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Dan Sonners thinks about the importance of collaborative mindsets

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In RKD’s new donor relationship study, “Listen Up: The Nonprofit Marketer’s Guide to What Donors Want,” we set out to gain a better understanding of the age-old struggle of donor retention. To do this, we took a deep dive into donor feelings. In this series of Group Thinkers podcast episodes, we’re sitting down with donor relationship experts to discuss the findings and provide insights on how nonprofits can apply them to their programs.    

On this episode, we chat with Dan Sonners, Vice President at Conrad Direct, about how nonprofits can use a collaborative mindset to “unsilo” their fundraising efforts. Tune in as we cover: 

  • The five pillars of unsiloed fundraising (8:37) 
  • Why a collaborative mindset is key to unsiloed fundraising (14:10) 
  • What nonprofits do well and where they can improve when it comes to collaboration (20:11) 
  • The biggest barriers standing between nonprofits and unsiloed fundraising (27:43) 

Meet our guest 

Dan-Sonners Headshot

Dan Sonners 

Vice President, Conrad Direct 

“A lot of the things that are going to strengthen the bond with donors and allow them to have a better relationship [with your nonprofit] are very difficult to scale in direct mail. I believe direct mail fundraisers have an extremely vested interest in the quality of the digital communication that donors are getting once they come in the door. How do you break down the siloes between those companies and get them to talk more and collaborate with each other?” 

Podcast transcript

Justin McCord: OK, so I have to ask, Ronnie, have you found any connections to anyone that was associated with the movie ‘Inside Out’?  

Ronnie Richard: I think I have to say that I failed on that front.  

Justin McCord: The quest is not over.  

Ronnie: It's not over. So, you know, it's like they say to the kids, it's a growth mindset. I haven’t found anyone yet 

Justin: Yeah, that's right. So, so I'm Gandalf, and you're Frodo, and I'm telling you, you're not done with your journey. You never know.  

Ronnie: Off to Mordor.  

Justin: Now you've made it sound bad.  

Ronnie: I have a knack for doing that. Between this and the sadness sandwich. 

Justin: That's true. You do. That's true. We can always count on you. So I appreciate that. Appreciate that.  

Welcome, everybody, to this episode of Group Thinkers. I'm your host, Justin McCord. Here to keep us balanced with despair is Ronnie Richard. Group Thinkers is the podcast from RKD Group. On each and every episode we have someone who approaches something differently in the nonprofit space. They think about things differently. They've got a different type of mindset. And today's guest has a different type of mindset in a few different ways that we're going to dig into: Dan Sonners from Conrad Direct and other areas. Dan, welcome to the show.  

Dan Sonners: Hey, thanks a lot for having me, guys. I think I've been listening to the podcast since it launched, so I'm a big fan. It's an honor to be here. I guess you could call me a long-time listener, first-time caller. Does this count as a call?  

Justin: Yeah, yeah, this counts as a call. You're definitely a long-time listener. That's one of the ways that you and I got to know each other. Dan, you're Vice President at Conrad Direct. You play a couple of key roles with the Direct Marketing Association of Washington. Also with the Data Strategy Forum, which is actually coming up in a very short amount of time.  

So, I don't want to take away your entire career thunder, but you have all of these various hats of where you lean in on the nonprofit marketing space, in addition to your own nonprofit marketing podcast, Dynamic Nonprofits with Dan. DNT …. DNPD? How do you shorten it?  

Dan: DNP, I guess.  

Justin: Yeah. 

Dan: I guess. Still working on a catchy abbreviation. Maybe you guys could help me out with some ideas there. Always looking for some marketing tips for the pod.  

Justin: Yeah, exactly. So Dan's got, you know, he's got perspective on multiple different aspects of the industry. And so, we're going to definitely dig into that today. Dan, we've been talking about the research that RKD put out in the last two months, tied to ... really tied to retention and relationships. More than anything, it's about relationships and how to make them stronger because that plays into retention. And so, we're going to dig into some of that down the road and certainly through your interesting perspective on it. But just at the outset, I would love for you to share with our listening and viewing audience your career path, how you've gotten to where you are today and touch on some of those various hats that you've worn along the way.  

