Want to Fundraise Successfully? Use Human Service Design.

nonprofit, charity, fundraise, funding, fundraising

Originally appearing on Medium….

Why does it feel like it’s getting harder and harder to raise money? Well, because it is. Our little networked world sets an incalculable number of charities at the feet of donors; ripe for the choosing. Which means fundraisers have to be a tad more thoughtful than a parking lot table and cute little girls (or boys) accosting shoppers.

In fact, these days a fundraising campaign without thoughtfulness is certain death. I’m willing to bet you’ve already seen this with a campaign where the stress, weight gain and additional expense didn’t add up to the time invested or the money raised.

In fact, these days, a fundraising campaign without thoughtfulness is certain death.

The Answer is Design My Friend

So how do develop successful fundraising campaigns sans ice buckets and plank challenges? The answer lies in design. Service design to be exact.

Thankfully, Ryan Charnov (founder of popular fundraising startup Giftfluence) has been kind enough to lend his observations on what makes a successful fundraising campaign. We’re talking planning, testing, iterating and all the other little things organizations miss that cause “womp, womp” results. And he should know, his startup is dedicated to helping charities raise money.

I’ll also walk you through a few legal hurdles you’ll want to know about and plan for.


The Steps to Planning A Successful Fundraising Campaign

  1. Define the Mission

Get really clear on what your campaign’s singular mission will be. Campaigns with multiple goals or missions fail to achieve any at all. In fact, there’s a saying that sums this up; “Chase two rabbits, you go home hungry.”

At the same time, the mission can’t be too short-sighted. Too narrow of a scope and your campaign may struggle to resonate with supporters.

As you work through your “singular mission,” ask yourself:

i. Is the the mission clear and simple to understand?

ii. How will followers identify with the campaign? Will our primary mission be financially driven (ex: “We are trying to raise $10,000”), benefit driven (ex: “We want to provide meals for 5,000 families”) or ideal driven (ex: “We are trying to eradicate a disease in this certain area”)?

iii. Does our mission match our ability to reach potential supporters? If the goal is to fundraise for 5,000 meals, do we actually have capacity to make and distribute 5,000 meals?

2. Develop A Profile Of Your Target Donor

Quite possibly one of the most important steps, successful campaigns are the campaigns that resonate with donors. And for a campaign to resonate, you have to understand who your donor is. What makes them tick? What are their goals and values? Or barriers and fears?

Skipping this step is another quick trip to “womp, womp” ville. This is where an organization comes up with hilarious hashtags, only to find its supporters don’t use Twitter. Or starts a crowdfunding campaign that gets so little funding the line doesn’t appear to move. In other words, a failure to understand your target donor can, and likely will, result in minimal traction and disappointing outcomes.

“A failure to understand your target donor can, and will likely, result in minimal traction and disappointing outcomes.”

To create target donor profiles ask questions like:

i. Who is our target donor? What is their age, socioeconomic status, geographic location, occupation, hobbies, fears, etc? What is their personality profile?

ii. How do we get their attention? What forms of social media do they interact with?

iii. Why will the target donor identify with our campaign?

iv. Who are our target donors likely to share this campaign with?

v. Is there an opportunity to use gamification?

3. Create a Roadmap to Success

As with life, success hinges on good planning. But planning a “fundraising campaign” (*cue echo*) can sound scary. The easiest way to counter this is to break campaigns down into a roadmap.

With fundraising success is determined way before you start shooting out emails. Success is determined by how well you design what needs to happen to hit that singular mission. And how well you timeline next steps to getting there. So that your roadmap isn’t so much a plain checklist. It almost becomes the tool to finding your “One-Eyed Wily treasure” (so to speak).

In planning, answer questions like:

i. What will be the campaign’s stages, and what needs to happen in each stage?

ii. Who’s responsible for each task?

iii. Which tasks are time sensitive?

iv. What unique skills and competencies are required? How can we harness those skills through actionable tasks?

v. What resources and tools will we use to help us? How can we best utilize these tools to drive success?

4. Don’t Just Stand There

Once there’s a roadmap, don’t just stand there. Create test flyers, platforms and marketing to show friends, donors, funders or staff. See what resonates, what needs tweaking and what to remove all together. A fancier way of saying this is “Go Prototype. ” It saves so much time and money by forcing you to test assumptions before going live. Creating an opportunity to gather feedback, preliminary data and make pivots if it turns out assumptions are wrong.

Personally, we’re big fans of the lo-fi prototype; where you spend as little money as possible prototyping.

