Stephen Bourdreau is the co-founder of Ascendio and RaiseDonors, but he is also an incredible leader and creative thinker. He’s spent years helping nonprofits leverage their websites and other technology to get out of survival mode and start to grow in meaningful ways.
Listen to the whole episode here:
Here are the top takeaways from our conversation with Stephen.
Nonprofits feel resistance when trying to connect the work of different teams and get a comprehensive look at what’s going on. Technology can make that better.
Nonprofits need to push their teams to continue to learn how to be better. Survival is not thriving. Don’t use the fact that you still have a job as an indication that you’re doing well. Identify the metrics that can measure your progress.
Three things nonprofit websites tell organizations about their performance are traffic, average donation size and conversion rate.
Gabe Cooper: Hey, everybody, this is Gabe. Welcome to the podcast. Today, I am pleased to have Stephen Boudreau of RaiseDonors on the podcast. Stephen’s the co-founder of Ascendio, which is a software development company, and RaiseDonors, an online giving platform.
I’ve known Stephen for a while. He’s obsessive about fundraising strategy, especially digital fundraising strategy and helping nonprofits succeed. He’s a big design and UX guru and loves the aesthetic and story that come along with giving.
The other interesting thing about Stephen is he’s actually played in a couple bands. He has a history as a musician, so rather than jump right into the fundraising, why don’t we start with that, Stephen? First of all, welcome to the podcast, and second, tell me a little bit about your life as a rockstar.
Stephen Boudreau: Thanks, Gabe. I forgot that you were going to bring that up. Well, since I was a wee lad I’ve been playing the guitar. My dad played guitar, or plays guitar. When you pick up a guitar you eventually decide that you want to play guitar with other people and usually that is a path of ruin and destruction. Because most people don’t play instruments very well. So, in high school I basically just played with friends, and in college I was in a few bands. But once I was a full-grown adult out living on my own. You can start to afford better equipment and do more reckless things with your life.
I was in a variety of bands, one of which was relatively successful. Actually, it relates back to fundraising in some ways, and maybe even software development. There was that moment when you start going to shows and people you don’t know start showing up and knowing your songs and knowing who you are. It’s kind of like when you start a nonprofit and you start getting donations that aren’t from your mom. You’re like, hey, this is happening. People are actually getting behind what we’re doing. So, that was fun, but in the end it was just a hobby.
GC: That’s great. Yeah. I think the lesson there is nonprofits usually aren’t completely self-destructive. Usually, when you’re in that band and you get to the pivotal moment where you’re actually making it, that’s exactly the point where people start making bad decisions and sabotaging everything. So, hopefully that’s where the metaphor breaks down.
SB: Yes. That’s an appropriate way to segway into this conversation.
GC: Great. Okay, so I’d love to hear a little bit more of the backstory and I’d love for our listeners to hear the backstory about RaiseDonors in general. How you got there and then how you got interested kind of in fundraising and technology to begin with.
SB: Okay. Well, going back to what we were just saying, when I got out of college I graduated and did not have a job. I moved from College Station, Texas to Dallas, Texas.
GC: Gig ’em Aggies.
My wife and I… Well, she was my girlfriend at the time. We met at A&M and she was here, going to law school in Dallas. I had just moved here with nothing but dreams. I ended up getting a job with a nonprofit, and I was a young web designer. My first task was essentially, “We need you to redesign our website.”
Now, I knew a lot about building websites at that point, but not a lot about how nonprofits work and how everything works together, and even just the concept of fundraising and that impacting the bottom line versus just selling products; you’re asking people to give to your mission.
So, that was really what first exposed me to the thinking behind nonprofits, and also just the processes and the challenges. It’s not always just A to B to C. In nonprofits it’s like, you have all the letters dumped on you at once and you have to sort of organize them in a way that everyone can read. So, from there I started Ascendio with my business partner, Chris. He had also come out of the nonprofit space. So, when you’ve got that background it’s a great way to get in the door of a lot of organizations, but really, it was at Ascendio where we started being exposed to the challenges across multiple organizations. When I say challenges, it’s the fundraising challenges.
An organization might have $1 million coming in through their website, but it’s completely disconnected from everything else they’re doing. Especially back in the early 2000s, sometimes revenue wouldn’t even be recorded. They’re almost like, “Well, what are we doing on the web? Oh, we’re actually making money on the web, or… What’s going on?” So, when we started to learn how to connect the web to all their other systems we really started growing, and it was out of that knowledge and building platforms and tools around that that RaiseDonors came about.
