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I spent over 20 years in the higher education space for a learning company. When I started we were selling ink on paper and printed textbooks to professors and committees of professors who were searching for the best materials to use in their courses.

During that time the higher education space transformed from printed materials to online solutions, including ebooks and homework systems. I witnessed the transformation to nearly complete digital from print only. Instead of selling textbooks, we found ourselves selling ‘keycodes’ for digital access. Many times we sold the idea of a solution. That is, something that was not even created yet. We called this ‘vaporware’.

I attended and even helped conduct many sales workshops for my employer. Most of these were based on what is called ‘Consultative Selling’.

Digital Transformation

Fundraising is undergoing the shift to digital.

When my current company was founded in 2011, hardly any colleges or universities had a digital fundraising strategy. Crowdfunding was in its infancy. Phonathons, events, and direct mail dominated the giving strategies. Today those channels are still used and valuable; however, a new component of crowdfunding and online giving pages for ‘live’ events is critical.

It’s really no surprise since Gen Z and Millennials are the recent graduates and part of a constituent group that every institution is trying to effectively reach. Of all generations, these two are part of what I have heard called “Digital Natives”.

Why Sales Matters

If you are a fundraiser in any one of the many titled positions that exist, you are in sales. There are fundraisers who do not like to think about their jobs in this way and that is a mistake, but I do understand the hesitancy to embrace the equivalence.

Fundraising is a different sort of sales, but it is sales nonetheless. You are charged with selling the value of a gift and what that generosity can do for your organization. With so many causes out there, why should a donor contribute to yours? When you begin to answer that question you are positioning the benefits of a gift to the value it will create for the donor. This is sales.

In Consultative Selling, the idea is to take a feature of your product and tie it to a benefit. Successful salespeople don’t like talking about features because they want to discuss value. The value that fundraisers position is the impact a gift will make on their organization’s mission.

As a fundraiser, you have the benefit of taking the volumes of information and data proven to increase sales and overlay it on what you do. Take advantage of that opportunity.

What Fundraisers Can Learn From Sales

There is a well-known sales equation connecting value and benefit. Value is the overall gain that a buyer realizes upon purchase and benefit is the solution to a problem that the buyer is facing.

This equation represents the most important concept in sales.

Value = Benefit / Cost

Consider this. If cost is fixed, as benefit goes up (the solution to a problem), so does the value of a product (the overall gain that a buyer realizes). Alternately, if the benefit is fixed, as cost goes up, the value goes down. This is true with anything we buy. There is a link between value and cost and there is no way around it.

Salespeople discuss benefits with potential buyers or the solutions that a product solves because there is a limit to lowering cost. Increasing perceived benefits when the cost is fixed increases the overall value that a buyer stands to gain.

How does this equation relate to fundraising? Well, if I am a donor, and I know that I have a certain amount of money to give, what does that equation look like for me?

Value = Benefit / Gift

Value as a donor means what the donor gains from their gift. In this equation, the ‘cost’ is fixed. That is, my gift amount, and so, the only way that value goes up for me, as a donor, is if the benefit of my gift goes up. More precisely, the solution to a problem that my gift solves.

A better way to put this might be:

Value = Perceived Benefit / Gift

The perceived benefit is the benefit you communicate to potential donors. If you don’t communicate a benefit then there might as well be none, and donors will find other causes to contribute to that have perceived benefits.

How To Communicate Perceived Benefits

The most powerful tool you have is storytelling.

Narratives are deeply embedded in our psychological history as human beings. Stories have been told through the ages as a vehicle to entertain, educate, preserve culture, communicate dangers, and instill values.

Everybody likes a good story.

There are even academic categories of storytelling. One of my favorites is The Hero’s Journey. A lot has been written about this concept, but the basic idea is that so many stories have been told through history that our brains are wired to receive them in certain ways. There are a limited number of ways a story can play out and through time, you can take the template of story types and lay them over particular tales.

George Lucas took the concept of The Hero’s Journey and used it to create Star Wars. All of The Hero’s Journey elements are there in his movies.

