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How to Inspire Donors with Your “Why”

Your cause is important. But perhaps the biggest challenge you face in fundraising is getting more donors to care about it.

Christina McGovern, Director of Development & Marketing at the Youth Service Bureau of St. Joseph County, Indiana, was able to increase individual gifts by more than 6x. How? By honing in on the organization’s “why?” and evolving their brand and messaging.

Listen to Christina’s journey, mistakes, and big successes on this episode of the Accidental Fundraiser.

In This Episode You’ll Learn:

  • Hone in on your mission to better explain your organization’s “why”
  • Get directly involved in your organization’s mission to reinspire yourself
  • Be constantly aware of your donors and similar funds’ donors to scout for new opportunities

Season 2 Episode 5 Transcript

Christina McGovern: The biggest learning curve is realizing that people knew nothing about what we do. And it’s a challenge because we have six different programs. So I think the other part of that is learning not to try to explain everything. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that you have a youth shelter and a street outreach program, and you have a young mom’s program and you have this and this and this.

That’s all great, but it’s your, why are you doing this? And that’s, what’s gonna connect with the donor.

Kimberly: Sometimes in fundraising, you have to step outside of your comfort zone, dive in and learn something new. I’m Kimberly O’Donnell. And this is Accidental Fundraiser, the show from Network for Good and Bonterra that shares radically authentic stories from the trenches. Your cause is important. You’re changing the world $1 at a time, but paradoxically, your biggest fundraising challenge is getting more donors to care about it.

You know, that whole donor acquisition side of things. So how can you effectively talk about your mission to meet your community and your donors priorities. Quick answer your nonprofits, board leadership and donors should reflect the mission so you can successfully serve. But more than that, what’s your why?

Christina McGovern and the Youth Service Bureau of St. Joseph County in Indiana were able to increase their individual gifts by more than six times. They honed in on their mission and evolved their branding and messaging with the world changing rapidly and many communities, makeup and structure shifting it’s critical that you remain nimble and adapt.

Listen to Christina’s journey, mistakes and big successes on this episode of accidental fundraiser. Christina, thank you for joining me today on accidental fundraiser. Really excited to talk with you about your experience in fundraising. Tell me a little bit about how you got. Started in the nonprofit

Christina McGovern: sector.

It was truly accidental. Actually, I went to college and thought I was going to be like CJ Craig from the, the west wing. That was my goal to, uh, take my PolySci degree. And I’m gonna be a, uh, a press secretary. And I didn’t quite work out the way that I wanted, but I ended up actually working. The first fundraising experience was really working on a congressional campaign in the Fort Wayne area.

Right out of college. So they obviously did not have a very difficult opponent. If they let new college graduate coming in, raise some money for a campaign, how did it feel raising money? It was a, certainly a whole new, a whole new experience. I really had no idea what I was doing. And luckily I had a lot of people around me who had done, you know, similar work and a lot of that particular.

Type of fundraising when I was doing it because I was so new was mostly event coordination rather than your one on one big donor conversations.

Kimberly: Did you get any advice as you were starting out about how to fundraise or how to run those events that was particularly helpful?

Christina McGovern: The biggest piece of advice was just don’t accept.

No, as the final answer, there’s always potentially some wiggle room and also not to give up because you may get, especially in politics, I think you certainly have to just get used to getting a no and the yeses will be good. And then you can keep going on your mission or your cause or whatever that is.

Kimberly: What tactics or techniques would you then use to try. Keep that relationship going and, and work towards that. Yes. Or steward that potential donor towards the, yes,

Christina McGovern: it’s certainly much more different now than when I was a 20 something year old. And I’ve had a lot of experience in between that time. That probably really helped me do my current work.

So for example, After college, I actually worked retail for years and there is no better preparation for doing anything I think, than working, uh, retail or food service or any of that, because you have to deal with every type of person and every type of situation. And so I think it makes you nimble and able to pivot.

And, and then I think also I’ve had a really fortunate experience work for a couple of entrepreneurs and they’re wired very differently. Than most people and truly never accept. No, we were not even allowed to say the word. No. with one of the people that I worked with and having a balance between, okay, don’t be obnoxious about it, but also again, not giving up, it’s continuing the conversation.

