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 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 Erin Albitz, Group Creative Director at RKD Group, to discuss how to tap into donors’ feelings through creative and communicate more effectively. Tune in as we cover:
- What do nonprofits get right and wrong when it comes to donor feelings? (10:00)
- How to make direct response communication more meaningful (13:34)
- How to tap into donors' hearts through creative (21:20)
- Balancing short-term revenue needs with long-term relationship building (24:41)
Meet our guest
Group Creative Director, RKD Group
“Every organization has some reason or connection to something that these people who have once given a gift to them care about. Testing is so important so that we can figure out the things that do connect with people … it’s finding that common ground of the shared values, the ability to solve a problem together that people care about.”
Justin McCord: I was just sharing off mic, pre-recording light, I guess now I've got a new pursuit, a new ambition, and that's to have someone connected to the 2015 Pixar film Inside Out ... someone connected to Inside Out appear on the podcast at some point.
So Ronnie, I'm putting it out there. I mean, like, if it were a production assistant that just got Bill Hader a sandwich, that would make me happy.
Ronnie Richard: One of the emotions themselves to talk to us. That would be great.
Justin: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that would be good. Yeah, but even if it were someone, like I said, that made a sandwich for an emotion.
Ronnie: We could have a sadness sandwich.
Justin: Well now you've, now you've really ruined my idea.
Erin Albitz: Wonder what's on a sadness sandwich.
Justin: Sprouts. It's just all sprouts. It's just ...
Justin: Yeah liverwurst and sprouts. Just, you know, that's someone's favorite sandwich. If you're the person that loves liverwurst and sprouts on rye, then I just want you to know you're appreciated today. That's our cold intro. That's how we're going to get started today.
Ronnie: That's it.
Justin: Welcome to Group Thinkers. Welcome, Erin, to Group Thinkers.
Justin: We're excited to have you, Erin, on the show. Quick level setting for the listening audience: Group Thinkers is the podcast from RKD Group. And over time, we have gotten further and further from a formal introduction and just kind of started with talking about sandwiches or whatnot.
But Group Thinkers is a podcast from RKD Group, and our aim is to unpack different dimensions, different aspects, different sandwiches around the nonprofit marketing realm. And, and so today is a special day; it's a special episode for us as we are launching into a new series of episodes. Ronnie, I don't remember, is this series nine?
Ronnie: I think so. I think it's the ninth.
Justin: So, the ninth season, well, it is now the ninth season of Group Thinkers. We're going to talk a lot about feelings over the next bulk of episodes. And so, if feelings or feelings-related things make you uncomfortable, then you're going to have to bear with us. But it's going to be good stuff.
And the reason why we're talking about feelings is because RKD Group recently published some new research that centers around feelings. And so, if you want to know more about that, you can head over to RKDGroup.com/ListenUp. Or you can get access to our full research where we went on a quest to find out how donors feel. Like how they really feel, what are their words, what are their actions? And so, that more than sandwiches, that is what has brought us here today and why we're so excited, Ronnie, to have our very own Erin Albitz join.
So Erin, now official, that was like, it was a pre-welcome, so now official welcome.
Erin: Thank you. I'm excited to be here and talk about this. This research is awesome, so I can't wait to dive in, take a bite if you will.
Justin: Take a bite. You feel excited. You feel excited. So that's good.
Erin: I'm all in you guys. I'm all in.
Justin: Yeah, there's going to be a lot of feelings-related puns over the course of this entire season, starting with today. So that makes me happy, fills me with joy. And so, buckle up. So, Erin, we are going to talk a lot about feelings. We're going to talk a lot about research, and we're going to talk a lot about it through the filter of your area of expertise, which is creative.
So, you know, there are times where we start out an episode and we have someone unpack their journey and we kind of have a snippet. I got to tell you, you and I have worked together now for a couple of years?
