la crème.

The next hunk of several thousand records gets variable data printed communication. Variable data has a salutation, “Dear Sam and Jackie.” This communication flips out pictures of the last show they went to. It’s highly personalized because they have scrubbed the data that far down that they trust it and know it’s accurate. Variable data personalization works as long as it’s accurate.

The bottom part of the pyramid gets the “Dear friend of XYZ Theater.” The bottom part of it is not personalized because they simply don’t have the resources to scrub their data all the way down and make their salutations are correct and other variable data is accurate.

Russell: This is important as far as it’s managing your budget. You’re getting the most bang for the buck and where a lot of people don’t think they have money to spend, they may find that after going through and working with someone like you, they may be able to find where they can actually spend the same dollars and get more bang for the buck. When you’re working with an organization, sometimes they have board members or volunteers or different people participating in the process. How important is training for all of these key people? What are some of the most important things for you to cover when you’re training them?

Bill: Let me do a tangent because something you said reminded me of something. This is back in the early 2000s, 2006/2007, right in there. We had not developed our full-blown three-bit marketing system. We were beginning to gather the data and understand that the rhythmic touching is what’s important.

I ended up being the chair of a small nonprofit. It was a private school trying to get off the ground in the middle of nowhere, southwest Virginia. We didn’t have the money to hire my company. We were struggling. We had about 300 names of donors and potential donors. We had 10 board members. 300 names, 10 board members. What a coincidence. Here’s what we did. We wrote the letter. We took it to the board meeting and said, “Okay, Sam, you’re on the board. You’re responsible for these 30 potential people. You make copies of the letter, sneak them into church, and pay the postage. That’s why you’re on the board.” We assigned each board member 30 records from that database. As an organization, we didn’t spend any money. We leveraged our board. They each had to make a few copies and come up with 30 first-class stamps. We did that rhythmically. We did that appeal mail three times a year. By the third year, what do you know? We could afford to have someone else do all this.

That was definitely training board members to get in the trenches. Hugh talks about this all the time. The importance of an energized and dedicated board is, I can’t say enough about it. That is so critical to have in a thriving nonprofit.

Russell: That it is. It’s all about the people who you have, who support you, who are in your organization. Your team is your secret sauce. That’s where you grow and prosper and create more impact in the lives of others. Knowing how to reach out to them and what really resonates with them is very important. Having that system and having the tools to get them there.

The one thing we haven’t really touched on is with donors, you have three phases. You’re acquiring them. Then at some point, as they’re sticking with you, you want them to grow, and you want them to stay. There are three pieces to that. If you would, talk a bit about some of the best ways to move them through that process. How do you acquire them? What are some key tips for that? What are some things that will help you grow them? What are some of the most important things to keep them sticking with you?

Bill: The acquisition part we talked about a bit. The best way is those personal relationships, those personal contacts. The second best way would be doing some data acquisition. You can do it yourself; you don’t have to go through a company like mine. Google “how to acquire donors,” and plenty of places will crop up that will sell you names. That is the acquisition part.

The rhythm means a lot here. The rhythmic touch is how you keep them and how you make them poised to grow. Usually, it’s in the second or third year that you get the first donation from a brand new contact. To do that, you need to do those rhythmic touches. This is not an overnight success thing. This is in it for the long haul. It’s rare, not unheard of, but rare for someone to move from a $50-per-cycle level to a $5,000-level without something happening. That something could be they come to an event, they hear a speaker, they get a visit from a board member, they get a visit from an executive director. To get that kind of nurturing increase takes something. It’s rare that someone would jump from $40 to $500 or $5,000 through repeated passive asks.

I think one of the best, it doesn’t fit every nonprofit, is to have that annual luncheon where the board members are assigned to fill tables. When they invite people, they let them know, “We will do a presentation. We will ask to give you some money. You don’t have to, but there will be an ask. We’d really love to have you.” You get people in the room and have dynamic speakers. You have some of the people you serve. It depends on what kind of nonprofit you have. You do things that give people a real glimpse into how you make the world a better place. that has been known to move people from the $50 level to the $500 level or $5,000 level.

