Sometimes major donors give less than the previous year.
Sometimes they stop giving to you entirely.
What’s the worst sin committed by fundraisers when this happens?
What’s the second worst sin?
Assuming it has nothing to do with you.
Sure, sometimes donors’ priorities change. Or some of their money goes to an emergency or crisis appeal rather than to your organization.
Whenever a donor downgrades or lapses, you’re free to rationalize it this way. But making excuses, either for your donor, your organization or yourself, is unlikely to help you generate the support you need for the long haul.
Plus, you know what is said about the word assume.
I’m going to lay a truth bomb on you.
You’re not going to like it. And you may get defensive. But it’s accurate. And it’s true, because people are human. And one of the principal things human beings care about, per the master of influence and persuasion Robert Cialdini, is being consistent.
So, here’s the truth:
Once a donor makes a commitment to you, especially a major one, you have to do (or not do) something to get them to change their mind.
Most of the time, the reason a donor gives you less (or zilch) is because of how you treated them.
It may be pure neglect on your part.
They gave, you sent a thank you letter, and then that was the end of it. You didn’t engage with them the rest of the year, except when you were ready to ask for another gift. They may have felt their gift didn’t mean that much to you. This didn’t make them feel good about their giving. Here’s what one of the participants in Penelope Burk’s annual donor-centered fundraising study had to say:
“I didn’t receive any information at all after making a gift to a not-for-profit last year. I wonder what they did with the money and whether it helped.”
— Anonymous donor
And then you compounded the sin by never asking them why they gave less or stopped giving. Here’s what another Burk study participant had to say:
“Not-for-profits are quick to point it out when I go slightly longer than 12 months without giving. They send me notes like, “Sorry we haven’t heard from you lately” but they never ask me why. If I were responsible for donors, I would want to know.”
— Anonymous donor
It may be not saying thank you enough.
Gratitude is more important than what most nonprofits give it credit for, and neglecting to pay it its due is a recipe for disaster. I often say “if you ask well you get one gift; if you thank well, you get a lifetime of gifts.” Here’s what another Burk study participant had to say:
“There were two instances this year where I made gifts over and above what I had intended and they both involved personal contact from someone in the development office (director or gifts officer). Being thanked for my previous gift was much more persuasive than receiving multiple emails and direct mail letters.”
— Anonymous donor
It may be not listening.
If your donor told you something about themselves, particularly if it’s about their personal passions or their feelings about your programmatic direction, they expect you to acknowledge that. Here’s what one donor recently told me:
“I participate regularly in their donor insight panel. There’s always a “Anything else you’d like to tell us?” question. Recently I let them know I was concerned about a position they’d taken, and wanted to understand it better. It had really bothered me, and made me question my level of commitment to them. I have the opportunity to have one gift matched by my employer, and the past two years this match went to them. But this year I’m tempted to give it elsewhere. Because they never got back to me about my concern.”
— Anonymous donor
Sometimes donors give less because you never asked them to give more, and someone else did.
It may be forgetting most donors want to give.
They’ve demonstrated this by already giving to you. But it’s your job to fan the flames and help them continue to give. Often the first gift is a test. Donors hold back on giving more until they see what happens next. Does it make them feel good about their decision to give?
It may be forgetting major donors especially want to give.
Once someone has shown they trust you enough to give you the big bucks, they still want to verify their trust was not misplaced. While true that not everyone wants to be wined and dined, it’s still important to try to build a relationship. Try to meet up. If they don’t want to meet, send a survey to learn more about their interests and preferences. If they don’t respond to the survey, send an invitation to a free event. Ask them if they’d like to participate in a volunteer activity. See if they’d like to give advice or feedback on a particular initiative. Show them you value them for more than their money. And, for goodness sakes, when it’s time to ask – especially if it’s for a particular project or the need has increased – ask them to make a larger gift.
“In general, I’m satisfied with my level of giving, but there is one cause that would make me give at a much higher level. The irony is that they never ask me to give more generously.”
— Anonymous donor
Often donors give less because you killed the relationship between staff and donor.
It may be you engaged in bait and switch.
If you tell a donor you want to meet to get their advice, do only that. Central to establishing and maintaining trust is following through on your promises. When you set up any type of “getting to know you” meeting, rather than a visit to make a monetary pitch, use two ears and one mouth. Be respectful. If you do plan to ask about their philanthropic commitment, let them know in advance this will be part of your conversation.
