Open Letter from a Potential Donor

One of my friends posted this to Facebook last week:

Dear Various Charities, Do not send us mail more than once a year if at all. Do not include stickers, address labels, a penny, a miniature plastic crutch (WTF?), etc. You are wasting resources, even if donated to you by businesses that will write of their efforts. Furthermore: Do not put pictures of abused people and children on the envelopes. I have a stomach for removing fly eggs from a baby animal's eyes, but that doesn't mean I wish to stomach grotesques as I sift through each day's mail. One time offer: the first charity to send me one letter making it's plea and promising to never contact me again will win a monthly withdrawal (though small) from my bank account to last until your cause is solved, you are proved a fraud, or I die.

When I read it, two parts of my personality had a little fight about what it meant.

My donor self was jumping up and down, screaming “AMEN!”  I give $25.00 to almost every cause that comes across my Facebook wall and get a real thrill out of being able to give more substantial donations to more organizations as my income level rises.  I love giving to causes that are important to my friends.  While I’d be receptive to a personal ask from an organization that took time to get to know me and what I care about, impersonal mailings and telemarketing style phone calls are a huge, personal turn off.

On the other hand, my nonprofit professional self knows these fundraising techniques are prevalent not only because they work, but because even though I don’t like them, they provide some people exactly what they need to feel good about making a donation.

The more I think about it, the more I realize the needs and preferences of donors like me are diametrically opposed to the needs and preferences of the (currently) typical nonprofit donor.

I like to discover new organizations on my own or through my friends, and then read as much as I can about the organization (from their perspective, and from the perspective of other donors) on-line.  I might subscribe to an e-newsletter, but I don’t read direct mail appeals (except as research). I won’t provide a phone number, and I’ll only make a donation if I can do so quickly and easily on-line.

On the other hand, every fundraiser on the planet will tell you the only reliable way to raise money is to ask people to give–and that one “touch” per year will rarely lead to a gift.   Research also shows while on-line giving is on the rise,  it still only accounted for 7.6% of all fundraising for nonprofit causes in 2010.  Which means if an organization were to fundraise in 2011 exclusively in ways that work for me, most of their donors would be unhappy.

But, as wise Muppets tell us, the current fundraising landscape is only “for now”  What works in 2011 will not work in 2021, and fundraising strategies don’t turn on a dime.

So what is a development director (or volunteer fundraiser) to do?

I don’t have the all the answers,  but I’d love to get a conversation started about what the path forward might hold.  To that end, I’ve shared some questions below to get us started.  I hope you’ll join me in the comment section to discuss them!

The Questions

  • Is it ok to use fundraising techniques donors profess to dislike, but that continue to work?
  • Are donors “reliable narrators” when it comes to reporting what inspires them to give?
  • How can we cultivate donors who are put off by traditional fundraising techniques, without risking our relationships with the donors who are comfortable with the way things are?
  • Would you accept a small, monthly donation from someone who stipulated you could never contact them again? Why or why not?
  • How do you develop a relationship with a donor who doesn’t want you to contact her?
  • Could you benefit from reaching out to people who may have less disposable income, but are approached by fewer organizations?

What questions does this conversation bring up for you?

11 thoughts on “Open Letter from a Potential Donor

  1. Well, I don’t know about from the non-profit side, but I DO know from this donor’s side that there are several national animal rescue groups (some QUITE famous) who will not be getting a dime from me because of their ads.

    I agree with the person above that I do not want to see abuse, and if that’s all they think of me, than that charity & I are not each other’s Right People and therefore not be receiving any money from me.

    So yeah, I AM voting with my dollars.

    • Thanks Birdy for sharing a “regular person” perspective. When you’ve spent a lot of time inside an organization (or a sector even!) It can be hard to think about your work from a potential donor’s perspective.

  2. Great conversation to have — Looking forward to hearing from others on this. You asked “How do you develop a relationship with a donor who doesn’t want you to contact her?” I think we need to work on engaging our core advocates more than ever and giving them the communications tools to reach out and develop relationships on our behalf. Isn’t that the power of social media and other new communications technologies? We can now make it easier than ever for new people to hear about causes and ways to support them from their already engaged family, friends and colleagues. A lot of people will prefer this rather than getting messages from development staff. But we do need to get better at making it easy for people to participate easily and in a meaningful way when they hear about our causes from their own network.

