For no good reason besides satisfying my own curiosity, I made a Twitter bot. It’s name is FundraisingBot and you can follow it on Twitter here.
Over the past year I began noticing a surge in articles about bots, like “Bots, the Next Frontier” in The Economist, and “Forget Apps, Now the Bots Take Over” in TechCrunch. Each hypes the opportunity that bots offer, mostly in the area of automating personal assistant-like tasks. Think ordering dinner, sending reminders, booking a hotel room, etc.
If you still have no idea what I mean when I say ‘bot’, think Siri. Not a physical robot. These are programs that automate often simple routine tasks. The best ones interact with you in a human-like fashion, replacing the need for a human to carry out these simple tasks.
Facebook and Microsoft have built platforms for developers to create bots, and over 45,000 developers are currently putting them to use. The most enthusiastic bot evangelists believe the technology has the ability to open up entirely new areas of business and commerce. The more pragmatic of us see the value in automating some tasks, freeing up humans to do what they do best – build relationships, solve complex problems, and empathise.
So why did I make a bot?
I want to be completely up front about one thing – I am not a programmer. I can make minor tweaks to the most basic html code, but that’s it. To be more specific, I made a bot account, not an actual bot.
Why make it at all? Because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and to find out if there might be any practical application of this technology for a charity. And if so, can someone with no coding abilities set one up on their own?
Behind @FundraiserBot there are actually two applications running simultaneously: one that generates random, non-sequitur posts which are a mash-up of other fundraising accounts’ tweets; and a one that can, to a limited degree, answer questions that meet a criteria I’ve defined, with answers that I’ve prepared.
Function #1: Random, non-sequitur Tweets.
This all started for me with this article called “How to Make a Twitter Bot in Under an Hour” that popped up in my Medium feed. I thought that sounded fun, so I went for it. I’ve also noticed that many of the accounts (personal, and corporate) that tweet about fundraising start to blend together. Similar blog titles, similar advice, etc.
This absolutely took me more than an hour. I had to download some free programs, troubleshoot some errors, and take some much needed breaks. Lauren Orsini’s Five Steps To Build Your Own Random Non-Sequitur Twitter Bot turned out to be the more practical how-to that helped me get this up and running.
What it does is simple. I’ve supplied a list of fundraising-related twitter accounts, which then get mashed up into new tweets. The script is available for free, and does the heavy lifting for you. It does it’s best to ensure the tweets make some sort of sense, and are sent on a schedule.
Here’s a sampling of what this looks like:
Function #2: Conversational tweets and link sharing.
Randomly generated tweets can be good for an occasional laugh, but gets old quickly. So up next was to try to figure out how to help @fundraisingbot converse with others.
When I read that Microsoft’s bot framework is available for free, I thought that was my simple solution forward. At first glance, it looked like I’d be able to easily add some some artificial intelligence (AI) capability to the bot which might add some fun, and hopefully useful, layers to the bot.
I struggled for days trying to get the AI bot running before running out of patience entirely. I’ll likely come back to it sometime and give it another shot. Until then, I searched for a plan B. That turned out to be Chatterbot, which again, frustrated me to no end, and ultimately never went live. The problem being, the instructions are written by programmers, for programmers. There are prerequisites that at this time, I don’t have. Take a look at the instructions, and you’ll likely know how I felt.
Then, on to Plan C. This turned out to be a site (or more specifically, an app) called Cheap Bots Done Quick. This free tool allows you to use a language called Tracery. There’s a learning curve to the language, but do-able. Within an hour I was comfortably writing within it and troubleshooting errors successfully. Once running, it can send tweets on a schedule I set, from the pool of tweets and interchangeable terms I supply it with. It is not artificially intelligent in any way, but it is still a bot. I follow others manually, but I never interfere with the tweets. If someone asks a question and the bot doesn’t respond, I’ll adjust the code so that in the future the same question should trigger an answer.
You can see the full code here if you’re interested. But I think it would be much more interesting to just go ahead and ask it some questions instead.
Where do we go from here?
I’ve only set up the most rudimentary bot as far as Twitter bots go. No AI or learning capability, and finicky conversation. Bots aren’t limited to Twitter either by any means. There are Facebook Messenger bots, Skype, Slack, Reddit and more. I’ve only started with Twitter because it’s where I’m most comfortable.
I’d like to see @FundraisingBot become a resource to students and professionals, referring them to resources and providing quick, easy tips on a regular basis.
