Love them or hate them, fundraising events are here to stay. But in the age of COVID, your events may look a bit different. Virtual, in-person, hybrid - how will your nonprofit know which one to choose? And how to balance health and safety considerations with our very human longing to get back together in person?
In the latest episode of Nonprofit Nation, I ask fundraising visionary Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, how to manage a fundraising program through times of uncertainty, how to use digital fundraising, and how to change the minds of a board that REALLY wants to continue with an in-person 400 guest gala.
Claire has one of the top-rated fundraising blogs on the planet, and 30 years of frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. After leaving the nonprofit trenches, Claire began her coaching practice and founded the online “Clairification School” – often referred to as the best bargain in fundraising.
Here are some of the topics we discussed:
Connect with Claire:
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About Julia Campbell, the host of the Nonprofit Nation podcast:
Named as a top thought leader by Forbes and BizTech Magazine, Julia Campbell (she/hers) is an author, coach, and speaker on a mission to make the digital world a better place.
She wrote her book, Storytelling in the Digital Age: A Guide for Nonprofits, as a roadmap for social change agents who want to build movements using engaging digital storytelling techniques. Her second book, How to Build and Mobilize a Social Media Community for Your Nonprofit, was published in 2020 as a call-to-arms for mission-driven organizations to use the power of social media to build movements.
Julia’s online courses, webinars, and talks have helped hundreds of nonprofits make the shift to digital thinking and raise more money online.
Julia's happy clients include Mastercard, GoFundMe, Facebook, Meals on Wheels America, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Hello, and welcome to nonprofit Nation. I'm your host, Julia Campbell. And I'm going to sit down with nonprofit industry experts, fundraisers, marketers, and everyone in between to get real and discuss what it takes to build that movement that you've been dreaming of. I created the nonprofit nation podcast to share practical wisdom and strategies to help you confidently Find Your Voice. Definitively grow your audience and effectively build your movement. If you're a nonprofit newbie, or an experienced professional, who's looking to get more visibility, reach more people and create even more impact, then you're in the right place. Let's get started. All right. Hi, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of nonprofit Nation. I'm your host, Julia Campbell, so happy that you could join us today. And I am here with one of my friends from San Francisco, Claire Axelrod, JD CFRE. And she's a fundraising visionary. With 30 years of frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. And I'm sure that most of you are familiar with her award winning blog, which showcases her practical approach and earned her the AFP outstanding Fundraising Professionals a year award. After leaving the trenches. 10 years ago, Claire began her coaching practice, and founded the online clarification school. And you might know her as charity clarity on Twitter, the best bargain in fundraising. She's also a featured expert, and she fundraising coach for Bloomerang. And as a regular contributor to candid nonprofit pro Network for Good and top nonprofits, among others. And she's a member of the California State Bar, and resides like I said, in one of my all time favorite cities on earth, San Francisco. Claire, welcome.Claire Axelrad:
Thank you for having me, Julia.Julia Campbell:
Long overdue. And I'm so thrilled that you could be here today. So let's talk about your story. Let's talk about your your origin story, if you will, how do you get involved with nonprofits?Claire Axelrad:
Okay, so you said I'm a member of the California State Bar, I was a lawyer. But I wasn't enjoying that work at all. And I was complaining to all my friends. And at one point, somebody said, you know, you shouldn't do what I did, you should go to this career change weekend. And so I went to it. It was facilitated by somebody from Stanford. And they basically use the what color is my parachute model. So you basically talk about events in your life at like five year intervals, things that made you feel successful, and it didn't have to be passing the bar, it could be getting a divorce, anything that made you feel like, this was a good thing I did. And so you talked about that with a bunch of people. And as you talked, they wrote down skill words. And it was so interesting that even if you shared like 567 experiences, in a group of a half a dozen people, the same skill words kept popping up, analyzer, evaluator creator, whatever it was, because those were the things that were your go twos, they felt good to you. And then the group brainstormed a number of different areas that you could research, and nobody thought love for me. So for me, it was public affairs, public relations and design. And so I ended up doing, I kind of always do everything to access. And I did two 200 research interviews.Julia Campbell:
200 Yes, research interviews, okay.Claire Axelrad:
was fascinating, because I just basically went to people and said, What do you do all day? I love people love to give advice. This is something that I tell people in major donor fundraising all the time, if you if you want advice as for gift, if you want to gift ask for advice. Yes. So everybody saw me, you know, famous people, news anchors was just insane. I found out a lot about professions that I had never even known about. And one of the places I looked at was public affairs. And a lot of corporations do their giving out of their public affairs departments. And at one point somebody said, you know, I think from what you've told me, you'd be interested in the flip side of what what we do, and I was like, the flip side, and they're like, Yeah, development work. So I who's to die? To say, what is development? So I went and figured it out. And then I was gonna go, I'm gonna, no, there was no Google at the time. Oh, wow, I had to ask around, you know, and I finally found a friend whoJulia Campbell:
knew what it meant. It is such a vague word, isn't it? It'sClaire Axelrad:
a totally vague word. I mean, I have a whole theory on why we use that term, which is that, at the time, nonprofits didn't want anything that smacked up for profit business. They didn't want to use the word marketing. But that's what development is. You know, so I had to make up a whole definition for myself so that when people ask me what I did, I would say, well, it's like developing a photograph, you take all of the resources at your disposal, the camera, the tripod, the the paper, the chemicals, the dark room, see, seem that you're going to photograph and you try to bring them you try to bring them all together in such a way that the photo that you develop, is so compelling, that people want to jump into that photo with you, and be a part of it.Julia Campbell:
I love that. That's amazing. That's not what people told you. It was that what did they tell you? It was raising money calling people? Yeah,Claire Axelrad:
yeah. They told me it was fundraising, development as fundraising. And I think part of the problem is they still had marketing departments. And they were separate. That's one of my major crusades is to get fundraising and marketing communications completely seamlessly integrated.Julia Campbell:
Oh, that's something we can definitely talk about that is, I feel like in a lot of the work that I do, I'm a couples therapist, between marketing and development. Yeah. I mean, the pre like bridge that gap,Claire Axelrad:
you end up having messaging coming out from the left side of the mouth, on the right side of the mouth, they don't always match. So that's not a good branding strategy. Exactly. Look, donor only knows one organization, they don't care if the email comes from the fundraising department, or the marketing department or the volunteer department. And if it's all being confusing, I mean, I used to work at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, that was my first job. And it turned out that the marketing department was putting out the message that we offered more free or low cost concerts than anyplace else in the city. That was the brand and fundraising department was putting out we developed tomorrow's professional musicians. We wanted people to provide scholarships for them, because, gee, the world without music would be a real mistake. But the marketing people were saying, come here for free stuff, which didn't attract donors.Julia Campbell:
No. Oh, wow. That was really interesting. So I think I mean, you are the go to expert on all things, fundraising. And I've been reading your blog for many, many years. And I know you talk a lot about marketing, fundraising, philanthropy, all aspects of development. Today, I wanted to focus on fundraising events, and sort of the love hate relationship that you have with fundraising events, but also the love hate relationship. I think a lot of nonprofits have. But can you talk about I mean, in some of your blog posts, you talk about your love hate relationship? Can you tell us a little bit about it?Claire Axelrad:
Sure. So they do have their place, I want to say that. And I know that boards, bring them up all the time, it's the go to thing for boards, let's put on a party. rather than me having to go ask somebody for money, I'll just say you want to come to this fun event. And they'll, you know, invite them, maybe they'll buy them a ticket, but it's a pretty low bar in terms of fulfilling their fundraising responsibility. And then you have all the work, the staff has all the work of making this very expensive, time consuming. event. And that's what I don't like about them is that they are the least cost effective form of fundraising, it costs 50 cents on the dollar, if you're lucky. But I think most events, barely breakeven, if you really take into account all of the staff time, the executive directors time, everybody gets sucked into it. And then the lost opportunity costs for the other things that you're not doing. So they're they're, they're very draining. Too often. Organizations that put them on put them on as standalone. You know, they do the event, and then they're done. And they're not thinking about what should we do before the event and after the event. So, you know, what I love about events is that they can be really terrific ways to know nurture, community and nurture major gift donors. And what the successful events have is that they never stand alone. You use them to really bond folks to your mission and to each other and to create a sense of shared