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7 Questions That Unlock How Your Organization Can Attract New Donors
Interview with Marketing Specialist, Chris Barlow
Chris Barlow grew up imagining he’d work in a cause-focused career, ministry, or mission. To his surprise, after just “getting a job” after college, he discovered he loved business. After many years in corporate sales, he realized that while he loved it, it wasn’t going to be what he could or wanted to do until retirement.
So he founded Beeline in 2015 and volunteered with a local nonprofit to help them with their marketing, just to get some experience under his belt.
Little did he realize that this would eventually lead him full circle, as his company now focuses exclusively on helping nonprofits.
Chris is the Customer Happiness Director, and they exist to help nonprofits reach more people through marketing that serves.
His big skill is putting his two youngest boys down for a nap every day.
7 Questions that Unlock How Your Organization Can Attract New Donors
- What is our guiding principle?
- What is our expertise?
- Who are our donors, and what issues do they have that we could address?
- What digital resources could we create to address these issues?
- What does our team hear or see on the front lines of our mission?
- What are people searching for online related to these issues and resources?
- What perceived value do our donors have about the resources we could create?
More about Chris at https://yourbeeline.com
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Hello, everybody. Welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. Each week, we interview somebody who has experience, training, expertise in a particular topic. We never try to put people on a pedestal, but we have done enough that we know they have experience behind that. Today, we have a marketing specialist, Chris Barlow. We have a title for today’s show: Seven Questions that Unlock How Your Organization Can Attract New Donors. Chris has an e-book he will give away. Let’s start with who is Chris? Why do you do this?
Chris Barlow: Thank you, Hugh. It’s great to be with you today. Thank you so much for having me.
When I was a kid, I always wanted to do something adventurous for my career. I wanted to live overseas, learn a new language, do something fun. I wanted to do something cause-focused or ministry-focused of some kind. I had to get a job after college just to make a living. I had a job in sales in finance, actually cold-calling. To my great surprise, I really enjoyed it. That was out of left field and an unexpected turn. I did that for a while, over 10 years.
All along the way, as I was enjoying that job and the work we were doing, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to retire there. I didn’t think that the company itself and the industry were good for me. I’m going to age out. At 50, I wouldn’t be employable anymore. I didn’t have the passion to go that long in it.
I started thinking about a business. I wasn’t sure the direction I was going to take. Things came together. I took some marketing classes and got excited about it. I started Beeline in 2015. I wasn’t sure what direction I was going to take Beeline in. I am going to volunteer with this local nonprofit and help them out with their digital marketing to get some experience under my belt. That was the door to where I am today. That led to referrals to other nonprofits. That led to them saying, “We want to pay you for this.” Now our focus is entirely on helping nonprofits with digital marketing.
That has been fun to come full circle, to be able to continue to use that passion for business and running a business while still being able to reconnect with that desire to do something that serves people and being cause-focused.
Hugh: Digital marketing seems to be a mystery to some people. We’re talking to nonprofit leaders and clergy. It’s a business model. It’s the business of church and nonprofit. Our business is different: transforming lives. There is a business model of creating revenue so that we can provide value to more people. How can nonprofits use marketing to attract completely new people? There is a lot of noise out there. Give us some tips, would you?
Chris: Specifically digital marketing, the first thing is to realize what are people going online for? Why? Our approach to meeting new people needs to be meeting them where they’re at. Understanding that we need to serve them, that we need to provide them what they’re looking for, whether they are going online to solve a problem, ask a question, or look for an answer, be it a personal question, a spiritual question, or entertainment of some kind. If we can serve people and meet them where they’re at in a way that makes sense for us as an organization, that is how we can attract them.
Hugh: We serve people. What does it mean to serve donors?