For charities, I’m still undecided if there’s a practical use for bots beyond a clever campaign, or simple redirects. Charities, and especially fundraisers, rely on the honesty and authenticity of their relationships. To outsource almost any component of relationship building could be short-sighted.
Charity: water takes donations via Facebook Messenger bot via UK Fundraising
These 2 Brands Made a Facebook Messenger Bot to Draw Awareness to Ethiopia’s Water Crisis via AdWeek
Bots, explained. What’s the point? Or the business model? via ReCode
Get Ready For The Chat Bot Revolution via Forbes
On May 11th 2016 I was fortunate enough to take part in the #DonorLove Rendezvous in Toronto. The concept was a fundraising conference that would be fun, inspirational, and creative. Speakers who talk with you not at you, idea-sharing and networking, and break-out sessions that address your needs with practical advice.
The appeal of fundraising to me is that there is a clearly identifiable, positive social impact from my hard work. I can earn enough to raise a family, there’s a supportive network of peers, as well as room to grow professionally and intellectually.
What looms over us though is the reality of occupational and emotional burnout. Not unlike social workers, teachers and other public-facing professions there is an expectation to be “on” more than not, if not all the time. We can fall into a trap of developing a façade, a brave face, which can only accelerate a downward spiral to burnout.
There is no single identifiable cause of burnout, to my knowledge. It’s a cluster of issues, some within your control, some less so. I’ve included some other great articles on the topic below.
There is one source of burnout that is within our control: our understanding of fundraiser-donor relationship dynamics.
A spectrum exists with service on one end, and servitude on the other. It is ever-present for each of us, which is why it is critical that we all etch out our own understandings of service and servitude. My advice to you is, the greater the distance you can create between the two, the better.
- Service is a willing sacrifice, servitude is a reluctant indebtedness.
- Service creates good will, servitude breeds resentment.
- Service feels like progress, servitude is wasteful.
- Service is rich with respect, servitude is not.
- Service is mutually beneficial, servitude is one-sided.
You need to take ownership of this. You spend every day drifting between service and servitude – whether you realize it or not – and these definitions are waypoints that can steer you away from burnout.
Great fundraisers are at the service of donors, but never in servitude of them. My experience has been that the best donors expect – and value – service, never servitude. A small number of donors expect servitude, but by and large I don’t think it’s the norm. I also haven’t noticed any correlation between gift size and this expectation of servitude, which might be contrary to popular assumptions about major donors.
Personally, I feel most fulfilled and energized on the ‘service’ end of the spectrum, and most frustrated, resentful and ‘burnt out’ when I suspect I’m sliding down to the ‘servitude’ end.
Largely, it’s our perspective on the relationship that colours how we feel about our work day to day. Every interaction with a donor can be interpreted as service or servitude depending on our mood, and how you feel on a given day is not the donor’s problem.
“But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” David Foster Wallace, This is Water
This excerpt, and the essay in it’s entirety, hits upon the idea that there is freedom and satisfaction in a life of service. And, that it’s not our “default setting” to find satisfaction in service.
There’s no shortage of opportunity to slide into rhythms of frustration and dissatisfaction. There is however a surplus of opportunity to impart value and meaning into the most minute tasks and daily interactions.
Further reading and resources on burnout:
In the video above, Steven Johnson and Brian Eno have a short, fascinating conversation about the nature of surprise in art and music.
Eno suggests that in every piece of art you experience, you experience it in the context of each piece of art you’ve seen up to that point. He uses jokes and punchlines as an analogy, that a punchline makes sense because of the setup. Without that preamble, the punchline means little, if anything, and is very unlikely to be funny.
Johnson and Eno are both fascinated with how a joke loses it’s element of surprise after you hear it once, whereas piece of music we love can be revisited time and again and still be surprised by.
The human desire for gratitude replenishes at an astonishingly fast rate.
And this is what I want you to take away from this clip. Like music and art, gratitude has an incredibly long half life. The opportunity to surprise and delight donors simply by saying thank you is present more often than you might think.
How you say thank you to a donor is an inextricable from the experience of giving as a punch line from a joke. One without the other makes little sense, and is rarely meaningful without context.
As fundraisers, what we should all consider as well, is that the gratitude we show donors is being experienced, like art, differently by every donor. Every form of gratitude that they’ve experienced throughout their life is informing how they interpret, value, and respond to our gratitude in that moment.
What does this mean for fundraisers in practical terms?
I’m not sure. But I get the sense, as I have for a few years now, that our donors are best served by a sector-wide understanding of fundamentals first, application second, innovation third.
