Have you ever attended a conference that was both incredibly informative and insanely fun? I can’t say I had until last week when I attended the NIO Summit 2023 in Dallas.

The summit, which focuses on fundraising innovation and optimization, claimed to be a “conference unlike any you’ve ever experienced” and offered a 100% money-back guarantee. While I doubted it would live up to all that, I must say the event made a big impression and changed how I fundamentally think about fundraising.

“It was fun. It was flavorful [the food]. It was full of the fundraising fundamentals for creating an incredible donor experience built on a relationship of trust and human feelings, not a transactional opportunity. It was fantastic!” said Sonny Messiah-Jiles, CEO and publisher of the Defender Network in Houston.

Jiles and I attended the two-day event Sept. 20-21, as did David Bonifay, the audience engagement manager at The Atlanta Voice. (The Defender and The Voice are both participants in Word In Black and the Knight x LMA BloomLab.) For Bonifay, “the main big picture message was we need to start testing … and to make sure we are testing with clear purpose. Know what we are looking to test and how to apply what we find.”

Here are our big moments of inspiration from the summit.

Be human. Be authentic.

This may seem obvious, but when Carlos Whittaker gave his talk on How to Stay Human in a Digital World, it was a much-needed reminder.

“We have the potential to radically shift giving,” explained Whittaker, an Instagram influencer, author and motivational speaker. But you need to “be human and authentic. When you are authentic, it builds trust, and people want to give when they trust.”

Whittaker said he accidentally stumbled into his Instagram fundraising method, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for numerous individuals and charities. But it all starts with his “Instafamilia.” The family is more than 288,000 friends and followers on Instagram that he has cultivated to join forces with him to do good.

Watch an example of Whittaker’s fundraising in action as he tells the story of Tonee Carter, a beloved piano player at Atlanta’s airport with kidney disease. Whittaker’s Instafamilia donated more than $60,000 on Venmo and CashApp after Whitaker shared the musician’s story on Instagram.

Build better newsletters

Does your newsletter have an emcee? Do you send your emails from a person’s email address (not info@companyname.com)? Do you send a welcome email when people sign up? If you answered no to any of these, you might be focusing too much on the “news” part of “newsletter,” according to Ann Handley, a digital marketing expert and Wall Street Journal best-selling author.

“Newsletter. The letter part is more important,” Handley said in her talk, called The Future of Email Newsletters. “We need to offer a warm, relatable tone and write as if we are speaking to one reader, not ‘Dear email segment.’”

Handley says that will help you build trust and affinity with your audience rather than just their attention. “That is why your “From:” line matters most.”

To learn more, sign up for Handley’s newsletter “Total Annarchy,” which promises useful ideas, fresh links, and high-spirited shenanigans.

Stop doing stupid things

“Houston, we have a problem,” conversion optimization expert Karl Gilis said, as he started his presentation. You could feel his frustration as he vented that we must “stop reinventing the wheel and just improve it.”

Gilis explains it is important to think like the customers, ask our users questions, and A/B test, but “we need to learn fundamental user experience [UX] principles.”

Fundamental UX principles that don’t need to be tested include:

  • Carousel messages: They don’t get as much engagement as single images, and they only annoy the user.
  • The color of call-to-action buttons: You don’t need to test this to know the color should stand out from the rest of the website.

We should, however, be doing user research to test and learn:

  • Why don’t they donate, support, or subscribe?
  • What is holding them back?
  • Can we add additional details to the site to take away their fears or barriers?

If you want to learn more UX principles, Gilis recommends a book called “Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited” by Steve Krug.

Final thoughts

As someone who attends numerous news industry events, it was refreshing to hear how other organizations are tackling fundraising and what they learned from it. I realized that we are barely scratching the surface in this discipline, and there is a lot we can learn from other companies.