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!


Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

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