Dan: Sure, I can't wait to dig in here. Like many of us, most of us in this industry, my pass into the business was not necessarily planned. It was not a straight line. It was kind of definitely a journey to get there, which is what I think makes this industry so interesting. I was born and raised in northern New Jersey, went to school at Montclair State University, majored in broadcast communications, obviously took a different track, but maybe some of that is coming full circle now with the podcast. It’s funny how things tend to come back around.  

But after school, I had a six-month stopover in the wedding industry as a wedding videographer, which we can get into a little bit. A lot of unexpected connections to the fundraising world there. But I had actually taken a marketing free elective. My junior year, I believe in college, it had really sparked my interest, and I had just decided that I was going to finish out my program, get a degree, and was really intrigued about the idea of just trying to find an entry-level job at a marketing firm and learning the business. Working my way up. There was just a lot there that really kind of connected a lot of interests and passions of mine.  

I found an ad for Conrad Direct on Craigslist, which … I know I have some Gen Xers on with me, so you guys know that Craigslist used to be a really good place to go to find quality jobs. And there was an interesting write up there, it was more or less your standard entry-level marketing ad, but it included a blurb at the end that said, “Interest in politics not necessary but considered helpful.” I thought that was interesting. I've always been interested in politics and public policy before it was really cool to care about these kinds of things and knew nothing about the list industry and knew nothing about how direct mail ended up. But obviously ended up getting the job. And just kind of developed a really quick passion for helping nonprofit organizations find new donors, come up with creative, lists and data strategies to do that.  

You know, I've always been a numbers guy. I'll probably age myself a little bit here, but I used to look forward to the Sunday paper because you would have both the full statistics for the Mets and the Yankees there. And I love just memorizing batting averages. So, I was really just a numbers and data guy, and it just kind of married a lot of passions of mine and allowed me to work with some great causes that I care a lot about. And I've been fortunate to work my way up in the industry. And I’m Vice President at Conrad today. I’ve been there for 15 years, my entirety in the industry. And I'd say the first 10 years of my journey in the nonprofit sector, I, I gained a good reputation in my corner of the industry, the clients I work. List brokerage.  

But coming into the business when I did, I had an opportunity to attend both shows that were oriented towards direct mail and towards digital. And I did a little bit of both. I did a little bit on each side and gained perspective because I could see that, for one thing, back then, the audiences at these shows were completely unique, but they were often having the same conversations, and I was seeing a lot of things from the digital world that could help direct mail and vice versa. And around five years ago, I started taking some conversations I was having on the sideline with colleagues about direct mail and digital being viewed more as supporting roles for each other and not necessarily competitors where they're always trying to compete with each other for budget at organizations. And just decided to kind of put that into action and start publishing original content on LinkedIn, writing some articles that led to the podcast, which has now been downloaded by 5,000 fundraisers. And it's just been a really cool experience entering the conversation in the nonprofit space.  

And my thing is advocating for what I call an “unsiloed” approach to fundraising. And we could talk a little bit about exactly what that is. Essentially allowing different parts of the nonprofit sector and our fundraising channels to work together in a coordinated manner.  

Ronnie: Dan, you mentioned … you talk about siloed fundraising, and is that … I mean, is it more or less integration and things we talk about there? Is there more to it? I mean, I've seen you talk about it a lot. Can you kind of unpack that a little bit for us of what that means?  

Dan: Yeah, absolutely. So, unsiloed fundraising has been a little bit of a journey as well. It really kind of just started off as a philosophical take on different channels of fundraising, working more closely together, doing things like integration, multichannel touchpoints before and after direct mail appeals. And it's kind of evolved into more of a philosophical viewpoint for the industry, and where I've kind of landed on it is that there's five pillars of unsiloed fundraising. It's direct mail fundraising, digital fundraising, communications, leadership and programming.  

And basically, the idea is both internally with departments at nonprofit organizations and externally among vendors, putting stakeholders from these different departments in the same room more often to share the same information. So everyone has access to the information; taking more of a collaborative approach to fundraising, where we're looking for ways to drive the most revenue, not necessarily having each of these departments operating in their own silos and worrying about their bottom lines. And it's something that I've seen real life benefits with in the clients that I work with and starting to see more organizations talking about this collaborative approach. Because as fundraising has grown and become more complex with so many different channels and it's so dynamic, it's really more important than ever for all of the parties to be working together towards a shared goal instead of competing with each other, which can be counterproductive.  