Chris: You could create a whole program to serve donors as part of your nonprofit. That’s probably not a good way to fulfill your mission because your mission is not to serve donors. What is a way you can do that sustainably? I like to recommend creating some kind of digital resource that helps people answer that question or guides them in a quick way but doesn’t require ongoing effort from you. If you can put together some kind of digital resource to answer their question but doesn’t pull ongoing effort from your main thrust as an organization, that would be great.
Hugh: I know people get sucked into the vortex of social media. You get in some of it, and there are all these current affairs. We forget about all the time gone by without having gotten anything done.
Let’s define a few terms. Generally speaking, I’m not sure people I know that run these organizations understand what marketing is and why they need it. You have public relations, marketing, and sales. We also have social media as a connecting point. Give us some fundamental definitions of those things and why you are in this marketing realm.
Chris: Sales: if you are helping someone solve a problem, usually on a one-to-one basis, maybe you’re in front of a group, but it’s very personal.
PR, that is the appropriate place where you are speaking one-to-many. You are trying to announce or bring awareness about something important or noteworthy about your organization. It’s about your branding. You’re not speaking to one person individually.
Marketing is, more and more with the technology available, is one-to-one at scale. The more effective you will be, it’s talking to people as if you are having a one-on-one conversation, or it’s opening the door to be able to have that one-on-one conversation. But you’re doing it reaching many people at once. Those who engage, you continue the engagement in other ways through marketing.
Social media is a channel where you can do any of those things.
Hugh: We post on social media. We present to donors. We have gotten the wrong twist on some of these. Most nonprofits I am acquainted with need money, but we hate making presentations. We hate raising money. We have this big disconnect. We teach in SynerVision that underneath leadership is relationship. The driver for communication is relationship. The connector from what we have to the results and money from mental capital to financial capital is relationship capital. How do we then use this whole digital arena, which is partly social media, but not entirely, to build relationships so that people actually pay attention to our message?
Chris: That’s going back to do we have our audience, potential donors’ interests at our heart? It’s so easy to say, “We’re telling our story. We’re making it compelling.” That’s important and good. We also need to be aware of what their needs are. We’re here to meet all of our donors’ needs.
If I am an animal sanctuary, our programs are about helping animals. We could create a guide on how to potty train your dog or cat or how to help your dog stop barking. That guide, you can use to attract new people who are online looking for that same question. You could also send to your current donors, “Hey, we created this for you. This is coming from our expertise. We know how this works. We thought it might help you. There are no strings attached. It’s not because you came to this event or donated. We created this to serve you as part of our mission for our organization: to help people care for animals.”
Hugh: I ask the question a lot to leaders: What is your product? What they tell me is what they do, not the results of what they do. I imagine part of your job working with people who are raising money is to be able to define what the impact is. Their product is impact. We feed people, but are we helping them develop a sustainable life to get out of the poverty they are in? You coach people who need you into what the right message is. Is that a problem I’m trying to define, what it is they are asking people to support?
Chris: The product is your results. It comes from what is your why as an organization? That is the first of those seven questions. What is our guiding principle as an organization? That can define everything else. Your particular solution as a nonprofit, you’re going about trying to solve poverty in this particular way. If circumstances change, and this particular problem, the way you’re solving it is no longer relevant, your guiding principle can redirect you as to how you can continue to fulfill your why in a new way.
This is a for-profit example, but it illustrates my point in a great way. In 1975, Eastman Kodak invented a digital camera. Eastman Kodak thought of their product as film. We’re the best film company in the world. We have the chemists, the expertise, top-quality film. They doubled down on that in the ‘90s and 2000s when the digital camera came out and was replacing film. So instead of realizing, “Wait, our guiding principle is we help people capture and keep memories,” they thought their guiding principle was, “We provide top-quality film.” In 2012, they went out of business. If they had kept that guiding principle in mind, they would have realized their real product was memories.
In nonprofits, it’s the same thing. The guiding principle leads us to the results. Our programs can change. In fact, they are going to change.
