Behind the Scenes with an Award-Winning Direct Marketer

Catherine Connolly, Steve Horton, Outstanding Professional Fundraiser, National Philanthropy Day, Association of Fundraising Professionals, Tia Gemmell

Catherine Connolly, a direct-marketing guru, shares my pride in the development profession.  We both believe nonprofits are a force for good.  And we both understand that fundraisers help donors transform their corner of the world, with every gift.

Catherine spoke at a luncheon last month in Sacramento celebrating National Philanthropy Day.  She was honored as the Outstanding Professional Fundraiser by our local chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and she shared with the crowd, “The fundraiser is the person building bridges, maintaining relationships, and ensuring that connections continue over time.”


And this.  “What makes this hard job so incredibly rewarding is when you see what can happen when generous donors are combined with compelling needs.”

I had an opportunity to interview Catherine, to learn more about her as well as the many changes in direct marketing. . .

Me:  When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Catherine:  I first wanted to be a teacher, like my mom and my grandma.  Then when I was older, I wanted to be a lawyer.  But beyond a profession, I always wanted to an artist, and that continues through to today.

Me:  What initially drew you to direct marketing?

Catherine:  Like most fundraisers, I ended up in a job of direct marketing by accident.  It was an entry-level position that I was qualified for, and it achieved my goal of moving to San Francisco.  Once I learned about this part of fundraising and became more experienced, what I like most about it is that it’s both analytical and creative – I get to use both sides of my brain in this work.

Me:  What changes have you witnessed in direct marketing throughout your career?

Catherine:  The biggest changes have been adding electronic media into the mix.  When I started, we had mail and telephone, and that was it.  Now, we have face-to-face fundraising on the street, email, social media, crowdfunding … many different platforms to use for engaging donors.

The other big change is how much information is available to donors and prospects.  It used to be that the nonprofit organization could control the message and what people knew about it, but that time is long gone.  The democratization of information is significant for fundraising, and we need to assume that there are no secrets.

Me:  Describe the part of direct marketing that you most love.

Catherine:  I really love when we put something meaningful into the mail, following best practices, and then the donors respond and send in money.  It still feels like magic to me, that our donors are so generous and they step up when needed.

But the other part that I really enjoy is seeing a donor who started giving through direct marketing then become more engaged and move up to be a major donor or a legacy donor.  One of the major roles of direct marketing is to create the pipeline of prospects for those more committed levels of giving, and I love to see that process in action.

Me:  What advice do you have for nonprofits wanting to expand their program?

Catherine:  Most nonprofits are afraid to ask, so the advice I give the most often is to send more solicitations.  Another area that is often lacking is reporting back to donors on the impact of their donations, so there is often a need for a newsletter or some communication that isn’t a solicitation and that is working to steward donors.

The other area of expansion is to recruit more new donors, and that is expensive and challenging to fund.  So my advice is to use what funds that are available and invest in acquisition — whether it’s tapping into reserves or finding a major donor who understands the impact of investing in fundraising.

Me:  What advice do you wish someone had told you your first year in direct marketing?

Catherine:  It’s not brain surgery; no one dies from a mistake in fundraising.

We take it all very seriously, but we also need healthy perspective about what’s important overall.

Me:  What do you foresee in the future of direct marketing?  And what will your role be?

Catherine:  I see more proliferation of platforms and ways to engage with donors, so the challenge will be choosing what works for the nonprofit and how best to reach the audience they want.  Also, I work with smaller organizations, so I’m always saying, we’ll let the larger nonprofits spend the money to figure out best practices, and then the rest of us can jump in when it makes sense.

I will be following along, to figure out how best to use limited resources to raise the most funds.

Great insights.  Thank you, Catherine!  And thank you, Tia Gemmell, for capturing the moment so well with your camera.

Danielle Collins, Primavera, Nonprofits, Coaching, Consulting

P.S. There are so many creative and exciting ways to take care of your donors!  Click here for information on how I can create first-rate communication materials for your donors that share your compelling story.

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