Justin: I don't know your journey. I don't know your path to get here. And so, I would love for you to share with me and with Ronnie and with our listening audience just, like, how the heck did you end up here? Like, walk us through. Walk us through your path. But, in there, I'm really interested in when did you realize that you had a creative bent? Like, start there for me. When did that thing kind of pop, and talk us through what that looks like in terms of your path?
Erin: I have always had a creative bent. And so, you know, from the first high school graphic design class, through a struggle to find where I wanted to go. And then I lucked my way into an opportunity to come into fundraising here in L.A., and started as a designer, and worked my way up. And had the opportunity to work with and come across amazing colleagues in this industry.
And just, long story short, went through that path of designer to art director to associate creative director to group creative director, a couple of different agencies, and finally found my home here at RKD.
Justin: Well, we're really, really glad that you found your home here. You guys. Erin's amazing. So when Ronnie and I were trying to think through who could help us launch into peeling this feelings onion apart, it was a no-brainer to invite you. Erin, what is it about the creative process that fills you up?
Erin: I love being able to directly impact and make a difference, right? I love the behavioral aspect of fundraising because that's really what it comes down to. It's not about what we're, you know, the words that we're writing and how we're putting it together and the design. It really does come back to how we're making people feel, the behaviors that we're able to influence. And just developing that relationship with somebody who has similar values as the organization that we're representing. And feeling like we have a common ground area and the possibility to solve a problem that we both care about. Like, that's awesome. Like, that's super cool.
And you know, that is the exciting part for me is seeing it all come together and being able to effectively communicate that with people.
Justin: And you've had the opportunity to work on a vast array of organizations and think about all sorts of different problems. And, and to your point, in a sense, be matchmaker between organization and, and donor.
So, I'm going to give away … Ronnie, I know you worked really, really hard on all the research, and I hate to give away or spoil it for anyone. I'm not going to give all of it away. But I am going to say that the big finding for me, the big finding in the research, is that donors have stronger relationships with nonprofits when they feel valued and when they feel involved.
So again, feelings, we're talking about feelings and how someone feels. And feeling valued, feeling involved. That matters so much to someone when they're opening up their pocketbook or opening up their calendar and giving of their time, whether or not that's to attend an event or volunteer, that there's some sort of barrier that they're crossing, a sacrifice that they're making. And the strongest of those relationships capitalize on those feelings.
And, Erin, I will tell you that Ronnie and I and our team, we have struggled as we have sat with this finding in thinking about what in fundraising we get right and thinking about what in fundraising we get wrong in connecting to how someone feels. And so, can you talk me through your perspective? What do, what do we get right and what do we get wrong with respect to donor feelings?
Erin: I think it's a struggle. There's a bit of tension that's created because our clients are the nonprofits, right? But the most effective creative sort of sets that nonprofit to the side and has this conversation between the donor and the recipient of the benefit of that organization, right? So, the organization is the conduit, not the topic of conversation.
And so, I think some of the times it's really challenging for us to feel like we're meeting and fulfilling the obligations set out by our clients because they want us to talk about them. And we are for sure, but to do it the right way, we have to think about how we're creating a relationship that's built to last, right? It's not about in that moment what we're saying. And sometimes that's the mistake that we make, that we feel like we are only acting in this one moment in time and not considering sort of the broader scope of the relationship that we have with those donors.
Justin: Super transactional. Super, super, super transactional.
Erin: Yeah, yeah. So we sometimes forget that it is about the transaction, but that can't be the foundational basis of our relationship with our donors. Right? We kind of have an understanding that's implicit with these folks that we're going to ask them to give a donation, right? Because that's some grounds on which our relationship was based. We have a problem that we can solve, and we're asking for their help to solve it.
But at the same time, if the only way we're coming at it is by saying every time, “Hey, Justin, give us some money. Hey, Justin, I need a favor,” saying this is the most important thing I'm going to say to you all year, every month. Right? And it comes down to: do we want to be that organization who's just always asking for something, or do we want to be in a relationship with our donors where we say, “Hey, here are the things that we all care about; here's what we together can do about it. And oh, by the way, here's what you can do to help get us there.”
