DMA Nonprofit Conference Educates and Inspires.

The Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Federation held its latest semi-annual conference in Washington, D.C. February 18 and 19 at the Renaissance Hotel (the other is held in New York City in the summer). More than 700 fundraisers and representatives from the companies that serve them gathered for the two-day event that featured a keynote speaker each day, a jam-packed schedule of education sessions, and lots of networking as usual morning, noon and night.

I’ve attended these conferences for more years than I care to admit and this was one of the best that I can recall. The peer-presented education sessions in particular had great content on what’s working (and in some cases not working) as fundraisers continue to confront the challenges of generating more revenue for their missions through creative approaches and honing of their craft. There was talk that a still difficult economic environment is causing continued headwinds for fundraisers, but overall there was a sense of optimism and the need to work both harder and smarter to be successful in spite of all the obstacles.

The education sessions were organized along five Tracks: Building, Operations, Retaining, Transforming, and Understanding. Sessions were available for Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced fundraisers, and also geared for nonprofit organizations of different sizes. With 32 sessions in all, there was plenty of actionable information for everyone! I am proud to note that eleven of our client organizations had staff that presented at the sessions…and also that Merkle RMG was again a sponsor of the conference.

There were four sessions in each of eight time slots, so it was impossible to take everything in or even try to recap all of the sessions attended. However, a few interesting takeaways from Merkle RMG’s perspective include:

  • If the words “Tax Receipt” appear on an acknowledgment, it must be mailed First Class
  • Multiple cooperative database services can be combined to improve lapsed donor reaction…generally the more used the better the results
  • Several sessions discussed the importance of developing and growing strong sustainer programs to improve retention and increase donor lifetime value
  • When going through a donor management system conversion, be sure to include external parties that will interact with the new system in the planning and testing phases…including your caging partner!
  • One organization that did not send Donor Acquisition mail until 2013 has grown its donor file from a few hundred to 28,000 today, with more than 50,000 projected by the end of 2016…direct mail is still king!

As far as the general sessions were concerned, Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the Enforcement Bureau for the Federal Communications Commission, was the keynote speaker on Thursday. He spoke about preventing illegal robo-calls (about 50 percent of total complaints), prosecuting data breaches, and promoting net neutrality as part of the Commission’s mission to protect consumers…and the importance of nonprofits to conform to regulations to avoid both financial and reputational harm.

The highly-anticipated speaker for Friday’s luncheon was Michael Thatcher, President and CEO of Charity Navigator. The charity watch dogs have come under increasing fire over the past several years for the way they rate nonprofits and whether they fairly gauge good financial stewardship and how effectively the organizations serve their missions. He acknowledged that one of their biggest challenges is to look at more than just overhead costs to determine if an organization’s expenditures are appropriate. Of greatest concern for many in the audience was his indication that he thinks donors should have to opt-in to receive marketing communications from a nonprofit. The entire direct marketing community needs to continue to fight this vigorously given the opt-out options currently available to consumers.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was the presentation of the 2016 Max Hart Nonprofit Achievement Award to Joan Wheatley. The award recognizes “career accomplishments by an exceptional fundraising professional with a track record of service, leadership, innovation and integrity.” Joan’s success at raising money for Special Olympics and her leadership at DMA Nonprofit events that I’ve witnessed over the years epitomizes what the award is all about.

If you attended the conference last week please share your own thoughts from the event. If you didn’t attend, I hope I’ll see you at the summer conference in New York City for more great learning and networking!