Donor fatigue is a theory I’ve never believed in. Largely, because I don’t think people get tired of giving. I think they get tired of uninspired, cookie-cutter solicitations that lack personal significance. And if we’re doing our job poorly, an accusatory finger should be pointed inwardly, not at the general public.
Maybe you’re the one that is tired of fundraising, not donors.
If there is a root cause for donor fatigue, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the donor. The problem is you, your organization, and something you’re doing wrong.
Not every donor is going to give to you every year from now until the day they die, no matter how good your appeals are. Good fundraisers plan for this, and have strategies and contingencies in place so budgets continue to be met. Good fundraisers don’t blame it on a mysterious bogeyman by the name of donor fatigue.
Every time you or I interact with a donor, we add a brushstroke to their ever-evolving personal experience of philanthropy, service and gratitude. We’re adding a line to the story, and when done well, we all stand to gain – especially the donor. We can empower them to change lives. They’ll have never felt better.
I’ve got a job for you, if you haven’t done it already. By the end of January, calculate your donor LTV (Life Time Value or Long Term Value, I prefer the latter) and annual retention rates of your donor file over the past 4 years.
It doesn’t have to be as hard as it might sound.
Click here to download my Excel LTV worksheet. It includes a general query criteria that should give you a sense of how to start pulling the data yourself. I first saw this particular layout (see below) in a Cornerstone Global File Audit, and decided to replicate it with my own data. Here’s the layout:
25 More Donor LTV Tools, Articles, and Resources:
Fundraising101: The (almost) magic formula of Lifetime Value estimation (includes a free Excel template)
AFP Madison: Free LTV Excel Worksheet
Fundraising101/Kissmetrics: Crystal ball fundraising: Lifetime Value (includes an infographic)
Persuant: Lifetime Value Calculator (interactive tool)
Re:Charity: What is Lifetime Value? (includes free spreadsheet & calculator)
Direct Marketing Association: A 360 Degree View of Donor Value (PDF presentation)
Agitator: LTV … The GPS For Fundraisers
Harvard Business: Free Customer Lifetime Value Calculator
ThinkCS: ‘Quick and Dirty’ Lifetime Value
Retention Fundraising: See Appendix C
DBMarketing: LTV and RFM for Nonprofits (Powerpoint Presentation)
eJewish Philanthropy: The Value of a Lifetime
Charity Science: Donor Stewardship (PDF, see Section 1)
Clairification: Your Secret to Mindblowing Fundraising
FLS Fundraising: Donor Lifetime Value Part One (and Part two)
Blackbaud: 2011 donorCentrics Internet and Multichannel Giving Benchmarking Report (PDF)
Nonprofit Easy: The Long Term Value of a donor
Michael Rosen: Building Donor Loyalty: What’s New?
DonorVoice: A Dangerous Myth – Over-solicitation causes poor retention.
Bloomerang: How Do Giving Habits Impact Donor Lifetime Value?
Paradysz: Growing Long Term Value Through Gift Optimization Strategies (presentation)
NewSci: Time for New Thinking About Donor Retention
Analyticalones: The Age of Acquisition
ADRP: Why Retention Matters (PDF)
Storytelling continues to be a popular topic amongst fundraisers, but I find that practical advice for beginners is difficult to find. Most of us know why great storytelling is valuable, while how to tell a great story remains unclear for many.
Agreed? If so, then this eBook is for you. I’ve compiled it entirely for educational purposes so you can download and print or share as you please.
Trust me, I think you’ll like it. You’ve got nothing to lose.
Who is Dan Harmon? He’s probably best known for creating the TV show Community, co-creating Rick and Morty, and host of a weekly live podcast called Harmontown. Prior to all that he co-founded Channel 101, a monthly non-profit film festival wherein filmmakers create and screen a five minute “pilot” that was voted on by their peers. The best were featured online and able to make another episode. Keep in mind, this was a few years before YouTube existed at all.
That’s where this guide comes in. Dan posted a six-part tutorial for current and would-be Channel 101 writers on the basic structure that underlies the stories we know and love. It’s not a guide on how to be a great writer, it’s an explanation of the structure that great stories follow – intentionally or not.
Good structure is the best weapon we can use in the fight against corporate garbage because good structure costs nothing, is instinctive to the individual and important to the audience. For all their money, computers and famous actors, the Hollywood factory is constantly being challenged and often buried by individuals like you, people who started by realizing that they were sick of the shit they were seeing and wrote a good story from the deepest level of their unconscious mind. I am trying to show you how to make your own gunpowder.