Justin: Ronnie, I think I'm going to start every message I send you, I'm going to start from now on saying, “This is the most important team's message I'll send you all week.” Every single one.
Ronnie: And it's going to feel so important with each one, right? No, but honestly, Erin, hearing you say this, it reminds me about, I don't know, two or three months ago, I gave to a new organization. I won’t call them out on this publicly, but I gave to this organization. Got a thank you automated response pretty quickly, pretty standard. And then the next day was already being hit up for more money, and then continued like three more times in the following, I don't know, week or so, and then started spiraling out where other organizations started emailing me, and it just, it was a very unpleasant experience as a donor.
And it's just what you're talking about, like, how do we get this better? How do we improve this? And I think one of the challenges is that in direct response, it's a one-sided conversation. So, how do we go about making this more meaningful communication?
Erin: Yeah, and that's our challenge every time, right? Because it has traditionally been a one-sided conversation. This is changing now that we have things like social media. We have things where we can actually engage in a two-way discussion with people. But we know, still, that direct mail is a really important part of the fundraising thing. And so, we have to sort of balance the idea of how do we take into account people's feelings and motivations for giving? And there are a bunch of ways that we can do that. We can, you know, take surveys and get people to respond and collect those data points in a way that we can then use to either flow information that's important to them to a prominent location in our message, or just communicate them in a more relevant and meaningful way about the things that matter to them.
Even if we don't have that ability to collect those infinity things, we can still talk about, you know, the problem that we're solving and the need that we're addressing, right? We talk about things that the donor can make a substantial impact on, right? And it's not, “Help us help these people.” It's, “Help these people,” right? And the implicit message there is we're the best ones to make that happen. But it's still more about the donor directly helping people or animals or whatever the recipient may be at the end of that transaction.
But either way, we should consider talking to them in a way that makes them feel more valued than just an ATM, right? Because like I said, we know we're going to ask them for money. They're expecting us to ask them for money, and that's OK. But it can't be the first sentence of every letter that we send them or the first thing that happens every time. We have to help them see the difference they're making. We have to give them opportunities to recognize that they really are making a difference. And the way we do that, and the way that we create a reciprocal relationship with them that isn't just based on “Give us your money,” the better off we're going to be.
Justin: And this is such a human thing that we're talking about. Like, you know, first let me add in the disclaimer that, Ronnie, all of the data would point to that organization's strategy being successful by whatever percentage points of their follow up to you should include an ask. And by the way, we do that. And we support that. Like, yes, you should include inserts in your acknowledgments. Yes, you should be working strategically to get a second gift as soon as possible because retention rates go up by getting sooner than later a second gift. Yes, you likely ended up in a co-op because of the organization that you gave to, and because you had given to a direct response vehicle, you now have the greatest predictor of giving to another direct response vehicle.
So, like your experience of being caught up in the machine, that's a normal thing. But it's also, on the flip side, there's this human aspect of … my 12-year-old daughter knows that if she just walks in and asks for something, that I am more likely to say no than if she walks in and says first, “Hey, dad, how's your day going? Did you have any good meetings today, dad?” Just, like, a couple of questions so that I'm thinking, oh, she's taking that interest in me. And then she asks for, you know, for the 20 bucks to go do whatever? You know, it's like that sort of thing that we miss.
Erin: Yeah, I think we've all experienced this in our lifetime, right? Where we have a friend or an acquaintance who, every time they reach out, it's just for a favor. Hey, I need something from you. Hey, can you do me a favor? Hey, can you help me out? Right? And the result of that is, I don't pick up their call. I don't want to text them back because they're kind of sucking the life out of me. And so, what we need is to consider how do we not be that guy, right? How do we become the friend that they want to talk to? They want to hear what we have to say to them because we're telling them about things that they care about, that they're passionate about, that they can get excited about sharing with others because we're delivering some sort of value in exchange for us saying to them, “But we can't do it without you.” You know, that's the key, remembering the reciprocity of give and take.
