Five Lessons Learned at NIO Summit 2023

Last month, I attended the Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Summit (NIO) to learn about all things nonprofit marketing, fundraising, and generosity. It was an awesome two days packed with information … which means that today’s email is also packed with information and advice for YOU. 

Keep reading for a selection of the very best strategies I gleaned from the experts at NIO, plus action steps to help you implement them. 

Authenticity has to be at the core of what we do.

Carlos Whitaker talked about the power of harnessing a community around the common good. His advice can be distilled into two steps.

  1. Be human
  2. See humans

Our humanity is the foundation of our connection, and it has to be felt in interactions with donors—from in-person conversations to emails to donation forms. 

Action step: Take your donor journeys. Do you feel seen as a human? Where can you inject authenticity into the process?

AI is changing everything.

There is no avoiding this technology. Mike Kaput, Chief Content Officer at the Marketing AI Institute, reminded attendees that right now is the least impressive AI you will use in your lifetime. It will only get more refined and more ubiquitous. 

AI can be used to save time, cut costs, and accelerate revenue—allowing you to focus on the moments and work a human needs to do.

Action step: AI is especially useful for tasks that are data-driven, repetitive, predictable, or generative. Do you have tasks that could be streamlined by one of the myriad AI services out there? Take the time right now to identify them, find an AI solution, and save your future self time and energy!

Email is still powerful.

Here at Swell + Good, we love email (especially newsletters!), so I was especially excited for Ann Handley’s talk on everything she’s learned writing her popular newsletter, Total Annarchy. 

She focused on building an audience’s trust through every step of their journey. How does she do it? First, she makes sure emails come from a real person (and never from a do-not-reply@ email address), then she envisions a reader and writes to them. This helps ensure a warm, friendly voice. 

Finally, do not underestimate the power of a welcome email. This is where you set the tone and their expectations for email frequency and content. 

Action step: Are you asking for attention or earning trust? How can you optimize your email journey from start to finish to provide value and earn the trust of your audience?

Remember, you are a human.

Asking for money and meeting fundraising goals is a hard job, and it can lead to anxiety and burnout in fundraisers. Mallory Erickson opened NIO with concrete ways to combat burnout, regulate the nervous system, and work through anxiety—all to free up more energy and space for true connection with donors. 

She encouraged fundraisers to pay attention to their feelings and validate them, then try to get curious about donor motivation, instead of anxious. Finally, tracking progress that isn’t just dollars raised can help you or your team feel a sense of accomplishment and healthy motivation. 

Action step: Find a small, regular win you can celebrate with your team to encourage action and bring joy to your work.

Reaching Millennial and Gen Z donors is critical for your nonprofit’s success.

Jon Lee gave a powerful talk centered around being responsive to Millennial and Gen Z donors, who make up 40% of the US population. These donors have low levels of institutional trust, but they are searching for something to believe in. Jon’s tips for connecting with these donors include:

  • Help them feel powerful enough to fix one thing. Really paint a picture of the difference their action makes.
  • Create opportunities for true community and connection.
  • Be transparent about your wins and your losses. 

Action step: As you plan your next campaign, focus on the difference each individual donor will make. Show them exactly how they can create change—big or small.

A Guide to Nonprofit Newsletters

Does your nonprofit have a regular newsletter? Monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly email newsletters are a great way to communicate with your supporters—and we almost always recommend them to our clients. Our guide to nonprofit newsletters includes best practices, data-backed tips, ideas to test, and a treasure trove of resources to inform your newsletter strategy.

Nonprofit Newsletters we love…

  • Have a distinct voice. You feel like you are connected to an author, even when they’re just sending you a list of bullet points or recommended links. 
  • Are simple and skimmable. There is something to a super unformatted email – or at least a minimally formatted email. And know that people are cruising – can they get what they need from just the headlines? 
  • Almost always have at least one thing we want to click. Know your audience – and know what they might enjoy! 
  • Are personalized. It sounds like it’s from a real person being written to a real person. 
  • Make it clear what they want us to do. They have one prominent CTA, even if they have a bunch of links throughout. 
  • Are designed with lots of white space (our favorite in all emails!). 
  • Keep a really healthy list. Be ruthless on list health (even if that means cutting people off). 
  • Are a conversation. Instead of blasting the reader with information, they speak to their existing concerns and welcome feedback and ideas. 
  • Aggregate content from other sources, saving me time and the need to follow every quality source out there.