A typical Hero’s Journey can be boiled down to the following:

  1. The hero of the story is struggling with a problem and begins a journey from home
  2. A mentor appears that can help the hero and instills wisdom
  3. New insight is gained by the hero
  4. The hero takes action based on the mentor’s wisdom and confronts the problem
  5. The problem is overcome
  6. The hero gains confidence and returns to their native land with an elevated standing

It’s more complex than this, but that is the general idea. In fundraising, you want to make your donors the hero of your story. Shannon Pestka provides a range of ways to accomplish just that in the following video.


Applying A Narrative To Perceived Benefits

This is where you gain donor affinity.

If you can take your narratives (stories) and apply an engagement layer to them, you can immediately create a call to action for potential donors. The best way to do this is through digital means. If you don’t currently crowdfund or have a robust digital presence for gifts, why not? You must reach your constituents where they are and in the manner that they are accustomed to.

By foregoing a digital fundraising presence you are not doing everything you can to communicate the value of your appeals. If you are not meeting your donors where they reside, then you are doing a disservice to your cause and mission.

If you are currently fundraising online and have a robust digital presence for gifts, then telling your stories is the best way to communicate with your constituents. It is even better to show them. Turn over the storytelling to those who are involved with the cause on a granular level.

Are you fundraising for a scholarship? Let the recent recipients tell how that scholarship changed their lives. Are you fundraising for a student food pantry? Turn the voice over to those who benefit from it. Whatever the cause is, let the people impacted by gifts tell their stories.

Update your stories in real-time. Donors want to know that their gift mattered. Updating your stories gives you the ability to steward those gifts in real-time. Story updates keep your donors coming back and engaged in what’s going on. That’s what they care about.

Evolving Your Strategy

How are you going to evolve your channels to meet your donors where they are to demonstrate the best value/benefit case?

Successful fundraising requires flexibility to meet donors where they are. The easy route is hardly ever the best approach and in this case not adjusting your strategies with a changing donor demographic could be detrimental to your cause and mission.

Challenge yourself to consider alternative approaches by establishing an online presence. It does not have to be perfect. Perfection is the enemy of progress. Small adjustments to your approach can be the foundation of growing a digital presence that could become that critical channel you need. If you don’t currently crowdfund or have an online presence, start small and take measured steps.

I am happy to consult with you. Reach out to me if you would like to discuss these strategies: Adam@CommunityFunded.com

Written by: Adam Stephens, Vice President of Digital Fundraising

Katie Haystead

Katie Haystead

Senior Vice President, Partnerships

With over a decade of experience working with K12 schools and higher education institutions’ fundraising efforts, Katie Haystead now oversees the partnerships team at Community Funded. Her passion for partner success and satisfaction aligns with Community Funded’s priorities and Katie’s unique background is well suited to manage the day to day operations of our partnerships team as well as new market acquisition.

Prior to joining the team at Community Funded, Katie served many roles within the Fundraising Division at Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Her experience ranges from working onsite and remotely with clients executing phonathon programs, developing annual giving strategies, onsite consultations and also developing multichannel strategies allowing for strong synergy between annual giving channels and creating strong major and planned gift pipelines.

Katie is based in Metro Detroit and is a graduate of Central Michigan University, where she worked for the phonathon for 3 years while working towards her History Major.

Kim Jennings

Kim Jennings

Senior Generosity Strategist, Generis

Kim Jennings, CFRE is a skilled fundraising leader who believes in the power of Christian education to raise up thoughtful, strong, committed leaders who can make our world a better place for all.

Kim Jennings

Todd Turner

Director of Digital Strategies, Generis

In addition to his 11 years overseeing Chuck Swindoll’s Insight Living Ministries communications department, Todd Turner has worked as a digital strategist for faith based organizations across the globe..

Kim Jennings

Jennifer Perrow

Senior Generosity Strategist, Generis

Jennifer is a skilled fundraising and communications professional who helps ministries articulate vision, communicate mission, and raise abundant funds to advance Kingdom priorities.