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12 Proven For-Profit Practices Every Nonprofit Should Embrace

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Innovation is one of our core values at DRG. We love shaking things up and surprising and delighting donors with the unexpected. When we're seeking new ways to elevate the donor experience, there is one place we often turn to for inspiration—the for-profit world.

Listen, we know in some instances it's comparing apples to oranges—but the next time you see a business that goes above and beyond to create an extraordinary customer experience, pay attention. Dissect the experience and think about how you could use similar strategies and tactics to develop deeper connections with your donors.

Here are a few practices we've learned from the for-profit world that every nonprofit should implement:

1. Reward loyaltyWe love when a company knows us. They know what we like or dislike and they pay attention to how we interact with them. Amazon uses your purchase history to send ideas for other items you might enjoy. If you purchase a product more than once, they'll email a reminder to reorder. We do a few things for our loyal donors, but we can do so much more. We have the data, but we don't use it. Dig into your data and see how you can enhance your programs, events, and communications for your most loyal donors.

2. Take care of your employees - Many companies now have policies to care for and nurture their employees. Pinterest created a "Pinside Out" group to host wellness-focused events and forums for employees to discuss mental health issues in the workplace. They've brought in health professionals and other experts to discuss hot topics. RingCentral recognizes that employees need time to disconnect, so they offer paid time off to do just that—they call it "CaRing Days." It gives employees an extra paid holiday and extended weekend off every quarter to unplug and spend time doing things they love. These are just a few companies taking important steps to care for their employees, and we need to do the same for our team members and colleagues. We need to normalize "mental health days." Recruiting and onboarding new employees is tough, so keeping our great employees is imperative. We do this by talking openly, listening closely, and treating our employees like our most precious commodity.

3. Data, data, data - The most successful businesses constantly and consistently use data to evaluate the effectiveness of programs, communications, strategies, and events and review outcomes to ensure their efforts make sense— financially as well as in support of their mission. So often in the not-for-profit world, an event, program, or procedure occurs just because it is how we have always done things. Spend some time evaluating your work and programs, speak up when you see data that indicates changes are necessary. By assessing your current programs, you can bless and release what doesn't work to replace with new and innovative ideas that better represent your organization. Organizations should be evaluating everything from event attendance to how many donors open an endowed fund report. Examining how a donor interacts with your organization will enable you to make better decisions that are more meaningful to the donor, more cost-effective, and at times, time-saving.

4. Build communication cadences - Our friends in the for-profit world lean HARD into communication cadences. Nothing is left to random remembering. For example, working on renewals, there is a cadence plan describing timing, what to send and when, and when to "call it quits." They build reminders into the plan—set on autopilot, if you will—so the representatives know what to do and when. Everything has a plan, from a simple sales call follow up to a full scale event or campaign, there is always a planned cadence. We highly recommend all nonprofits use this strategy by creating comprehensive communication plans for all our donors.

5. Tell your story consistently - For-profit businesses consistently tell their stories through marketing, advertising, and product placement. We can all relay a jingle in our head for the most random product. However, many nonprofits operate in obscurity with small budgets and no way to tell their stories. Tell your stories and get your messaging out to the public any way you can and through all mediums (digital is the most cost-effective). So many nonprofits have amazing missions fulfilling basic needs like access to clean water, food shortage, and so much more. The goal should be to develop creative and cost-effective ways to tell the public you are here and that your organization is changing lives.

6. Use behavioral economics - Behavioral economics combines the very human aspect of psychology with the data/analytics of economics to predict how we will behave and why. Nudge-based interventions, social proof, anchoring, urgency, and other principles can increase gift amounts and donor retention. We can clarify our message by being intentional and strategic about the specific words we use, where they fall on the page, and the supporting imagery. It's no secret that cunning product designers have selfishly used these concepts to persuade users to achieve the goals of social media platforms. We as nonprofits have the ability - no, the responsibility - to use this knowledge for good by helping donors fulfill their desire to help others.

7. Embrace feedback - For-profits aren't afraid of feedback. When it comes to consumer goods and experiences, for-profit entities do not shy away from surveys. They seek consumer opinions regarding what went well and what they could do better. We should apply this same mindset to our work. Ask your donors for feedback—feedback on everything from their experience with your online giving form to their communication preferences—and then use their responses to improve your daily operations. Don't assume things are working well or resonating with your donors—ask them, then put the feedback and data to work!

8. Craft creative communications - For-profit companies get creative with their subject lines and social media captions. They use emojis and exciting or amusing copy, making their product sound enticing, even when it's the same email you've already seen. In the nonprofit world, we're often afraid to get creative or are sometimes stifled with our brand standards. Look for ways to infuse more fun into your communications.

9. Know your audience - The for-profit world is all about behavior, suggestions, and real-time connections. Spotify knows what you listen to, shares concert updates about your favorite artist, and can curate the perfect playlist. Spotify might even understand you better than most of your friends and family. Why can't we do this in the nonprofit world? You know what your donors want (and if you don't, it's time to start seeking feedback) and what they care about. Make those connections easy for them! Share real-time updates about things happening on campus or at your organization. Send quick videos and suggest programs, events, or funds to support. If nonprofits can integrate more of this into our work, we'll increase our engagement on various levels, resulting in more connections, more money raised, more volunteers, and, most importantly, more lives changed by the good work we're doing!

10. Ensure a Positive Customer Experience - As many nonprofits begin or bolster philanthropic e-commerce efforts, ensure our donors, who are receiving a product for their gift, have an outstanding customer experience in addition to our donor experience practices. We can follow the great examples of high-end/luxury brands or our favorite online retailers by implementing the following:

  • Email product status updates

  • Branded product packaging

  • Include thank you message inside the product packaging

Putting in place intentional communications improves customer loyalty. If we implement these same tactics in our work, loyalty becomes donor retention.

11. Offer great customer service - For-profit companies with the best customer service models empower their teams and employees to solve and correct customer issues on the spot or in real-time. They can make decisions, act, and utilize resources without moving through laborious approval and managerial processes. Everyone is customer service and experience focused and can respond proactively without fear of repercussion for not asking permission or staying within a specific protocol. For example, all employees of the Ritz have a daily monetary amount to correct guest issues if needed—genius and simple! The customer (or the donor in our world) always comes first.

12. Lean into experience design - For decades, for-profit organizations have led the way in creating unique and memorable moments for customers by leaning into the principles of experience design. We've learned so much about effectively activating a narrative by engaging all five senses from industry stalwarts like Disney and Starbucks. Their attentiveness to the experience reflects a keen understanding that a customer's most valuable currency is not money—it's time. This is true of our donors, as well, and we should keep this in mind each time we ask them to spend time with us, whether at an event, reading a report, watching a video, or even opening an email. Donors have many options for how to spend their time and with whom. We must consider how we purposefully design specific and meaningful experiences for our donors rather than bombarding them with every idea WE think needs an audience. Successfully doing so will keep them engaged and coming back for more—exactly the kind of loyalty nonprofits seek to cultivate.

We recognize that some of these ideas are easier to implement than others. However, we want to challenge you to choose two practices from this list to explore and implement at your nonprofit. And don't worry if you get stuck, you know where to find a few disruptors willing to jump in and help. 😉


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