values. And all of that happens primarily with how you communicate with people before the event. And after the event, not just during it. So if you have an event, and you don't use it as an opportunity to see like, who's gonna be there? And who do we want to cultivate? And who should we assign to talk to them? And what are we going to send them immediately after the event? And how are we going to follow up a month or six months after the event that you really shouldn't have done the whole event, you've just put in a ton of money and time, and it's just gonna flop like a lead balloon, because people remember the experience for a week, but then it starts to fade. And sometimes you didn't do a very good job of branding at the event. And, you know, maybe you had it at a different venue, you had it at the local aquarium or something. And then people are like, remember that aquarium event? They don't remember that you put it on? How doJulia Campbell:
we help our reluctant or skeptical board members come to grips with the fact that events have to change? Or even if we even if we don't think that they might have to change all that much? If we have new ideas? What's the best way to sort of bring those reluctant staff and board members along with our vision of changing up these events?Claire Axelrad:
Well, I mean, I think a lot of it is starting with the why. Why are we doing this event? What is our goal here? That's really important. Are you doing it to raise money? Are you doing it to bring in new donors? Are you doing it to cultivate major donors, whatever strategy you pick, you want to make sure it is the best strategy to accomplish that objective. So I mean, I'm thinking about an event that I did years ago, which came from a group of parents who had seen an event done in the Hamptons, here we are in San Francisco. So they were wealthy, young moms, and they thought this was a great event. It was like a shopping event. And, you know, it was sponsored by Vogue magazine, I think, and they thought, Oh, we could do that event.Julia Campbell:
And Beyonce hosted, let's get Beyonce.Claire Axelrad:
Yeah, they had all these celebrities and stuff. And so I was trying to, you know, say that's a lot of work. I even called up the people who put on the event, and they had a staff of 12 people who worked for a year on nothing but the event. Wow. You know, I was trying to convey that. And they were looking at me like, God, she's so resistant, and whatever was kill. And then this was a committee of, you know, like 12 woman, women. And one woman at one point said, what if we all just gave $1,000. And it was like, she didn't exist, it was like, nobody responded to that. It's like, they didn't hear her, because they wanted to put on the event. And they had all these ideas of like, who they were gonna, what designers they could invite to come and everything, and then ended up taking, you know, a bunch of staff time. And, you know, we got a percentage of sales, and many of them spent a lot of money, you know, a couple $1,000 each.Julia Campbell:
But we hours, countless hours,Claire Axelrad:
countless hours, and we got a percentage, and we ended up netting $7,000. And there were 12 women on the committee who all spent more than $1,000.Julia Campbell:
A few because it's just gotten that 1000, right.Claire Axelrad:
So that's why it's like, you have to, you know, kind of, if you could step back and maybe make a chart, like, these are our goals, and let's brainstorm some ways that we could meet these goals. And let's see what it costs to do each of these things. And like, do we still want to do an event? Maybe you do. But not just because an event sounds fun.Julia Campbell:
I think now, especially in the time that we're living in and you know, at the time of the recording, we are hopefully seeing sort of a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel but we have kind of come to terms with the fact that the pandemic will be here on many different scales, many different levels. Everyone has a different comfort level with in person gatherings. Everyone has a different comfort level with masks and flying and transportation and eating at a buffet and those kinds of things. So, while I know that It is hard to predict how the next year will look how I mean, we can't even predict how the next few years will look. But I would love to kind of get a sense of kind of any trends that you might be seeing about hosting in person events, versus continuing with in person fundraising.Claire Axelrad:
So I agree with you that we are in a time of great uncertainty, and it is difficult to predict. And a lot of anxiety tends to arise when we feel out of control. So I think that anything that you can do, to see some control over things is a really good thing to do. And one of the trends that I see and highly recommend is sending a survey to your constituents to assess their level of interest and comfort in attending a fully in person event. And, you know, I just use Survey Monkey, it's online, it's free. And I recommend just sending something very brief, with some multiple choice questions. So it's relatively easy to tabulate maybe one three, form anything you want to tell us kind of thing and ask them if they'd be more likely to attend the event. If they could do so, virtually. And don't assume just because your board members are chomping at the bit to get back to in person, that everybody is the same as your board members. Now that folks are accustomed to attending events from the comfort of their homes, many are pretty happy to continue doing so. So I would say don't guess, you know, you might really be surprised by what you learn. And the other thing that I would say in terms of trends is that people have discovered, they don't necessarily have to choose between an in person event and a virtual only event, they can do a hybrid event, those are getting a lot more popular, because they give people the option to choose what they're most comfortable with. I think the beauty of hybrid events is that they really do provide a model for the future that potentially can make it possible for a lot more people to attend your events than would have otherwise been the case.Julia Campbell:
I love that. And I I've heard a lot about accessibility and inclusion. In terms of hybrid events where organizations had so many more people participating in they had such a huge diversity of participants than they normally would have if it was a $300 plate in person dinner at like the four seasons. Right.Claire Axelrad:
And I think that because we had to take this pause and step back a little, we started to become more thoughtful. And I think people started to become a lot more thoughtful about what their donors wanted. So they became less wed to these legacy events that served the board or a small committee of volunteers who just love doing this. And then the staff has to come along because they think, Oh, we don't want to offend these really important donors who want to do this event. The beauty of the hybrid event is that you can kind of please, everybody. You know, and I think you know, both virtual and in person events do have some advantages and some disadvantages, and it's good to weigh them.Julia Campbell:
And how do you move to hybrid. So if you're someone, if you're an organization, that transition fully to virtual events, because of the past year and a half, two years, and you are wanting to kind of dip your toe in the pond back into live events? Do you have any recommendations about how to move into this hybrid space?Claire Axelrad:
Well, again, I would say, ask yourself, why you're doing it, you know, set a goal and figure out like, you know, can we accomplish this goal, much better in person, much better not in person? Can we accomplish it in both ways. And then whatever format you choose, you want to make sure that the event is structured to have the best likelihood of meeting your objectives. So that means determining who you think your audiences for this event, and making sure that the event meets the needs of both the in person and the virtual guests. So like a traditional gala with food and dancing and speeches may not transition online very effectively. So you would want to add in some interactive elements that work for everyone. Like if you have an auction, you can have online bidding. If you didn't have an auction, maybe you can add one, if you want to add a video for maybe a funded need kind of element. And the video is something that works really well virtually as well as in person, you could also, while people were eating on site, you could have breakout rooms online where people could go and kind of schmooze with each other. And, you know, you can add in fundraising elements that work in both places like text to give that you put up on a screen, or QR codes. And you can have those online as well. And you can also use the chat function. And maybe at the onsite venue, scroll that up on a large screen so everybody can see. And everybody feels like they're participating together. And every now and then, you know, you could read a chat from somebody so that, you know, you are still creating this sense of a larger community, related to what I said earlier about not having this be a standalone, when you're doing a hybrid event, planning it. You want to plan your pre event and post event communication strategy. I had a time. Yes. And so you're thinking about what again, one of my donors want? Do they want to see their friends in person? Or are they happy to network online, maybe meet new friends, maybe get jobs, maybe get dates. And one big thing that I wouldn't discount is that people really want a connection to values related missions right now. It's sort of an antidote to all of the trauma that we're seeing in the world. The social benefits sector has this anecdote to offer people in spades. And I would say, I would like to see people thinking about giving this to people, and we, we need to reframe fundraising, to take the fun out of it. I think, I would like to defund fundraising.Julia Campbell:
Haha, because your political slogan that makesClaire Axelrad:
us just think about money. And nobody likes to talk about money. It's the biggest taboo in our society. Still, we'll talk about sex, religion, politics, anything before we talk about money. People want to talk about being, you know, more caring citizens more compassionate, more loving, all of what philanthropy means. So I tell people, you're not just a fundraising technician, you are a philanthropy facilitator.Julia Campbell:
Oh, man, I love that so much. The antidote. I love that, because I talked about that as well. How giving provides people with agency in times of hopelessness and despair, just like you said. So actually, this leads me right into the next question, fundraising, in terms of individual giving, and online giving, actually exploded in 2020 and 2021. Did that surprise you? And do you see that as a trend going forward?Claire Axelrad:
Well, it did not surprise me actually. What made me sad Was that too many organizations put their fundraising on pause. And they sort of felt like, well, this is just unseemly to ask money, you know, ask for money at a time like this. Or they just basically we're, you know, we have to shut down, we have to cut back our staff. So they cut back their marketing staff and their fundraising staff. And I think that people forget that fundraising is a mission aligned program, that it's not a cost center. It's a revenue center. And the organizations that did ask, they were very successful. And they made the case for why their mission mattered today. And one organization that I sit on the board of is a small, local theatre company, not that small. They're a local theatre company. And they always have had a strong culture of philanthropy. And they really lead with that. In fact, over the doors of the theater, they have a sign that says, Welcome to the empathy gym. And they talk a lot about how you come in there, and you're anonymous, and you're in the dark and you feel what the characters feel, you fear what they fear, you love what they love. And you walk out of there feeling a lot more connected to community, and ready to see things and people in a different perspective, and how that can create a more compassionate community. So the idea is not that you get stuck on our mission is to put on place but it's to create empathic community. And I think everybody can do that. And the reason that I wasn't surprised that fundraising did well is because people were so hungry for connection Enough so that they were willing to try new modalities, we all became zoom experts. And I think that the nonprofit's who were nimble and quick and pivoted, often raise more than they had done before. And I think, you know, just back to trends, I think that we're seeing fundraising less as an isolated transactional incident, that we're seeing it more holistically that we have a comprehensive philanthropy facilitation plan, designed to build relationships. And I think that was because people were again, thinking more, didn't just put things on rinse and repeat, because they couldn't, and they got creative. And there were more interaction opportunities with people. And that's what most donors want, especially major donors. They want you to be engaged with them in a way that is not just about their money, they don't want to be treated like ATMs.Julia Campbell:
No one wants to be treated like that. I totally agree. I've been frantically taking down notes. And never I have not heard this before. And I love it. Theater is a place to create a more compassionate community. Usually we hear theater talked about as the arts. And it's important for kids. And it's important to understand other cultures and our history. And it's important to awaken perspectives. But hearing it said like that, I think it really is very helpful. Because it's almost like the what's in it for me kind of thing where everyone when they're donating, you know, they are giving money because they care about the cause. And they want to solve the problem. And they care about the solution that's being provided. But it does sort of say, Okay, how does this affect the world I live in, in my worldview, and I want to create a more compassionate community. So I'm going to be more likely to participate and give to the local theater. I absolutely love that. And I completely agree with you. The organizations that bury their heads in the sand and said, We aren't COVID facing, we're not emergency relief, we don't serve first responders. We're not a food bank. So we're not going to fundraise. I think that's just such a huge, just just a real missed opportunity, but also a missed opportunity for the donors to connect with the causes that they care about in a time of true uncertainty. And when they were really feeling like they had no control over the world. And they could have made a gift and maybe helped regain a little bit of that control. So thank you. And is this a little bit of a taste of the talk that I'm going to see you give at the Capital Region fundraising day? It is Yay. Okay. So at the time of the recording, Claire is giving the keynote for the AFP has a mohawk Capital Region, fundraising day, I'm giving a breakout session. And the title is philanthropy, not fundraising, how to reframe your nonprofits approach. So thanks for giving us a little taste of it. I can't wait. It's tomorrow. And I'm really excited.Claire Axelrad:
Yeah, I mean, for me philanthropy, not fundraising is the tagline for my business clarification. Because when I came in that it was such a fundamental transformative shift for me, that it's not about money, that it's about outcomes, that it's not about your needs, but the needs that you meet and how donors can help you meet those needs. And people really want to help but you have to help them first. It's one of the principles of persuasion and influence that that Robert chill Dini wrote about reciprocity, you know, so you have so much that you can offer people. And when you do that, they find more meaning they find more purpose. You know, back to you mentioned, storytelling, which I know you're all about, think about how much donors and people are wired for stories. And, you know, I mean, the theatre company is telling stories, but you're all telling stories. And