If you’re thinking it won’t be useful or applicable to you because it was written for an audience of aspiring TV writers, just trust me and give it a peek. The first chapter is a little over 150 words, and that alone will be useful the next time you sit down to write your next donor report, email appeal or storyboard a video.
There’s one question a fundraiser needs to be able to answer with unshakeable confidence:
Not in the broad “what are your goals for the year” sense. I mean in the literal, “what is the next task you’ll take on, because nothing else is as important right now” sense.
At War Child, our five year strategic plan has provided the broad strokes. For everyone on our team, we know the progress has come because of our consistent disassembly of those big multi-year goals into manageable projects and tasks. We couldn’t execute everything at once. Risk mitigation, investment ability, and staff capacity come to mind as important considerations along the way (so far).
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” – Unknown
You’re hiking with a boy scout troop. To get to the camp site before sundown, they need to walk about 3 km/h. Most of them are strolling between 3 and 5 km/h, but one scout named Herbie is walking 2 km/h and falling behind.
So that you don’t lose Herbie, so you move him to the front of the pack. Now, everyone is stuck moving at 2 km/h, and you’re behind schedule. Now that you’ve isolated Herbie’s speed as the main issue, speeding him up will speed up the entire group. Unload his backpack, tighten his boots, giving him a snack and he’ll be moving at 3.5 km/h.
This example is a simplification of course, because in actuality it’s never so simple. A change to one part of a system will influence another area, revealing one new constraint after another. The point is to keep looking for, isolating, and improving with a manageable and systematic approach.
Here’s how you can apply this to challenges at your charity:
On a scale of 1-5, score how each tool and process are performing.
1 = Not working/nonexistent
2 = Meets few needs, is inconsistent.
3 = Meets current needs
4 = Meets current needs, ability to do more with help
5 = Meets current needs with ability to do more
Here’s a hypothetical to consider. You might have more rows depending on how big or small your shop is:
One clear constraint we can see here is your donor database. Acknowledgements are also a 2, but its likely that these are being generated or at least tracked through a function of your database. If it were up to me, I’d tackle the donor database first.
Now let’s say you take on the challenge of migrating your data into a new tool. The processes you had for the database are now out of date. And your team’s ability to use the tool? Back to square one. Will you need or want a new system for prospect management or campaign reporting now?
This never ends, nor should it. Keep sharpening your ability to identify constraints in your system and you’ll be well on your way to completing those big projects, making way for more amazing work from your charity.
Every fundraiser earning their pay knows that emotion drives the majority of giving, especially in annual and monthly programs. At a recent IFC conference Dan Hill, author of Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success said:
If you want to be successful at fundraising, the more you make people think, the less they feel; and the less they feel, the less they are motivated to give.
This has been true in my experience, until gift sizes begin to outstrip a donor’s own budget for an impulse buy. When the gift crosses that line – which is different for everyone – emotion alone isn’t enough to put them at ease. Trust, logic, and accountability become drivers alongside emotion.
What’s not a primary driver for giving? Complexity.
Issues are complex, and your projects are complex. How we communicate to them to donors should not be.
Advertisers have long described success as a strong ideas simply presented. A radical fundraiser does the same, but understands that success for us isn’t measured in units sold or increased market share. Success for us means lives saved, policy changed, or opinions altered.
There’s connective tissue between the head and the heart. You don’t have to choose between one or the other. In fact, neglecting one or the other is a disservice to your donor.
Never underestimate anyone’s ability or willingness to learn about the most complicated social issues. After all, the deeper you’re able to bring your supporters into the day-to-day of your organization, the more engaged and generous they are likely to be in the future.
If you’ve struggled to translate your complex programming detail into compelling copy, here are 5 tips:
1. Familiarize yourself with the readability scoring in Microsoft Word.
2. Fresh eyes from outside your organization will be able to point out jargon or unclear logic.
3. Write a draft, then let it sit. Come back in a more relaxed state and I promise, you’ll find areas to improve.
4. Practice, practice, practice. Talk to service clubs, schools, and associations about your work.
5. Photography is your friend. Ideally, a single subject in action to propel your story forward.
The topic of stress has been covered here more than once, specifically about how achieving your goals should be a source of conviction and energy, not stress and uncertainty. I’ve also written about how fundraising is fundamentally a stressful job, so we need to learn to use it to our advantage.
