Nikki Bollaert is Director of development at Mercy For Animals, where she serves as fundraising strategist and manager of MFA’s philanthropy team. Nikki has worked in the field of development and philanthropy for 23 years, building development programs at nonprofit organizations, higher education institutions and through her consulting practice. She has spent the past decade devoting her skills and experience to animal protection and advocacy organizations. Nikki holds a master of nonprofit management, and is a Certified Fundraising Professional and a Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy. She is the proud mom of two amazing and compassionate kids and shares her home in Lafayette, Colorado with four four-legged furry friends.
Could you tell me a little bit about your background? How long have you been with MFA? Did you work in development with other organizations?
I started working in fundraising within three weeks of graduating from college. I had an internship at an organization where I intended to learn grant writing, but also I learned a lot about the administration of small nonprofit organizations, and some of the basic essentials of fundraising. I went on from there to get a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management, which had a lot of fundraising content. I have a couple of certifications in fundraising: Certified Fundraising Executive and the Chartered Advisor of Philanthropy. The latter is a program that is geared towards planned giving and charitable giving tax law.
Do you feel that your Master of Nonprofit Management was particularly vital to succeeding in your field?
I think the fact that I did my Masters so early in my career helped me to get my foot in the door. It taught me a lot of the basics about how nonprofits are run. I found the accounting skills that I learned in my degree particularly valuable. It’s not something that is easily picked up through work experience in fundraising so I would recommend an accounting course to anyone interested in getting into fundraising operations.
For people that are considering getting a Masters in Nonprofit Management, do you think real world or school experience is more important?
They’re both very valuable. It depends strategically on where you are in your career. I am glad I learned a lot about fundraising and philanthropy theory early in my career, though.
What made you switch from non-animal advocacy groups to animal advocacy groups? Where did you work prior to working in animal advocacy?
I’ve always been interested in animal advocacy. I did my first letter writing campaign against the National Rodeo when I was in fourth grade. I worked at a vet clinic all through high school, and thought that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I eventually realized that I wasn’t cut out for that, but I always wanted to do something for animals, vocationally. I chose fundraising as a career path, with the goal of eventually working for a larger national organization in order to have a bigger impact. One of my goals was to do consulting work with animal organizations. Once my practice was in full swing, I found that I had more consulting work than I knew what to do with, but none of it was animal-related. So I decided the best course of action would be to join the staff of an animal advocacy organization instead. I wanted to break into that market but I also didn’t want to relocate my family. So when a relevant PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) position opened in 2007, I asked them if they would be willing to let me work remotely, and they accepted. I have been working in fundraising for animal advocacy ever since, and started working for MFA in February 2014.
Mercy For Animals has had significant increases in funding recently, and of course a big part of that is that they do fantastic work. However, I’m sure that a lot of that is due to strategic development work as well. What are some tactics that you think have significantly contributed to this increase? What strategies have been particularly successful?
Before I came to Mercy For Animals, there was a very limited development department. It consisted of about the equivalent of one and a half full time people. Nathan Runkle was doing all of the major donor visits, and doing a fantastic job of it, but was stretched very thin. Many of the major gifts at that time were coming from people who had not been directly asked to give. Online appeals were also generating substantial revenue, in part because MFA has always been a very digital-savvy organization. But these were the only fundraising channels that had been built out at that point.
The prospect of working at MFA was very attractive to me because of the potential for growth in the program. There were many fundraising tactics that MFA wasn’t yet using and I knew the program could grow very quickly with an expanded strategy. One of the biggest criteria for me in deciding to come to MFA was impact–I was deeply committed to finding a position where I could have the biggest impact on farmed animal issues. I believe that MFA absolutely is that place–where I can make the biggest impact on the issue that I care most about with the skills and experience I have.
When I came in the door, my goal was to be a revenue expansion strategist and build a comprehensive, robust development program for MFA. The strategy that we’ve been working on now for the past 18 months is to develop a more structured major gifts program with portfolio management and major gifts officers. We’ve just hired two new major gift officers, bringing the team up to three focusing on major gifts. This is a big change, because when I started, MFA had never had a major gifts officer.
We also immediately started to do more online fundraising. The e-appeals that were going out previously were successful, so we doubled the calendar and tightened up the content to make it more effective. We did things like re-sending emails to people who didn’t open them the first time. These improvements doubled the number of online gifts we received between 2013 and 2014.
