By Justin Ware
Senior Vice President of Digital at BWF


Change can feel glacial, especially for those of us who work with limited nonprofit budgets. The desire to stick with “Safe” and proven tactics often stymies innovation, because losing a little is better than risking the unknown, when margins are tight.

But eventually, the pressure builds, the balance shifts, and the old walls that held us back come tumbling down. It’s about reaching the “tipping point” where business as usual can no longer be tolerated.

We have reached that tipping point in the ongoing debate of which channels are best to reach donors and prospects – digital (email, social media, giving days) is now the clear #1 in terms of driving gifts.

According to the 2020 BWF Digital Fundraising Survey, respondents say 39 percent of their gifts now come from digital channels. That’s compared to 29 percent from direct mail and only seven percent from the phone.

Click here to read the full report

The trend is not just anchored in the annual fund – digital is making serious in roads with major donor engagement as well. A small but increasing number of survey respondents are exploring digital for big gifts and more have had success in 2019 than in 2018. In 2018, only 10 percent reported successfully combining social media data with wealth records for new prospect cultivation. In 2019, 18 percent say they are now having success with digital data mining for major gift prospects.

We see this as an area of phenomenal growth in 2020 and beyond as more organizations get smart about digital for engaging their most capable donors. We also believe a strategy exists to lean into the success of digital’s overall prominence, through Digital Development Officers. The following outlines this concept for retooling your fundraising operation and embracing this “tipping point” in our industry.

Hire (or Retrain for) Digital Development Officers

First – make the right hires

A Digital Development Officer (DDO) has many of the same qualities found in traditional gift officers – they are big personalities who thrive on competition and like to be rewarded for their work. To be a “digital” development officer, of course, also requires fluency in digital communication tactics. Look for candidates who have publicly visible social media accounts, especially on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

The ability to quickly and effectively produce video is another key skill for DDOs. Does the candidate have their own YouTube channel? Do you see compelling “selfie” videos on their social media feeds? Is their Instagram storyline frequently full? Video is fundamentally important to modern donor engagement – having team members who can engage donors through video production will serve your mission in more ways than one.

Next – invest in social media data mining

Imagine creating a digital ads campaign, then tracking the results of that campaign to see, specifically, who engaged with those ads. Then, applying wealth data, giving history, and other data points to segment and target those who engaged with your ads. Finally, imagine handing your digital development officers 100 highly engaged prospects who we are certain just recently clicked through your website …AND, giving those DDOs a clear set of talking points with which they can engage those prospects based on the prospects’ online activity. Then, imagine a video with a personal message from that DDO to the prospect, introducing a video the prospect has never seen about a topic they care about deeply.

You don’t have to imagine this. We can do it all now! And you can, using these tactics, reinvent donor engagement in a way that leads to real and immediate fundraising success.

Provide the content to power DDO engagement

Nothing converts a viewer to a donor more effectively than video. According to Google, 57 percent of everyone who watches a nonprofit video will eventually go on to make a gift to that nonprofit. Yes, video is expensive, but the return on an investment in producing consistent video over time cannot be denied.

For a strong DDO program, we recommend one new video per week. This does not need to be – in fact it should not be – high-end video in every case. Studies show selfie videos, animations, authentic (amateur) video content actually performs better in some online fundraising campaigns when compared to the glossy, over-produced video pieces.

That’s not to say the high-end video content doesn’t also have its place. The key is a healthy mix and above all else, frequent, mission-centered content that keeps donors inspired every week of the year, in between solicitations. This video is the currency your DDOs will use to buy sustained mind space with donors and prospects.

Finally, create abundant opportunities for big online gifts

A significant portion of major gift donors and prospects appreciate seeing their name on buildings, initiatives, classrooms, hospital rooms …and the same is true of vibrant, highly visible digital campaigns.

Every gift officer – not solely DDOs – should know how to talk about and leverage online fundraising campaigns as a means of securing big gifts. Giving days, crowdfunding campaigns, #GivingTuesday – all are highly visible events that inspire prospects to make big gifts.

“Digital naming rights” are especially attractive to corporate partners. Online giving events are not only seen by large audiences, but typically generate positive chatter online. Joyous, widely-viewed online events are a cause marketer’s dream scenario. Give your corporate partners the opportunity to benefit from your big digital campaigns.

The numbers don’t lie – at BWF’s Groundwork Digital, we have client partners who are now enjoying success from shifting to a video-driven, Digital Development Officer program. We believe it’s the future of our industry, and hope you will soon join this trend in reinventing the Next Practices of fundraising.

About the author

Justin Ware is the Senior Vice President of Digital at BWF and Founder of the Groundwork Digital practice (acquired by BWF in fall 2019). Justin oversees digital at BWF and Groundwork, focusing on video-driven donor engagement via digital development officer programs, online giving days, peer-to-peer, online and social media advertising, and “Student Content Teams.”

Prior to joining BWF, Justin launched Groundwork Digital in 2017 after working at Ruffalo Noel Levitz as a Vice President for product development where he helped launch the ScaleFunder giving day platform. Before RNL, Justin was with BWF for a half decade where he established our firm’s digital practice. Justin started his higher education career with the University of Minnesota where he was the executive producer on one of the first YouTube videos to win an Emmy. Prior to the University of Minnesota, Justin spent the first six years of his career as a broadcast (television) journalist.