Several of our team traveled to Nonprofits Innovation and Optimization Summit (NIO) in San Antonio, Texas, last month and were amazed at the year-over-year growth of this valuable conference. With more than 400 in attendance and 18 speakers, it’s clear that nonprofits are interested in bringing their marketing and fundraising strategies in line with today’s donors. We can’t wait to go back next year!

Much of the topics under discussion fell loosely into two categories:

  • Messaging & Understanding Your Donors
  • Digital Trends

Let’s unpack a few of the ideas we heard…


1) Storytelling is more motivating than simply exchanging information.

When listeners get emotionally invested in a narrative, it’s because of the hormones the story produces in them. Suspense, laughter, eliciting empathy and even irritating readers all produce different hormones (dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins and cortisol), which directly impact attention, empathy, motivation, critical thinking, willingness to consider new ideas and even willingness to give. (Several studies show that oxytocin can increase generosity by up to 200%.)

Note that cortisol is a stress hormone that will negatively impact responses. (David JP Philip: “The Magical Science of Storytelling”)

2) Calls to action should focus on what the donor wants, rather than what the nonprofit wants. Examples:

  • “Make a tangible difference in someone’s life” is better than “Become a sustaining donor.” (Amy Harrison: “Copy that Crushes Objections and Gets Donations”)
  • “Save Your Marriage Now” is better than “Get Started.” Words like “subscribe” and “submit” are impersonal, and that big red “DONATE NOW” button communicates to the donor: “Give me your money now.” (Karl Gilis: “Why You Fail as a Digital Marketer and What to Do About It”)

3) Personal messaging wins out over marketing-style messaging.

Be authentic: Avoid cliches, jargon, and marketing-heavy language, use phrasing that appeals to personal connection, including use of the word “you”, and read your message out loud before you send it to hear how it will sound to the reader. (Jon Powell: “5 Unusual Levers to Help Your Emails Get Read)

4) Some old marketing best practices are no longer true.

  • “The page fold is a myth: People do scroll, but it depends on what they see above the fold.”
  • Long-form writing can perform very well
  • In one test, when a page included an auto-play video, the most often clicked button was the pause button.

New idea: A two-step donation process can leverage the psychological principle that people like to finish what they start. Data shows it increases donations and recurring donations. (Karl Gilis: “Why You Fail as a Digital Marketer and What to Do About It”)

Where nonprofits see a professional, polished email or webpage, donors often see marketing. Where we see too much copy, too much scrolling, or a form below the fold, our donor may see a compelling reason to give. (Tim Kachuriak: “The Fundraiser’s 3 Fatal Flaws”)

5) Find a way to be in the conversation with your audience.

In the 1960s, JFK walked through NASA. He introduced himself to a janitor and asked what the man did. “I’m working to put a man on the moon,” he said. Do your staff and donors feel a part of what you’re doing? (Lee Mi Alias: “Think Like a Fan – Invest in Your Fans So They Invest in You”)

6) Nonprofits need to focus more on recurring givers.

Recurring donors give more over a year than one-time donors, but they typically receive fewer appeals and less cultivation (i.e. phone calls) and more direct (impersonal) mail. They’re not being segmented and treated as high-value donors. When it comes to giving modes, EFT/bank transfers are better for retention than credit cards, which expire, sometimes expiring the donor. (Brady Josephson: “The State of Recurring Giving in 2018”)

7) Prioritize volunteering in your donation asks.

Not only do you gain value through volunteers’ physical assistance, they are more likely to donate to your cause, as well. (Josh McQueen: “Changes in Giving and Volunteer Work for Nonprofit”)


1) Search criteria is changing and it’s even more important to be found there.

For the last four years, branded searches (searches for specific organizations such as “Red Cross,” etc.) are flat or down, but generic searches (“how to help the refugee crisis”) increased by 20%. 75% of donors start by researching online, and half of them visit the sites of multiple organizations before making a donation.

Now more than ever, showing up in a variety of search results, having a mobile-friendly giving page, using targeted ads, video, virtual reality, and Google’s targeting tools and utilizing data to determine effectiveness are vital. (Jamie Blomquist: Aligning Strategy and Spend with Changing Behaviors)

2) Email and social media response time matter. (Tim Kachuriak: “The Fundraiser’s 3 Fatal Flaws”)

3) Test everything.

You may be testing many things, but are you testing these:

  • “Sponsor Journeys.” How do we onboard? How do we cultivate? Are you celebrating “sponsorversaries”?
  • Payment operations. What does your contact center say when people call in and want to give a gift? If people stop giving, how do you chase them? How many times do you retry failed cards? This is important because donors trust that you’re doing these things anyway.
  • What you send by mail/email
  • Crisis communication
  • New content that delights your donors and makes them feel good every month? Which pieces do they respond to?
  • How many times you solicit recurring donors for one-time gifts? A NextAfter study, found that the strongest retention occurred when someone made a gift as close as possible to when they first started sponsoring. There was a higher response than in second month than in the 6-8th month.

(Amy Zhang and Matt Bailey: “23 Recurring Giving Case Studies”)

Other testing ideas:

  • Email sender (org vs. individual)
  • Long copy vs. short copy
  • Personalization
  • Hyperlinked text vs. URLs

(Tim Kachuriak: “The Fundraiser’s 3 Fatal Flaws”)

4) Data is a culture.

More and more nonprofits understand the need for data but have a long way to go. “Today, 95% get stuck at diagnostics. Most of us are all about dashboards and alerts. But a growing percentage are using more predictive, prescriptive, and even cognitive, which is really impactful because as you move up in maturity, technology does the work. It allows you to scale.

One simple, common example of where nonprofits are missing it is in the area of data: “Misspelling a donor’s name costs you in giving and retention. Is it valuable? Yes. But do we focus on it? No single person is responsible for typos. Where are all the places humans touch the data? That’s where we’re most likely to find mistakes.” (Steve MacGlaughlin: “Big Data, AI and Unicorns”)

5) You should be using Google Ad grants for nonprofits. (Michelle Hurtado: “Connecting People to Causes with Free Google Ads”)

6) Be careful not to use data to tell the story you want to tell rather than representing it accurately, which builds distrust. (Kevin Peters: “Using Data to Tell a Compelling Story”)

These takeaways barely touch the hem of the garment when it comes to the massive amount of valuable information attendees picked up, not to mention the fun, food and networking opportunities available to them.

Hopefully, we’ll see you at NIO SUMMIT 2019.