Justin: Yeah, you know, there's something to the right hand and the left hand knowing what each other is doing. Right? And so, what I love about your passion and the content that you produce around it, Dan, around unsiloed fundraising, is we've observed that many folks moved away from siloed execution to siloed collaboration in the last decade. And so, siloed collaboration is a space that a lot of people still live in. And so, it's still that breaking down those walls so that you have the right people sitting at the table together, right? So that we've heard from various industry experts and colleagues talk about the benefit of having someone from the data team sitting involved in your strategic planning and actively participating. Or from your production teams or from your media team. That strategy isn't one person's job. It's a team effort so that everyone has skin in the game. So, we appreciate your lean in there because it helps elevate somewhere where we've made progress. But we're definitely not at the end destination.  

Dan: Absolutely because if you're collaborating but you don't necessarily have shared objectives, it can be difficult to implement. It can even be counterproductive. One of the things that we're learning about fundraising is that touch points along the donor journey make a big difference in driving conversions on many different channels, but especially with direct mail.  

When you really lean into that and you focus on collaboration, it's a shift in mindset because now you're talking about either the department or even the vendor that is doing your display advertising or your search or your email marketing. You may be saying that we're not focusing as much on you driving revenue; we're focusing more on you playing a supporting role in the journey for the donors that are coming up downstream in direct mail. And you have to have the right culture to make that work. People need to feel secure that they're not going to be solely judged based on their topline revenue numbers. 

So, there's a lot ... that's one of the things that I've discovered as I've gone into this journey and talking about unsiloed fundraising is that there's a lot more to it than just saying, hey, these days, we have white papers that prove that it works. It really entails a cultural shift and requires buy in from leadership. And where I've seen it be successful is organizations where there really is kind of a top-down culture of collaboration and shared goals and not everybody looking out for themselves in their own budgets.  

Justin: Yeah, this is what we talk about when we say this is the demystification of the idea of donor experience because you're all in it together. So that when a person who is looking to grow their relationship with a nonprofit, that they have the most fluid and enriched opportunity to engage. When we were talking about this off air, this is where you did make a brilliant analogy out of your time in the wedding industry. And I would love for you to share that with our teams because it paints such a beautiful picture of how this can be accomplished.  

Dan: Yeah, absolutely. And it's really amazing how many parallels there are. But my time in that business really did inspire a lot of my philosophy about this collaborative mindset. Because if you think about what it takes to come together and make a wedding happen, for those of your listeners who have been married, is you have all these different vendors. You have musicians, photography, videographer, flowers. You have venues. And in most cases, there are some companies in the wedding industry that try to do everything. In my experience, there are not many that try to do everything well. In most cases, you have separate vendors who maybe have one, maybe two specialties, and they all need to come together to make this day work.  

And the other thing that makes the wedding industry very similar to fundraising is that it's highly commoditized. So, no matter what you do, there's a lot of other people in your marketplace that do that. And it's very hard to distinguish yourself. Now, how do vendors distinguish themselves? Well, some try to compete on price, but others compete on the concept of added value to their customers and helping make valuable connections for their customers. And that's a very important direction that I do see that the fundraising space is going.  

Here's a couple of simple examples: If you're a limo driver, you know, getting couples to and from the church, it seems like a rather transactional proposition. But what if you're the limo driver who gives a bride a tip on the right way to step out of the limo so that the photographer can capture that moment as you're stepping out and looking up at your church for the first time. You know your limo driver has probably served hundreds, even thousands of weddings. And they have this knowledge, even though they're not photographers, they understand the advice to share, to help capture that magic moment. Think about what you've created then for that couple. Then you've allowed them to preserve this, this moment forever that's so much more than just the transactional relationship of driving people around.  

Another thing I learned from my father, who was a wedding photographer—that's how I got into video initially—was he used to always help the grooms pin on their boutonniere. I don't know about you guys, but I'm terrible at that. I always end up stabbing myself, or the flower ends up crooked, and that little touch, it's just like a little simple thing that you could do to make the couple’s day easier and smoother. And those are the kinds of things that people remember and hang on to when they're referring you to their friends and family.  