GC: That’s great. I love that. So, kind of working at a nonprofit, building websites and fundraising pages, to starting a software design development company that’s doing those sorts of fundraising platforms for nonprofits. And then, to finally building your own tool, RaiseDonors, that is the platform, right. Now what’s your day-to-day life? You’ve probably gone from kind of in the weeds, I’m assuming, to a level higher, but tell me what your day-to-day is like right now at RaiseDonors.
SB: That’s a great question. The day-to-day tasks are really more sales-oriented, introducing people to the product, leading online demos, creating content around how to use RaiseDonors, how to become a better fundraiser. That is the day-to-day, but really, the thing that’s always the through line. This is true for Chris and I both, because Chris and I also founded RaiseDonors together. Now, the real nucleus of what we’re doing is shaping the path of what’s next for RaiseDonors? We’re always thinking about what’s next, what’s next. It’s not always just a new feature or a new integration, or finding and removing bugs, training people.That is important and it actually exposes a lot of things to us.
We’re always having our eye on what’s the next thing we do? How is fundraising going to change, and how can RaiseDonors really be more than just a utility, and also a guide? Because that’s the vision, that’s the thing that we want more than anything, is for RaiseDonors to help you be a better fundraiser. So, the tool has to always work. It always has to be on the cutting edge of what’s happening in fundraising, but the thing that’s never going to change is that people always need to be learning how to do what they’re doing better.
GC: That’s great. No, I love that. I see that focus too as I’ve interacted with you guys, just the consistent learning and improvement, and just baking that into your culture.
So, as you have worked with one nonprofit, and then tens with Ascendio, and now hundreds or however many customers you guys have with RaiseDonors, I know that you’ve seen a lot. You’ve been in the trenches a lot. What are some of the things you’ve learned? What are some of the most common mistakes that you see people making when dealing with online fundraising? What are kind of the top three take-home lessons that you can kind of provide for our listeners?
Top 3 Fundraising Lessons for Nonprofits
SB: Okay. Well, a real simple one that I see really often is just really not giving anyone the motivation to give to your organization. They assume if you hit… Even if you have RaiseDonors. Let’s say in this conversation we’re assuming that’s a fantastic online giving experience. Even if you have RaiseDonors and you just have a donate button and I hit donate from my website or an email. I just get there and there’s the form. It’s so common because a lot of times the web is an afterthought for some of these organizations. You need to give them value, that motivation, the incentive, like this is what you’re a part of. So, that’s messaging.
Another common mistake is just having all these disconnected services, just okay, well, we’re going to have a donation form with RaiseDonors, but we’re just going to take that information and dump it into a spreadsheet. So, they’re kind of cutting a bigger system, like Virtuous, out of the mix. So, if I looked up Stephen Boudreau. How involved is he with our organization?
That is missing from some of these organizations, and that leads to number three, but I guess it’s the biggest thing I see, is that they have no concept of how they’re doing. What I mean by that is are we doing well? Are we doing poorly? No one really knows how to answer that question in a lot of organizations.
It’s really, well, we survived, we met our numbers, or we were in a deficit and we pulled out of it. It’s always kind of this survival mode mentality, and so you’re not really stopping to say, “Well, are we doing well? Because if we’re not, we should figure out how to do well.”
It’s just not knowing how to answer that question effectively. It would never be tolerated on the for-profit space, but in the nonprofit space you’re just always kind of in this survival mode that you’d forget that that answer is vital to being able to move your cause forward. Because the cause isn’t that the nonprofits survives, it’s that you do what you set out to do.
Measuring Your Performance
GC: Yeah. That’s great. Talk a little bit… Because I want people to have handles on that. I know we both have some mutual friends over at NextAfter that have sort of a flux capacitor of giving idea that they use, right. This magic trifecta, which has to do with things like how much people give and if they are ongoing givers and all of these kind of things that you want to look at. But kind of walk me through, what are the metrics people should care about? How do I know if I’m getting the right performance out of my online giving experience? How do I know that that stacks up against other people? What should I be looking at?
SB: Yeah. So, what you’re referencing is the flex capacitor of online revenue maximization, which was coined by our friend Tim Kachuriak at NextAfter. Yeah, I remember even when Tim sort of developed this concept. We were at a restaurant one night and he was telling me about it, and the thing I love about it is that it’s so practical, and we built RaiseDonors kind of all around this, and that is there are three primary factors that affect how any nonprofit is doing. But we’ll just speak specifically to online fundraising, although it relates all across the board. But there’s the amount of traffic, that people are coming to your website, the average size of their donation, and the conversion rate.