Philanthropy is personal, no matter what level it is, even if it’s a corporate level or an individual donor, it has to resonate personally. And so I think finding out. What it is. For example, we work in a cause for young people and helping homeless youth. That’s something that isn’t really connecting. And you’re talking with someone whose passion is saving dogs or anything like that, then encourage them to do that.

Make a connection with the development officer that you know of. For your local pet rescue, and then that person is gonna remember that. And then when they meet someone who’s passionate about helping homeless youth, they’re gonna make that introduction for you. So it’s really not so much an answer of just accepting.

No, it’s finding a path to what

Kimberly: works. That’s great advice. And it’s so important to understand what. Potential donor or the donor is truly interested in and whether or not it’s a match for you, because there are so many others who could be a match for you. And do you really wanna spend your time trying to nurture relationships with individuals who may not have that same passion for your cause as you do?

So, how do you find that people who are passionate about your cause you’ve been in fundraising now for a long time, how do you go about doing it? Or how do you

Christina McGovern: instruct others to what is going on in your community? Are there organizations who, that you respect there maybe in a, even a similar field and look at, oh, did somebody just make a big gift to whatever?

And if that’s something that’s similar, they. Be passionate about what you’re doing. So I think looking at that, and then also looking at your existing relationships for your agency. So a lot of times you have a plethora of supporters right in front of you, and you have to make sure that you are stewarding your donors.

On a regular basis, not just a couple times a year. I mean, you have to send them a note and say, Hey, this happened in our youth shelter, or we just got an award for X. And did you see this national news story about youth homelessness and the impact? It has long term things like that. You have to constantly look at who has supported you in the past and make sure that you’re communicating with them.

Not just once a year, right? Fundraising

Kimberly: is year round. And relationship building is year round. You cannot stop, start, stop, start of relationship, right? Like it is something that you want to continue and, and you can find ways through different channels, not just through email yes. Not just through, in person to communicate

Christina McGovern: with your supporters.

Absolutely. And I think looking at what we just came through with the pandemic, everybody had to pivot and I think one of the things we looked at. Okay. Let’s seriously. Look at the best way. How can we communicate? Everyone is already, even at the very beginning, we could tell people were gonna be tired of getting emails and being on their computer and all these things.

So we started a postcard campaign. People were home, they’re getting mail. So we started within two months after we were all been locked down, we started a postcard campaign and we didn’t ask for anything. We sent a postcard and we said, we’re still here. We’re open. We’re here for kids. We’re serving. It was a quick message.

It was a positive message. Thank you for your past support. And we did that six or seven times, and I don’t think we asked for anything until maybe the eighth or ninth postcard that we sent. And we did that for almost a year. Wow.

Kimberly: And did you see an increase in individual gifts as a result

Christina McGovern: of that? We saw an increase in individual gifts.

I would love to say it was simply because they got this awesome postcard in the mail. I don’t think that that was solely it, but I certainly think it helped because we were all a little freaked. Nobody knew what was gonna happen. And I think it was a reminder to a lot of our donors, that there are a lot of people whose lives were really in periled before a pandemic and that’s continuing and here’s, you know, something I can do to help.

So I think, again, it goes back to that stewardship in that relationship. I certainly think it helped. I would love to say that was the sole reason, but. People just tended to be very generous as well. Let’s talk

Kimberly: a little bit about youth service bureau of St. Joseph’s county and its history. You are celebrating your 50th anniversary as an organization.

Tell us a little bit about the fundraising that has gone on over these past 50 years and how things are changing.

Christina McGovern: Sure. So things have changed significantly. I’ve been with the agency coming up on nine years of this 50 year agency. And I’ve seen a lot of change in that amount of time. And we had an executive director who was with us for over 40 years.

And during that time there was incredible work happening, but they didn’t tell anybody. They weren’t sharing the story. We had a lot of cultural change that we had to make within the agency, across the agency. So starting with the new executive director and she and I have been working together for the past seven years and our personalities are completely complimentary.

And I’m so fortunate that I have an execut exec director who. Not only is a stellar leader, but trust me to do my job. So I think the biggest changes in our agency specifically was establishing that we’re a brand. So for example, when I first started everybody’s email was different. So it was Bonnie S SPC global and bill at Yahoo.