By the same extension, when you're in the wedding business, you get asked for referrals all the time. So if you do, if you're a photographer, you're going to get asked, hey, do you know anyone that you refer for flowers? And maybe you don't specialize in flowers, but maybe you've learned enough about it that you can provide some tips in talking to flower vendors and refer them to quality people who you know and trust. So, you have to do that work in developing those relationships so that you can be confident in the people that you're referring those services to. So, it's not something that you provide. Maybe you have a commission-based relationship for referrals with that vendor, maybe you don't. But the fact that you're taking time to help make that valuable connection is what that couple is going to hold on to. That's what they're going to remember. And it just makes that extra special impression that distinguishes you from other people who have just a strictly transactional relationship with their client.  

And that's really where I see the fundraising space going because there are so many channels now, and it is so dynamic. Very few companies do everything, and even full-service agencies usually have something that they have to rely on outside partners for. So, having … to be able to at least add some quality perspective and information for your clients I find to be very super important, as well as having the ability to make those connections. Because my philosophy about this—whether you're working internally at a nonprofit and you get asked a question about something that you don't do every day, or you work externally as a vendor—is that every time you say, I don't know, you give up your seat at your table. And whether we're working at a nonprofit or we're working as a supporting vendor, the goal should always be to maintain our seat, to make it as valuable and as impressionable as possible. And we can do that by offering added value and knowledge about things we don't provide directly and helping to make connections for complementary services. So, those are the parallels that I see between the wedding business and the direction that I believe the fundraising industry is going in.  

Ronnie: That's so well said, Dan. Ultimately, it's all about making the bride and groom have … making sure that they have such a great experience, right? And I'm thinking about our study that we just did, called “Listen Up,” where we were trying to find out what drives these stronger relationships with donors, and really it's about creating this better experience for them. And the donors said that they want better communication, really want to be heard. They want nonprofits to listen to them, which is why we kind of called it "Listen Up.” I'm curious, in your opinion, where are we, as a nonprofit industry, doing this well? And where could we improve a little bit in that?  

Dan: From what I've seen, nonprofits who have, particularly larger ones, that have taken inspiration from the commercial sector. There are some that are doing this. Well, I've seen a few. I know I saw a presentation from Greenpeace a few years ago about how they had this very unsiloed approach to making sure everyone had access to the same information and tracking donor journeys and how touch points impacted donor value. Where I see that it's still kind of breaking down and there's a lot of inertia, it really kind of comes down to the fact that we have all of these seemingly competing interests. And this can be if you have people inside your nonprofit who don't talk to each other very often and where the communication staff thinks that fundraising is a completely different animal that we don’t have anything to do with.  

You know, how many nonprofits do we know that the social media pages are viewed as communication vehicles because they don't drive a lot of revenue. But the conversations that are being had on those social media pages I find to be mining gold for direct response, for determining what donors are enthusiastic about, what they're unhappy about, the quality of the relationship that they have with the organization. There's so much valuable intelligence there. Likewise, if you're a direct response fundraiser, shouldn’t the communication folks know what excites donors to give so that they can complement that in their messaging? So, that's an example of internal inertia, where sometimes parties view themselves as competing with each other. Either for budget, or they just have never been told that they have the same goals, the same interests.  

You know, it can be scary entering the direct response world if you work in communications, and all of a sudden, now you may be judged by revenue, whereas you weren't before. So, part of that has to do with leadership, creating a culture of collaboration where people feel safe and encouraged to work together towards shared goals.  

The other side of it is siloing of vendors. Part of the issue is what I was talking about before. And, you know, when we go to shows, we tend to want to enhance our day-to-day specialty, which is understandable. But cross-channel education, I believe, is more valuable than ever right now. And what can we do as an industry so that direct mail fundraisers can have their eyes opened about the power that digital communication has to enhance what they do? 

A lot of the things in your study, what's interesting to me is that someone who—90% of what I do day to day is in direct mail, and a lot of the things that are going to strengthen the bond with donors and allow them to have a better relationship are very difficult to scale through direct mail. So, I believe direct mail fundraisers have an extremely vested interest in the quality of the communication that donors are getting once they come in the door. And how do you break down the silos between those companies and get them to talk more and to collaborate with each other? How do you get companies that primarily operate in digital to understand that they can increase their value by increasing the retention rate and lifetime value of direct mail donors?  