Example: I (Erin) worked with a group wanting to put together an information booklet for a fundraising campaign. Rather than running out and printing an expensive, glossy sample we drew different sections we thought might be interesting on construction paper and arranged them on sheets of computer paper we’d stapled together. Then we asked people to play with the different pieces and tape which sections they wanted to see and where. This saved the group tons of money. And the anxiety meds they would no doubt have ingested if it turned out they’d gotten it wrong after spending thousands of dollars.

While creating your prototypes, keep front of mind:

i. Is my vision carrying through?

ii. Based off of preliminary feedback does it look like I could meet my goals?

iii. Am truly challenging my campaign and its assumptions or am I being stubborn?

iv. What questions should I ask that will allow me to keep improving my roadmap?

v. After I get feedback, am I reviewing it with an eye towards iterating and improving?

5. Execute, Execute, Execute

After you prototype and get feedback, as the saying goes, “There’s nothing to it, but to do it.” Go out there and execute using the feedback you’ve gotten and iterations you’ve made.

Keep in mind, where you wind up when you go live may not be perfect…at first. Could you spend 6 more months crafting a donation page that transcribes Ancient Greek and accepts 12 types of currency? Sure could. But how long will that take? And how many opportunities do you lose while doing that?

There’s nothing to it, but to do it.

Resist the urge to stay stuck in the ideation or testing phase. To go back to our example, start with a simple landing page that has the important contact information and basic payment methods. And while you’re accepting donations, update as you go along. Because you could go through the trouble of working on the “perfect” page for 6 months only to find your demographic isn’t big into online payment. That’s why it pays to get out there sooner than later.

Now, that doesn’t mean throw any ol’ thing out there. It means you won’t truly get a sense of whether something resonates with donors until you actually engage donors. So forgo perfection for action, and start executing as soon as you “responsibly” can.

At the end of the day, the success of your campaign will come down to how well you can execute on your plan, how well you listen and how quickly you adapt.

Once you execute, regularly assess:

i. How well is the campaign is doing relative to our goal?

ii. Did the work we’ve done today push forward the campaign?

iii. What can we learn, or have we learned, from today that will push us forward tomorrow?

iv. Are there assumptions we’ve made that are being challenged? How so, and how do we adapt?

6. Follow Up

Ever fill out one of those little shoes for a donation and wonder, “What happens with this”? That’s because money is incredibly personal. And once someone hands over their money they’re officially an investor. But investors expect regular progress updates. After all, they’ve become stakeholders in the long term success of your organization. So follow-up on donations and do so regularly.

Not to mention, follow-ups are a phenomenal opportunity to learn, ask questions, gather more data and test more assumptions.

Use your cache of donors to help answer important questions like:

i. What is the best method of communicating overall?

ii. How often do supporters expect to hear from me?

iii. How can we capitalize on campaign’s success to grow our relationship with donors.

iv. What facts and statistics do donors care about?


Legal Considerations

Now that you’ve gotten a good lay of the “planning ” land let me dazzle you with a few legal things to keep in mind.

  1. First and foremost is privacy. A big concern if you interview individuals for their thoughts or experiences with a sensitive subject matter, like health or financial matters. As you collect information don’t leave interviews sprawled out on the kitchen table. Keep folders secure and only allow access to people (staff, board, consultants) who have a need to know.
  2. Another biggie with fundraising is the amount of regulation. It’s not often I have to do this, but whenever I’m working on something fundraising related I check state law before I make one move, even so much as a flinch. I check to see if there is some type of registration, disclosure or contract required. Both at the state level and county level, because there are times the state won’t require I file something but the county will. It gets really, really tricky. So as your fundraising campaign develops keep possible hurdles in mind and account for any time it may take to sort through them.
  3. Transparency, transparency, transparency, transparency….I can’t say it enough. The benefit of using human service design is that it instills trust, but that can so easily be botched if you’re not transparent. Things like not communicating, not communicating clearly or intentionally misleading come to mind as top no-go’s. When you meet with stakeholders for feedback, be upfront about what you’re trying to accomplish. Be honest and quickly communicate mistakes. And never present something as readily available on the market (like a service offering, or gift for a donation) if you don’t plan to follow-through. In many places this would be considered a deceptive trade practice and can get you fined.

What Are You Waiting For?

Don’t let the density and complexity of fundraising campaigns throw you off. Even worse, don’t let it intimidate you into settling for the same ol’, same ol’ campaigns.

The key to successful fundraising is to take a cue from human service design. Plan, get feedback, prototype, execute, follow up and keep iterating. Accounting for legal hurdles or “stop at ‘go’ and pay” requirements that may come up.


I’d like to thank Ryan Charnov with Giftfluence for his amazing contributions and input. Check them out if you fundraise!