In the meantime, we were laying the groundwork for new fundraising channels like planned giving, peer to peer, and direct mail. We put into place a fundraising database that is sophisticated enough to be able to handle future complexity of programs and metrics. We just launched our first direct mail campaign last month. We have begun to dabble in peer to peer fundraising as well, and we’ll put a lot more emphasis on that in 2016.
We have been looking at all of the different possible development channels, choosing the ones that we feel have the most short-term potential, balanced with a longer term strategy. Our goal is to diversify so that we are building a fast-growth program that is also sustainable.
Is there a maximum number of times that you’ll reach out to donors over the year? A lot of the nonprofits that might read this interview for advice are in an early stage of growth. For an organization with say a budget of $100,000 per year, is there a limit that you don’t want to breach?
No, there is not. If you talk to direct marketing experts, they will tell you that the more you ask, the more you get. For that reason, I think it’s better to err on the side of asking more, rather than less. If you have enough compelling content to take to donors, reach out often. Some organizations, especially smaller ones, might not have enough new content to reach out frequently. If you just have evergreen content, I wouldn’t recommend reaching out to donors more than every couple of months. It can be important to save up your content for one big push to maximize impact.
We have historically used investigation release content for many of our appeals, because we’ve found that’s what donors respond to best. We have typically sent appeals right on the heels of an investigation release. We are now working with a direct marketing firm that is encouraging us to vary from that strategy a little bit, and include some stories from past investigations, woven together with other facets of our ongoing work. It doesn’t necessarily have to just have happened in order to be compelling.
We try not to make too many requests in a short period of time, and we do rest the donor list periodically. Obviously, the end of the year is a very busy time for fundraising everywhere, and it’s no different for us. We have a very aggressive appeal schedule in November and December, so in January we back off a bit to rest the list. Our asking schedule ebbs and flows, and it’s a balance to keep donors from feeling fatigued.
You can plan an appeal calendar for the year, based on your organization’s planned activities and prime fundraising times. You can make adjustments when timely appeal topics emerge, but it’s good to have a basic appeal calendar in place for the things you know in order to plan your flow of output.
How does fundraising for animal advocacy groups differ from other types of fundraising? What do you do to tailor your efforts to this type of audience?
Animal advocacy fundraising is different from other types of fundraising in many different ways. One significant difference is that there’s a lot of competition for your audience. The average animal issue donor gives to about a dozen different organizations. If you love animals, you’re going to see lots of different animal issues that appeal to you. There are many to choose from, and there are a lot of different groups using different tactics. It’s important to clearly articulate what sets you apart from other organizations and the impact you are achieving through your work.
What are some strategies that you use to effectively articulate your work?
We have found that images are very helpful and compelling in conveying our message. In particular, we tend to use images of individual animals as opposed to several animals. Studies have shown that donors have a more emotional response to a single animal (or person, for that matter) than several or many. The type of image is important, too. In general, using an image that depicts a sad reality will resonate more with a donor than a “happier” image. Right now we are conducting some A/B tests in our appeals to determine the effectiveness of different images, but our assumption is that images depicting the reality of factory farms will be more effective in converting donors than images of happy animals.
How important do you feel it is for Board Members to actively participate in fundraising? What are some ways that they can assist in that regard?
For groups with a smaller group of Board of Directors, every Board Member should be engaged in fundraising. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to have high capacity to give themselves, although that certainly helps. Board members need to be willing to engage with supporters and to be involved in the solicitation and stewardship process. I think that the best way for smaller groups to get into major gift fundraising is by engaging their Board Members to take that on. It doesn’t take a lot of training to get them started: they can start with some of their own contacts that they think might have an affinity for the cause. It’s just a matter of giving Board Members the tools that they need to succeed: information to leave with the donor that explains the cause, clear ways for people to make a donation, and a suggested amount to ask for. Personal connections are the best way to start, and provide the foundation of what can become a more developed traditional major gifts program in the future.
In fundraising there is a general rule that 80% of the contributions come from 20% of the donors. In smaller groups this difference can be much larger. In some cases, 95% of the funding comes from 5% of the donors. Given this, how do you think an organization should balance and prioritize fundraising efforts? Losing a few high donors can make or break your organization, but having more numerous smaller donors is important for promoting your product.