Justin: In the research, by the way, we do go into some specific areas where our panel of donors commented on things that they put value on more than others in terms of furthering that relationship, and again, positioning it to your point, a little bit more of a partnership that you're in it together to solve a problem. And it gives softer ground for whenever you do make those subsequent requests for donations. Which is, again, a part of the basis of the relationship. And we're not, we're not denying that.
I was thinking about just this conversation. And in the last couple of months, having attended the Bridge Conference with the MAXI Awards—which is an awards show that happens at the Bridge Conference every year—and the big idea award winner this year was an animal welfare organization.
And so they, it in fact was a solicitation that they were sending out. It was a renewal piece that they were sending out. It was being sent out primarily through direct mail. But there were some digital components. And what I found to be reciprocal in this was that they included photos to the recipient of the pet that recipient had adopted. So, this animal organization had good data rules, first of all, to be able to track that through from the pet donation all the way through the actual direct marketing piece.
But they were sharing the photo and the name of the pet that had been adopted back to the adopter and using that as a way to soften that ground as a part of that renewal piece. And it's all about reinforcing the relationship. It's about reinforcing that relationship, about drawing someone in closer to you and feeling included in the organization and valued. And it was just such a great example of a way that you can do that. But, Erin, sometimes animal organizations have the ability to do that in a way that maybe, like, a health organization doesn’t.
Justin: Right? Or other causes, like, across the spectrum of the nonprofit landscape, not everyone can lean on that level of heart tug that's so personalized and personal because it is an actual dog that I adopted. A cat that I adopted.
Justin: As a creative, how do you channel other ways to tap into someone's heart?
Erin: Yeah, I mean, it's challenging for things that don't have the warm fuzzies like puppies and kittens, you know? But every organization has some reason or connection to something that these people who have once given a gift to them care about. And so that's, I mean, testing is so important so that we can help figure out the things that really do connect with people who don't have something like a puppy or whatever to get behind.
And so, it's again, finding that common ground of the shared values, the ability to solve a problem together that people care about, and finding that thing that's important to allow those people to feel that type of connection, whether or not it's emotional and story based; maybe it's really clinical and medical, right? And that stuff that happens in the lab can still produce life-changing results that create a connection.
And it doesn't have to be a story that warms your heart and makes you cry for you to understand the impact behind it and how you have been part of that.
Justin: Or for you to feel connected, right? There are other emotions. We were talking about Inside Out; there are all sorts of other emotions, little characters that could be an output of someone experiencing, a way that we're communicating with them.
Ronnie: The thing that, the thing that I, I wouldn't want to say struggle but like the challenge, that I think of, and I'm curious, Erin, how, how you go about doing this is when you look at this: Everything points to setting up this long-term relationship with these donors. But at the same time, you know, you spoke about, we're there to represent the organization. The organization has revenue goals. They've got targets to hit. They've got, hey, we need this number of donations by this point. So, how do you balance that short-term need with that long-term relationship building?
Erin: Yeah, it's a great question. It's a delicate balance, Ronnie. It really is something that we have to constantly work towards understanding the level and appropriateness of the transaction language and, you know, how that compares to some of those more stewardship-focused things that we send to people, right? And so, I think a lot of the things that we're able to do now, with the technologies that are available to us now in different channels, allows us to be more flexible in the way that we're communicating those warm and fuzzy things. Right?
Previously, when everything was just going in the mail, it was not really budget friendly to send an update or a stewardship piece or anything that just is there to build the relationship. It all had to go back to that bottom line and the fundraising goals, and that's OK. But today we live in a different world where we can send an email for a lot less turnaround time. We can be more nimble, I guess is what I'm trying to say, with things like email and social media and other digital channels that allow us to simultaneously do stewardship, relationship building, strengthening, updating, all of those things that help the donors feel like they're connected. And then still, at the same time, be really mindful about how we're fundraising and the transactional things that are so imperative to getting the job done.