    • What a great point, Karen. Hearing about an organization from a friend is much different than hearing about it from the development director (unless the development director is also your friend.) Your solution, (which I love) brings up another difficulty for organizations. We can no longer even pretend to have total control over our message. The sooner we learn to trust our current supporters to spread the word for us, even if they don’t “say it” the way we would, the better off we’ll be.

      I too, am looking forward to the conversation. Can’t wait for others to chime in!

  3. My history as a donor:
    It was the late 80’s I was young and astonished to learn about all the environmental problems in the world. I became obsessed with the dolphin/tuna net issue. My mother gave me a membership in Greenpeace and an awesome rainforest t-shirt for my 13th birthday. I was a semi-active member of Greenpeace and Amnesty
    International through most of my teens. Then I became a starving acting student and fell out of the donor loop…

    At age 23 I found myself in a decent desk job with a decent salary. A highly respected theatre with a great yearly repertory called me up to offer a special ticket price for their “young professionals”. Now this isn’t a straight up donation, but seasonal ticket sales are an important part of a theatre and I was already aware that theatres were looking to groom a young audience/patron base before their older more established patrons *ahem* died off. I enjoyed the tickets, felt special to be called a young professional, and got to feel like being an real patron was in my eventual future.

    A few years later a friend founded a grassroots hip hop culture community center. It was seriously a ground up affair founded on the commitment of some awesome hip hop dancers and artists, a unique and forward thinking governance plan that included the kids in the program, and the support (volunteer and financial) of an impressive network of friends and family the founder had developed through years of community and social work. We were all proud to donate to this program for many reasons. Friends of friends of friends wrote checks and attended performances simply because it was so exciting that a peer had started this amazing thing. The fundraising efforts became more sophisticated over time. But in the beginning this idea of being personally connected to a program opened a lot of hearts and wallets of twenty somethings with expendable income. These weren’t huge donations, but it got the ball rolling. The program is now internationally recognized for it’s ground breaking approach. I feel pride having been a part of that.

    Then the letters started hitting the doorstep. To be honest, any organization we’ve given to already had name recognition. (Doctor’s Without Borders for example.) The letter would do it’s trick by inviting us to contribute. I know we can use an occasional reminder to re-up our commitment, so I see your quandry.

    The other donations we make are more personal. We have plenty of active friends riding, running, whatevering for charities they believe in and we support them. And more recently, after saving a baby opossum (the animal mentioned in my fb post) I am giving some support to a local wildlife rehabilitation center. Meeting the woman in charge and having this intense personal experience started that donor relationship.

    I’ve considered a plan to call each organization and request they cease the mailings. Then I put the org on a list, maybe even on my calendar, to remind me to keep up with them. That of course, will require a certain proactivity… I haven’t done this yet.

  4. I am both a donor and a professional fundraiser. I used to give modestly to several organizations that met my personal criteria (Medecins sans frontiers, Habitat, Heifer International, Oxfam, Union Mission, YWCA, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund) in addition to my own arts employer and the church to which I belong. I received all kinds of stuff from other organizations which thought I fit their donor profile. As a professional, I knew those groups were hoping to reel me in in a weak moment. Sometimes it worked when I got a swell premium, but it was never a lasting relationship. In the meantime I gave away greeting cards, maps of the world, etc., to my mentee family who could not purchase such items, and I always used the address labels.
    I now work for Habitat at a fraction of what I used to earn, so right now, other than Habitat or the church, no one is getting anything. Know what? I’m no longer on anyone’s list. Interesting, n’est-ce pas?

  5. Cecily and Carla– Thanks so much for sharing your “donor profiles!” I want to avoid the trap of using anecdotes as data, but I do think both of your experiences bring up interesting points:

    First, I happen to know Cecily is not yet 40. Conventional wisdom says she’s “too young” to be a donor. And yet she’s been doing so for 20 some years. I’m guessing she’s not the only one.

    Second, (and this isn’t news) we give where we are connected–to the causes or organization’s we or our friends have helped build. If that’s the case, is buying new mailing lists and sending more unsolicited mail really the best way to increase donations?

    Finally, Kivi of Nonprofit Marketing Guide Fame shared research on her blog this morning that’ s quite relevant to our conversation–turns out A majority of donors now prefer online to print

  6. Hi Megan! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your post. It seems it’s not just “young” people who have trouble with the freebies.

    I do think donations require a relationship based “gift” economy to work well (for both the donor and the organization) the problem with these sorts of mass mailed gifts is they honor the letter, but not the spirit of a gift economy–and so while they can be effective, many people are left with a bit of a slimy feeling.

    Turns out creating real relationships takes time–and can’t really be faked.

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