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How to Use Trial & Error to Achieve Fundraising Success

February 15, 2023

As a fundraiser, you’re up against some tough odds. There’s a lot going on in the world (we’re looking at you, recession worries and existential dread), and fundraising efforts that have worked in the past may not be delivering the same results. What do you do to continue to support your organization’s cause? You could keep slogging ahead doggedly, or you could take some advice from the president who led the United States through the Great Depression, helped create the United Nations, and brought you the first federal action to prohibit employment discrimination. Franklin D. Roosevelt once famously said:
“Do something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, do something else.”
In other words, use trial and error to test out fundraising strategies to find out what works for your nonprofit organization. 

 Use Trial and Error to Find Successful Campaigns for your Nonprofit

As the world and how we interact with it changes, response to fundraising efforts evolves, too.  While the stakes are high and the idea isn’t to throw caution to the wind, it’s an opportunity to approach things with a sense of play. By trying new tactics along with what’s been successful in the past, you have the potential to open your fundraising world up to possibility.  It’s a strategy that works well in business, and it can do the same for nonprofit fundraising. In fact, we’ve noticed a trend among our leading fundraising customers. Nonprofit organizations that regularly take stock of what is and isn’t working (or even when something isn’t as successful as it could have been) and take calculated risks on new efforts often forge a more successful path forward.

 How To Use Trial and Error To Find Fundraising Success

Identify your goals.

Determine your starting point and end goals, then build around them. For instance, if you’re resource-constrained, work on ideas that require less effort. Or, if you’ve got time but a limited budget, fundraising ideas with low up-front costs are a good place to start. If community engagement and growing your membership are bigger priorities over near-term fundraising, focus on bringing people together for something that’s fun and can include friends.

Brainstorm.

Consider the people you are targeting and ask yourself what events or activities might appeal to them. For example, an activity-based fundraiser like a hike-a-thon might attract younger generations, such as Gen Z. Be sure to ask for input from your team, including volunteers—you might be surprised by the creative suggestions that come up when you get everyone involved. Our marketing director, Ron, likes to think of the brainstorming process as a matrix: [fundraising event type] x [theme]. Imagine you want to use knitting as the theme. Then, think of the different types of fundraising events you might create. Perhaps you could organize a peer-to-peer knit-a-thon, an auction of hand-made knitted items, a sale of knitted products and knitting supplies (you could partner up with a local yarn producer!), or raffle off a knitting-themed basket that includes a knitting class and supplies. Of course, not everything you come up with will be a good idea, but Ron’s approach is a helpful way to approach the process.

Narrow down your fundraising ideas.

One way to do this is to prioritize ideas that are authentic and aligned with your organization’s mission and values. This will help you create a more compelling and meaningful fundraising campaign. However, if there’s a fundraising method you like but isn’t directly connected to what you do, brainstorm how you can create a connection. (Check out the book club fundraiser idea below!)

Think of each fundraiser as a test.

Try out different types of fundraising events to see which ones generate the most interest and support. Success can often be found in mixing and matching fundraising campaign types in unconventional ways (such as combining a knit-a-thon with an auction as in our ideas below).

Keep track of what works and what doesn't.

Pay attention to what is working—not only the type of campaign but individual aspects of each fundraiser. Did one kind of marketing or social media post have more success than others? Try to figure out why. 

Be willing to adapt and change your plans.

Based on the results, choose the ideas that show the most promise. Remember that a good idea may not be 100% there yet, so be sure to look for nuggets of insight within not-so-successful events to better understand what aspects did and didn’t work. Another way to expand on a nearly-there fundraising strategy is to conduct some informal market research. Reach out to a handful of your supporters and ask why they did or did not participate. If they did participate, inquire about what they liked; if they didn’t, ask how you could improve. Then, incorporate those findings into your next fundraiser.

Iterate to find success but know when to move on.

Some ideas just need a little tweaking. So, if something resonated with your donor base but didn’t hit your fundraising goals, figure out how to improve it for future campaigns. That said, some ideas sound promising as a concept may not be successful when implemented. That’s ok, too! You learned something from that, and can move on with that knowledge informing your next steps. 

Be persistent and don’t give up.

The thing to hold on to is that your cause is a good one and your organization is making a meaningful impact. People have responded before, and they will again. So, as Dori of Pixar’s Finding Nemo urged herself and others, keep swimming!

3 Outside-of-the-Box Fundraising Campaign Examples

Number 1

A knit- or crochet-a-thon.

Younger generations continue to embrace all things handmade (here’s another article about that). Participants can raise funds by the number of hours (or minutes) they create. You can then offer up the made items in an auction benefitting your cause! This fundraiser combines two powerful fundraiser types that have historically had success with all ages. The fact that it is also a peer-to-peer fundraiser gives it the potential to extend your org’s reach.
Number 1

Pivot to a hybrid raffle.

While this idea doesn’t seem so outside of the box, it was for one of our customers! They had hosted an annual golf tournament benefitting their cause for years. While it was successful, they spent a lot of time dealing with caterers, the venue, and organizing all the elements. Additionally, they felt that the tournament was so specific that it inhibited building awareness and attracting new supporters and potential donors. By asking other nonprofits and looking into past successes, they determined that a hybrid raffle (combing online and in-person aspects) was the way to go. They went big with their prize (a brand-new pick-up truck!) and are well on their way to meeting the funds raised by their golf event.
Number 3

A book club.

Subscription giving is growing. A hybrid book club can incentivize supporters to participate and nurture loyalty to your cause by further illustrating the good work your organization. To make the club relevant to your nonprofit, choose books with themes that are relevant to your cause (for instance, Louse Erdrich’s The Sentence for social justice, mental health, and indigenous peoples issues, to name a few), and invite authors to speak virtually or in person at book club meetings. Additionally, an ongoing program like this increases the likelihood of supporters spreading the word (peer-to-peer again!) and potentially attracting new donors.
While a bit of a bumpy ride, trial and error will help you better approach supporters and nurture donor growth. Embrace technology to help you further your cause, catalog any information your existing donors share, and reach out to peers to find out what works for them. Look beyond nonprofits and into successful efforts in the for-profit world—what are they doing to remain relevant and connected with their customers? All that information will percolate and inspire you to take the next (and best) step to help your nonprofit thrive

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