The Ask Matters

About two weeks ago, DC’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, held a series of virtual budget engagement forums to share her draft budget for FY2022. The format her team chose was extremely clever.

While waiting for the broadcast to start, participants were invited to answer a few questions about themselves (location, demographic information, ranking of key priorities), then each deputy mayor was given the floor for a short presentation on her department (health, education, housing, etc.).

The forum concluded with a game for participants. Each person watching was given $100 to distribute as she saw fit across the city’s six main budget “buckets.” The full city budget is obviously much more than $100 (it will be $16.9B for FY2022), but it was an exercise in setting priorities with limited dollars. (If you’re curious, you can check it out at

Each of the deputy mayors used the time to present the key priorities for their cluster of agencies, but one in particular stood out: Deputy Mayor Lucinda Babers, head of the Department of Operations and Infrastructure.

Now Operations and Infrastructure may sound pretty dull, but DM Babers got creative. She used a slightly goofy – but memorable – Ghostbusters “who ya gonna call?” framing for her presentation. But she made two particular presentation choices that had a major impact.

  1. Story telling
  2. Specific ask

Story Telling

DM Babers told the story of the fictional “Little Johnny,” a boy who uses city services as he goes about his day. Johnny needs a safe way (protected bike lanes, safe sidewalks) to get to school which includes the city’s #VisionZero initiative to eliminate pedestrian fatalities. His family needs pollution monitoring so they can manage his asthma. Permitting and inspections ensure his house doesn’t “fall over!” Johnny needs access to technology so he can do virtual schooling right now and so he can do his homework once kids are back in classrooms.

DM Babers made the work of her cluster of agencies – transportation, permitting, energy & the environment, public works, the DMV – real through her story. She showed the impacts they all have on residents’ day to day lives.

Specific Ask

When you get down to it, $100 is not a lot to spend to cover the priorities of a city with 712,000+ residents. I, for one, had no idea what reasonable allocations would be between departments. Although the mayor had already shared the overall budget breakdown ($3.2B for education, $2.1B for public works, etc.), it was hard to translate that into percentages of $100 in my head.

DM Babers told budget engagement forum participants EXACTLY how many dollars she needed to fund each aspect of “Little Johnny’s” story she shared.

How did it turn out for her?

When the results of the $100 game were tallied at the end of the forum, DM Babers’s department got the full funding she requested.

When you’re making an ask, make it real, make it specific, and make sure it connects with your audience. 

Growth Strategies from Top Fundraisers Q&A

In my last post, I shared the link to the webinar my Steal This Idea! co-author Sohini Baliga and I presented for Wild Apricot on March 21. Sohini and I got to as many questions as we could at the end the webinar, but as usual, we missed a few, so we’re answering them below:

How can wildlife conservation related organizations tap into millenials if we are asking them to be a hero for another species?

EWE: This provides a great opportunity to tell a story of an endangered animal (or species or wild place) in a way that’s compelling and, in that story, explain how your donor/member can be the hero who saves that animal (or species or wild place) by her donation.

What if your membership is a low fee like $25/year?

EWE: Well, at least you’ll probably never hear the objection: “Dues were too expensive”! Seriously, though, that hopefully means you have a lot of people in your membership file. The trick now is to start looking for the ones who do more than just pay their $25 a year – or who want to do more than that.

How have you had best success at gathering stories from members/donors?

EWE: Talk to them. That can be individual and formal (like a phone interview), group and formal (like a focus group), or individual and informal (like a conversation at an event). Pay attention to when he starts talking faster, or a little louder, or in a higher pitch. Watch for when her eyes light up and her face gets more animated. That means you’ve struck gold – you’ve discovered something that member is passionate about. Then it’s your job to look for ways that member’s passions tie to your organization’s mission, and explain to her how involvement in your organization will make a difference to that issue she’s passionate about.

We are a membership association of cause-oriented organizations. But we don’t have a cause ourselves. Will there be materials in this webinar that will help me?

EWE: Sohini and I would like to think so. When you’re a federation of organizations, it can be hard to make that direct, personal tie with people. I’m about to use an example that’s a bit politically charged, so stick with me. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton founded an organization called Onward Together. It uses her high profile and large audience to raise money for small, scrappy nonprofits that are doing excellent work, but that may lack the audience base to effectively raise money themselves. Can you highlight the stories of the organizations you serve?

We are thinking about doing a major gala.  What is the best way to get corporate table sponsorships if you don’t know people within the individual businesses?