when you tell stories, or when people read a story, or they watch a movie or play, there's this neurotransmitter chemical that gets released in their brains, which is oxytocin. And there's all these MRI studies that have been done. There's three happiness, chemicals, oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. And dopamine we know happens if you think about giving to somebody, it kind of gives you this rush of dopamine, it goes right to the pleasure center of your brain, it makes you feel really good. And then the oxytocin comes from the story A storytelling kind of, you know, it goes to making us feel like we want to sleep and it kind of it regulates our appetites. And it makes us feel a little bit less inhibited, a little bit more passionate, and that releases serotonin. And that's what you need released if you want a donor to make a passionate gift. So they all really work together. And it's not really manipulative. It's just the way human beings are wired. And you help people to do what they already want to do. When you make it easy for them, when you make it fun, when you make it fulfilling when you come from a place of love and gratitude, and not money grubbing. And you think not just about what donors can do for you, but what you can do for them. And you really want them thinking, Gee, I guess I matter more than I thought,Julia Campbell:
I have to love that. And I love what you said earlier about how events are an extension of making them feel that way. And that should be the intention of the event, making donors feel like they're an extension of your mission and bringing that shared identity together with them and making them feel all of these really great feelings and feel proud to be associated with your organization. So I think that I think that's incredibly important. It looks like we're almost at time, I want to know where you would like people to connect with you. Read your blog, get in touch, follow along with you and learn more about philanthropy and fundraising,Claire Axelrad:
you can find my blog and clarification.com spelled like my name CLA IR. And I have a newsletter that I send every other week that is free. And it's curated resources that I find across the web, I sometimes share some of the arts, Julia, thank you. And then clarification school is all of my content, all of my articles, which all tend to be a combination of theory and practice. I want you to know why you're doing it. And then specific tactics to implement, and that you can enroll in clarification school, it's very inexpensive. Some people have said like you said, in my intros, best bargain in fundraising. Yeah. And I just do that because I love to share. I mean, my motto is, if I know it, I want you to know it. And just trying to cover my costs, essentially.Julia Campbell:
And you love to write, you can tell you're a great writer, I love to write.Claire Axelrad:
Yeah, I didn't really know that until about 10 years ago, when I started, when I left. I mean, I was 30 years in the trenches as a director of development and marketing. And then I went out on my own and I realized, I don't have anybody to share with anymore. I loveJulia Campbell:
me to do exactly what happened to me. Although I didn't know I love to write, but I agree. When I went off on my own, I thought, Oh, I've got all this great stuff to tell people. Yeah, am I gonna do it. And then I started a blog as well. But what I appreciate about your blog, Claire is just what sets it apart is it's so meaty, and it's so tactical. And a lot of the blogs out there are just click bait, there's a great headline, and then you click on it. And there's a photo and two paragraphs, but just Yeah, everyone Claire's blog, that is not the case, you're going to get the entire in depth how to and also some really great explanation and research and data to back it up as well. So right.Claire Axelrad:
So that's why it's a school. And in fact, yes, I was at one social service agency for 22 years. And when my staff did the farewell for me, they sang, they brought a song for me, and they sang it and it was something to the effect of she ran her own fundraising school, which I loved. I loveJulia Campbell:
that you're the head master headmistress, Headmaster of your fundraiser, andClaire Axelrad:
I just can't help it. So I really want to help all of you out there. And you know, if you can, if you can afford $1 A week or a few pennies a day, that's all it costs to get all my content.Julia Campbell:
Well, thank you. I will put all the links in the show notes and we will get all that information and definitely recommend signing up for that blog. But thanks so much, Claire, for being here today.Claire Axelrad:
Thank you, Julie. Appreciate all the great questions.Julia Campbell:
Well, hey there. I wanted to say thank you for tuning into my show, and for listening all the way to the end. If you really enjoyed today's conversation, make sure to subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast app, and you'll get new episodes downloaded as soon as they come out. I would love if you left me a rating or review because this topic other people that my podcast is worth listening to. And then me and my guests can reach even more earbuds and create even more impact. So that's pretty much it. I'll be back soon with a brand new episode. But until then, you can find me on Instagram at Julia Campbell seven, seven. Keep changing the world. Nonprofit unicorn