I mean, one of the things we pretty much know conclusively at this point is that if you send emails, any emails, to direct mail donors, it increases their lifetime value; it increases their retention. I learned that about 12 years ago from a client that didn't even have a formal email program, that just them supplying an email address made them more valuable.  

What’s interesting about that is that a lot of it's just happening incidentally, right? Donors are just kind of getting thrown into the email program with everyone else. But what if we started customizing email content for what direct mail donors were coming in on? Or creating welcome programs specifically for direct mail donors. There's just so much more that we can do there to optimize that experience. And in order for that to happen, there has to be a breaking down of the silos. Part of that is on the individual vendor level where we have to, we have to make the commitment to crossing the streams with each other. But a lot of it does start internally, with leadership at nonprofit organizations creating this culture where not only is collaboration expected, but it's something that's rewarded and incentivized as well.  

Justin: I love the idea that collaboration should be expected. And two anecdotes that come to mind as you're sharing that one, it's a very simple behavior that Ronnie and I see from one of our internal colleagues that she will constantly use the phrase “plusing”. And so, she'll have an idea, and then she'll put it to a handful of people and basically lob with the expectation of, hey, Ronnie, I know you're going to plus this idea. Meaning I'm putting this out there because I feel like I've done kind of as far as I can take it right now. I need someone else to help lean in, add to this and help build it and make it better and better and better. And I think that that's a real easy behavior that folks could adopt more often.  

The second is something that I heard from an organization that we're working with, where recently they had a new hire come in whose role is overseeing all digital channels from the marketing and fundraising side. But there's someone who is also overseeing direct response and kind of the annual fund. Now there's a collision within there, like there's this Venn diagram. And so, our primary day-to-day contact over the direct response side shared with me I own the revenue goal. The revenue goal is my goal. But this person that has come in that owns the digital channels for us, they have a vested interest in the revenue goal. And just that little slight twist makes all the difference because it sets up this expectation of collaboration and that we can help rise the tide, which is going to lift all boats.  

So, Dan, what's stopping us? It's all so logical. There are data points that are now more than a decade old. We're continuing to get more data points around it. Some organizations are making shifts. What do you think are the biggest barriers from seeing unsiloing as a mass movement?  

Dan: I think, not to be a broken record. I think it starts with leadership and also an acceptance that the nonprofit sector is based on generosity, which is a wonderful thing. So, we tend to think, well, because ... we don't like to think that we have cultural issues that need to be resolved because, you know, the basis for this business is something that is inherently good. But kind of leaning into the fact that people looking out for themselves is something that is relatively natural, unless there's a culture which creates an expectation of collaboration and people to drop their egos to say hey, we want you to test something where you're not going to be the driver of revenue.  

Really quick example: As a direct mail fundraiser, I'm really excited about the potential for connected television to increase direct mail results. But how does that conversation start where a CTV test isn't necessarily about driving revenue? It's about trying to boost another channel and establishing its own unique value by doing that. I think that all starts with a culture where these things are expected and nonprofits investing in things like team building exercises and getting people who don't normally talk into the same room.  

You know, this sounds so simple, guys, but the first step that I suggest whenever somebody says, you know, well, where do we begin? It's having an all-hands-on-deck meeting where you get all the stakeholders into the room. And that's where I come up with the five pillars is I think these are the five departments that you need to have together. I mean, we haven't really talked a lot about programming. So, you can see how much there is to unpack here, but programming is the work product for fundraising, and that's why direct response fundraisers should be talking to programming to know what's coming down the pike. Programming should be talking to the direct response team to understand what excites the donors. Maybe there's something that they didn't have on the calendar for next year that they should be doing more of because they know it's something that the donors value. And putting everybody into the same room once a month, once a quarter, whatever's practical.  