So, you can think of those three things. If you have 100 visitors and 10 of them convert, and the average gift is $50, then you get an output there. So, if you start thinking of those three numbers and you start wondering, well, what if our average gift size went from $10 to $11? What would that mean to our organization? Because if everything else stays the same, then we’re going up.
The web is the ultimate laboratory, because you have this thing, this website, these pages that people are constantly visiting you. There’s sort of this fun aspect to it that you can conduct an experiment and immediately start seeing people respond to it. It’s not like direct mail where you mail something and you have to wait a month or weeks for things to happen.
With the web, things happen instantly, so that’s a big thing that nonprofits should look at, whether they’re using RaiseDonors or not. Just find a baseline, find a way to start measuring those numbers, and then the bigger thing… This is what I’m talking about. How are we doing? How are we doing? Are we doing well? Are we doing poorly? Start experimenting against those numbers, because then you can start to find patterns, start finding trends. Not only are you learning more about your donors and becoming a better fundraiser, you’re starting to see, hey, we’re doing well, or we’re doing poorly; we need to really think about this. Now you have a method to answer that question, whereas before it was just like, I think we’re doing okay. We have jobs still.
GC: That’s great. Yeah, I love that. I love that way of thinking. I don’t typically plug our website during these kind of deals, but we do have a webinar that NextAfter did about using the web as a living laboratory for testing the stuff that you just talked about, so if you’re interested in learning more, virtuouscrm.com, look for a webinar from NextAfter, and it’ll kind of flesh out the stuff Stephen just talked about, because it really is… It’s critical that you understand those, it’s critical that you understand how they work together, and the fun part is when you start turning knobs and experimenting and you realize man, if I increase average gift size and traffic, it actually has this huge, multiplying effect on giving, and your ability to experiment really fast on the web and make those improvements is magical, if you know what you’re doing. It’s worth checking out.
Experiment with Your Performance
GC: A little bit more just kind of on… I know a lot of people love you guys’ platform. I know a lot of it… The reason they love it is because you’re actually a practitioner of a lot of stuff you’re talking about, which is experimentation and continuous improvement, but from your perspective, kind of what’s you guys’ secret sauce? There’s a lot of players out there in the online giving space. What makes you guys special? Even if you have a couple of stories about that to help illustrate, it’d be great.
SB: Yeah. So, I think there’s a combination of a lot of things. If you ask how do we help people be more successful, what’s the secret sauce, well, the thing about success and growth is that so much of it is relative, and relative to where you are now, where you’re willing to go, what you want to do. So, it’s fantastic to be able to go in and just dramatically transform an organization when they are just… They need so much help. But it’s different when somebody is really performing. I think if you start talking about the factors that make RaiseDonors an interesting group to work with, one is for the past 15 years on the Ascendio side we’ve been working with nonprofits, so we speak their language, we know how to relate to them.
I find oftentimes, just in demos, that I’m able to anticipate what they’re asking for. There’s a certain comfort if you just want to talk about from a sales standpoint. That’s a great way to gain trust, gain that thing that is kind of hard to put your finger on. But I always tell people at its core, RaiseDonors… If you’re just going to call it a utility, it spits up donation pages for you. You can have as many wonderful donation pages as you want, but the real value comes in the integrations, and the way we’re able to transform your entire process. So, as I was talking about, it’s all relative. A common story I talk about is we worked with this organization and everything they did was manual. This is a relatively sizable organization, and they’re taking orders online and they’re printing them out and inputting them into their system. Store orders come in, everything is just being printed out and submitted by hand through a process.
So, when you can come in and just start automating something as simple as well, we’re going to take their name and email from this form and put them into MailChimp or Constant Contact. Okay, well, we’re going to take all this data and we’re going to put it into your CRM system, and all this used to be done by a human being typing and doing this, and sometimes even receiving something a week or two weeks after the gift was made.
Now all of this is automated in real time as it’s happening. We ended up automating out 40 hours a week. A week. 40 hours. An entire person’s job was then taken and automated out. So, when I was talking to them, this was… It was actually about a year after they had launched with us. He’s counting all this, says, “You know what we did? We had all this free time that we were using to do these manual processes. We put the people who are doing that job and we had them start calling our donors.”
Automation Leads to More Focus
SB: Their lapsed donors. They said, “Show me everyone,” because now they had all their data in the CRM system. They were like, “Show me everyone that hasn’t given a gift in two years, and let’s call all of them.” So, they called them and they didn’t ask for a gift. They were just like, “Hey, we just wanted to see how you’re doing. We’re here to support you.”