And I’m like, oh my gosh, are you kidding me right now? so changing something as simple as that, having a unified. Brand. So it’s YSP, sjc.org. Everybody has the same thing. Everybody’s saying the same message and really telling that story just starting from there and not giving up. So finding what connects with people and finding something different, for sure.

So one of our biggest fundraisers that we do now, this will be our sixth year and we pick something that nobody else was doing in our community. And it. Really been great for us. Please tell

Kimberly: what is

Christina McGovern: this awesome fundraiser? Six years ago, we partnered with over the edge, which you may have heard about.

It’s a fundraiser where we have people repel on the side of a building. And so in our case, The young people that we serve are on the edge of poverty and homelessness and abuse and neglect and things like that. So it was really fitting. But the flip side of, of that is they’re on the edge of greatness, right?

They’re on the edge of resiliency. And so looking at that from both sides of it and no one else in our region was. Doing this event. And of course the first year we did it, we had no idea what we were doing. The event itself. We did pretty well. We raised $70,000 the very first year that we did it. We partner with an existing downtown south bend group in our community.

So there’s already a party going on. So I don’t have to fundraise and create a party. I can just join in. And now we’re a part of that event. So last year we raised 126,000, which was our, our fifth year. And I was very pleased. Wow. So.

Kimberly: First of all, what an incredible connection to an event really suits your mission so well, and then to have learned, oh, maybe we should be doing this and partnering with another organization to maximize attention attendance, all of that.

Super smart. And then over the course of those five years to grow from 70,000 to $120,000 is a lot. I mean, that’s incredible. How have you shaped some of what you’ve done with it then? Meaning we get to the point where we realize an event is. Going pretty well. Right. What do you do to constantly evaluate and optimize so that you don’t get stuck in the same old each year?

How have you

Christina McGovern: evolved? That’s a really good point. You have to look at that. You can’t get complacent. You cannot just assume that people are going to participate. Even people who’ve been incredibly supportive. There’s a realtors association in town, and there’s a lot of realtors who are part of that. And they.

Raised tons of money for us. They’ve done an outstanding job and I never want to assume that they’re gonna continue to do that. I make sure that I ask in that every year. And I think also talking to everyone who participated, what worked for you for the event? What was it that was rewarding. People are literally doing something that’s scary.

They’re going down the side of the building, but we ask each person to raise a minimum of a thousand dollars. And so making sure that we are providing as much information and support and ideas. I’m asking them to support a cause I’m not asking them for their dollars. And I think keeping that in mind that this is part of the big picture you’re talking about supporting young people and giving them an opportunity to write a new life story and continuing to keep your mission at the forefront of what you’re talking about and talking with our downtown south bend agency.

Okay. What can we do? That’s gonna be fun. And how can we connect that to this particular fundraising? You just can’t stop. I think that’s the biggest thing. You can’t get complacent. You can’t assume people are gonna always do this and you can’t assume that they understand everything that you do as well.

I think as fundraisers people who work in the nonprofit world just assume that people know what you do, and they truly don’t. You have to break it down into bite size pieces and keep it focused on something that they can connect with. One of the things

Kimberly: that has also is bubbling up for me is. Events can change too.

It sounds simple to say it that way, but it’s important to evaluate whether or not an event that you’ve been doing for the last five years, 10 years, 20 years is still the right event for your organization and your supporters. Yes. I’m often surprised there are organizations that I’ve worked with or coached or been on the board of, and they’ll have the golf tournament or the gala.

And. What’s interesting to me is that it can sometimes be a really hard tie back to the work that they’re doing. Yes. And when it comes to events, I always advise that you find something that allows you to bring your organization into the event. What I mean by that is if it’s a youth organization, how can you involve youth in that event?

Right. So. People see it and feel it golf tournament. Doesn’t always tie to being able to see kids. right. That’s who, who you’re supporting. So what do you think about when you consider new events? A lot

Christina McGovern: of agencies put not just your initial cost of your event, but your staff time into, is it really worth it for you?

What are you getting out of this gala besides the 75 85, $200,000? That’s exactly right. Keeping your mission integrated into that and also being. Open to talking about making a change. You’re super passionate about something and it’s gone really well and you tend to get defensive, right? If somebody says, is this really what we should be doing?

