Fundraising Lessons from Trader Joe’s for the Small Nonprofit

July 7, 2016

If today, in the year 2016, your job title falls under the category of “one-person development department,” it’s very likely that sometimes, you feel like a chicken running around with its head cut off.

I mean, think about it. The mere prospect of a OPDD is enough to trigger even the most seasoned CFRE to blanch, sweat bullets and clench clammy fists in anxiety. When it comes to the OPDD working at a small nonprofit, they’re often juggling diverse skills, including but not limited to: grant proposal writing, individual giving, copywriting, stewardship, database management, major gift officer, data entry, website creation and maintenance, event planning and more! Whew. 

778-Davie-StoreAnd what’s that, now? Your organization is being advised that Facebook and Twitter accounts are a must? Alas, it doesn’t even end there! What about Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat? You really want to harness the power of all available social media avenues, don’t you? There’s even been serious talk about social currency, so what better way to capitalize on that now, before everyone jumps on board?

Ah, the pressure. How on earth is a smart DD to do it all?

Brace yourself for the big news, folks: you shouldn’t want to focus on all of that stuff, because you don’t have to focus on all of that stuff.

Case in point: While waiting for a Trader Joe’s crew member to check out my grocery motherlode the other day, I innocently enquired why Trader Joe’s wasn’t yet on Instacart, my latest addiction. Instacart caters to lazy souls who don’t feel inclined to venture out into the local sea of SUVs in pursuit of their groceries and basic needs. For a small fee, you can order groceries  from Whole Foods, Coscto, and more, and have them delivered to your door in just an hour. Genius, no?

Instacart and Amazon Prime have been ruling my life lately.

“It’s deliberate,” Ben, the Trader Joe’s crew member replied. “The owner believes that it’s all about the Trader Joe’s store experience. You’ll notice we don’t really do anything much online.”

Sure enough, this fantastically fun, beloved, off-the-beaten-path grocery chain is equipped with a terrific website, featuring locations, new items, and recipes. But there’s a lack of social media links to be found anywhere, and in this day and age, it feels conspicuous. Trader Joe’s isn’t on Facebook or Twitter. And Instagram? Fuggedaboutit.

But is their lack of social media presence really a lack at all? Has it hurt Trader Joe’s in terms of sales, or identity? At this point, their solid gold reputation and ubiquity precede them. In 2010, Fortune magazine estimated Trader Joe’s sales per square foot of floor space to be $1,750 — more than double that generated by the oh-so “in the know” Whole Foods Market.[2] (Wiki)

It’s possible that you’re scratching your head, wondering how, and what, the savvy small nonprofit can learn from Trader Joe’s.

I’ll start with one word, and I urge you to do the same: focus.

Trader Joe’s doesn’t advertise — at least, not in the traditional sense. There’s no big advertising agency, print, or television ads involved in their overall big picture, and it’s worked well for them.

Instead, TJ’s utilizes a direct mail approach to reach their customers, and they do this by way of their monthly Trader Joe’s Frequent Flyer ad, a mail piece that you’re naturally inspired to read from cover to cover. Reminiscent of the classic J Peterman catalogs of the 1980’s and spiked with a dose of humor, the Frequent Flyer features simple line drawings with descriptions like this:

Trader Joe’s Mango Joe-Joe’s are the inevitable mango manifestation of our now-iconic Joe-Joe’s sandwich cookies. Crisp, round cookies with a sweet, creamy filling in between, Mango Joe-Joe’s only differ from their cookie cousins in their dominant flavor – mango. The cookies are mango flavored, the cream is mango flavored, and the end result is mango-tastic. The recipe uses mango purée, mango powder, and natural mango flavor, so you can be sure the mango makes itself known from start to finish.

Bite into a Mango Joe-Joe and eat it the conventional way. Twist the cookies apart and eat the cream first. Crumble them over ice Mango & Cream Ice Cream. Use them to make a cookie crust for an ice cream cake. The only way you won’t enjoy them is if you neglect to remove them from the box. Then again, even the artwork on the box is quite enjoyable. Equally enjoyable is our price of $2.99 for each 10.5 ounce box, only at your neighborhood Trader Joe’s.