Hugh: I had a Kodak dealership from 1972 up until the late ‘90s. They actually filed for bankruptcy. They owned silver imaging in the world, and they thought silver imaging was always here to stay. They ignored the competitors from Japan, the trends in the market. Even the biggest, most powerful companies lose their way when they are not paying attention or not clearly defining what their product is. In this case, their product was imaging, memories. It doesn’t matter how you get there. But they lost their way little by little, and they were so insular they couldn’t see it.
Part of your work is helping leaders understand there is a twist on this for donors to support. Donors support what they believe in; they don’t support anything they don’t believe in. If we give them a reason to believe, and we don’t treat them like an ATM machine. There is a transaction, but there is also a relationship. Getting clear on that.
Why don’t we go over those seven questions? You have already talked about the guiding principle. I can go to the next one unless you want to share more about that. How do you define a guiding principle?
Chris: That is your why, your underlying belief, your core belief of why you were formed. The world should be this way. The world would be better if it was this way. This is the good they want to achieve because this is an ultimate good. What comes from that is a problem. There is a reason that the world isn’t this way; therefore, our solution is to address this problem in this way. That defines how you can do your marketing, how you do everything.
Hugh: I can’t tell you how often I talk to business leaders. There are for-profit businesses and for-purpose, tax-exempt businesses. We have the same guidelines for leading, for creating revenue. You provide value. It brings you revenue. We just can’t distribute the profits in a nonprofit, and it’s more complex with more rules. It’s a lot harder. We have to master all the business principles and then go further to be able to do our work. It’s important that nonprofits do important stuff today. What you’re talking about, I see as critical for all of us. I learn stuff every week when I interview guests. SynerVision is a nonprofit. It’s important not to talk about what we do; it’s important to talk about what results we create. We are in the business of transforming. We need to get our heads around that. When you market, you probably have to coach people on saying less so people can grasp it. Am I guessing correctly?
Chris: In general, with marketing or anything with serving people, people would rather you go deeper with less than throw the whole kitchen sink at them, giving everything they can think of.
Hugh: I love this summary I heard of it: A confused mind says no. We just lay everything on them and wonder why they didn’t write a check.
#1 is your guiding principle. #2 is what is your expertise?
Chris: If you want to figure out how to serve your donors or attract new donors, you need to know who you are. What can you do well? What are your limits? What are you good at? What are your skills, experiences as an organization? Don’t limit yourself to what you’re doing with your programs. Come back to your fundamental why, your guiding principle, and let that inform the areas of expertise that can further that.
That in turn leads to what issues do our donors have that we could address, question #3? It’s those two together that informs you on what you can do as an organization to serve people, that will attract them. We need to know who our donors are and what they’re thinking about, what their problems are as related to what our expertise is if we want to meet them where they’re at and put a solution in front of them that they don’t have to think too hard about. Don’t confuse them.
Hugh: Develop enough relationships so you know what they are interested in. You don’t want to treat everybody like an ATM. Of course you’re interested in this because it’s important. There are plenty of things in my mail that tell me I can donate this or that. There are a lot of people doing worthy work. We get to choose. Our job is to inform people enough so they choose us, at least for part of their donations.
Three is our donors and what issues they have so that we can address. They probably have a passion for seeing things happen, and we can say, “Okay, your money is going to deliver the results you want,” if we know enough about them so that it’s a relationship-based conversation.
#4: What digital resources could we create to address these issues?
Chris: I mentioned at the beginning, if we focus on creating something digital that is a one-time effort because we can’t create a new program, this isn’t about that. Examples include a petition. If we have a cause that people want to put their voice behind and you want to create change that way, you can create a petition. You can go as far as creating an online course if you want. An online course will be a ton of work for you. But more people are going to opt in and convert if you are offering that to address an issue they have. You will get a lot of new subscribers, but it will require work. If you create a petition, it’s not a lot of effort, and a lot less people percentagewise will opt in. I like to recommend a guide or ebook because it’s in the middle. It’s not as much work as an online course. It takes a week, unlike weeks for a course or hours for a petition. The amount of people who will say, “That looks helpful, like it will address my question or problem” will be a happy medium in terms of effort and results.