It may be you handed them off to another staff member, for internal reasons, and they felt they’d done something wrong.
Here’s what one donor, who’s also a fundraiser, wrote to me. She was beating herself up for being too much of a prima donna, but she felt how she felt:
“When a nonprofit doesn’t treat me as if I matter, as I carefully and consciously treat donors to my organization, I get a little peeved. I know maybe I should be “above” such a thing, but… I’m human. I like a little human connection and recognition of who I am; what I care about. Here’s the deal: I’m a $5,000 donor at one particular organization with both a national and local footprint. That’s “major” for me. I started at $1,000, because I truly believe in their mission. They noticed then, and assigned me to a local “individual giving manager.” Lovely! She reached out to me at least quarterly, we had phone calls, zoom calls, and even met in person for coffee. We talked about me joining their development committee; maybe even their board. I felt valued, and increased my giving incrementally. So far so good. But… when I hit $5,000, everything changed. I must have “aged” out of this individual’s portfolio. They assigned me to someone else, and this time it was on the national level. That individual sent me an email. Once. I can’t even remember their name, and have no idea who to reach out to now. This year they’ve sent me some expensive mailings, and a couple of appeals asking me via letter to renew my gift or consider increasing it to $7,500.
I don’t know what to do. I love the mission, but wonder if my gift really matters to them. Maybe my gift would make a larger impact elsewhere?”
Here’s what I told her:
Don’t beat yourself up about feeling how you feel. It’s critical for fundraisers to understand how donors feel – because most of philanthropy is feelings-based. Perhaps your handover from local to national had as much to do with changing workloads and staff turnover as anything else. However, for whatever reason, it doesn’t make you feel good.
You want to know they care. Both about your philanthropy, and about you. And for many donors, giving is a reflection of who they want to be. You want to be your best self, and live up to your potential. The gift you give to this organization will no doubt help them and those who rely on them. But will it help you fulfill your potential?
The Maimonides “Golden Ladder” of Giving says capacity giving (teach a person to fish), and anonymous (no credit needed) gifts, are the “highest,” but I’ve never really held to that. I believe all giving is important. And virtuous. Plus, the Maimonides Ladder ignores a lot of what we’ve learned in recent years about the psychology of giving.
You, because you’re human, are driven to want to light up the pleasure center of your brain with “feel good” shots of dopamine. That doesn’t make you bad; it makes you human. And it’s human nature to want to be rewarded and valued. If this organization took you out for coffee again, maybe you would increase your gift. And that would be better for everyone. You, them and their constituents.
I also asked Lisa Greer, author of Philanthropy Revolution: How to Inspire Donors, Build Relationships and Make a Difference, for her perspective as a donor who’s experienced this phenomenon on multiple occasions, for her perspective.
“They don’t mean it to be awkward, but moving through the “donor pyramid,” as it’s been taught to a myriad of fundraisers, means that donors get a new “contact person” every time they get to a new “level” in their giving. I’ve had this happen to me, and I couldn’t figure out why it happened. Did I offend the previous fundraiser? Did I do something wrong? Why in the world would an organization – one that lives or dies based on donor contributions – want to “kill” a relationship between a donor and a staff fundraiser? The reason that most NPOs do this is because they don’t see the fundraiser/donor interaction as a relationship, even though it’s a sense of relationship that keeps a donor giving year after year. Instead, they assume that donors want a more “senior” person to work with as they become more “attached” to the organization. That assumption, most of the time, is just plain wrong.”
–– Lisa Greer, author, donor, coach, Philanthropy 451
Giving is a proactive act; it takes energy. Sometimes, when folks are feeling busy, a bit lazy or simply unenthused, they’ll take the path of least resistance. It’s a fundraiser’s job to facilitate philanthropy by energizing their donors. It’s up to you to take your donor by the hand and show them how they can feel really good by giving to your cause.
When you ignore donors, they don’t feel energized. If a donor doesn’t feel energized, it shouldn’t be surprising when they decide to look away or look elsewhere.
Your job is to be a magnet that continually draws your donor closer. This is good for everyone, as I’m a firm believer the donor-nonprofit relationship is symbiotic. Donors give you money, and you give back something they value. It’s usually an intangible that fuels their existential search for meaning and the human quest to be all that one can be. To feel self-actualized.
There’s nothing more important to building donor lifetime value, and charities attempting to cut corners will, sadly, pay the price.
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- Practical Tips
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Photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash