Raising Money in the Wild Wired West

So you want to raise money in the “wild wired west?” Not a bad idea. Lots of people are trying it. Some have even struck gold; although, others have gone the way of the Donner party.

If you are going to make the play in the wild wired west, be prepared.

Don't go prospecting blindly. Heading into the hills to prospect for Internet fundraising gold without a reliable trail map is a fool's errand. Without a sound Internet strategy, you will be prospecting blindly.

Sure, there are those that have raised money by being in the right place at the right time, e.g., the humanitarian organizations that received millions in online gifts for Kosovo. While this event revealed the potential of the Web, how many of those organizations have kept in touch with those donors or resolicited them online? I suspect not many.

Many of the organizations that experienced this success recognize they were lucky. They are now grappling with the challenge of creating a long-term sustainable business model for opportunistic fundraising to make sure they can do it again.

Organizations that are not disaster-oriented have an even greater onus on them for crafting the online business model before they charge into the hills. The innovators in the nonprofit arena are investing in strategic planning for their fundraising and communication efforts. They are asking and answering the fundraising and marketing questions that are essential for mining the potential of the wild wired west:

* What is our value proposition, and how does it translate to the Web?

* Who is our target audience online, and how do we reach them?

* When we do reach them, how do they want to engage us? How are we prepared to engage them?

* What is our content strategy for telling our story online?

* What other services and functionality must we have in our Web approach to engage and retain these folks?

* What are the online communications components? What is our integrated communications strategy?

* With whom should we partner to get out our message and provide the services we envision?

* What are our metrics for success? What data do we need to gather for analysis, and how will we do this?

The organizations that strategically approach their online fundraising efforts are seeing success. Heifer Project International, www.heifer.org, raised more than $1 million online line last year with an efficient cost of funds through nonemergency fundraising efforts driven by a strategic approach more than six months in the making. Others are seeing their homesteads bear fertile crops.

Get your wagons in order. When you shout “Wagons ho!” will all the horses move in the same direction?

The most frequent hindrance for an organization's Web success is the battle over who directs the wagon train.

Departmental feuds over who controls the Web not only stymie progress but also run counter to the very essence of the Web — interconnectivity and collaboration. The blunt truth is that it requires the cooperation and participation of all these groups for success in the digital environment. What brings the wagons together is ownership of results at the highest levels of the organization. Senior level buy-in and accountability is essential to build and sustain an effective Internet fundraising presence.

For those who have been out in the wired west, the reasons are clear.

Online-generated activity touches all points of the organization: the first banner ad or e-mail to a prospect that requires results tracking, content from programmers that catches the users attention, options for giving online through billing or print forms, gift processing, caging and accounting, e-mail and phone inquiries driven from the Web and acknowledgment of the gift online and offline.

Nearly every department bears some responsibility for making the donating experience a positive one.

The Web program often illuminates for an organization the shortcomings in its current systems for handling the critical contacts in the life cycle of the donor interaction. Be thoughtful about the impact of the Web initiative on your organization and collaborate with other departments to prepare for supporting the new needs you'll generate. If your wagon train isn't in order, the Web initiative can cause a stampede.

Be prepared for trouble on the trail; know your guides and outposts. Everyone is exploring new territory in this medium. Anyone who claims to be an expert or says they know the answer is blowing smoke. The good news is there are some very smart folks innovating in this frontier. But the best of us know there will be unforeseen problems and issues along the way.

Your organization needs to be aware of and prepared for the troubles on the trail: campaigns that don't work; data management snafus; customer service issues; site connectivity problems; even staff turnover that may bring your wagon train to a standstill. Your organization should anticipate these issues before they happen. Above all, it should embrace a flexible and responsive mind-set to respond quickly to the unforeseen tribulations.

Likewise, you'll meet lots of friendly folks along the trail offering all sorts of wares for your journey. From no-risk, high-reward marketing partnerships to the newest and coolest plug-and-play killer application, there's lots of snake-oil and some very good remedies. Do your due diligence to check your potential partners.

Have a clear decision-making framework for why and when you'll engage in cause-marketing partnerships. Know what you will minimally accept in return for giving away your brand value. For services partners, make sure to ask the tough questions about return on investment for other organizations like yours. Always ask to talk to recent clients with whom these companies have worked.

Just remember, out on the trail, if it walks like a bear and smells like a bear, run like hell.

Happy trails to you. On this exciting trek through the wild wired west, if you are strategic in your approach, set reasonable and achievable expectations and work with experienced partners, your labors should bear fruit. The pioneers are figuring it out as they go and sharing their experiences through outlets like Charity Channel, www.charitychannel.com; the Foundation Center, www.fdncenter.org; and the myriad nonprofit and technology conferences throughout the country.

Get connected; start circling the wagons. And I hope to see you on the trail.

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