And I, I can hear the eye rolls when I'm suggesting another meeting. Because nobody wants another meeting just for the sake of having a meeting. And I totally understand that, and I'm empathetic to that. And I think the way that you make those meetings productive is how they're structured, is you tell everybody that's coming: This is not a CYA meeting; we don't want to hear about your personal metrics, your personal achievements, your department's goals and how you fared. The idea is to come here and share information that could be useful for the group. And you just kind of change the perspective. And I think that's how you start that cultural shift where everything isn't just about reporting on your own goals and your own objectives. It's about sharing information that could be helpful to others, but I really think it begins with putting everybody in the same room. And then from there, expanding out and having an annual meeting with all of your fundraising vendors where they come, and the same thing is they talk about what they're doing, but the idea is to share information, to make everybody better at what they do, to make the organization stronger collectively and to foster collaboration. But that's where it all begins is putting everybody in the same room with a shared, unselfish objective.  

Justin: You know, it's funny. I've been a part of so many of those types of meetings. I can tell you that there is a stark difference based off of the expectations set from the organizing party. And so, that difference can be, it either becomes a sandbox where everyone plays well together or it becomes a Coliseum where everyone is drawing swords, whether or not you see sword drawn or not. And so, you’re right, I appreciate that expectation setting, and really making collaboration a cultural milestone and mark for the way that you work with your partners, is the first step because we all know, it’s going to be a better experience for donors and, therefore, a better relationship, which is going to increase their generosity. Therefore, your KPIs are going to go up. And so, it's these little, but challenging, things up front.  

And so, Dan you know, just as we wrap up our time today, you know, just want to make sure and draw attention for our listening audience the, you know, the amount of things that you do that help force this sort of collaboration. And so, you know, your work with the Data Strategy Forum, helping transition that away from a siloed, singular event into an event that focuses on all aspects of how data is used for nonprofit marketing. You know, the content that you produce, and Dynamic Nonprofits the podcast is available on Apple, and it's on Spotify and various other places where you can find it. We just appreciate that you're someone who is walking the walk whenever it comes to trying to set the expectation for collaboration. And so, thanks for all you're doing on that aspect, man. It's real stuff.  

Dan: Well, I appreciate that a lot. And everyone is free to reach out to me on LinkedIn. You could email me at Conrad Direct if you'd like, but yeah, I'm just always up to talking to fundraisers who are doing interesting things, that have bold ideas and just talking about this business because it is so dynamic and something that I care about a lot. And have been trying to get back to and implementing some of these ideas through the DMAW. And just, if I could put out a word of advice to listeners, if there's any young professionals or even, you know, not so young professionals that have been doing this for a long time and holding on to ideas: I appreciate the kind words, Justin, but I wish that I had started engaging in thought leadership even earlier than I did. It's one of the best things that I've ever done. And especially with LinkedIn, the marketplace is really open to everyone. And I know there were so many interesting and exciting fundraisers out there that have a lot of ideas, maybe some things that bump the status quo. And I just I can't encourage them enough to get involved. Start putting your ideas out there on LinkedIn and you can certainly start to grow, but your ideas have value, and the marketplace needs more contributors. So, I encourage anyone who's been thinking about things, maybe holding onto some ideas like I was for a while, to take the leap and get involved. It's totally worth it.  

Justin: That's awesome. It's very, very well said. Dan, thanks for the time today. We appreciate it. As always. Folks want to check out any of their episodes, they're available on ... basically anywhere that you listen to things. Now, thanks to Ronnie's magic, they're also available on YouTube. So, you can watch them and so also all sorts of other content available on rkdgroup.com. We appreciate you checking out this episode, checking out our time with Dan today. And so, thanks. We'll see you next time. See you down the road.  

Group Thinkers is a production of RKD Group. For more, visit rkdgroup.com/podcasts. Special thanks to our production team, including the talented Ryan Mellinger for his work on mixing every episode. Also, a shout out to the content team that helps pull together research and guests, puts the efforts behind the Group Thinkers, Suzanne, Ronnie and others for their work on this and every episode of Group Thinkers. 

RKD Group

RKD Group is North America's leading fundraising and marketing services provider to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, social service, disease research, animal welfare, rescue missions, and faith-based charities. RKD Group’s omnichannel approach leverages technology, advanced data science and award-winning strategic and creative leadership to accelerate net revenue growth, build long-term donor relationships and drive online and offline engagements and donations. With a growing team of professionals, RKD Group creates breakthroughs never thought possible.

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