It’s a hard call to make, because on the one hand, engaging with a small number of big donors is easier and more lucrative in the short-term. However, diversifying will lead to a more sustainable program in the long term. Losing a big donor in one year can cause big problems in the next fiscal year without a strong base of other supporters. For a small group that’s just starting out, it’s a matter of laying out the percentage of resources that you want to spend on each donor segment. In many cases, it is just the Executive Director doing the fundraising work, so for smaller groups, it probably makes sense to spend 60 to 70% of the time on major gifts, and the rest of the time on building an appeal program. Sometimes you just have to set an arbitrary point and switch gears to make sure you’re addressing both sides.
Does the relative time that you should spend on high-value donors change when an organization grows?
Yes, in that more fundraising channels are introduced as you develop. For a new organization, fundraising might entail sending a few emails, maybe a direct mail appeal, and some one on one major donor work. Once your organization becomes more established, you may find that planned giving and bequests start to play a larger role. It’s hard to predict when that will happen, but there are ways to generate more predictable income. For example, special events make it possible to raise money from big donors in the form of a sponsorship, and small donors in the form of a ticket price.
Instead of the percentages spent on high- and low-value donors leveling out when an organization grows, more things are just added to the pie chart. A good, diversified fundraising program exists when you have a lot of of slices in the pie.
What are some of the best ways to keep in touch with existing donors? How often should you contact them? Are emails or phone calls best? Is it better to tailor to specific donors?
It depends on the size of the donor and their level of engagement. For a smaller organization with an Executive Director doing all of the fundraising, if you have a donor who is giving $500-$1000 each year, you should be reaching out them at least a couple of times per year, ideally. More often is even better. The best way to reach out is to share information and successes whenever you have new, compelling content. Let them know how you mobilized their investment to make an impact. In person visits and phone calls are always the two best ways to connect with donors, but e-newsletters or printed biannual publications play an important role, as well. Be sure to reach out in as many different ways as is feasible.
Do you feel that giving small gifts to donors is an effective way to keep them engaged?
There are two different ways that those gifts are used: as incentive to give, such as sending premiums like a little necklace to encourage a donation, or as stewardship to thank a donor for their gift. In my experience working with three different animal groups, animal issue donors don’t tend to want gifts. They are primarily motivated by impact, and want to know that their money is helping animals. Many find gifts off-putting, and would prefer to see their money going towards the cause. This is one thing that sets animal donors apart from some other types of donors.
Is there value in sending out surveys to donors? Does MFA do this? Is this something that you would recommend to other advocacy groups?
Yes, surveys can be excellent cultivation and stewardship tools. People like to be asked for their opinions and to feel listened to, so surveys can work well to make people feel engaged and invested. I wouldn’t recommend doing surveys frequently, certainly not more than once every 12 or 18 months. Most importantly, I would not suggest doing a survey unless you have enough substance to be engaging to donors, and unless you have a plan to use the data. Donors generally respond well to questions about their interests, what they find most compelling about your work, and what programs they find less relevant. It’s useful to throw in a few questions about demographic information, but a survey with demographic questions alone wouldn’t be very engaging.
Do you think it’s better to have preselected donation levels on your website, or use a fill-in-the blank?
It’s better to have an “ask string”, which is a string of pre-selected levels. The ask string should vary depending on the general donor base and the average gift size. If you’re able to get more sophisticated, you can use different ask strings for different segments of donors, based on their last donation. In general, small organizations should have an ask string that starts at $25 and goes up to $500 or $1000, with a few increments in between, with 4-5 amounts listed total. There should always be a field where a donor can enter an other amount that they would like to give, but it’s very helpful to make a suggestion before providing that option. The ask string serves the purpose of encouraging the donor to consider a larger gift than they might otherwise have chosen.
What are the best practices for setting up a donation page?
I would encourage every small organization to look into the many available options for gift pages and gift processing. In most cases you will need to pay for services with better interfaces. That can be a challenge for smaller nonprofits without much available investment, but it’s essential to make the giving process easy for the donor. Monthly giving options are an essential piece of functionality that every giving page needs to have, because people who give on a monthly basis are among the highest lifetime value donors. People who join as monthly donors usually continue indefinitely, and are likely to give additionally through other channels. For that reason, it’s important to offer that option, and it’s an low-cost way to begin building a sustaining revenue stream.
