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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.
“So what’s to be done? The good news is that I think ultimately increasing donors is a shitty reason to care about impact metrics. To the extent that there can be a culture shift to focus on impact among foundations and “professionalized” change makers, great. But I think the real culture shift is to get nonprofit leaders to recognize the intense responsibility they have for constantly improving impact.” So says Nathaniel Whittemore in a post on change.org. He’s responding to study results that show that donors don’t necessarily do due diligence when deciding to give, that “[m]ost people give because they feel a longing to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”
I gotta say, the author’s use ‘donors’ to represent current, past and prospective donors made this post a tough read. This distinction is not a pedantic one, and it changes the effectiveness of his message. The story a nonprofit would tell to any of them will vary constantly, and it should vary as long as segmenting is possible. Because the issue here is NOT if donors care — the issue is if donors care enough to give again.
In a normal fundraising year, the story told to past and current donors deserves more time, money, resources, love than the story one would tell to prospective donors. The donors’ message would lead them to believe that THEY themselves made the service impact, that the organization was just the tool used. These donors are more likely to allow for some use gifts for non-service functions like salaries and office space if they know the people who run their charity. Nonprofits do a pretty crap job of making the case for operational expenses in general, and measurement groups who apply arbitrary percentages to define a respectable maximum allowable operational expense for all orgs don’t help, but a lot of donors are pretty pragmatic about these expenses. Sustaining this pragmatism by demonstrating the success of impact is a path to giving success. And a retained donor and a retained dollar is a critical projection method for future gift revenue streams. In a 2009 study across all 26 segments of the US nonprofit organization types as determined by a consortium of trade groups (AFP, CASE, Urban Institute, and others …), researchers found that, for every $6 an organization raised in 2009, more than $6 was lost due to donor attrition. Ack!
So, acquiring donors by means of friendships and relationships is in no way new — I ask the same folks to donate to my son’s charity walk every year, and they do because my passion demonstrates that I understand the impact of giving. I retain these donors. None of these donors ask if the charity meets its mission because they think I believe it does. I wouldn’t even mind if one would be a cynical pragmatist and ask why give to this organization, right now, because I have a passionate case to make in response. Network for Good and sixdegree.org’s research in this phenomenon describes me as a “superactivist,” a trustworthy case-maker.
Does this the superactivist system work in a cataclysmic charity environment like post-Haiti or the Michael Vick cruelty story? The typical superactivist model does not seem to be as important, and giving because of a network matters, but not to the same degree. And in this model, acquisition is easier and often faster — but often the technological limitations (and possibly corporate net neutrality villainousness) of giving mechanisms reduces retention options. It’s hard for a charity to collect donor data from a text gift due to lack of shared data, for example. To text ‘Haiti’ was perceived by the public to be a gift to a critical need via a trusted delivery method portrayed in the media as well as by friends. Did the majority of those who sent that text trust that it would all be used for Haiti, and by a reputable organization? Did they know that their phone provider could charge a fee, that the phone company would not likely share their address info with that organization, or that they wouldn’t get a ping-back thanks or even a message other than the charge total on their bill? I found it hard to discern the answers to these questions in the weeks that followed the hurricane. In an informal poll in the week following the hurricane, 100% of the 45 people I asked who did text ‘Haiti’ were not sure if they would text ‘Haiti’ again in a month. Most were not sure who got their gift!
Donor retention in religious organizations is a fascinating story. Why do Catholics give to the Church when the Church’s use of funds has been so widely portrayed as questionable? A family member told me that she continues to give because, although there has been abuse and error, the overriding sense that the Church is performing a greater good overall is a strong case for support. And she gets that message every week, without fail. The Church is a conduit to actually achieving the work, in some ways in spite of itself. In this way, donors do care about the impact, enough to overlook conflicts in mission and performance.
The pitfalls of mindless acquisition are many, especially when the acquisition is made to appease the potential donor’s pet interest without a full understanding of the implicit costs of a service change or re-focus. I once asked a prospective donor for a 7-figure gift, and he agreed to make it as long as it served to create a new professorship in a field that was not in line with the university’s mission. It was so tempting to make that gift (7-figures!), to find a professor to do that job! But program service would have failed in the long run – the professor would have been insufficiently supported in the pedagogical plan of his department, and if he left after a program was built around him, the students were shafted. I like to think of that donor, and one who would give to create a scholarship for what amounted to an imaginary student with impossible award criteria, as the Consummate Objection Statement Makers. They will give only if the mission is sure to fail!
High performance in service and in fundraising is critically dependent on donor retention, on those who demonstrated that they have bought in to the operational success only as much as is needed as long as the service goals are reached. Retained donors will continue to feed the revenue stream long-term so the mission is met. New donors are only retained if they self-assess or assess a trusted casemaker’s claim that it will, and are assured that they made it happen.
