Adventures in innovation – be a donor detective

By Lucy Gower
On January 11, 2012 At 2:00 pm

Category : strategy

Responses : No Comments

Innovation is often misunderstood. For many, the word innovation conjures up thoughts of pointlessly whacky idea sessions, fluffy ideas that never amount to more than a collection of hopeful post-it notes left over at the end of a team day and green beanbags.

For innovation to be successful it must be rooted in organisational strategy and be driven by the core mission of an organisation. This ensures that idea generation and delivery are focused on solving relevant challenges.

Innovation in your fundraising involves looking for opportunities; where is there a need that isn’t being fulfilled? The key is how you uncover those opportunities and then develop solutions to turn the opportunities into successful fundraising.

In the same way that corporate organisations work hard to understand their customers needs and provide goods and services for their customers, fundraising organisations need to work hard to understand their donors and develop compelling and easy ways for them to give support.

Whatever your current fundraising challenge, be it attracting new donors, upgrading regular givers, reducing attrition rates or increasing donor lifetime value (and the list goes on…and on….) in order to be able to identify relevant fundraising opportunities to innovate around, investing time and resource to better understand your donors will be crucial.

How do you get better at understanding your donors?

You could have a focus group. The trouble with focus groups is that people tell you what they want you to hear. In this photograph by Martin Parr, which is an observational shot and not staged; if you asked this chap where he goes on holiday I bet he wouldn’t tell you he sunbathed under a digger.

What people say they do and what people actually do are often different. That is why a focus group isn’t necessarily the answer. How do you really get to understand your donors? How do you get real insights which you can turn into fundraising opportunities? Become a donor detective.  Spend time getting to know your donors. Who are they? Find out what they do, hang out where they hang out, listen to what they listen to, shop where they shop, watch what they watch. Really think of how you can spend time getting to know your donors.

The more effort you put in, (and it is more effort) to really get under the skin of your donors will enable you to uncover new opportunities and insight that you will not glean from a focus group.

SolarAid is a small international organisation. Its mission is to provide clean renewable power to the poorest people in the world. They provide solar products for communities in rural Africa. One of their ideas was a solar light that fits inside a kerosene lamp. The design held a number of advantages, most families had kerosene lamps, adaptable familiar easily hung or carried.

Here is a picture of the solar light prototype which as you can see fits inside the kerosene lamp casing.

The light was not a success. Why? One simple reason. The kerosene lamp is the symbol of poverty. People didn’t want to buy a solar light to fit inside a kerosene lamp. They wanted a lightbulb, or something even better, but not one that reminds them of the kerosene lamp.

This priceless insight was really important for SolarAid because it taught them to put their customer at the core of their work. If they had got to know their customers better they would have been better placed to observe the symbolic importance of a solar light that would not be obvious to an outsider, or even openly declared in a focus group. Your donors are your customers and there are many insightful opportunities to develop fundraising for their needs if you spend time getting better at identifying who they are, listening to them and understanding them.

Understanding your donors shouldn’t happen in isolation. Knowing what your competitors are up to is an important consideration too.

Become a mystery shopper and give to a range of charities. If you are an events fundraiser, participate in your competitors events. If you are a DM fundraiser, give £3 a month, if you raise funds through membership, join some membership organisations. Your knowledge of what the competition are offering will provide you with a context to help you take your donor insight opportunity and develop a fundraising proposition that is better and different to anyone elses.

And finally you need to have an understanding of the changing environment. If you think because you did ok last year, that if you deliver the same fundraising plan this year it will all be ok. It won’t.

The world is changing, the fast advancement of technology alone is shifting donor expectations to communication, people are living longer, and attitudes to saving and investment are adapting to provide for this, in some markets there is greater pressure for the delivery of public services, public confidence and spending is low, there is a greater demand for transparency and social responsibility and an increase in social entrepreneurs starting businesses that are replacing traditional charities services.

Getting out from behind your desk to hang out with donors, to understand the market trends, both in the charity and corporate sectors and to be aware of what the competition are offering will take more time and more effort. But it will give you priceless insights from which you can develop your fundraising ideas that are relevant to your audiences. And because they are also relevant to achieving your core mission they are less likely to get left behind with the green bean bags at the end of the team day.

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Lucy Gower (27 blogs on 101fundraising)

Lucy has been a fundraiser for over 10 years and is passionate about innovation and how it can transform organisational and individual performance. Lucy is an independent trainer and consultant specializing in innovation in fundraising. Lucy also blogs for fundraising website sofii.org and is a conference speaker both in the UK and overseas.


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