SB: The first thing to consider is that corporations look at the bottom line, and want bragging rights – it makes them look good. Now, put yourself in a corporation’s position. You’re not just spending money because it feels good – you have to pay employees and benefits, investors and backers want to see returns on their investment, and you need to be able to stand behind your spending decisions. All of them. So what’s going to make you give? What’s going to make you say, “Sure, I’ve got bills, but you can not only have a big chunk of change, you can put my name up in lights so others come asking me for the same thing”? What will make you say yes? What will make it hard for you to say no? Therein lies your answer – make your best case; make the story of the gala compelling; make it really hard to say no. Make them an offer they can’t refuse.

This is where I will say that nonprofits should not skimp on fundraising staff and professional executive development. A good, connected development officer is worth every penny of salary. And it is their job to make those sponsorships happen in tandem with a board and executive staff that is not shy, and can make the ask clearly, comfortably, and elegantly. There are grants available for hiring fundraising staff and professional development at all levels of the nonprofit world. The bigger the budget, the more they exist – because everyone understands that you have to support staff so they can do their best. It’s not a perk; it’s an investment that allows nonprofits to continue growing and serving their core mission.

What is the best way to get feedback from members? Surveys at events, letters, or…?

EWE: Yes. You want to turn your organization into a sponge for information. That means you want to collect data on your members and other audiences formally (like surveys and interviews) and informally (like conversations and responses to emails). You want to collect it actively (asking people to answer questions) and passively (paying attention to what they do and tracking what behaviors you can without turning into Big Brother and creeping people out).

Collecting the data is only the first step, though. You also have to share it with your colleagues. You’d be amazed at what your “line” staff in customer service knows that you don’t know, because they talk to your stakeholders all the time. Likewise, you’d be amazed at the insights your newer or more junior staff might have into some of your “C-suite” information, because they have a fresh perspective and aren’t jaded by “we’ve always done it this way” and “we tried that five years ago, and it didn’t work.” No information hoarding!

I have a large number of small dollar donors that I want to cultivate to be higher donors. I would like to meet with them to know them better. How should I go about doing that? 

EWE: Ask them. I am a donor to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (one of our case studies). My relationship with them started by going to one show. I liked it, so I went to more. I liked them, so I became a season subscriber. I realized I supported their mission, so I started donating. Now I’m donating much more, on an annual basis, than I was then. The Woolly development staff started building that relationship by calling me up to ask if I would like to meet for coffee.

Any suggestions on where to start with an all-volunteer organization?

EWE: It’s tough when you have no paid staff. Sustained projects, like fancy integrated multi-channel campaigns, are really hard to do. You need to assess what, for your organization, would constitute low-hanging fruit. Can you easily identify who your super-members are? Can each volunteer take responsibility for calling one of them in the next two weeks? Do you have young people in your volunteer base? Can you get them talking about what sorts of engagement activities they would find appealing? Does your organization have a compelling story, where it’s easy to frame the member as the hero? Could you send out one email that does that? Figure out what the easy thing is, do it, (hopefully) experience some success and learn some things, and build from there.

Missed the webinar? Wild Apricot’s got you covered.

Growth Strategies from Top Fundraisers

My Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations co-author Sohini Baliga and I recently had the opportunity to talk with some smart people about the information in the whitepaper.

Special for those of you who prefer to learn from methods OTHER than reading: Two are videos; one is a podcast. We embrace all types of learners around here!

Video one: Association Chatwith KiKi L’Italien:

Podcast: fusionSpan podcast with Justin Burniske:

Video Two: Wild ApricotExpert Webinar Series:

Check them out to learn how fundraisers:

  1. Build relationships that are equitable (but not necessarily equal) and personal
  2. Create and run effective, compelling campaigns
  3. Attract and engage young professionals (aka Millennials and even GenZ)

Don’t Get Lazy!!

Putting it all together, maybe the most important thing Sohini and I learned from fundraisers as we were researching Steal This Idea! (and as Sohini has worked with them over the past two decades) is: don’t get lazy.

And it’s really easy to do that, particularly if you’re organization is not in crisis. And many associations are NOT in crisis. According to the 2017 edition of the Marketing General Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, nearly three-quarters of associations who responded are either holding steady or increasing membership. Renewal rates are generally solid. Participation in programs, products, and services – particularly white-label social networks, virtual and in-person event attendance, and credentialing programs – remains robust.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right?

