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Reflections from the Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Summit 2022

— Written by Jason Ruffell Smith


I recently had the opportunity to travel to Kansas City, Missouri to attend and present at the Nonprofit Innovation and Optimization (NIO) Summit put on by NextAfter. The week-long event consisted of learning-filled workshops, incredible presentations from global speakers and insightful conversations with attendees and exhibitors – all wrapped in a theme: The Wizard of Optimization.

The event itself is an annual conference for nonprofit marketers and fundraisers looking to grow their online fundraising. The organisers put together a jam packed schedule of industry leading presenters as well as tips from experts and suppliers – mainly from the North American market.

Instead of the more traditional multi-track setup that we are used to in Australia, NIO is a single stage, TED Talk style presentation approach supported by a large exhibitor hall complete with supplier booths, a live Q&A stage, a ‘swag’ store and a dog petting area…yes there were puppies!!

NextAfter NIO Conference

Act 1

On the first day, I attended a full day workshop put on by NextAfter’s Nathan Hill and Courtney Gaines. The topic, Why should I give to you?, focused on the importance of your value proposition at every stage of the donor journey and answering that fundamental question.

One of my key takeaways from the workshop was:

“The strength of your value proposition is influenced by your donor’s entire experience”

As fundraisers, we are often quick to check the box of value prop in our campaigns and messaging. In doing so, we can forget that communicating our “why”, simply and effectively, at each stage of the journey is incredibly important to creating a deeper and richer connection with our audience. In Australia we commonly see this disconnect happening in digital appeals where there are multiple touch points with our known and prospective audiences.

NextAfter NIO Conference

Acts 2 & 3

When I first walked into the Kansas City Convention Center I was blown away by the size of the place. It would have been easy to get lost if it hadn’t been for the organisers clear signposting….and a yellow brick road to follow.

NextAfter NIO Conference

First up was the opening to the conference which included a piece of theatrical drama playing out the beginning storyline of Dorothy and her friends (and foes) in the Wizard of Oz. Throughout the next two days, the actors put on a show in 5-10 minute increments scattered throughout the agenda to keep the audience engaged with some fun between the brain-frying but brilliant speaker sessions.

NextAfter NIO Conference

The keynote speaker this year was Jeff Giddens, President of NextAfter. His opening talk set the stage for what was to come and left the audience with some thought provoking ideas including the notion that ‘Humility might be the key to curiosity’ and this quote:

Being an expert is hard but through experimentation, we can build experience.

NextAfter NIO Conference

What followed were several insightful sessions from an incredible range of speakers who took the audience through the industry’s best fundraising practices as well as techniques and innovations from the commercial and for-purpose sectors.

Nathan Hill’s session on ‘4 insights from the latest 2022 research’ spoke to the importance of not ignoring the simple things in your campaigns. From the data so many charities overlook, basic principles in their email communications, social media messaging and donation page set ups.

Courtney Gaines and Dana Snyder both talked about the donor journey and why it is critical to give our donors a tailored and personalized experience to show them that we care.

To end day 1, Marcus Sheridan delivered an energetic presentation that shared a unique perspective on how charities should look at their own digital marketing by creating content that answers the questions donors are asking.

On day 2, I had the chance to hear from Ton Wesseling, an evidence based growth expert on ‘How to build your experimentation engine’ as well Michael Norton from Harvard Business School on the science and psychology behind giving.

Next, I had my own opportunity to stand on a stage in front of a room of peers and industry experts to talk about community fundraising – a true highlight of my career.

After my session I jumped in on the Live Stream Stage with Tim Kachuriak, Founder and CIO at NextAfter, and Benjamin Johnson, Champion of Growth at Frontier Marketing (Canada), to talk about how we are working together to bring NextAfter’s methodology and approach to charities in our respective markets.

To finish up the conference, we heard from Brady Josephson, Marketing and Growth Lead at Charity :Water. His commitment is unwavering and the transparency that he provided in his presentation on what was working and not working inside the charity was incredible.

Bummed you missed out? Not to worry – you can access all the main session recordings, speaker interviews, session slides, etc. here (note that the link to session slides appears at the end of each recording).

NextAfter NIO Conference

Curtain Close

As I reflect on my week at NIO I am in awe of how incredible the event was. From the pre and post workshops, to the speakers and suppliers, to the basketball networking party and live music party, to the final night festivities (not to mention the epic hangover that followed) – I had a blast!

I left feeling inspired knowing that there is so much we can be doing to improve our digital fundraising and marketing efforts. The opportunity to learn from our donors through experimentation and optimization is massive. We just have to seize it!

I will leave you with two quotes from the conference that particularly resonated with me:

Start with the soul, end with the donation. – CC Chapman

Find utility in the knowledge that is shared and unlock generosity – Tim Kachuriak

Finally, if you have the chance to attend next year’s NIO summit in Dallas, Texas I strongly encourage you to go, or at least get access to the virtual presentations. You can learn more on their website.

NextAfter NIO Conference