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Fractured Atlas Book Club: The Zen of Fundraising

I never would've guessed that a book called The Zen of Fundraising would dole out some tough love. My mouth dropped on the subway when I read that author Ken Burnett, an international fundraising expert, believes that most donors receive better customer service from their local fast food restaurant (he names a specific chain, but I won't here) than from the nonprofit organizations to which they contribute. Once I got over the shock, I couldn't help but agree with the premise - I've been on both ends and seen things from the point-of-view of a donor and as a Fractured Atlas staffer supporting other arts organizations. How can you treat your donors better? Well, with The Zen of Fundraising, Ken Burnett offers "89 timeless ideas to strengthen and develop your donor relationships." This book is for fundraising newbies as well as seasoned pros, but Burnett especially takes development experts to task for forgetting some of the fundamentals of their field. This book is a back-to-the-basics learning experience for all fundraisers to reconsider some of their underlying assumptions about how to build and cultivate connections with donors.

Burnett introduces two  core concepts with this book which he frequently returns to throughout. The first is the idea of being "15 minutes ahead." So much of what passes for a fundraising "strategy" is actually zen-of-fundraisingreactive, like you're constantly trying to patch up a leaky life raft. A donor leaves you a bunch of voicemails which you struggle to make the time to return, you're trying to run a last-minute crowdfunding campaign to save your project, you whip up a newsletter because you realize it's been six months since anyone's heard from you. Exhausting! And obviously no way to run a business or demonstrate competence to people who are trying to support you. Instead, take a deep breath and delve into a plan to get you "15 minutes ahead" by anticipating what potential challenges lie down the road and having strategies in place for dealing with them. What kind of welcome package do you have for new donors? How do you address donor complaints? Who are the people responsible for sending a personal 'thank you' to each person who contributes? If you don't have answers to easy questions like these, then you're not ready for prime time.

Another aspect of being "15 minutes ahead" is to be a well-informed fundraiser. Even when you're operating at an expert level, you should still get out there attending seminars and take advantage of other professional development opportunities to grow in knowledge, or to just remind yourself about fundraising best practices. And don't be afraid to borrow good ideas from other organizations who are innovating new solutions to old fundraising problems - as long as the new solutions make sense for you! Amnesty International used to send out a donor solicitation mailer that included a plastic pen and the tagline "use the pen we've given you as an instrument of change, to change the world." Gimmicky, maybe, but it related directly to their mission and was extremely successful in increasing donations. Burnett continues the anecdote further to mention that many other organizations saw the success of Amnesty International's fundraising campaign and included pens in their own mailing. This didn't have the same effect. Obviously.

The Zen of Fundraising also introduces what Ken Burnett calls the "90-degree shift," which demands that you take the time to place yourself in the shoes of your potential donors when you think critically about your communications strategy. Look at the letter you're about to send. If you opened it up when you got home from work and were sorting through your mail while making dinner, how likely are you to throw it out? Is it superbly readable? Not take too much of the donor's time? Is it the umpteenth solicitation that you've sent in the last three months? One innovative idea that Burnett raises along these, which I'm sure other nonprofits are using but it sounded new to me, is giving your donors control of how often they hear from you and what kind of communications they receive. This means that you'll actually need to think up some options to give instead of overwhelming them with every type of communication you can think of. So maybe some donors want to hear by email only and prefer to receive updates quarterly. Other donors might prefer snail mail and only want your monthly newsletters. This lets the donor set the terms of his or her relationship with your organization, giving them a degree of power that I think they are entitled to if they have made a contribution. I found this particular idea pretty empowering because it opens up a whole realm of possibilities for customizing donor interaction and minimizing waste - you're not going to send snail mail to a donor who has specifically requested to only be emailed and will most likely put your written correspondence through the shredder.  I also invite you to imagine the potential of using CRM software, like, to create segmented lists of donors that is sorted by their communication preference so that you can see exactly who wants a phone call, who wants an email, and who wants you to send them something through the mail.

Ken Burnett's book challenges you to think critically about your fundraising operations. Try not to get your feelings hurt if he calls you out on something that you're totally doing wrong! Also, try not to roll your eyes at chapter titles that might sound like meaningless platitudes, like "Really understand your donors." It's not an insult to your intelligence to be reminded of the simple facts of life. As with any advice book, take to heart what you find useful and file the rest away to think about later.

Have you come across any books of great arts-entrepreneurial advice that you've been able to incorporate into your own business practice? If so, it doesn't give you a competitive advantage to keep it a secret! Spread the word. Let us know what titles you've found valuable and you might see your favorite book featured here in the coming months.