And really being open to taking a hard look at that. This is where having the support of our executive director, who was willing to look outside the box. So we thought, okay, what can we do differently? Instead of any annual dinner, we took the budget that we had for catering and we bought TV, commercial.

We sold some of them as sponsorships and it accomplished a couple different things along the way. So I think just not being a afraid to try something and not being afraid to fail, I think that most successful entrepreneurs fail constantly and they don’t forget about it. They just learn from it and move on.

Our budgets are smaller. Sometimes things are more powerless. We’re not billionaires who are running these kind of things. But taking part of that approach is a way to. Ooh. I

Kimberly: love that the fail fast mentality test and learn, fail fast. Don’t be afraid of, of trying new things and taking risks. Many organizations in the nonprofit sector are extremely nervous.

Yeah. About trying new things, because they don’t want to waste donor dollars. Right. And they don’t wanna get in trouble for that. Another idea around that is also looking at your special events and thinking about it. A D E I B lens, right? Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging lens. Do you have a diverse audience at your events?

And if you’re not, how do you begin to grow that change? That, is that something that you guys have thought about as

Christina McGovern: well? We’ve thought about it a little bit. And I think because we are in the middle of a capital campaign, it is certainly, you know, to be honest, it’s not taking, you know, top priority for me, but I think that it has to be an integral part and I don’t want to do anything just for the sake of doing it.

And if you look at the population that we serve, the youth that we serve. The demographics of the population that we serve. It is really important that our board of directors, that our top leadership staff and then our donors as well reflect the young people that we serve. We are not going to just do something because it’s always been done.

We want to come at it from a place of authenticity and sincerity, and I think your donors respond to that.

Kimberly: Now I know that your organization has really changed the way in which it has been fundraising for individual gifts, and that it’s really grown from 3% of your total budget all the way up to 20%.

Now, can you share a little bit about how that shift occurred? How why and what you’ve been doing?

Christina McGovern: Okay. Where’s our funding coming from. And I didn’t wanna go to an individual donor, especially someone that could contribute at a high level and say, look at our pie chart. It’s 90% federal funding because that just is a recipe for disaster.

And we certainly need that federal funding. But I think we purposely very intentionally. Set out that we wanted to, even out that pie chart a little bit, or to add another leg to the stool or study that, that stool, so to speak. I’m really pleased now to be able to go and talk with donors and say, look, this pie chart’s pretty even now.

And we very intentionally did that, especially for a smaller human services, nonprofit. I’ve had some experience in higher ed. Fundraising. And that lend itself to what we did with YSB. I don’t wanna spend six months working on a dinner. That’s gonna bring in X and it’s only gonna do that once a year. It is gonna be a much better approach for us to have conversations with individuals, ask them why they supported YSB initially 10 years ago.

Why did you stop? We were very intentional that we wanted to move the needle from, you know, having 80 people contributed a dinner to having 10 people who could give a much more significant gift. And we knew that we wanted within that. You know, timeframe to start a capital campaign and you can’t start a capital campaign if you were not in good relationship with your existing donors.

So we were very intentional about how we wanted to do that.

Kimberly: So getting down to the bras tax of it, how did you find the individuals that you thought could give in a more meaningful

Christina McGovern: way? Some of them have given previously who gave maybe over $250 consistently over the past five years, we went to Bloomerang.

And so we added a new CRM, which doesn’t matter what kind of technology you have. You have to actually look at it and use it and really trying to understand, okay, who’s given the most amount. All right. Let’s start with them. Let’s have a conversation with them and then looking. Everybody else in your community.

I look at annual reports constantly. I look at LinkedIn constantly. Who’s supporting this agency. If something is a good fit in making that connection and then asking your board not just to give, but to make introductions. So we started doing things like we had coffee talks. I asked someone who had supported the agency for a long time to host a coffee invite 15.

To come learn more about the agency and we did not fundraise at those events. It was strictly informational. And we made that clear in the invitation. We’re gonna take an hour of your time. We’re gonna have some coffee. We sat down, we had a conversation and we did that six or seven times. Throughout the year.

And that was very helpful. We gained a couple board members. We met with elected officials as well, because you’re not only cultivating donors, but you are doing advocacy work, which I think is also really important. Great

Kimberly: advice. And how did you come up with questions that you wanted to ask or things that you wanted to learn about each of these individuals that would help you better understand what they were interested in, how they might give?

Christina McGovern: I’ve been very fortunate to have some incredible mentors along the way, asking for advice. And then I’m just naturally curious. And so I think just starting with the basic. What is it that connected for you? The biggest learning curve is realizing that people knew nothing about what we do. And it’s a challenge because we have six different programs.

So I think the other part of that is learning not to try to explain everything. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that you have a youth shelter and a street outreach program, and you have a young mom’s program and you have this and this and this. That’s all great, but it’s your, why are you doing this?

And that’s, what’s gonna connect with the donor.

Kimberly: Share with us some successes. Were there some surprise gifts that came your way as you embarked on this, getting to know your constituency?

Christina McGovern: The biggest surprise was when we started to see big gifts, don’t ask small because you’re not gonna get anything ask big, and you’re probably gonna get at least half of what you’re asking for.

I think people tend to respond. If you are asking from a place of confidence and strength versus, oh, we’re this poor little nonprofit, please help us. That does not. Even with sponsorships, we have stopped asking for, you know, a 500, a thousand dollars, you know, it’s not worth their time to do that kind of thing.

If they’re gonna invest with you, then go bigger. You are

Kimberly: stepping into a capital campaign very soon. I guess you’re in the silent phase

Christina McGovern: right now. Yeah. We’re actually just coming out of the quiet phase. We’re starting to be a little louder now. yay.

Kimberly: All right. Talk a little bit about. What made you all decide that it was time for a capital

Christina McGovern: campaign?

Part of it was our buildings are literally falling apart. We cannot continue to run the shelter in the space, you know, that we’re in, that needed to happen. And that went back to looking at, at how we approach the events to try to establish those relationship with individual donors and get used. To looking at individuals because we knew that we would need them for a capital campaign.

We did a feasibility study, and I think the biggest benefit that I found from that process was it gave us some legitimacy. So when we have a well known consulting company, go in and meet. One of the most prominent people in the community. They know that we are seriously going to do this because we are able to pay this consulting company to do this right.

And they’re asking very specific questions and it was very professionally done. So I think that was the biggest benefit. Was it really let people know that, okay, we’re actually doing this. It’s not just a

Kimberly: pipe dream. So hiring a consultant, doing the research as you built your case for support and moving towards the launch, what’s been happening as you have gone out and started to fundraise.

Christina McGovern: We had a plan. None of this was by chance. We had a list. Of specific people. If this campaign is going to be successful, these three entities have to be on board and they have to be on board early. And there was no wavering from that. That was a specific goal. And I’m happy to tell you that we made it happen.

So we got a million dollar gift right off the bat and it was not easy. I mean, it took a long time. It probably took a year. It took many meetings. We sat outside in somebody’s back deck in the middle of COVID freezing our butts off. And we had this conversation and we answered every question about our finances and really made our case and didn’t give up.

And we got a million dollar gift at the very beginning of the campaign. And I was brutally honest with this particular donor that we’re meeting with because I said, this will be the catalyst. I promise you, I can make this campaign happen and it will be successful, but I need you to be the. I don’t need you to wait until the end.

I need you to do this first because that’s gonna make all the difference and thank God they did it. And it has, so I’m happy to say, including the donation of the property, we’ve secured 5 million of the six, but I’m pretty happy with that result for sure.

Kimberly: That’s incredible. And how many years just a sold over a year.

Wow. Like 16 months, 16 months you’ve been working

Christina McGovern: hard, honestly, that is probably one of the biggest challenges in this field is it’s never gonna be enough and you’re never gonna be done. And so you just have to. Take a breath and celebrate the victories that you get and look at why you’re doing it. It gets really hard to get separated from the mission.

So go hang out at the shelter or go spend time with the people with disabilities that you’re serving, cuz something will happen that will reinspire you. And that will come through when you’re talking to people, you can’t just talk about like, oh, well we. The numbers and this, and yes, and some donors are very numbers focused and you have to honor that, but if you lose sight of why you’re doing it, then it’s time to move on and do something else.

