Mom always said: “Use your inside voice.” Mom was wrong.

Fundraising language for different audiences

Do donors get your inside voice?

I’ve been thinking about a blog post called “Down With Donors” by Kevin Schulman on the topic of transactional versus relationship fundraising and the implications for language associated with the uses of the word ‘donor’ and other perceptions of the relationship.

I’d like to frame the discussion in a different way, one of practical application.  When my then-preschool sons ran around the house yelling in typical pre-tackle-each-other boy rough-house fashion, I would say: “Use your inside voices, monkeys!”  And then I’d suggest an equally rambunctious outside activity for an area where skulls would hit soft earth and not hard tile during the wrestling part of the fun.

So there is a time to use your fundraising inside voice and your donor outside voice.  My feeling about the long-running donor and/or relationship debate comes with a pretty practical and down-to-earth application.  Nay, it’s not just an issue of marketing and sales research, and I get that it has philosophical implications too. (And it’s increasingly described as an emerging trend — it’s been an issue for me in my 20+ years fundraising, so if it’s an emerging trend, I feel pretty freaking emerged)

What, with all the ‘donor-centric’ (by the way, someone actually owns the copyright on this lovely phrase) this and ‘donor-focused’ that, we’ve crossed a more important line in the professionalism of fundraising management.  I’m guilty — my company focuses specifically on donor retention and predictive donor analytics — but as a consultant, I’m not wrong (and THAT, my friends, is consultant bravado!).

Anyone who has worked with volunteers who fundraise on behalf of an organization knows this: do you call your donors ‘donors’ in front of volunteers? Do you use your inside lingo when you talk to people outside your organization? In my pre-consultant days as a professional fundraiser for annual funds, major and regional giving, campaigns and principal gifts, I managed large 200+ member volunteer groups and small 5-person volunteer groups.  If I dared slip and say ‘donor’ or ‘prospect’ or ‘suspect’  or ‘lybunt’ or ‘sybunt’ or ‘never-givers’ or ‘lost’ or ‘constituent’ or (I kid you not — I’ve actually heard) ‘kill’ or ‘ATM’ in front of a gathering of volunteers, I knew I’d screwed up. I had negated their experience as partners in our mission by labeling them as something other than human.

Labels mean a lot in fundraising, and we can have internal labels, an inside voice. When my lovely Gantt chart accounts for the execution of segmented direct mail or social media outreach (be it solicitation, cultivation or stewardship), I don’t pass that out a colorful longitudinal planning document in a volunteer meeting.  I share it with my colleagues for feedback and implementation.  But we can’t-can’t-can’t use the same segmentation and process labels externally with our friends.  Don’t get me wrong — some of my most effective volunteers understand the internal language and understand their role as friend and donor.  But most external constituents think of themselves as, I don’t know, maybe ‘people’.  And, just as one prepares nice and accurate name tags at events because the only thing that every person owns is his or her name, you’ve got to call them by name or in a language that gives them a supportive role, not a reductive label that implies that they are each a production entity.

In a training session with a client’s board last month, I had to think about the material I was putting up on the wall for their review.  Do I use a Venn diagram to explain the priorities assigned to wealth, giving and engagement variable in their specific predictive model?  To quote the hash tag bard and late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon, #awwhellno.  I found examples of actual people who were more or less interested in their cause, and I said “Let’s talk to more of the ‘more interested’ people! And here are some ways to help you do that! Woot!”

So here’s what I recommend. Draw a chart on the white board. Label one column: “These are OK to use outside our office.” Label one “Let’s not say this outside our office.”  Bring in your fundraising staff AND your administrative staff AND your executive staff. Have a nice 15 minute training session on the application of these words in different settings.  What should we say about giving and our donors in front of our volunteers, to the press, on a fundraising call, to our vendors, in a personal letter or direct mailing or newsletter? Ask them for scenarios when they have to talk about giving, and figure out what words and phrases might be best.  And be kind — everyone screws up and says something that might be perceived in a way we can’t expect.  It would be so sad to scare your colleagues away from helping you with your fundraising mission because you were a scold.  But every screw up is a chance to find new ways to say that we like each donor, lybunt, sybunt, never-giver, lost, or constituent as a person, not as an ATM.


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