Russell: Well-executed non-ask events are critical, too. Just to let people know, “Hey, we’re good stewards of your money.” There’s some magic about walking them around where they can see where it is people are actually out there in the trenches doing good work. Speaking to some of the things you can acquire and move these services out of the community so they get a working understanding. That growth piece, getting them and growing them, is your lifetime value of a customer for lack of a better way to put it. That takes time. To grow them, you have to keep them. What are the two most important tools?

Bill: There are some simple things you can do. You need to thank them for their gifts. The pyramid, the top ones should get a personal visit or phone call. At the bottom, maybe it’s a handwritten thank-you note.

More and more of our clients are doing the board pizza party, where they get their board together and some phones. Around dinnertime, they serve the board pizza, and they call the top donors. They do it around dinnertime so a lot of people don’t answer the phone. But that’s fine. You leave a message. The board member says, “Hey, Dr. Smith. I want to thank you and your wife for your $500 gift to our organization. We really appreciate it. It helps us do this, this, and this.” That donor will remember that. That donor will say, “Hey, a board member called me.” That’s a nice little thing to do, and to touch the top donors that way. The ones at the really top, the big players, probably need the thank you from the chair of the board and the executive director. You can hit a lot of those mid donors with a call from a board member. Think about the donations you make. How often do you get a phone call of thanks? Not many. Maybe I’m not donating enough.

Russell: It’s always good. It’s just common courtesy. If you’re in a supermarket, someone holds the door. Saying thank you to people is a reflex. But somehow, it seems like from some of the statistics I’ve seen, it’s one of the more common mistakes that people make. They don’t take that time to say thank you. What are a couple other really common mistakes that people make that are just quick and easy to fix?

Bill: Accurate data is really big. If you say “Dear Sam,” and the name isn’t Sam, that’s not good. You’ve got to be very careful with variable data and personalization. Personalization gone awry does more damage than it does good. One thing we’ve been doing more and more, the post office has gotten better with the deceased persons filter. You try to cut out saying, “Dear John and Sally” when John passed away a year ago. That’s an easy mistake to fix. Run the data through the filter. Don’t mail to dead people if at all possible. Data cleanliness is a common thing. Not thanking is the biggest thing.

You mentioned something earlier. Every touch can’t be an ask. It really should be more information only touches than there are ask touches. The top donors should get a report at the end of the year, maybe a few months after. Not a fancy annual report, but a sheet of, “Here’s what your donation allowed us to do.” You can do these infographic looks. You can really show people what you’ve done.

We have a client now that has this neat system. They do three newsletters a year. They have an elderly donor base. These are physical newsletters. Because newsletters are more expensive, they’ve gone to a news postcard. They send out these jumbo postcards three times a year. Short bullet point articles that show their impact. Every one of those short articles, it’s just bullet points and headlines. People don’t read anymore. There is a link to a website you can go to if you want more information. They do this three times a year. In the fourth quarter, they ask. They push out information on a 3:1 ratio with their ask. We recommend something like that. 2:1, 3:1, something like that, so people don’t think, “Good grief. XYZ charity is always asking for money.” It has to be, “Here’s the good things we’re doing.”

Your social media should be that. Your social media personally I don’t think should ask for money. I think social media should be, “Look what we’re doing. Celebrate with us.”

Russell: It would certainly be a place to capture your benefactors, the clients online and talk about what’s going on. Some of the sites that the work is being done on, it’s almost like the news medium. When someone hears their name mentioned on social media, you get a thousand followers. Whoa, they’re talking about me. This thing has 1,000 views and 10,000 followers. “Hey, maybe I need to send them another check. They need to get my good side next time.”

Hugh: That’s part of the story. Telling a story, you have relationships. There are people who want to be in the picture with a big check. I don’t think we think about the amount of stories we need to be telling because we are doing a lot of good work. We don’t really tell people. In fact, social media is social. We are supposed to engage. I see all too often, “Buy this. Do that.” And there is no attempt at a relationship. That is what I’m hearing you saying. In our program, we are building relationships. We are maintaining relationships. People give to people. That is the biggest sound bite. People give to people, not to organizations.