When does an organization need to come up with a formal development plan? Do you find such a tool useful?
I recommend that all organizations, no matter how small, have a development plan. It doesn’t need to be very complex. Even a short three-page document can be helpful, in terms of deciding where you would like to focus your efforts. I have always worked from a development plan document. The length and complexity of development plans can vary, but the most important thing is to be deliberate about having one, and to consult it when making decisions. In smaller organizations, it’s a common pitfall to back burner fundraising for other urgent activities, and a fundraising plan with a basic calendar can help keep you on track.
At what point do you think an organization should recruit a development Director?
Deciding when to hire a development Director is a real tension point in the life of an organization. It’s a bit of a catch-22, because you do need to spend money to make money. It’s hard to make money and grow as an organization without a devoted fundraising staff, but it can be an expensive position to hire for, compared to other positions in the organization. Once an organization has an operating budget of about $500,000 or $1 million per year, it should definitely have one person devoted to fundraising programs.
Do you have any suggestions on how to recruit a development Director?
One place to start is at universities and colleges that offer Bachelor’s-level nonprofit management and fundraising certificates. Most universities now offer some sort of program in that field, so it’s just a matter of doing a quick search to find them. Another good place to start is the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Most larger cities and some smaller cities have chapters, where fundraising professionals in the community meet on a monthly basis for educational programming. People who are trying to enter the field will gravitate towards a group like that for networking purposes. Another good way to recruit a development Director is to talk to other nonprofits in your community, and get the word out that you’re looking for someone. Having some personal connections with nonprofit leaders in your community is also a great way to recruit someone, especially for smaller organizations that don’t have the budget to relocate someone.
Do you have any advice that you would offer to specifically small nonprofit animal advocacy groups?
The most important thing in a fledgling development program is capturing information, and you need a good constituent relationship management system to do that. There are a lot of out of the box solutions on the lower end of the price spectrum that are very specific to fundraising constituent relationship management that capture the types of data that will be helpful in the future. The other side of the equation is actually finding the information to capture. Whenever someone comes into contact with your organization, whether it’s on your website, at events, or visiting your site, it’s important to capture their information so you can reach out to them later. This is a foundational concept that I think a lot of nonprofits miss in the beginning stages. The people who come into contact with your organization are your best prospects, and you need to capture their information and regularly communicate with them–and ask them for money!
As I mentioned before, I recommend getting Board Members engaged early on. That’s one of their primary functions–to help build the fundraising program.
It can be helpful for smaller groups to use a basic email programs such as Constant Contact, or Emma. Many smaller groups use Constant Contact, which is a solid email program with templates.
It’s important to make sure you’re emailing your supporters on a quarterly basis, or more often if possible. That’s a low-cost way to begin building your gift base.
Once your organization has a larger budget, you can start getting into acquisition mailing, where you are renting and exchanging lists. Smaller organizations can also collect interested people by creating petitions on website such as change.org, if they have petition-worthy content.
Are there any resources that you could suggest for groups getting started in fundraising?
Fundraising is an academic curriculum, so the same books that are being used to teach students in fundraising programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels are available to everyone. There are a few books that can give you a basic picture of what a development program looks like and get you up to speed on basic structure. There are also a lot of great blogs. If you are looking for something more formalized, there are a lot of academic programs sprouting up all over the place. However, you can learn a lot just by being a dedicated blog reader and reading a few books. Finding a seasoned fundraising professional to offer mentoring is also a great way to learn how to build a program.
What role do you feel grants play in organizations that are doing the type of work that you have done?
It depends on what types of issues you’re working on. There is a larger pool of grants available for organizations focused on general animal issues and companion animals. Grants vary from $500 to very large sums, for larger organizations. However, it’s not very common to come across foundations with animal causes as a part of their foundation guidelines. For that reason, unless you have a personal connection to a foundation, it’s not often worth the effort to apply for these types of grants, because they can be quite competitive.
Smaller foundations, which tend to be primarily run by one individual who is interested in giving their gifts to organizations in this way, can be treated as a major donor relationship. Again in this case, personal connections and engagement are the most important determinants of success. If you come across promising grant opportunities, you should pursue them, but don’t plan on relying solely on grants to build a strong fundraising program.