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.”


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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