Good artists copy; great artists steal.

Whether you’re a small one-woman fundraising army or a national organization with literal war rooms and the resources of a small battalion behind you, you’ve got to be keeping an eye/ear/nostril/finger on the competitive landscape.

You will [most likely] never have a monogamous relationship with your donors. And this is a good thing. You’ve got to celebrate your donors’ joy of giving while also systematically identifying and analyzing competing narratives for their donor promises, attention, trust, and granular unique ‘product’ propositions.

An the best way to do this is to automate your competitive analysis. [Quick note on the word competition in the social sector: Fundraising isn’t a zero sum game (tip: if you meet anyone who espouses opinions as if it is, it’s a red flag that they are most likely a #chickenshit fundraiser). It’s a game of abundance. Although we “compete” to a certain extent for the attention, trust, commitment, and loyalty of donors, the organizations that excel are those that invest resources in creating narratives in to which donors can write themselves – then amplify that narrative throughout a donor’s lifecycle.]

Once you commence your environmental scan, it’s likely that you’ll quickly come to the realization that the charitable sector is unfortunately highly lacking in innovation. To borrow a line from an old Jay-Z diss by Joe Buddens:

There’s too many blueprints, not enough architects

How do we reconcile that first quote about great artists stealing [blueprints] but a lack of innovation distilled through originality [architects]? The fact of the matter is that success leaves clues, and in <current year> there is absolutely no need to reinvent the wheel – to be a “good artist” who steals core principles, but to innovate and create remarkable donor experiences [something worth making a remark about]  like a “great artist”. Learn from the best, pick and choose specific aspects from the best, throw it in a pot and make it your own. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants. I want to be absolutely clear here that I am not talking about stealing “best practices” – see this article on the contextual and personal nature of best practices, and how applied incorrectly they can become like handcuffs on an organization. Too many organizations are only focused on best practices in general rather than specific, granular characteristics, which is what has lead to the current lack of innovation all too prevalent in the sector.

So – how do we incorporate the artistry of thievery into our monthly giving programs? Automate it. Evaluating others’ monthly giving programs will provide you with a wealth of ideas and is one of the most cost effective ways to consistently monitor the competitive landscape.

Let’s take 15:

1 – Identify 15 other orgs for which you will sign up with as a monthly donor, preferably you would want to have your selection break down similar to this:

  • 5 in the same subsector as you [environmental, health, political, etc.] and also in the same city or country depending on the size of your market. You also want at least 3/5 to be BIG national charities who have a matured monthly giving program in effect, with resources to promote it.
  • 5 orgs in a completely different subsector than you. Again, in your city/country, and 1-2 market leaders.
  • 5 random organizations
  • bonus: I am all about looking beyond the social sector for inspiration – I would therefore highly suggest that you also look towards the ever-expanding market of the subscription economy. From dollar-shave club to momma earth organics, you should try out a few options in this sphere as well. It is the for-profit equivalent of monthly giving. [i’m writing a post about this – link will be here once it’s written]

2 – You’ve selected your 15 to support. Before you give them any money ensure that you’ve got a minimum of 15 minutes to spare for each organization before you donate [you might do this over a few days, say 5/week may be easier for you].

3 – Grab a bottle of wine, a pen and paper, and pull out your credit card. For the sake of this exercise we are going to only deal with online donations, however, you’d preferably want to analyze various channels such as a 5 through DM mailers, 5 by phone, maybe 1 through Face-to-Face, etc.

