Dilemma du jour

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How willing are you to address donor fatigue, fundraising’s concern du jour? It seems like such an idiosyncratic term, but it is a very real problem. How many mass mailings can people get – and throw away – before fundraisers get the message? How many walks, runs, or bike rides can they go on, how many dinners can they attend, on a given day? How many ribbons can they wear on one coat? People are tired of the same old sell.

Organizations that rely on fundraising need innovation that informs, differentiates, and effectively builds constituency. It isn’t just about separating people from their cash. Fundraising should be an identity project, but this gets forgotten when snatch and run looks so appealing.

Unfortunately, figuring out what makes you unique and marketing those attributes the right way is hard work. It requires the kind of lateral thinking and collaborative thinking that is – more often than not – absent from many of the organizations that need it most.

As I began thinking about this month’s column, someone suggested I spread the good news from a new Statistics Canada report that revealed (circa 2002) 40% of heritage institutions’ revenues came from memberships, admissions, and over-the-counter sales. This rise is attributable to the fact museum attendance was up 5% from 1999, and that visitors spent 6.4% more than in 1999. Earned revenues rose 17% from 1999 and, in gross terms, operating revenues in 2002 hit a record $1.7 billion.

Keep the cork in the champagne. The 40% of earned revenues breaks down this way: over-the-counter sales in gift shops, cafeterias, and other outlets account for about 67%, admission fees 30%, and memberships a paltry 3%. Somewhere something is broken. Retail is the crutch but I’m even loath to credit retailers with pulling their weight: After all, the economy is strong, museum attendance is up, and people are spending; why shouldn’t their numbers look good?

The damning figure is membership: visitors and shoppers aren’t sufficiently tempted by museum product to be turned into members who will produce returns over time. The store should be a vital place to promote unique identities and connect people to brand identity but clearly it isn’t happening. Museum managers and retailers must ensure their work is integrated. They need collaboration to combine exhibits, shops, and products that will promote the museum identity and keep the people who walk through their doors attached to the work of the organization.

Donor fatigue is just a symptom. The sameness of tactics produces apathy and boredom, not awareness and friend-raising. What’s causing this virus is a lack of vision.

To increase an organization’s capacity for thinking, conventional wisdom says hire the right people who will lead you in new creative and strategic directions. A recent ad promoting a prominent library’s search for a Director of Marketing and Communication suggests employers aren’t framing their search the right way: the theoretical opportunity, practical responsibilities, and required set of experiences described in the job ad simply don’t mesh.

In this particular case the new hire is to be responsible for doing what it takes to raise the library’s overall profile and public impact. This is a leadership opportunity, the ad claims, to foster a culture of innovation, and to provide creative advice that advances all programs and services. In short it is a description that expects off-the-wall thinking about what the library is and where it should go.

Sounds like a great job, but that expectation is immediately undermined by a handful of points related, first, to managing staff in a bureaucratic and unionized environment, and second, by limiting the pool of eligible applicants to those who have trod marketing’s predictable cow path to success: people with technical marketing skills, including market research, brand positioning, channel marketing, marketing communications, advertising, and general project management. Clearly the library is a world where things are done by the book.

If the library wants innovation it shouldn’t hire from the usual suspects, the one-size-fits-all candidates. In short this description is the wrong vehicle to drive the library to the creative thinking party. The cliché “Be careful what you ask for, you might get it” comes to mind. Weighting the job in favour of the bureaucrat, not the innovator, will only get them the status quo.

Only in the “Personal characteristics” section of the ad is there the briefest mention of what should be the baseline requirement: a “creative and innovative thinker.” To succeed in this competitive world, nonprofits need to place greater emphasis on scrutinizing applicants’ capacity to think about strategic vision.

I keep recommending Robert Sutton’s 2001 book Weird Ideas that Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation. It’s hard not to like someone who advocates hiring slow learners who don’t follow the corporate code, who avoid, ignore, or reject the “heat of the herd.” But even Sutton acknowledges it is hard to generate new ideas when practices are used that screen out (and drive out) people with varied ideas and who see things in disparate ways.

That is, regrettably what too many organizations do. Although many perceive the safest path to be following what works in your industry right now, nonprofits need to build adaptable teams that are constantly creative. They need to select candidates who can help them in as-yet-unknown ways. Try putting that in a job description.

(Originally published in Muse (Canadian Museum Association), January 2005)

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