What prompted me to write this article was a recent post by Matthew Sherrington on the 101 Fundraising Blog about the dangers to the public benefit sector posed by erosion of trust. We’ve known for some time that whenever there’s a charity scandal, the bad behavior of one player can become detrimental to all. But over the past year in the U.K. the problem has become even more challenging. Could it happen here? Matthew says “yes.” And I concur. Trust is a fragile thing.
In the U.K what happened was a perfect storm of perceived over-solicitation and insufficient outcomes, exacerbated by a barrage of media that sounded an alarm about nefarious practices. Trust plummeted. A wake-up call, for sure.
But what does it mean? A recent debate about innovation and best practice has suggested that charities stop copying each other, leading to a host of “look-alike” strategies that begin to get donors ticked off. Joe Jenkins shared the notion that the social benefit sector has “a big problem—the entrenched homogeneity of charity communications. To the rest of the world we mostly look, act and appear to be the same.” Culprits in the U.K have included excessive mail, intrusive phone calls, and irritating face-to-face fundraising.
I suggested that familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt. I would hate to see charities become so paralyzed by what happened in the U.K that they become fearful of making enough appeals to raise the funds needed to fulfill their missions.
There are other ways to restore and build trust and loyalty. Let me suggest a “Top 10”:
1. Thank promptly and personally
When a donor makes a first gift, they really need to be reassured that their money didn’t go into a black hole. Now; not three weeks from now. People are wired for instant gratification. And as true as that ever was, it’s even more so today in the digitally revolutionized age we’re in. If you make folks wait for something they are likely to think, think and overthink. This will likely not be beneficial to you.
And they need to know it will be used for the purpose they intended. Align the thank you with the appeal’s stated purpose; no generic receipts thanking them for “money.” Satisfy the donor that you’ll be a good steward of their gifted resources. Satisfaction is a huge builder of trust; it sets you up for building a lasting relationship.
2. Report on impact
Demonstrate specifically how your donor’s philanthropy was used. Not just once, but multiple times in order to reinforce for the donor that s/he made a good decision. Consistency in satisfying supporters is critical to sustaining support. Use your initial thank you letter. Use your blog or e-news. Place stories on your website. Send photos and videos on social media. Seeing is believing.
3. Be honest and transparent
Make financials readily available. Explain what the numbers mean, especially your “overhead” since donors have become disposed to think of this as evil. Clarify your goals and objectives. Respond truthfully to donor comments, inquiries and complaints. Admit mistakes, and let folks know what you learned and how you’ll do things differently moving forward. Check out this detailed blog post from Invisible Children for an example of how this can be done.
4. Provide outstanding donor service
Delight your donors whenever you can. If you want gifts you must give them. Create positive “wow” moments to surprise your supporters. This relates to the top reason customers become repeat customers — the social construct of reciprocity. The act of surprise reciprocity is even better. Psychologist Norbert Schwarz found in a 1987 study that it doesn’t take much to start the process of reciprocity; even the smallest of favors allow goodwill to be bought with customers, increasing loyalty and retention. In fact, in another study by Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he noted that subjects were prone to rate others as much more likable when they had simply bought them a can of soda.
Thank supporters more than once, and more than one way. Send little greetings. Make thank you phone calls. Offer little token gifts of appreciation. Acknowledge folks publicly; praise grows in a group setting. Don’t just do the traditional donor honor roll listings. Connect with donors on social media; fan them, follow them and favorite them.
Make someone on your staff responsible for donor service. Make it their explicit goal to build trust. Trust is your new marketing asset. It comes from showing you care about folks for who they are (people who share your values), and not just for their money.
5. Don’t just report; communicate
Research shows the primary reasons why donors sever ties with nonprofits are closely connected to failed communication strategies. If you want folks to pay attention to what you have to say, begin by paying attention to what they have to say. Create an ongoing dialogue. Survey more, ask for feedback more (on social media, remit devices, newsletters, etc.) and really listen.
When your donor takes any asked-for action, acknowledge their contribution. There’s little point in being active on social media – asking supporters to retweet your posts, put things up on their Facebook page, pin things to their Pinterest board, and so forth – unless you’re going to respond in kind. Socially. Thank them for what they did. Respond to their comment. Follow up with a report on the outcome of your survey, quiz or contest.
6. Serve up donor-centered content
When folks report they’re being overloaded with information, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they want to hear from you less. What they want is less irrelevant junk. Stuff about you. Make it about them.