4 – Do not START taking notes at the donation form. The exercise is to be looking at the entire experience holistically, being meticulous of the entire experience [or narrative or journey] along the way. To get you started, here are a few areas that you could

4 – Don’t just go straight to the sign up form. You want to be looking at a myriad of areas as you go through this exercise, taking meticulous notes along the way. Here are a few examples of what you might want to look for:

  • Was it easy to find them? Are they the first result in google? Do they have a search spend, or does their organization pop to the top result organically?
  • What is the first thing that catches your eye when you visit the page? Why?
  • What is the brand voice?
  • What are the main messages on the homepage?
  • Where is the donate button? Is the donate button easy to find? [read my post here on optimizing your donate button]
  • Does the donate button give you the option of gift type [is monthly first? OTG? In memory, etc?]
  • How big are the fonts/text ratios? Are there accessibility options?
  • What does the form look like? From 1999? What is required information? Are they capturing phone numbers/emails/etc?
  • Are there testimonials to display social proof? Are there infographics about the impact of your gifts?
  • Do you have the option to choose which day of the month you will be debited? 1st, 15th, any day?
  • Are there hero images of beneficiaries of your gifts?
  • Is there persuasive copy around why you should give monthly rather than a one time gift?
  • What kind of copy is it?
  • Is the central message about supporting the work or the charity or about supporting the beneficiaries? Do they say “We/Us/Our” or “Because of You/Thanks to You/You are awesome”…
  • Does their copy focus on big overwhelming statistics or build a narrative around one story?
  • Have they should you a problem? Have they hinted a solution? Are you the solution? Or your money?
  • Is there a minimum donation amount that you must make?
  • Is there a Verisign [or other] logo?
  • Are they accredited through a industry standards program such as Imagine Canada?
  • Did they ask what your connection to their cause is?
  • Do they accept Visa debit?
  • Do you have the option to have a tax receipt sent by mail/email?
  • Does the thank you page have dynamic content to personalize the thank you?
  • Did they ask for your age? Phone number? Cell number?
  • Are you able to earmark your donation to a certain program, campaign, etc.?
  • Does the thank you page offer horizontal integration opportunities [to volunteer, advocacy work, etc.]?
  • Do they have a donor profile/preference form/hub where you can opt in or out of mailings, etc.
  • Is there a survey to get to know you better?
  • Do you have the opportunity to learn more about XXX?
  • Did they tell you what to expect next as a donor?
  • Do they offer a product or premium for signing up? Is there a naming convention around the group? Are there tiers?
  • You are starting to get it, right?

5 – As you take notes on each organization, set up a simple spreadsheet in excel to be able to track how and when each organization communicates with you. In the example below, you can see my most recent round of 15 and every communications piece that they sent me with timelines noted. Also, note that I created a folder called “competition examples” in which I archive all the emails that they also send me – note: oh, that reminds me you want both mailed and emailed communications. Make sure that you review those piece as well.


6 – Set up reminders in your calendar in order to cancel these donations [cancelling is part of the evaluation – see my post here]. I would suggest that you give each organization a minimum of 30 days, or 2 donation cycles, in order to get a better sense of their communication cycle. You may want to keep 1-2 for a full year to see there year long journey.

7 – Sign up/Follow/whatever their social media accounts if you care to. I don’t sign up but I’ll at least take a good look at their assets. If they are a close competitor I will follow them.

8 – Get another bottle of wine. Review all your notes from #3, drunky. Make notes on your notes.

9 – Allow the exercise to marinate in your mind for a day or two. Review your notes again, highlight the best aspects, what you can build off off, identify key attributes that stand out [what to incorporate and what to avoid]. As an example, an excellent piece of copy that I stole from some Unicef copy on their thank you letter was the writer of the letter ending by saying “Like you I am a monthly donor…” beautiful piece of social proof, connection, reaffirming the purchase decision, etc. I absolutely loved that. STOLEN. I won’t use the exact same language but I am definitely stealing the tactic.

10 – Get a binder in which you can save all of the communications pieces that you receive from each organization  [letters, welcome packages, reports, products, etc.] Make sure that you review these as well.

11 – When it comes time to cancel your donations, make sure that you are just as meticulous with your note taking [again, see this post]. You may also want to try cancelling through a variety of channels [a few by email, phone, mail].

12 – Watch the reactivation strategies [or lack of] come into play.

12 – Think about how you can integrate your best ideas.

13 – Red team it

14 – Revamp and amplify your narratives in order to solidify your cause in the donors heart

15 – Amplify your narrative in order to solidify your unique selling proposition and dominate the marketplace. 🙂
May you continue to steal cultivate the joy of giving