When to Attempt to Innovate

When to Attempt to Innovate

I wrote recently about how the vast majority of small nonprofits should not spend time and money attempting to innovate.

But there are times when attempting to innovate is the right thing to do:

You should attempt to innovate after you have stabilized your fundraising, optimized your fundraising, and expanded your fundraising.

Stabilize, Optimize, Expand, Innovate

Most small- to medium-sized nonprofits need to stabilize their fundraising.

That means getting your systems locked in so you know exactly what to do, when to start, how long it takes, and you get it done on time. (Most small nonprofits have work to do on this stage, in my experience.)

Then they need to optimize their fundraising.

That’s making each appeal or e-appeal work as well as possible. That’s using segmentation and talking to different groups of people with different messaging. That’s analyzing the results of each fundraising campaign and making the next one better.

Then organizations need to expand their fundraising. That’s trying a new channel, like radio or Facebook. Or beginning a scalable donor acquisition program. Or sending 6 appeals instead of 4.

Then, and only then in my opinion, should organizations be trying to innovate.

The three things above are hard. But our industry knows how to do them.

Don’t Skip a Stage!

Too many nonprofits skip over the steps above.

They skip things that we know will work to raise them more money. Instead, they try things that might work.

They waste tons of time and money. And they pay the opportunity cost of the money they could have raised – and the donor relationships they could have made deeper.

Because remember, innovation doesn’t always work. In fact it rarely works.

(Side note: this is why I’ve been saying “attempting to innovate.” Because when organizations attempt to innovate, they often come up with a) things other organizations have tried before that didn’t work, and b) new strategies and/or tactics that don’t work.)

To all you small nonprofits out there: let the big organizations, who have optimized their fundraising, spend the money to innovate. There will be some successes and some failures.

Then copy their successes.

The Real Trick

The real trick is knowing when to innovate.

In my experience, too many smaller nonprofits like the idea of innovating – of working on something exciting – more than they like the hard work of following best practices.

So they attempt to innovate when they should be following surer paths to success.

If a nonprofit follows best practices, it will raise more money.
If a nonprofit tries to innovate, it might raise more money.

And you want to know what’s really exciting? Raising more money with less work. That’s what happens when you follow best practices!

Why attempting to innovate is rarely the smart choice

Why attempting to innovate is rarely the smart choice

The vast majority of nonprofits should not spend time and money attempting to innovate.

Let’s keep this super brief.

The fastest, cheapest way to raise more money is almost always to follow fundraising best practices.

Especially when most small nonprofits can see growth of 15% to 20% per year when they start following best practices.

“But wait,” I can already hear people thinking, “we’re small, we have to innovate. And regular fundraising is boring.”

Please hear me out: that line of thinking is what keeps many small nonprofits small.

First of all, you do not have to innovate. Your organization was started to do one thing: make an impact for a cause or group of people who need help. Not to make an impact AND create innovative fundraising.

Having the impact your organization was started for and creating innovative fundraising are two completely different things that require completely different skillsets. It’s highly unlikely that a small nonprofit will be good at both.

Attempting to Innovate is a Bet

Organizations that attempt to innovate are betting time and money that the results will be better than the results they could get from best practices.

Sometimes you win. Most of the time you lose. Best practices are best practices for a reason: they are proven.

In my experience, attempting to innovate is a bad bet for most small nonprofits.

Let the “big guys” innovate. Let the big guys absorb the costs of all the testing and failures that lead to breakthroughs. Small nonprofits should be following the known paths to success.

Try Proven Tactics that are New to You

Most small nonprofits confuse “trying new things” with “attempting to innovate.”

Should small nonprofits should try new things? Of course.

For instance, you could try to acquire new donors using radio. That might be new for your organization, but it isn’t innovation. It’s a proven tactic. There are known Cost Per New Donor amounts (around $100). There are known ROIs (around 1.1 to 1.3). There are known ways to make it succeed (have a great offer, tell stories, long form is more effective than short form).

The thing I want smaller nonprofits to know is that the Fundraisers Who Came Before You have tried almost everything. If you look around, they’ve figured out what tends to work well and what doesn’t. Lean into that set of knowledge!

And here’s the amazing thing; those Fundraisers Who Came Before You will share their knowledge! They’ll tell you what they did and how they did it. They’ll share the results. You can apply what they learned to your organization, to grow faster.

You just have to take the initiative.

The Good News for Small Nonprofits

There are things you don’t have to do. Things you can take off your plate.

And one of them is attempting to innovate.

There’s an incredible body of knowledge that’s been built up over the last 70 years for how to raise money effectively. Lean into that body of knowledge – it’s what I do every day.

Every once in a great while, attempting to innovate is the right course. It’s fun (and usually expensive).

But the majority of the time there are huge gains to be made not from attempting to innovate, but from taking what’s worked for other organizations and applying it to your organization.

You’ll save yourself a lot of time and heartache. And you’ll do more good faster.

PS — Get some of our best practices from our free e-book, “Asks that Make Your Donors Take Action.”