And they started doing that two years out, a year and a half out, a year out, nine months, six months, people who hadn’t given a gift in three months. This ended up generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in new donations without them even asking for it, just because now they had time to focus on their mission and not this manual task that has really nothing to do with what they’re really all about. I think that’s a great story and I think that’s part of the secret sauce is just yeah, you can bring technology in, but you got to understand how to apply it. You got to know what a fundraiser is dealing with on the day-to-day basis, and everyone on our team understands that.
GC: Yeah. Oh, I love that. I love the efficiencies that good technology, just the time savings, getting rid of manual junk that you just see so often in nonprofits. But the other big thing there is just organizational-wide data transparency. So many folks that we work with have these just disintegrated systems. Data is all over the place, and so it’s not just that there’s a lot of manual time wasting, it’s that people have no visibility into their data. They can’t see clearly even who a lapsed donor is quickly, in a way that somebody could call on them.
SB: Well, and they don’t have visibility into the cost either, because they’re just thinking, well, we’re getting it done, but you’re not thinking about what you are missing out on-
GC: That’s right.
SB: … in exchange for that time. You could be doing other things that are more valuable.
Quick Fire Questions
GC: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s great. I love that. Well, thanks. I mean, this has been super helpful. I usually end here with a couple of kind of quickfire questions, if you don’t mind, just to hear what you think about.
GC: The first one that I always love to ask, because I like to read, is what are the books that you’ve read or book in the last year or two that have had the biggest influence on you?
SB: All right. Well, one thing you need to know about me is that I have an obsession with audiobooks and podcasts. I’m always listening. Some people like to laugh at me and say I’m not really reading, but I think it counts as reading. I’m going through the book, aren’t I? So, this one might seem silly, but in the past couple of years since I got my Audible subscription, the book that has had the biggest impact on me… I don’t mean it’s changed my life, but it just stayed with me as I went through it.
It was the comedian Martin Short, he wrote an autobiography called I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend. He reads the book and he just tells his life story and his career, and I didn’t know much about him other than I thought he was really funny in Three Amigos. But the story really impacted me. I mean, it was almost like a caricature. I laughed and I cried. I had to pull over once because I was weeping. The book was really funny, but it was also very touching, and he gives a lot of wisdom about how he was raised, the lessons he learned, and I was surprised by how much I was moved by that book.
GC: Oh, that’s great. Yeah. I love that. Guy is hilarious. Some of the stuff that Canadian TV… What is it? SCTV stuff that he used to do. Gosh, it was some of the funniest sketch kind of comedy stuff that you’ll ever see. It holds up over time. I love that guy. He’s an ageless wonder too. He’s 115 years old and he’s still hitting 42. It’s amazing.
GC: Oh, that’s great. I love that recommendation. I need to go check that one out. So, okay, great book. Any podcast? I’ll even give you permission to do your favorite over-the-wire sort of Netflix streaming series if you prefer that, but if you think of any podcast recommendations.
SB: No, no, no. Podcasts is where I spend… Whenever I have a free second I always have my headphones in and I’m listening.
GC: What are you listening right now?
SB: Well, there’s a podcast called The Moth. Have you ever heard of it?
GC: I love The Moth. Storytelling? It’s great.
SB: Yes. Yeah, so people just get up, and they usually have a theme on the show, but people just tell stories from their lives and it’s really well curated. This thing, The Moth, has been going on for 20 plus years, so I absolutely devour those the moment they come out. I love that podcast. Probably one of the most popular podcasts, but also for a good reason is This American Life is this one I love. I have a bunch of others, but those are the ones that it’s just like, I cannot miss it. The moment they come on, they’re listened to.
GC: Yeah. No, those are both amazing. I actually learned about The Moth through This American Life, because they’ll occasionally tell Moth stories on This American Life, so I’m right there with you with those. I don’t know what it is about that little group of guys from NPR. I think a lot of them are Chicago guys. I know Ira Glass is, but they’ve been able to crank out some amazing podcasts of content, whether it’s S-Town.
SB: Yeah. I’ve had to force myself to unsubscribe to podcasts I enjoy just because it starts taking up so much of my life. It’s like, all right, all right, I got to live outside of these headphones.
GC: That’s great. I love it. Well, that was it. That’s all I had. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. As always, congratulations on-
SB: My pleasure.
GC: … your success at RaiseDonors. It’s been fun watching you guys on this ride. Yeah, thanks again for joining us. We’ll talk to you soon.