Hugh: A guide is like ten tips or a checklist. What does a guide look like?
Chris: A great one is if you asked important theological questions from people of different faiths, if you want to help present the difference of your faith, ask some pointed questions and share that as a video series. Or if you are in the arts, create a video series on how to prepare for your next audition. Have actors at your theater teach those principles. Offer that to high school students, college students, and teachers. Now they are learning about your arts nonprofit. You can invite them to your shows. If you are in the education space, you could create a guide on how to be your child’s advocate at school, from IEP plans to a gifted program. Those are just a few examples.
Hugh: I want to point out here in the middle of your seven questions, Chris has a free ebook. Go to YourBeeline.com. You can register for How to Use Digital Marketing to Find New Donors. Tell people what that book is like.
Chris: It’s about 30 pages, and it gives you a six-step process. Where do we start to understand who we are, who our donors are, how we can serve them, and how we can create a step-by-step process to consistently bring in new people into our organization? It grows our email list and helps people serve them and also understand who we are and get them passionate about what we’re doing.
Hugh: Go to YourBeeline.com for more information on what Chris is doing. There is also a Contact tab. If people have questions, is that appropriate?
Chris: I am happy to answer any questions. That’s fine.
Hugh: It occurs to me that there is an educational piece in this process. If we want donors to be better donors, we want to educate them on what’s going on in our organization. That is a thread that comes to my mind. Do you want to comment on that?
Chris: If someone gets a resource from you, then it’s very natural for you to not only follow up with them via email to continue to serve them, but also to introduce yourself to say, “Why are we serving you? This is our mission. We serve you because this is our guiding principle. This is our heart. This heart leads you to do this mission. This is what the big picture is about. This is who we’re serving.”
I was in sales. When I went to networking events, I would shake their hands and ask people about themselves. I wanted to get to know them. If I thought they might be someone who would be a good fit for me to meet for business, I would show interest in them. That would naturally reciprocate in them showing interest in me.
It’s the same way with marketing. If you help someone, they will show interest and ask who you are, too, and why you are helping them. Even the unconscious question of why you’re the expert to address this problem.
Hugh: I like to use the overarching term of “supporters” because the message is similar, maybe not exactly the same, for getting board members and volunteers who support you with their time, talent, and money. You would agree it’s a similar message. Maybe a little nuanced.
Hugh: Let me go back to #4. A lot of options for digital. How much is too much? How many different platforms should we be on? How many emails or texts should we send? How many carrier pigeons should we fly over? How much is too much?
Chris: The first thing I would say is based on your own limitations and team. You don’t want to burn yourself out. Do something sustainable for you and your team. It all comes down to the heart of the matter. If you’re serving people, they will open an email from you every day. If you are asking them to donate every day, they will get burned out real fast. You don’t need to do daily emails or social media posts. You can. Daily social media posts can be just fine depending on what you’re doing. Just because you are posting daily on social media, most of your audience won’t see every post. They will see some of those posts. It comes down to do you have something that’s worth sharing, that’s worth posting? What is your heart in that? What is your capacity?
Hugh: Depending on the type of platform, it’s a different message. Twitter, you have to get right to it. It has 20 seconds of shelf life, and then it’s in the background. Mark Morris just asked a question; he is joining us from Peru. “There are pros and cons of donation platforms.” That is another digital form. At one point, there were 800 donation platforms. He says, “They take donations, and they take a fee. It’s crowded out there.” He goes on to say that GoFundMe is closing their charity platform in September. Any pros and cons of those platforms?
Chris: Pretty much every nonprofit should use a donation platform, unless you’re really big and have internal programmers. Handling the software, all the pieces that need to work, all the security that needs to happen, all the payment methods, you don’t want to do that. A lot of platforms can integrate directly with your website. There are a lot of good donation platforms. RaiseDonors is one I recommend. They are part of Virtuous although you don’t have to use Virtuous as a CRM. Fundraise Up is a great one. There are a lot of them out there. Givebutter. They usually have tools for you to integrate the buttons directly into your site. They take care of a lot of the stuff you would have to figure out from scratch or hire programmers to do. Don’t mess with that unless you’re really big, and then you don’t need me to tell you that.
Hugh: It would necessitate getting your message really clear, like how you help people with getting our marketing together.
Let’s go to #5: What does our team need to hear or see on the front lines of our mission?
Chris: I’ll take 5, 6, and 7 together. The reason for that is all three of those address something you mentioned previously, which is what our donors actually want, and understanding what is going to be worth our while to create? The questions that people are asking and the issues they are addressing as you are fulfilling your mission are probably going to be some of the same or similar questions that your donors, volunteers, or board are asking. It might be in a different context or at a different level of need.
Here is a crazy example. If you help communities in Africa learn how to create and build and do their own beehives as a business so they have small cottage industries, you have people in the U.S. who are interested in beekeeping who have the same kinds of problems and questions. It’s for a hobby though, not a living. But they are the same questions. You can address the same problems that they are going to face at a different level. The problems you are seeing at the front line of your mission could inform you on what you could be addressing on your supporter side.
Hugh: Love it. That was #5. #6: What are people searching for online related to these issues and resources? #7: What perceived value do our donors have about the resources that we could create? You’re an expert in Google Ads as well, I believe. You have a link people could learn how to get the $10,000 grant a month with Ads. It occurs to me that that is primary research. You can see what people are looking for. That is research you don’t have to pay for.
Chris: Exactly. In fact, you don’t even need to be in the grants program to do research on Google. You can create an account on Ads.Google.com. Don’t enter any payment information. Create a new account if you already have a grants account. There is a tool called a Keyword Planning Tool. You can just enter in keywords and find out what the search volume is and what the expected cost per click is and how competitive those keywords would be. You could do that kind of market research to see how much demand there is. How many people are searching for this problem that we could potentially address? We can do beekeeping. We can train your dog how not to bark. Is there an area with a lot of volume but not enough competition? You can get an idea of where the demand is. You are hearing the problems from the front lines. You are doing the market research.
It’s not just Google keywords. You can also do a Google search and find out how many results there are and see what other resources have been created and other answers are out there. If there are a lot of people addressing that, that is actually a good sign. There is proven demand. If you find nothing on a search that you do, no results in Google or YouTube or even Facebook, that gives you an idea of some real numbers of what kind of demand and resources there are.
What perceived value do our donors have? I recommend creating a survey for your supporters. Say, “We’re thinking about addressing this problem or one of these five problems with a resource. Which one would be the most valuable to you?” Use that survey to gauge what is the top thing we can start with that we can address? Follow that up with, “If we create this, would you like us to send this to you?” You can get that personal buy-in. That is not something that they just said they thought was valuable, but they actually want it for themselves.
Those three things together will really help you understand this is going to be a resource that is worth our while to create. It’s going to get a response. It’s going to attract people. There is a lot of proven demand for it online. If we put it in front of people, they are going to want it. They are going to build a relationship with it.
Hugh: Love it. Are you familiar with The Ask Method by Ryan Levesque?
Chris: I am. Not deeply, but just a little bit.
Hugh: He says that people don’t like surveys, but they like giving their opinion. I would think that if you ask people their opinion, they might want to see what the results are. There are probably a lot of tricks to that.
Chris: I love that. I’m taking notes on it.
Hugh: I try to bring value to everybody. You alluded to this earlier. How much time do we have? How much energy do we have? How much traffic can we stand? We can do so many things in the workday. We are already in a sector that is burned out, overcommitted, and stressed. How do we do this stuff and feel like we’re not taking time from the work we’re doing and keeping the relationships with our donors?
Chris: One beautiful thing about this that I mentioned earlier is we need to attract people because every nonprofit loses supporters every year. Even if they love your mission, some people can’t continue to support you financially or volunteer. Life happens. We also need to retain people, which is more important. The nice thing about this approach is if we create these kinds of resources that require a one-time effort, we can use them over and over again. We can keep giving them to current supporters. We can give them to new people. It creates this evergreen resource. We can create new ones every so often. We’re talking about a one-off project that requires some upfront, one-time effort rather than an ongoing, we need to call all of our donors every month. That is valuable, too. With marketing, we want to be able to do one-to-one at scale.
Another thing I’ll add is if we are basing our strategy on our guiding principle, we are no longer trying to do mission here, fundraising here. Our fundraising effort to attract donors and serve them is actually part of our mission because it’s coming from the same heart and expertise that we use to fulfill our mission. We are serving them in a different way. That doesn’t negate the value of the primacy of our mission. It’s still the same heart. We can even show our major donors, “Look, we are attracting people by serving them in the same way that we all care about and using the same guiding why to reach new people.” It’s actually part of our mission.
Hugh: Love it. Two more questions I have for you. Can you tell a story of an organization that does this effectively?
Chris: Yeah. There is an organization that I know from my own personal life, as a friend recommended their emails to me. They are called Connected Families. They help parents become more confident by leading their families of grace and growing their connectedness and letting discipline become an opportunity for connection rather than disconnection. I found out about them from a friend. I loved their content after subscribing to their emails. I felt taken care of and helped by them. They could have, at the end of the year or during their next event, invited me or other people like me to support their mission, but that wasn’t their primary goal. Their primary goal was to serve. They could have said, “Look at this family. This is where they were at. These are our materials. This is how we were transformed. Consider supporting our mission.” Instead, they gave me a taste of their mission. I knew that the result was real because I had a taste of it.
Not every nonprofit can have a perfect overlap between those they serve and those who support them. But you can still give people a taste. You’re at Costco, and you get a sample, and you want the rest. They let me experience it. For me, I had the sense of, “Wow, what they do is real and valuable. I want to pay it forward. Because they helped me, I want to help them help other people who are experiencing the same parenting challenges.” It was very natural to become a supporter.
When they said, “Hey, would you like to join our insiders’ team?” we send out a weekly email where we ask for feedback on our marketing resources. When we need an inside voice, we go to these people. Their insider team has about 600 people, and they have a 50% open rate. A lot of these people are on the donor list, but not all of them. These are the people who would recommend them to their friends. These are the people who are going to respond to their emails and help them. They ask the insider team, “Hey, can you get the word out about this?” That’s them.
They have a donor team, too. The way they set up their email is if you are on the donor list, you can always opt out of the donor list but stay opted into their other emails that send out resources. That’s another thing nonprofits can do. “Hey, our donor list is a special group of people that you can be a part of while being able to opt out at any time. But you can still remain subscribed to our resources.” That way, you can stay in touch with people who may be going through a financial situation and are not able to donate to you right now, so they don’t want to hear about that. But if you keep serving them, then maybe they can come back next year and say, “We want to donate to you. We love what you guys are doing.”
Hugh: Chris Barlow, you run Beeline. Chris, this has been really helpful. Let’s leave off with where do we start? We have all these ideas. Where do we start?
Chris: Start with those seven questions. Who can we serve? Who are we as an organization? Is there a place where we can have better alignment between our mission, our fundraising? Even if you don’t do digital marketing, even if that’s not your strong suit as an organization—every organization has to do it, 2020 showed that—even if most of our fundraising is in person, how can our fundraising be informed by our mission and our fundamental why? If our heart is to serve people, if we’re going to be building a relationship with them, they will get a taste of our mission and be even more passionate about helping us reach more people the way they were touched.
Hugh: Great stuff. Thank you for being our guest today.
Chris: Thank you!