Lady Gaga and the Importance of Relationships

What I Learned at Fundraising Day in New York

If you were at the AFP’s Fundraising Day in New York last week, you heard the incomparable Emily Rafferty (president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 40 years), speak from the heart about her passion for fundraising. How it’s truly all about relationship building. You also heard her anecdote about Lady Gaga. Emily’s keynote speech was personal, meaningful and compelling. The audience was hanging on her every word, and gave her a rare standing ovation.

If you weren’t there, I’ll fill you in on the Lady Gaga story in a moment. But first, I want to share some of the many ideas I gleaned from sessions throughout the day. It was a terrific conference, and I left feeling really inspired.

In the “30 Ideas in 60 Minutes: Your Hour of Creative Power” opening session in the direct response track, Robin Riggs (RobbinsKersten Direct) made a great point about “donor branding.” “Donors are looking for things that are about them, so look for ways to make them feel important.” It’s easy to do — personalize letters and reply forms with information you already know about them, such as campaign responsiveness (“You supported our Fall Food Campaign last year!”), affinity (“Your membership at the Patron level has made an incredible difference…”), or length of support (“Your support since 2001 has helped people with HIV/AIDS….). Lasering “Supporter Since YEAR” on the reply nearly always lifts response. Bonus tip: Robin suggested using it as a headline on the reply form for an even bigger impact.

Alia McKee (Sea Change Strategies) also offered some great suggestions for giving prospects and donors something of value in exchange for their email address. Her ideas included inexpensive printed premiums like bumper stickers and decals, as well as digital premiums like songs or wallpaper. (I’ve recently come across another great example: the Cornell Lab of Ornithology shares its amazing bird-identifying app “Merlin” in exchange for your email address.) Gated content can also be really effective. Alia shared the Environmental Working Group’s example: it has offered lists of the “most effective skin care products” and “best sunscreens.” These are all examples of things donors really care about, and bring the donor closer to the organization through their daily use.

The inimitable Tom Gaffny (Tom Gaffny Consulting) showed a variety of envelopes that were brilliant in their authenticity. Some were hand-addressed, but used off-center formatting or additional hand-markings (like lines and boxes) to approximate what we REALLY do when we hand-address envelopes to friends. As he said, “Stop worrying about style points with your OE. Look at the handwritten mail you receive, then emulate. Cards from mom work great!”

In “Mythbusters: Direct Response Edition!” (which — full disclosure — I moderated), the panelists gave the straight scoop on what works in fundraising. Jann Schulz (Project Hope) debunked the myth that too much mail will drive donors away. As she said, the more you connect with your donors, the more money you will raise. People are less likely to complain IF they receive communication that thanks them, shows the impact of their gifts, and validates their decision to support your organization. At Project Hope, one of her first steps was to create a Donor Service Call Center, moving complaint calls away from administrative staff (who were likely to simply mark donors “Do Not Mail”) to trained representatives who were experts in cultivating and stewarding donors. The reps could turn a complaining donor into a donor who felt responded to, and felt even closer to the organization after the phone call. Retention rose as a result.

Larry May (InfoGroup) continued the theme saying, “Don’t turn your complainers into your focus group.” There will always be a handful of folks who complain, so let the data speak for itself. Often, you’ll see more complaints when overall response is high. It’s okay — don’t worry about the complainers, just respond politely and turn the complaint into an opportunity to cultivate a donor. And as for research, Larry added, “Focus groups are usually wrong. And people lie on surveys.” Use the data from direct response testing — it is far more reliable.

Bonnie Catena (Catena Connects) reminded us that marketing can’t drive fundraising. Effective marketing communications puts the organization front and center, while effective fundraising puts the DONOR front and center. She quoted Jeff Brooks in saying that your direct marketing copy should make the donor think “a little,” but feel “a lot.” A letter that moves a donor emotionally is far more likely to motivate a gift than one that is more cerebral.

Tom Ahern (Ahern Donor Communications) inspired us all with his presentation, “It’s Not All About You: How to Make Your Direct Response Program Truly Donor-Centric.” The phrase “donor-centered” is tossed around a lot these days, but Tom dug in and explored what it really means: fundraising has a “valued customer” — and it is the donor. And, it’s our job to make the customer happy. The concept of “synthetic family” is key. As individuals, we want to belong, and we find many ways to do so — church, activities (such as Girls Scouts), political parties, families. As an organization – if you can become “synthetic family” for your donors, you will earn their devotion and long-term loyalty. You can do this by showing them they are indispensable, and that you are deeply grateful for their support. You validate their decision to support you by reflecting back the donors’ values and beliefs.

Another nugget: In fundraising copy, we are looking for “mental nods” — where the reader agrees with what we are saying, buys in, and is eager to read more. A teaser like “If you believe in hospice as much as I do, open immediately….” invites a mental nod from the reader, who agrees with the statement, feels good about themselves for being a person who cares about hospice, and immediately reads on. One final thought from Tom: “Your donors will never get tired of hearing how great and how needed they are.”

Now back to Lady Gaga.

Emily Rafferty shared the story of how Lady Gaga was slated to be the featured performer at one of the Met Costume Institute Galas. All was well until shortly before the performance, when her manager came and informed them that Lady Gaga wasn’t ready to perform, and wasn’t sure she would be able to. She needed to pray and find her center. Emily had worked with many performing artists over the years, and was not surprised — but she also knew the situation could deteriorate quickly. So, capitalizing on the fact that she went to the same school as Lady Gaga (Convent of the Sacred Heart), she made her way through the handlers to talk privately with Lady Gaga, and managed to earn her trust. Thanks to their shared school background, Lady Gaga said she wanted to pray together … so they did … and eventually the performance went on as planned.

Emily told the story far better than I — which made the keynote both fun and inspiring. But it also reinforced the point that development and fundraising rely on establishing trust and building relationships. When you are passionate about your work, and dedicated to connecting in a meaningful way — you can accomplish anything.

If you’re interested in any of the fantastic presentations from Fundraising Day in New York, you can access them here.

Thank you to the AFP NY Chapter for putting on such a terrific event!


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