The new-school approach to marketing is “friend of mind awareness.” You must engage enough with your potential supporters that you’re able to discern their needs and longings. You must get inside their heads and search for empathy. If you just brag about how great you are, you may create “top of mind awareness,” but it will do you little good. It’s an old-school approach to marketing. To succeed today you must do more helping, less selling.
Help donors see themselves as actors in a story that reflects their very best self. How they’d like to view themselves. As the hero, rescuer and savior. Donors want to make an impact; they’re not focused on money. If all you do is talk about your fundraising goals and how much things cost, you’re going to miss the point of fundraising entirely.
7. Stand for something
Another word for fundraising is “matchmaking.” Matchmakers help people find their soul mates. They strive to connect folks based on shared values. So take a page from Seth Godin’s book and serve up value-laden content that matches donor values (which, again, requires that you spend time communicating and listening – see #5, above). Marketing today must resonate with what your constituents believe.
Loyalty is built on shared values. One study found that of customers who expressed a strong relationship with a particular brand, 64% said it was because of the values they ascribed to that company – which they shared. One example is Tom’s shoes which has a loyal customer base who like their One for One movement, which gives a pair of shoes to a needy person in the world for each purchase. Timberland emphasizes their G.R.E.E.N Standard, in which they balance profitability and community service. You need to figure out what your organization stands for; then sell it!
8. Make an enemy
Distinguish yourself from the bad players in the sector. Show you are as repulsed by those behaviors as are your donors. Research from social psychologist Henri Tajfel shows how human beings unite in loyalty to their “in group.” Of course, this requires that there be an “out group.” Hence, as an example, the Mac vs. PC ads. Nonprofit folk tend not to like to label others as “enemies,” so think of this as a branding exercise. You are different from your competition.
Describe what makes you special, and why it’s a good thing. This is an exercise in creating a “unique selling proposition” – which is as much about spelling out who you’re not as who you are.
9. Develop personal connections
Where people have a personal connection to charities, trust and confidence rises. This is born out by a recent U.K. study as well as by research by Adrian Sargeant and Elaine Jay in “Building Donor Loyalty: The Fundraiser’s Guide to Increasing Lifetime Value,” Ken Burnett in “Relationship Fundraising: A Donor Based Approach to the Business of Raising Money,” Roger Craver in “Retention Fundraising: The New Art and Science of Keeping Your Donors for Life” and, most recently, the Rogare Relationship Fundraising Review on drivers of donor loyalty.
It’s also common sense that if I have a personal relationship to your charity I’m more likely to stick with you through thick and thin. So pay attention to folks where these relationships already exist (e.g., staff, donors, former donors, clients, members, buyers, alumni, parents, patients, volunteers and family and friends of all of these folks). And make these connections where they don’t yet exist (e.g., invite people to participate in free events, tours, volunteer activities, advocacy initiatives, etc.).
Everyone in the organization must take responsibility for building personal connections. Ian MacQuillan recently called this “total relationship fundraising.” Others call it developing a “culture of philanthropy.” Whatever you call it, the truth is that donors know only one organization. Anything that anyone associated with you does reflects on you, positively or negatively. Another truth is that the more connections/contacts a donor has with your organization, the less likely you will be to lose them if one of those contacts departs.
10. Do no harm
Matthew Sherrington suggests that doing something just “because it works” is not good enough. He wants charities to ask “for whom does it work” as well, because “it’s clear that a lot of fundraising activity has got a lot of people rather disenchanted with charities, and once they realised they weren’t alone in feeling that, they’ve been vocal about it.” This is understandable given the current climate in the U.K; yet I’m still concerned about over-reaction.
I’d amend “because it works” to include the imperative of the medical profession: “First, do no harm.” So it has to work and also not harm the sector as a whole. Before doing anything, I always try to ask “What will the donor think?” It’s not always easy to get this answer right, because working on the inside (within the NPO walls) leads to insider thinking. So the question has to be asked of outsiders as well (back to the need to ask for and respond to feedback).
I’d still counsel charities to ask “What’s working out there?” followed by “How can we adapt that to make it work for us?” But perhaps this should then be followed by “How might this be harmful?” What works is always evolving. Just because it worked for Charity A yesterday doesn’t mean it will work for Charity B tomorrow. So, adopting any new strategy requires a mini SWOT analysis. It may be replete with strengths and opportunities, yet the weaknesses it plays upon and threats it poses may outweigh the good.
TAKING TIME TO THINK IS IMPORTANT
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Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles, freedigitalphotos.net