We don't have the reports, we don't have the warm and fuzzies if we don't have the funds coming in to make the impact. And so, you know, it ... now that we have more channels than just direct mail, it's much easier than it used to be, I think.
Justin: Yeah, and I think it's, it's equally easier and more complicated or difficult to balance and aim for authenticity because, you know, with the explosion of channels, you have to work to make sure that the way that you're communicating through a channel is channel appropriate, et cetera. Sometimes we see that organizations will end up having a slightly different tone or voice. Sometimes that conflicts, you know, all these kind of internal ways that we structure ourselves that can end in a schizophrenic journey for the donor.
If they feel like they're getting things from multiple different organizations, it might be inconsistent and maybe incongruent, et cetera. But to your point, Erin, now is an opportunity for us to get these things right. And we have all of these tools at our disposal.
And certainly, the way in which we have all jumped forward digitally in the last two plus years, I think it gives us even more leeway to do things in a less polished format. I mean, some of my favorite examples of things that I see from organizations that I give to are little video snippets that are far from polished, and it's just one person, you know, looking into the camera and saying, “Hey, I just wanted to tell you real quick, this, what I want to show you is this building. And because you gave, it helped us refurbish the stove. And that's going to result in us being able to do X, Y and Z.” Like, that sort of real time, quick hit, authentic thing. That deepens my affinity for that cause. Right?
Erin: Yeah, it's raw and real, you know? It really it doesn't feel calculated, right? Because it's not. It is that moment of, oh, my gosh, we've got to share this with the people, the people who care about this. You know, I just, I love things like that.
Justin: Yeah, so interesting. So, just as we're kind of landing the plane here in terms of our conversation—and again, this is, like, the first layer of this onion that we're going to spend a lot of time on—for you and for other creatives out there, what's the one thing that could help you deliver better relational content outside ... so, you know, again, like if a nonprofit were listening to us and thinking that, I want to be able to be more authentic, I want to be able to be more raw and real, what's the thing that you feel, like, is a gap in terms of arming you and your colleagues on doing that even better?
Erin: You know, I just, I think that the nuggets we were just talking about, those authentic moments that come out, aren't necessarily the big-ticket items, right? They're not the things that their writing press releases out about and that kind of stuff. But sometimes those are the things with the biggest impact, those are the real moments that can really get behind people's hearts.
And so, I think if I'm talking to our organization partners, I would say, don't hesitate to share the things that are exciting you guys because that's, for sure, the things that are going to matter to our donors’ hearts and minds. But also for our fundraising colleagues, just remember that it really does come back to the reciprocity of a conversation and the relationship that we're trying to create, not just between the donor and the organization, but really the donor and that end recipient of the good that they're doing. And so, all of those things, any way that we can reinforce that direct connection is really going to make people feel good. And as we’ve seen with the research, when they feel good, they’ll stick with us.
Justin: Yeah, that’s so well said. So very well said. Erin, thank you for making the time. I know time is precious, and it's a time of year to where there's so much effort and thought going into the importance of the year-end fundraising and whatnot. And so, Ronnie and I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us, to unpack your perspective around this research and to share your experience.
Erin: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Justin: Yeah, great conversation. Super good conversation. It's one that we are going to continue to have. And so, I want to encourage folks to check out rkdgroup.com/ListenUp. You can access the research. And if you follow us on social media, you will see more insights connected to it and more snippets. And you have our commitment to be as raw and as real about this topic as possible—where we do it right, where we don't do it right. And our thoughts on liverwurst and sprout sandwiches. So that's it. Thanks again for checking out this episode, and we will see you down the road.
Group Thinkers is a production of RKD Group. For more information, visit rkdgroup.com/podcast. 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 marketing efforts behind Group Thinkers, Suzanne, Ronnie, and others for their work on this and every episode of Group Thinkers.