Monday, December 2, 2013

BIG’s Blog: Burning Your Boats

“Burning your boats” is a grand and dramatic gesture to emphasize to those who you lead that “There is no way back home now, we must conquer this new land.” I had always heard that the story originated with the Conquistador Hernan Cortes who conquered the Aztecs of Mexico. When his men arrived in the new world and were safely ashore, he ordered the boats burned. However, as it turns out, the progenitor of the story was actually Alexander the Great on his way to conquering the world. Upon arriving on the shores of Persia, his army found that they were greatly outnumbered by the Persian army. Alexander ordered his boats burned and is reported to have told his men, “We go home in Persian ships, or we die.”

Not much room to maneuver there, eh?

Well, is such a grand gesture needed in fundraising today as nobody . . . it seems . . . can figure out whether to stay with the old fundraising methods tied to analogue direct mail, or shift 100% to digital online? Is it both or moving 100% online?

The answer is . . . Yes, to both.


Come on, this isn’t that hard. Look at your physical mail at home over a week and you will begin to get a clue. Today, unless you are over 70 years of age, the vast amount of mail you get at home is mostly local advertising. Your next big category of mail is bills you don’t get online. But . . . and this is a big BUT . . . you probably pay most of your bills online don’t you? And the third or fourth biggest category of mail you receive is mail appeals from other nonprofits.

Since most of my readers are over 50 years of age, ask younger people in their 30’s and early 40’s about the composition of their physical mail at home. They receive even fewer nonprofit appeals than you do and, for the most part, they reply to virtually none of them.

You wonder why your donor files have aged so much in the last 10 to 15 years! Seriously, what percentage of your donor file is under age 50? 1 to 5% . . . maybe?

And why is that? Could it be that more and more people under age 65 are moving online?  The percentage goes up dramatically as you look at younger and younger cohorts.  And what does “moving online” mean? It means their “behaviors” have shifted online. They have shifted from physical modes, such as mail, to digital modes.

I know that you KNOW this, but in your nonprofit fundraising world you are suspending belief to pretend it is somehow different. It is NOT different.

But the real question . . . assuming that what I say is TRUE (AND IT IS TRUE) . . . is, what are the implications of this?

The major implication of this . . . and the one you had better pay attention to . . . is that for the last 15 years you have been increasingly missing a whole market! That market is, today, the 18 to 50 demographic. This demographic in the United States is today about 60% of the population . . . 60%!

Thirty years ago. Forty years ago. Even fifty years ago, your organization had a representative proportion of the then 18 to 50 demographic in your donor file. But not today!


Because they live and act in the digital world . . . and your fundraising organization DOES NOT!

The other extremely sad implication is this: you think that by combining direct mail appeals with online digital tools (you know, “integrated marketing,”) that somehow you are going to connect with the under 50 crowd.

How long have you been doing integrated marketing? Is it moving the needle with the under 50 crowd? I would bet . . . NOT.

At some point . . . and I hope it is sooner than later for your organizations . . . you are going to realize that attempting to integrate analogue direct mail and digital is like slapping on a new paint job and adding a new Bose sound system to your old 1980 Buick (you know, your Father’s Buick) only to discover that it will NEVER be a 2013 model. And a 2013 model is what the 50 and under crowd expect. Sorry.

So, back to my original question: “Is it a balance between the old fundraising methods and online or moving 100% online?”

And again, my answer is . . . Yes.

Yes, in the near-term (defined as the next five years) you can still send mail appeals to the declining file of oldsters who have supported your organization for the last 40+ years. But you must . . . YOU MUST . . . go down the hall, across the street or move to another location entirely and set up a new group that operates 100% online. Yes, the new group gets the Website and all the social media and digital tools.


All integrated marketing does is offer digital options to current donors who would rather donate online or be communicated with online.  This group will probably follow your new online group, so don’t worry about them. And as for the people who still send you checks . . . the oldsters . . . just keep mailing them until it is no longer profitable.

And, yes, for the 18 to 50 demographic . . . figure it out QUICKLY and move 100% online! You can get a clue from those new nonprofit organizations that have appeared in the last six to eight years . . . virtually NONE of them use mail, but rather fundraise 100% online. And also, watch our clients.

If you are a start-up fundraising organization, do I recommend you use direct mail? NO.

If you are a long-established nonprofit with a historically successful fundraising group that includes direct mail, do I recommend you “burn your boats” and move 100% online tomorrow? NO, but you need to LEARN how to be successful 100% online and quick!

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