That’s great

Kimberly: advice for managing burnout. Do you have any other advice around burnout? Because it is real. It’s totally real. It can be really hard and to fundraise and do all of your other work. Some of our listeners are what we call chief everything officers. Yeah. They’re one person shops. How do you manage that

Christina McGovern: burnout?

I think you have to acknowledge the burnout. First of all, I’m a big bene brown fan. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to her podcast or talk about how she tells this story, when she worked in restaurant about how like I’m blown. And so that means like I’m done, but you have to do it. You have to take it time out.

So if it’s two days after an event, you have to take the day and literally do nothing, not check your email, not get on the phone. Literally. Stop go to a spa, go pet some dogs, go to the beach. If you can go to the beach, do something, take a look around, enjoy your family, take the time and acknowledge that you’re tired because if you don’t, you’re not gonna do anyone any favors you’re so right.

It can be hard

Kimberly: to let go. You think that you’re the only person that can do the work that you’re doing and do it the right way or have the vision that you have? Yes. How do you. Work with board members, volunteers. I know a lot of accidental fundraisers who struggle with getting the additional help that they need and asking for that help in part, because it’s hard to have volunteers do things exactly as you want.

They’re not paid staff, they’re not working for you. So there’s a delicacy there, but then also being able to manage the projects effectively and. Continue that momentum that you want to create that cycle of continuous support from these different volunteers, board members, et cetera. Do you have any, um, tips for

Christina McGovern: our listeners?

I’m probably the worst person when it comes to committees for all those reasons that you outlined, right? Uh, it’s almost more work to have a group of volunteers. Oh, my God. I just gimme the phone. I’ll pick up the phone. I’ll just have it done. You can get it done in five minutes, but you can’t keep doing that.

You have to ask for help and you have to let people help you. It’s a matter of practice, so practice. Okay. Let go. Parts of it. Here’s this component. And then just make yourself a promise. Not to touch it unless like it’s on fire. Just try to let them help you and give the people who are helping you as many tools as you.

They can’t, but let them jump in and do it. A lot of us are probably wired like this. I mean, we’re overachievers. We think we can do everything and we really can’t and you probably shouldn’t

Kimberly: true. Find all the help that you can, you know, go out and recruit all the help that you can get. COVID has changed fundraising.

Yeah, I do forever. I think in many good and bad ways. What do you see as the top things that are going to be important over these next three to five years as fundraising

Christina McGovern: evolves? One of the biggest things that’s gonna be hugely impactful is, is the labor issue, to be honest. So when you look at things like, uh, golf outing, for example, a lot of times.

Companies would send four or five or do two teams. Right. So you’ve got four people out for, at a minimum foursome out of the office or out of whatever, playing golf for a day. I don’t know that that’s coming back to a certain extent because there isn’t anybody else. So one of our biggest partners is a local grocery store.

And we do a, an, a big awareness event for child abuse prevention. They had a ton of staff that came our way to help empty trash, to help do all these different things. Those are gone, they are barely hanging on. And so I think as fundraisers, you have to really look at the businesses you’re asking to support you.

It’s not just that you wanna check for them because I think most companies. Had really pivoted to employee engaged fundraising. We just don’t wanna write you a check. We want our employees to be engaged with your cause. And this is something we can do. I think they still want to do that, but they don’t have the people now.

And so I think we’re gonna have to be really mindful of that. And I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.

Kimberly: That’s great insight. I would also add that there are emerging businesses that have fared well. Mm. During the pandemic that are worth a look, we can’t continue to go to the same funders and look at them in the same ways.

As you said, it’s really important to understand what their situation is, what other businesses in your community are truly flourishing. And how can you develop relationships, hearing your key takeaway? Hone in on your mission to better explain your organizations. Why, why should someone care about what you’re doing?

And don’t just tell them, show them, get directly involved in your organization’s mission to reinspire yourself. Your donor outreach strategy will benefit from your learned experiences and those great stories. Be constantly aware of your donors and your strategic partners. Donors. As well as those organizations that have similar missions and then begin to scout out new opportunities.

Fundraising is a world of abundance and it’s right in front of you. Yes, you can. I’m Kimberly. See you next time on accidental fundraiser and be sure to follow along wherever you get your audio.

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