Don’t Miss These Takeaways from the AFP ICON Conference

The AFP ICON conference, put on by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, is the world’s largest conference for professional fundraisers. Most appropriately, it took place in the most out-sized location possible: Las Vegas.

It also featured a speaker lineup that kicked off with keynote Allyson Felix, the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history. Allyson’s challenge to fundraisers (and the challenge issued by the conference itself) was, make the change you wish to see.

Some 3,000 attendees from five continents gathered, including our own Executive Vice President Jeremy Stelter and Creative Director and Director of Marketing Zach Christensen. I caught up with them to get their top conference takeaways. I also collected a few ahas that stood out as I listened to them recount their week.

Takeaway 1: It’s Nice to Be Back

Jeremy: It was so great to be back and in-person. It’s been a long time. Once everyone settled into talking face-to-face, the energy was amazing.

Zach: Absolutely. Based on the attendance I’d say that fundraisers are ready to be face-to-face. That likely translates to most donors as well. In-person events should be prioritized. It’s time to reconnect!

Jeremy: The only thing I’d say for conference attendees is that we aren’t in conference shape. It takes a lot out of you to socialize for four days straight. We’re out of practice. I’m looking forward to more coming together to retrain that muscle.

Conference Aha! shared that when online interactions surround everyday experiences, the idea of a mailed letter or physical thank you can now surprise and delight donors.

Take 2: Keep It Simple

Zach: Seemed to me that each and every speaker talked about providing a frictionless user experience. The KISS method (Keep It Simple, Stupid) applies. Deliver a clear and compelling call to action. Don’t dance around the ask and use powerful words, such as Donate Now, Give or Help.

Jeremy: I went to a session by Gail Perry and Beth Ann Locke on high-net-worth donors. Their good news was that household wealth has been extremely resilient to adverse economic conditions. But I was struck by these statistics that basic giving knowledge is lacking, even among the affluent:

  • 46% feel like a novice
  • 48% feel knowledgeable
  • 5% rate themselves as experts in giving

There’s so much opportunity for nonprofits to educate and become a trusted advisor.

Zach: I attended a session on cryptocurrency, which has never felt simple to me. This time, though, the speaker talked about how giving Bitcoin is like giving stock. Think about it: The ups and downs of value can look a lot like the S&P (well, maybe a bit more volatile). I loved the analogy. Our work is to make giving as simple to understand and execute as possible.

Conference Aha! Need a stock image? is a free community featuring high-resolution images provided by talented photographers.

Takeaway 3: The Next Generation Behaves Differently

Jeremy: Ashley Thompson from the Blackbaud Institute spoke to the best ways to engage the next generation: Listen more and let your donors have a voice. We’ve seen that at Stelter with the success of surveys. When you give donors a forum, they’re excited to express themselves. You can start the feedback loop by asking, then listening.

Zach: Agree! This also plays into diversity, equity and inclusiveness. Be broad-minded and opportunistic when collecting stories. Invite submissions through all your marketing channels. Share these stories and promote them, even internally with your teams.

Jeremy: I love that tip. Thinking of marketing channels, this next generation—particularly Millennials and Gen Z—view technology differently. Giving has always been an easy click or swipe away. For them, platforms like Venmo, GoFundMe or direct contributions on social media are natural and welcome. These donors want to give when they want and where they already are.

Conference Aha! The major goal of your social media should be to get people on an email list. This is where you can begin to truly engage with a prospect and show your brand. It’s also where you can move from inherited data (at the whim of your social-platform hosts) to data you control.

Takeaway 4: Lean Into Urgency

Jeremy: Marketers know that urgency is a key ingredient in appeals. (This is not always easy in planned giving, so often we have to “invent” urgency, say with a national holiday.) But a conference theme was that we can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Sometimes the urgency is in our departments—we need to communicate regularly with donors and be authentic, which sometimes means imperfect.

Zach: I saw a great formula for urgency:

  1. Make an appeal.
  2. Give people a reason to donate.
  3. Communicate the benefit or impact of the donation.
  4. Include impactful, relevant visuals – ideally photos of real people or animals who will benefit from the gift.

Conference Aha! Emotion leads to action. Logic leads to conclusions.

Takeaway 5: The Donor Experience Is The Experience

Zach: Delivering the best possible experience for your donors was a major theme throughout the conference. Whether it was through digital, print or social channels, many of the presenters spoke of trying to map out a donor’s decisions. (Psst: Here’s Stelter’s donor journey.) They drove home the importance of delivering relevant and consistent messaging and offers.

Jeremy: Related to this, stewardship is a must. Speakers talked about using social channels to keep your audience informed and up-to-speed on all the great work that your organization is doing. Here’s a helpful social media rule of thumb: 80/20. The idea is that 80% of your social content should educate and inform your audience about mission and impact; 20% should focus on taking action, such as filling out a form or giving.

Zach: I learned a new word at AFP that hits this idea of a donor’s psychological journey: Mattering. As described by Kerri Kilbane, mattering is the ideal state consisting of two complementary psychological experiences: Feeling valued and adding value. The better we can define impact and share it, the more success we’ll have.

Jeremy: So many great takeaways. AFP did a great job of running the show and the speakers and sessions were very strong this year. Here’s hoping for more safe in-person events!

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