Bill: I agree. It’s all about relationships. It’s all about telling your story. That’s what relationships are. We as humans are people who have relationships with each other, and we tell stories to each other. It’s the way you come home to your spouse and say, “Hey honey.” We love to tell stories. I think social media is great for this. You have these snippets and tell this vignette story of something your nonprofit did or something that you did. It’s to build relationships.

The best donor is the one that knows you. I keep coming back to this. You have a personal relationship with them. But you do it by stories. We recommend the hard ask appeal letter everyone does in the fall that it start off with just a three- to four-sentence story that is in a nutshell what you do. Then you make your ask. You take it to the next level. “There are so many kids like Johnny.” In the first paragraph, you tell Johnny’s story. Stories mean a lot.

Russell: You have really critical points in the year. A lot happens toward the end of the year around Giving Tuesday in the back end of the year. Are there some time periods during the course of the year that you believe nonprofits are leaving money on the table? Maybe there are times to reach out that might be more effective than people pay attention to.

Bill: That’s another great question. It’s changing. It used to be I would always tell people to do their main appeal early to mid-November because we were told the stats said the most generous week of the year is the week leading up to Thanksgiving. Everybody is starting to feel festive, but they don’t have worries about the credit card bills yet. We’ve also heard that summer is not a great time to ask because so many people are on vacation and will miss the appeal. I tell you though, people are so connected now. With tax law changes, the end of the year may not be as significant of a time as it has been. We are finding more and more of our clients are doing oddly timed appeals. It’s just starting, so they haven’t built a rhythm yet. We have clients who are doing a February appeal and a July appeal. Stay tuned. I’ll have a better answer in three years when we get some data back on that.

I really think that if you talk with your key constituents, talk to your board and staff and key donors, you’ll know. You’ll know when the appropriate time is to do your ask and your information only.

Remember the point about you adjust the scale to fit the budget so you can sustain the rhythm. One thing I meant to mention is it’s not just the financial budget. It’s the budget of your time. Here is another common mistake. We see it probably most often with social media. You get all excited. You say, “I’m going to write a blog every week.” I’m going to post it out on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn. I don’t know many executive directors who have the time to write a blog every week. If you do, more power to you. Our suggestion will be, Are you really? Let’s be realistic about this. Adjust the scale to match the time budget. How much time do you have? Sustain the rhythm. We would counsel you down from once a week to the first Monday every month. If that’s too much, if you can’t stick with that, then once every month.

Hugh: It’s the regular rhythm that we heard about earlier, too. Speaking of time, we are almost at the top of the hour. Bill, you get the last word. If you have a thought or tip or challenge to give the audience. This has been a helpful interview.

*Sponsor message from SynerVision Leadership Foundation*

If you want to talk about how Bill’s services look for you, go to The regular mailing to your tribe makes a difference. Bill, is one of our main sponsors, so thank you for that. We talk about you often. You’re leaving this interview. What is your challenge or parting thought for people?

Bill: My parting thought would be it really is all about relationships. The piece of the puzzle that you or a director or a board member or your staff could do to help your organization the most is to work on those relationships and get that relationship into a database so they can get rhythmic touches. If anyone would like to chat with me about this, we do free consultations, no cost, no obligation, at You can send me a message. I can talk in detail about your organization and things that would work for you. Our system of getting the right message to the right people does not mean you have to use us. You can use current partners. You can do it in-house yourself. It’s the system that works. The right message to the right people with the right rhythm.

Russell: Bill, thanks again for joining us. Thanks for all the support you give us here at SynerVision Leadership. You certainly make us look good. Folks, do yourself a favor, and have a talk with Bill and his team as to how you can grow donors, keep them, and build those relationships using the right tools by getting out there, sending the right message to the right people in the right rhythm. It needs to look good, but that is only 10%. And it will. Make sure you check out our magazine because it’s a good-looking magazine.

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