From July 11-13, my colleague Pam and I attended the MIE National Fundraising Conference in Boston, MA.  As a newbie to the legal aid fundraising world, the conference provided some great insights that will help as we prepare for year-end fundraising and the coming year.  The location also provided the opportunity to take in some of Boston’s sites during morning runs, including the Charles River and Boston Common.  My favorite way to explore a city is on foot, and since I had not been to Boston in quite a while the location offered great places to explore.

Boston Common

Attending this conference for the first time was a good opportunity to get a better understanding of what works in the legal aid world of fundraising.  Feeling the pinch of ongoing funding cuts, fundraisers from legal aid organizations were certainly looking to improve and sharpen their skills.  Attending the session for those new to legal aid fundraising, I learned that while there are some differences, the tactics I learned from my previous positions with other types of nonprofits are applicable.

This year conference focused on the “The Power and Importance of Private Philanthropy” and brought together an impressive group of speakers.  Below are my top takeaways from the conference.

  1.  Talk to your donors more than you call your mother.  You know how mom always gets upset without that update as to how you’re doing and what’s new?  Our donors want to know what we are up to as well.  And they don’t want to know only when we send them an appeal asking for money.  Simone P. Joyaux’s plenary, “Seeking the Holy Grail of Fundraising…Donor Loyalty” talked about relationship building and experiences. Bottom line? Stewardship is a process but in the end it will secure donations for your organization.
  2. You, I, we, me, it… The second day’s plenary from donor communications expert Tom Ahern, “Love Thy Reader: The Science and Secrets of Effective Donor Communications” focused on how we talk to readers of our communications (be they in newsletter, appeal or any other form).  Ahern had some great examples of some of his favorite (and not so favorite) communications and how they were donor centered.  Bottom line: we’re not telling the donors what we did; we’re telling them what we accomplished thanks to their generous support.  I think my favorite slide was of an organization’s web page where he pointed out how many times they’d use we/us.  How many times can we say thank you before it’s too many?  Exactly.
  3. What is fundraising really about…Fundraising is emotional.  We, as fundraisers, are helping people live out their passions. We (board, staff, volunteers) must, Joyaux says, adopt a lifestyle where we find out if our friends connect with our passions.  Bottom line: those who share your passions will likely be good, if not great, donors.
  4. The right tool for the job.  Before board members and/or staff can go out and fundraise on behalf of your organization, they need to be armed with the proper tools and an understanding of fundraising in order to be effective fundraisers.  Bottom line: invest time in arming and preparing your board and staff to make “the ask.”
  5. It’s a donor-centered world.  In order to get our donors to be loyal, we must build trust – how do we do that? According to Joyaux, it’s as simple as keeping our promise and saying thank you.  Bottom line: Make phone calls, say thank you, steward donors and give people extraordinary experiences.

Bonus Takeaways

Form a Committee.  Development is not for everyone.  Susan Kruse, Donor Relations Manager at Legal Aid Justice Center in VA, talked about creating a development committee that meets monthly (separately from the board) and focuses on development issues, including events, to get the work done.

Keep Knockin’.  Everyone in a nonprofit is busy. People wear many hats and often do too much for one person.  However, as good development advocates we must continue to ensure letters get signed, phone calls get made and stewardship marches on. Kruse advised persistence when getting development work done and dealing with senior level staff.