Data shows…

  • Keep subject lines short and clear. Aim for eight words or less (per recent suggestions based on iPhone preview text) and say what is actually in the newsletter/why it’s of value for the reader. 
  • Your email MUST be mobile-optimized. (Mobile first in everything these days, really.) 
  • Streamlining matters. Make it SUPER clear (and explicit) what your newsletter is about. Ie: Here are eight stories about your impact this month that you don’t want to miss. 

Consider testing…

  • A survey for newsletter subscribers. What do they WANT to read/see/receive? 
  • Removing the marketing template entirely. (Check out this study.)
  • Choosing a person in the organization who is the “newsletter” person. It always comes from them. People can reply to them. It’s written in a super human voice. And it makes the newsletter stand out from other communications from their DPs. 
  • An all text newsletter that feels like a real person wrote it
  • Creative subject lines. Have some fun and get people to OPEN! Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, you want to catch people’s attention.
  • Z-pattern design instead of straight columns. 
  • Segmenting newsletter topics or the order of topics based on interests or other factors

Learn more about nonprofit newsletters…

Every nonprofit needs a book club

Every nonprofit needs a book club

Books are an incredible tool for connection, so it’s no surprise that book clubs are incredibly popular — with an estimated 5 million Americans belonging to a group. And many of us have had the experience of reading something that lights up our brain to the point that we need to talk about it with someone right now. So why not leverage this enthusiasm to benefit your organization?

Your nonprofit should take advantage of the connection that books provide to build community and engage with your donors.

Most of us (81%, according to a new study by Scribd) don’t read as much as we’d like to. A monthly book club provides structure and encouragement for readers — and a book club hosted by your organization gives you the chance to drive the conversation, choosing topics that make donors feel even more connected to and invested in your mission.

Through online discussions, written reflections, or even a monthly meeting (hosted in a Zoom room, a Facebook group, or via Instagram Live), you’ll create a consistent, engaging touchpoint with your donors. And this regular contact will help foster long-term community, education, and retention.

Hosting a book club will help your organization…

Build community.

In a survey of over 5,000 book club members, BookSense found that readers think of their book clubs as vital parts of their social and intellectual lives. The lively conversations you cultivate in your meetings will help deepen relationships, your donors will have an open space to express themselves, and you will have the opportunity to connect personally with new friends.

A book club can help your donors build relationships with each other, bonding over their shared interest in supporting your mission (and the amazing books they’re reading because of you). In a world where online interactions feel increasingly empty, a book club can be a welcome respite from the noise.

Educate donors.

Your choice of books says a lot about who you are as an organization. What are your priorities? Who are you serving? Use nonfiction to help donors engage more deeply with problems you address. Or read fiction to bring specific experiences to life, encouraging donors to identify with the communities you serve. Books of all different genres can do valuable work to communicate your mission to your stakeholders.

Research shows that adults feel smarter after reading and find it to be a good use of their time. In addition, 81% of adults say they read to learn about other cultures. You can give your donors access to a fulfilling, educational experience — and encourage them to learn something new by reading books outside of their traditional preferences.

Encourage empathy and action.

Books are not only great educational tools, they are powerful drivers for change. Reading regularly inspires action — and it also helps you feel more empathetic, according to 71% of adults.

A book club is also a source of growth, for both you and your members. In BookSense’s survey, they found that readers look to their book clubs as places to be challenged through dynamic (and respectful!) discussions. They value learning from books and each other, and that cooperative learning brings people closer together. Best of all, if your book club is inclusive, your donors will recommend it to their friends!

Book sales increased 8.2% in 2020 (all that time at home really upped our reading game!), so now is the perfect time to start your book club! Here’s how:

The Swell+Good Guide to Starting a Book Club for Nonprofits

  1. Define the purpose of your book club. Make sure you’re clear on how your book choices will advance your mission and foster engagement with your donors.
  2. Decide where and how your book club will meet. Will you host an online meeting, post regular prompts in your Facebook group, or livestream a conversation about the book? Think about where your community lives and plan accordingly.
  3. Plan your choices in advance. Keep your goals in mind as you choose your books. What do you want your readers to learn, understand, or do after reading your picks? What kind of books do you think your donors will respond well to? How easy will it be for them to access each book?
  4. Put out the call! Let everyone know about your book club and what they should expect. Get them excited about reading together.
  5. Set group guidelines for discussion. Make sure your book club is a safe and inclusive space, especially if you’ll be discussing difficult or sensitive topics.

Once you have the infrastructure in place, use your book club to nurture donor relationships and spark action. Invest in your book club up front and reap the rewards of engagement in the long term.

And, of course, let us know what books you pick! We would love to read, learn, and grow with you!