Well, no. To quote the whitepaper:

It’s easy to get lazy. We urge you and your team not to, though..The association industry’s operating landscape is shifting rapidly and in unpredictable ways…That’s why it’s important, at least at times, to turn outside the industry to see what other organizations are doing to attract audiences, particularly younger audiences; to build relationships with those audiences on their terms, not the organization’s terms; and to recognize their contributions equitably and make people feel known, heard, special, and appreciated.

To learn more, download your free copy of Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations at Also, mark your calendar for Wednesday, March 21, 2-3 pm ET. Sohini and I will be delivering a webinar on the whitepaper, graciously hosted (so free for attendees) by the nice folks at Wild Apricot.


Reduce Barriers to Entry

P J Hayman & Company Limited - Image

Just about every association I know of is struggling to recruit younger members (aka Millennials).

Part of the reason for that is that we’re erecting barriers to entry rather than removing them.

What’s required to be considered part of your association’s community? A certain degree? A license? A certification? MONEY?

Those are all barriers to entry that a young person may not be able to clear – at least not yet. What you’re telling them, in effect, is: “You are not welcome here.”

No wonder, when they can clear or have cleared those barriers, they aren’t returning. You made them feel unwelcome right when they needed you, when they were new in their careers, when they didn’t have an established network, when they needed a job. You turned them away. And for what? A few bucks?

Fundraising organizations know that if they can establish a relationship and loyalty up front, the dollars will come. Even if they don’t, those committed young fans will contribute in all sorts of valuable ways: volunteering to help with the mission-driven work of the organization, recruiting other supporters, amplifying messages and stories online and on social media.

Learn more about how fundraising organizations create alternate entry points to belonging and how associations can adapt their methods in the latest Spark whitepaper, Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations freely available for download at Pay special attention to the stories of the Capital Area Food Bank and the CFA Society of Minnesota on pages 28-31.

Photo by Jumpei Mokudai on Unsplash

Your Baby Is Ugly

One of the great things about being a consultant is that we get to tell people when their baby is ugly without them getting mad at us – hey, they’re PAYING us to tell them when their baby is ugly.

Well, your (campaign) baby is ugly.

But it’s not your fault!

Marketing automation makes it easy for us to “set it and forget it!”

You set up the campaign, and your AMS and automation software run in the background, sending notices out on time and to everyone who still hasn’t renewed/registered for the meeting/bought the webinar or book.

But those highly automated campaigns aren’t compelling. They don’t tell a story. They aren’t personal. They don’t make a connection. Because of that, they often don’t live up to expectations.

Fundraisers are experts at doing all of those things. They have to be. They’re not asking for people to give them money to get a direct personal benefit (a membership, a conference experience, professional development, knowledge). They’re asking people to give them money for some sort of greater good. And they do it really well.

How? Is it magic? Do you have to know the secret Association of Fundraising Professionals handshake?

You do not – you, too, can run a compelling, visually-arresting, emotionally- motivating, effective campaign. Find out how in the latest Spark whitepaper, Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations freely available for download at Pay special attention to the interview with Shonali Burke on the three keys to effective campaigns on pages 8-10, the sidebar by John Haydon on using social media effectively to promote your campaigns, and to the stories of CompTIA and New Endeavors by Women on pages 19-22.


Treat Members Equitably Not Equally

In the association world, we tend to want to treat all our members equally: nobody is more important or special than anyone else. That’s a noble impulse and helpful, up to point. After all, you don’t want your association to seem cliquish, or for any member to feel like there’s no place for her, like the association doesn’t respect or value her.

But only up to a point.

Because the fact of the matter is, some members ARE more important or more special than others. Some members only date your association casually and then move on. Some make significant, long-term commitments. Those two types of members are not equally valuable.

The challenge is to recognize ALL kinds of members and ALL levels of contribution and relationship appropriately, while still making everyone feel welcome in your community. That is, to treat people equitably rather than equally.

How do you actually do that?

Download your free copy of Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations at to find out, and pay special attention to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company case study (on pages 6 and 7) to see exactly how one organization makes EVERYONE feel like a rock star.


Steal This Idea!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past 20 years, it’s that associations don’t always have all the answers. We definitely have some major advantages, not the least of which is that we are highly cooperative and collaborative, not least of which because there’s not a lot of intra-industry competition (i.e., the AICPA and the American Nurses Association have basically zero overlap in audiences). But there are some areas where we lag, and where other industries, say charitable fundraisers, do things better than we do.