What’s been helpful for me is trying to be more mindful. Is mindfulness trendy right now? Yes. Does that mean being mindful doesn’t work? That’s up to you to decide. I want all of you to be the best fundraiser you can be, and that’s only possible if we deal with the issue of workplace stress head on. If that means being a mindful fundraiser, then let’s try it.
This is an issue you should talk to your doctor about before taking advice from a blog. What works for me may not work for you. That being said, you won’t see me publish anything on this topic that you’ll need to buy or swallow.
This definition of mindfulness is my favourite: the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
That’s it. You don’t have to make being mindful any more complicated than that.
If you start Googling variations on the term, it’s easy to get lost. Is it religious? Is it complicated? Do I need to pay for classes? Where do I go? What books should I buy? And more questions like this can confuse and intimidate you. If this happens, come back to that original definition.
A good first step is to find a few minutes a day to close your eyes and try to quiet your thoughts. This video was helpful for me because I’d always thought I was doing something wrong if my mind wandered. I’d catch myself thinking “argh, now I have to start over!” instead of quietly refocusing without judgement. That’s become something I tell myself quite often – refocus without judgement. It’s not just useful when meditating. I find it helpful when trying to focus on a project at work, listening to a presentation, etc.
What’s the point of finding a few minutes a day to calm your thoughts? It’s that becoming more aware of what a quiet mind feels like will make you more aware of the times your mind is racing and needs to be refocused.
Think about your stress level on a scale ranging from 1-10, 1 being a post-hypnosis Peter Gibbons, 10 being a panic attack. If you sit at your desk each day at a ‘6’, you’ll be irritable and likely to get rattled by the smallest annoyance. Walk into your office at a 2 or 3, you’ll be more likely to focus on a project or report and less likely to stew in a quiet rage at the person who keeps leaving used tea bags in the sink.
Whether you’re sceptical, convinced or indifferent – that’s fine. I’d love to hear from all of you who may have used mindfulness to reduce stress, or any other tips you might have. You can tweet them to me at @brockwarner, or post below in the comments.
Free Mindfulness Resources:
Headspace (YouTube Channel): The full functionality of the Headspace app isn’t free, but the content on their YouTube channel is. The basics of meditation and mindfulness are covered in short, succinct clips.
UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre: You don’t need to be a student or in Los Angeles to access these free guided meditation resources.
HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: Why Google, Target, and General Mills Are Investing in Mindfulness
TIME: 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy, According to Neuroscience
CBC: Syrian refugees may work through trauma with art, horses and mindfulness
Are you striving for effective, efficient fundraising to achieve your mission? Then a laser focus on learning your fundraising fundamentals from start to finish should be your first priority.
Learn what works. Learn how to do it, and do it well. Learn why it works. Teach. Repeat.
A radical fundraiser doesn’t add a fresh coat of paint to a broken down car. They know there is as much value in knowing what not to do, as in knowing what’s next. They’ll never stop striving for the most effective, stripped-down solution to achieving their goals. They know that less is more, but least is best.
Too often, because we’re all struggling to save time, we can get tricked. Tricked into thinking that there is always a short cut if we just look hard enough. That instead of the often arduous task of rebuilding a broken system from the ground up, there’s an elegant solution to be found. These elegant or simple solutions are rarely what they seem, because they don’t often account for the required execution.
Here’s what you have, or will, hear most often:
1. Simple solutions requiring complex execution
2. Simple solutions with an undefined execution
3. Simple solutions with an unrealistic execution
None of these are what we are want, because what we all want is a simple solution with a simple execution. But if you can’t execute, there are no simple solutions. The only productive path forward is to look at the three scenarios above, and know how to get started. Knowing how to break down complex systems into manageable parts, knowing how to design systems where they don’t yet exist, and knowing how to manage expectations – these are the skills of a radical fundraiser.
The common excuse from smaller charities that they don’t have the budget for an agency or consultants. As if there’s a chest of trade secrets that agencies have access to that you don’t. The truth is, they don’t. The best ones are on top of their game because they’ve committed to their craft, and have made it part of their corporate culture to never stop improving. They search out great talent, and they care as much about your cause as you do.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well there’s no reason you can’t – or shouldn’t – be building a team on the same principles: commitment to one’s craft, continuous learning, and high talent standards.
If radical fundraising is a secret weapon for the small and medium-sized nonprofit, then the Radical Fundraiser has to be all of the above and more. Adaptable. Always learning, always testing. A chameleon. A sponge.