My friend Jonathan put this question up for discussion: “As a ‘development’ ploy, a charity sends a two dollar check, asking that the recipient not cash it and donate instead. Cash it or not?”
One friend said, “I cash it and donate double.”
Another said, “Stupid fundraising method. If I am the charity, I 1099 the people who cash the checks.”
Yet another wrote, “I think that the fact that a charity is using any of their assets to send out checks to anyone other than the stated benefactor of the charity, calls into question their management practices and their ability to responsibly manage donated funds. Think twice before donating to them; find another charity to donate to & I wouldn’t cash the check.”
My first answer? I said cash it, keep the money, and make the gift that the direct mail piece was too silly to ask for outright. Send a note with the gift to comment on the concern he felt about this appeal type and ask that they exclude him from this type of scheme in the future. All fundraising techniques work for somebody sometime, and my guess is that Jonathan had been micro-segmented based on prior giving or some other variable. (Or maybe they thought he’s a little old lady with church-based guilt issues. If he was a knitter or crochet-er or quilter, maybe the charity bought a stitch craft magazine mailing list, or maybe it’s just a big ol’ zip code drop…).
The charity’s appeal might work. The yield for investment might actually be pretty good, and they may end up putting more money into their programming to benefit their mission. However, I doubt it is a well-thought-out endeavor since Jonathan received and questioned it. My suggestion that Jonathan give is based on a presumption that he cares about the mission of that particular charity, not because the solicitation warranted a response.
I have never recommended this appeal technique. My understanding of the logic behind this type of appeal is that the check amount (or a $1.00 bill — I’ve received that appeal before) is of a size that the donor will write a bigger check back — $2 barely pays for postage and printing from the charity and the effort of cutting a check and postage from the donor. Regrettably, this sets the scale of the ask too low too. But my main problem with this appeal is not that it doesn’t work — it does — or that the gift size is likely to be quite small, but guilt and trick giving is no way to build a relationship with a donor. For every $6 raised in a given year, non-profits typically retain only $5 the following year due to donor attrition. Why create extra tension for the donor about deciding to give if there is likely already a problem with keeping donors engaged? Why lead the donor to wonder at all about the motive of the solicitation?
Regarding the comment about management practices and the charity’s ability to responsibly manage donated funds, I am generally critical of the arbitrary measurement of 10-20% of budget maximum as an indicator of successful nonprofit fiscal management. Although it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should, a critical look at a 990 is a better way to gauge the charity’s fiscal health against one’s own values. Tell a for-profit company that, in any given year, they shouldn’t invest more in sales if it’s warranted, and they’d likely consider the request to be uninformed and insulting.
* quote from the 1985 movie “Better Off Dead,” one of my least favorite movies of all time and one with seemingly inexplicable cult appeal.
An advancement VP at a college asked an interesting question: “Why are nonprofits reluctant to hire experienced development officers from higher education for mid-level, senior, and executive positions?”
I don’t think he was fishing for help with a job search! I had a ‘Johnny-Depp-as-Willy-Wonka’ flashback to the time when I was leaving university fundraising and was dealing with this question up close. I asked some friends and clients about their answer to the question and got these replies (with a qualification that the candidate described has worked only in higher education fundraising):
1. The candidate is too skill- or task-specialized and doesn’t have experience with the wider range of responsibilities that he would need in a smaller npo or an npo with a different structure. OR, the candidate does not have a realistic understanding about the amount of time or resources needed to complete tasks because there were support staff and units in place to complete project components at the university. For example, there may have been another office that created publications or processed gifts or managed all the data, or completed some other critical task, and the candidate has not actually had to understand those processes. So, in a smaller organization, or one run in a more vertical non-hierarchical style, these understandings are more important.
2. The candidate will need more support to develop prospect and donor constituencies that are not automatically generated, unlike alumni or parents. Or, the candidate will need more time and training to develop case-making statements and content promotion that aren’t education-specific.
I can see the truth and error in both of these rationales. It all comes down to individual competencies and fit. I’d hate to think a good higher ed fundraiser wasn’t considered based on these assumptions. I can attest that a competent someone who loves to raise money, instead of running program, and understands the role of fundraising within the mission is a valuable person and can be taught technical steps. But I think higher education fundraisers who consider working outside the university should be mindful to understand the breadth of their experience with attention to the context outside of the university — it wouldn’t hurt anyone to develop professional curiosity about the functions and administration of other advancement departments and units.
Buried in the VP’s question was a funny subcontext — is money a factor for the smaller organization, or is agism? No one I spoke to even mentioned the possible income drop and related retention fear. No one flinched at hiring an older staffer either.