You know what? I don’t love mango. My ex-husband and daughters love mangoes, but me? Not so much. And yet as a result of TJ’s superpowers (or ingenious communication), I was inspired. I was charmed. I was motivated to buy a box, and so I did, and so I liked.

Trader Joe’s focuses on all the stuff that matters and they don’t get wrapped up in the extraneous nonsense of page likes, Instagram filters, and tweets. Their heart and soul is deeply invested in their customer service, their unique Trader Joe’s experience, their culture, and the brand they’ve spent years building, from the inside out.

And at the core of their carefully carved niche in the grocery world are their good people. In their entirety, TJ’s emerges as something genuine, real, and unpretentious, and their people are crucial to their eclectic, slightly eccentric appeal. Their brand and identity are obvious, and their “crew members,” are an integral aspect of the in-store experience. Their employees’ enthusiasm is unbridled without being over the top, and it is genuine. They treat you as a friend and without a hint of ulterior motive; it’s not because they want you to like their social media posts.

Employee training covers all of the bases, including communication, teamwork, leadership and product knowledge. Their varied responsibilities (cashier, stocker, customer service) are evaluated on the quarterly. And they are happy. Part-timers comprise 70 percent of the staff, and turnover is 4 percent annually, way below that of typical grocery stores. Their managerial structure is simple. But what really sticks out at first glance? The atmosphere. Before you experience the warmth, the eats ranging from basic to extra inspired, you’ll see the Hawaiian-clad crew and banners in keeping with the tropical theme. Chalkboards highlight new products, and along with accompanying drawings, they echo the tried and true aesthetic of their Frequent Flyer.

Okay, so back to the looming question: How can the time and resource-strapped OPDD emulate Trader Joe’s bastion of grocery awesomeness? I’ve witnessed the greatest success from members and subscribers of mine who do certain things. They achieve their success because they zero in and focus on perfecting one to three key components. Rather than spreading themselves too thin and across the unruly, volatile seas of social media, they instead begin with either direct mail or email – and they master the channel, utilizing it at ultimate capacity. And that’s where they harness their power. Because when you pick the right things, it’s more than enough to build an identity, a culture, and a brand.

Several nonprofits started by paying close attention to growing their email lists. And now? These organizations consistently run multiple successful online campaigns each year — campaigns that have now branched out into direct mail territory.

My most successful students also place customer donor experience at the heart of what matters, making it a point to call each and every first-time donor to connect one-on-one. Like a friend.

Sure, if you’ve got an expansive staff who’s ready, willing, and able, perhaps you can afford to experiment with the instafacetwitchatscape of social media. But for the smaller organization? Navigating it is probably as confusing (and pointless) as it sounds, and you’ll just be a little fish in a gigantic ocean of mayhem. So instead, take the time to create your goals by deciding on what matters to you, and focus in on one to three of them with laser-like intensity, until you get it right. Because you will get it right.

UPDATE: Trader Joe’s is now on Instagram! Follow them here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Darla Berry July 7, 2016 at 10:21 am

instafacetwitchatscape, I love it!!!

Nice article and very inspiring.

Harold A. July 12, 2016 at 10:48 pm

Hello, Thank you for sharing this post, it was great to read about this positive experience, I did see the part where it mentions social media and how big of a role that plays into the deal, I was wondering if this could also be consider a double edge sword? I say that because if social media is used in a manner that does not benefit the business than it could be bad, as an example I know of a business that had a facebook page where only the angry clients would comment, I mean is usually those that make sure everybody knows that they had a bad experience, all the happy ones just go to enjoy their good products and never get in contact again unless they want another one, I was reading on another blog from and they have very similar views, I actually asked them the same question but I have not gotten a responce either, so if anybody could help me find out what’s best to have and how to use it properly that would be great, thank you.

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