A Recap of the Annual Nonprofit Executive Exchange

Learning to Leverage People-Based Marketing to Acquire and Build Affinity with Donors

Earlier this month, Merkle hosted its Nonprofit Executive Exchange in Charleston, South Carolina. Attendees included an esteemed group of leaders from 17 nonprofit organizations that collectively raised upwards of $3 billion in individual gifts in 2016 alone. That’s a lot of money for doing good!

The theme of this year’s Nonprofit Exchange was Be Disruptive: Embracing the Future to Acquire and Build Affinity with Your Donors, and over the course of two days we tackled some of the biggest questions facing the nonprofit industry, with some networking and delicious Charleston cooking sprinkled in. The common thread through all the discussions was leveraging the power of people-based marketing to acquire, understand the true value of, and create personalized experiences for constituents who contribute to a nonprofit’s mission. Heady stuff, indeed.

We started off the session with a presentation from Merkle CEO David Williams, who laid out eight trends defining marketing today. David shared a vision for how addressability, or the ability to directly communicate with known individuals, is changing the face of marketing, as well as the need to harness direct marketing principles, data, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and technology to create personalized experiences to truly differentiate oneself in the marketplace. 

We then had a multi-faceted discussion about one of the existential threats we face as nonprofit marketers and fundraisers: a declining acquisition pipeline. Chris Pritcher, Merkle’s vice president of nonprofit analytics, set the stage for the challenge with some telling insights:

  • For every 100 new donors, 99 donors attrite¹
  • We are focused on a shrinking pool of potential donors through legacy channels
  • Many industry players are contributing to the status quo, with organizational goals to hit in-year net revenue targets deterring investment in acquiring new donors

Dave Strauss, global membership director at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), joined the discussion by sharing his experience turning around an underperforming acquisition program at TNC and how he successfully made the case to his leadership team to make a meaningful investment in digital media to acquire younger, higher value donors. While there was inherent risk to the approach, as TNC had never made an investment on this scale in digital before, he has been able to gain support via rigorous measurement and media attribution. Dave then joined Karen Downs, vice president of direct response at American Cancer Society, along with Merkle strategists on stage for a lively panel discussion focused on how to make the case for internal investment in both direct mail and digital acquisition efforts considering nonprofits’ limited budgets.

While the first day of the Exchange was focused on acquiring more valuable donors and constituents, day two focused on measuring the true value of those constituents and creating personalized experiences that would increase their affinity and loyalty to a nonprofit.

Darren Jacoby, vice president of constituent relationship management at National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), spoke about an innovative initiative he is leading that seeks to answer the question of how to measure the TRUE value of a constituent across business units. It’s simple to measure the current and future value of a donor -- we’ve been doing that for decades. But how do we evaluate and compare the value of two constituents who contribute to the organization in valuable, yet different ways? How do you prioritize a donor who gives $25 annually alongside an advocate who travels to Capitol Hill to join lobbying efforts that will lead to increased government grants to your organization? NMSS is piloting an affinity score that seeks to create a common currency metric that can be applied to all constituents, which is a bespoke algorithm accounting for value, retention, and engagement. NMSS will use the affinity score to make data-informed decisions on how to steward and create personalized experiences for those constituents who exhibit high affinity scores.

Lastly, Zimm Zimmerman, vice president of personalization at Merkle, led an animated session on how to get started on the path of personalized experiencing and leveraging machine learning and AI. While most nonprofits are just starting to dip their toes into the personalization pool, there are ways marketers can get started today to create personal experiences that maximize results: Start with rules-based performance creative, move toward testing and optimization, and graduate to multivariate testing and machine learning.

Overall, it was a successful event, marked by spirited discussions and disruptive thought leadership. We were delighted to spend quality time and to exchange ideas with industry leaders.

Interested in learning more or would like to connect with one of our speakers about their session? Drop us a line if you’d like to discuss some of these ideas, or if you’d like us to save you a seat for next year’s Exchange.

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