That’s the topic of the latest Spark whitepaper, Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations. Written with Sohini Baliga, a communications expert from the charitable fundraising world who’s recently come over to the association side of non-profits, Steal Like a Fundraiser addresses three major areas where charities are innovating and shares their secrets of success:

  • Building relationships with donors at all levels, with a special focus on major donors, and how that relates to membership relationship building and management
  • Creating and running outstanding campaigns
  • Attracting Millennial/young professional supporters

The whitepaper also features contributions from Beth Kanter, John Haydon, and Shonali Burke and case studies from:

I’ll be blogging about the whitepaper for the rest of the week, highlighting some key findings and action steps you can take, but in the meantime, I invite you to download your free copy at – we don’t collect any data on you to get it, and you won’t end up on some mailing list you didn’t ask for. We just use the as an easy mechanism to count the number of times it’s been downloaded.

And don’t forget to check out the other FREE Spark whitepapers, too:

Giving Tuesday Thoughts

#GivingTuesday heart

#GivingTuesday is not a huge thing in associations – although the ASAE Foundation has done some nice work on social media drawing attention to their donors today (more than directly asking for donations). But it’s ENORMOUS for fundraising/cause-oriented organizations. It doesn’t really kick off the holiday giving season – trust me, they’ve been laying the ground work for their holiday campaigns since before Labor Day – but it does often give a big boost to their efforts.

I rarely time my own charitable giving to fall on the actual Giving Tuesday, but it has got me thinking about giving, and I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned over the years:

One, my dad taught me that, no matter how little you have, give some of it away. There’s always somebody worse off than you. Even when I was a poor starving grad student, I followed that advice, and those few dollars I could afford to give didn’t make any difference in my household finances, but made a HUGE difference in my outlook on life. Generosity is ultimately a little selfish – it makes you feel rich in ways that have nothing to do with how much cash is in your pocket.

Two, my mom taught me that you don’t have to (just) give money – you can give time, too, which is sometimes more meaningful. That’s not to say don’t give money (see point one above), but also think about other ways you can give. Do you knit? There are national groups that collect hand knit items for the homeless, and your local shelters probably do, too. Have some outgrown coats sitting around? Same thing. Give time in your local community. Do a fundraising race or other fun event. But get involved.

Three, I had an epiphany a few years ago: I could give $100 to a large international organization and it wouldn’t even be a drop in the bucket of the cost of their next direct mail campaign. Or I could give locally, to organizations doing good in my own community, and see that money have a direct and immediate impact. Rather than giving $25 to every WWF or Red Cross solicitation that comes your way, save up that money and give larger amounts to local organizations working on issues that are important to you and will have a positive impact on your own community and neighbors.

Think globally, but give – and volunteer – locally. You’ll be glad you did.

PR Issues for Associations

I had the opportunity to attend a workshop of that same title yesterday morning put on by the local chapter of PRSA downtown.

Our speakers included:

  • Peter Panepento of the Chronicle of Philanthropy on creating a social media footprint
  • Tracy Cooley of BIO on the future of association meetings
  • Mark Neidig of the Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation on winning the Pepsi challenge
  • Shashi Bellamkonda of Network Solutions (and general awesomeness) on Google+

The session consisted of round robin roundtables.

I have to admit, I skipped the session on the Pepsi challenge (not relevant to my organization, although it is relevant to our members) in order to spend more time with Shashi. Big geekin’!

Top takeaways included:

  • LinkedIn is likely the future of business social networking (seriously – check out the Chronicle’s LI group, although you will have to wait to be approved for membership).
  • Google+ is still a niche network (40 million users, mostly social media early adopters, as opposed to FB’s 800+ million), but there are good reasons to be on it as a brand: so you don’t get brand-jacked (like happened to Bank of America), because it will positively influence your SEO in Google (try Googling Dell), and because it’s a great platform to launch campaigns because it’s easy to aggregate multimedia.
  • The association meetings market is changing quickly and radically. We have to be willing to experiment equally radically and be prepared to dump what’s not working equally quickly, regardless of internal political support.
  • Association meetings professionals MUST work with marketing to generate buzz and get bodies in the door.
  • When it comes to the broadening definitions of what constitutes “news media,” trust but verify. Err on the side of being generous with your free press registrations for first timers, but request clips.
  • Engage media who can’t attend your conference through social media. Are you following your organization, profession, or industry’s media influencers on Twitter yet?
  • For smaller events that aren’t inherently newsworthy, look for the buzz and try to get it to play in the local media wherever your event takes place.

What have you learned this week?