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Are younger donors alive ... or dead to you?
Tom Ahern

July, 2010

In May, I was in New Zealand at conferences; and there, I heard a couple of seasoned under-40s argue the merits of "street" or, as the practice is called outside the U.S., "face-to-face" fundraising.

Street fundraising is notorious for hooking the "younger donor." The average age of a Greenpeace donor acquired through street fundraising in New Zealand, for instance, is a dewy 32.

Why my interest in a type of fundraising that not a single one of my 35 or so clients now uses? Ah, well. There's the fear.

What if, one often wonders, younger donors are the answer? What if older donors are passé? Time maybe for an old dog to learn a new trick.

It's easy to see why street fundraising works as well as it does to acquire young and first-time donors.

You have the solicitor: a personable, quite often attractive young adult (students and out-of-work actors are popular). The typical solicitor is well-trained, fairly well-paid, and brightly garbed in the insignia of a brand-name charity. Prominently displayed is a license to solicit gifts.

You have the target: passersby on busy city streets.

You have the goal: to sign these passersby up for monthly giving, using "direct debits" (automatic transfers each month from a person's bank account to the charity of her choice).

In cities like London, where Greenpeace pioneered the practice in the 1990s, hundreds of cajoling street solicitors now infest the most desirable streets, collecting for Amnesty International, RSPCA, Oxfam, British Red Cross and a host of other well-known charities. Critics have a derogatory name for them: "chuggers" (i.e., "charity muggers"). And polls show that the vast majority of the public (80%) detests the practice, calling it intrusive, intimidating, and emotionally manipulative.

Yet it works. Despite the negatives, some charities now realize the bulk of their annual donations through chugging. And thanks to street solicitation, legions of donors under the age of 50 now cough up hundreds of millions of charitable pounds, dollars, and euros every year that otherwise would not be harvested.

But I also learned another intriguing fact from the street fundraising experts in New Zealand: younger donors aren't as loyal.

Ask yourself: If you could choose between acquiring a 30-year-old donor or a 45-year old donor, which would you prefer?

Well, some charities say they like to acquire 30-year-old donors because "they'll give for that much longer."

But that conclusion's based on an extraordinarily wrong assumption: that, once acquired, a donor is yours for keeps. By this assumption, a 30-year-old donor will give you 15 more years of gifts than a 45-year-old donor, everything else being equal.

Wrong. Utterly wrong, according to my New Zealand experts.

The 30-year-old donor acquired through street fundraising will likely be gone within a year. He loses interest (or maybe his job) and cancels his monthly gift.

The 45-year-old monthly donor, on the other hand, will probably continue giving for at least three years.

And those extra years of giving make all the difference. They're the only way you can make any profit. "You will never earn back the cost of acquiring a 30-year-old donor," one veteran in New Zealand warned. "They don't stick around long enough."

Acquiring a new donor through street fundraising isn't cheap. The acquisition cost -- paid by the charity to the for-profit firm that recruits, trains, and manages the chuggers -- equals about 90% of each donor's first year's donations, or about 11 of the donor's first 12 gifts. If that new donor disappears in less than a year (as 30 year old's tend to do), the charity makes nothing.

Young heads are different than older heads.

A young donor is not the same as an older donor: chemically, socially, or in terms of outlook and self-image.

Biologically, 30-year-old donors are still in the midst of their mating years. Forty-five-year-old donors are not.

That matters. Why? I'll give you one data point that every fundraiser should know.

Quiz: Which couples in America are most likely to leave a charitable bequest in their wills?

Answer: Those without children. Those with children tend to look after their family's interests first.

Why does most marketing target the young? Because the young offer an abundance of uncommitted consumerism. The young do not yet have in hand every comfort thing they need or status thing they desire. They have not yet explored a wide array of new experiences. And so they buy.

People 60 and older, on the other hand, are pretty much "there." Materially speaking, they often have everything they feel they need. If they're like my beloved mother-in-law, Jane, they're even starting to de-acquisition stuff. She's 82, and her house looks emptied.

After 60, face it, your donors are wearing a visible "sell by" date on their foreheads. They face it every morning in the mirror. Mortality never looked more real. I speak entirely from experience.

After 60, you seek a very different sort of meaning and status than your younger self sought.

When you're younger, you have "forever." Over 60, you realize you have "now."

>>> Takeaway>>>

A media and marketing blog called Engage:Boomers wrote,
"Typically, around age 50 we see a shift away from 'success' and more towards 'significance' as an underlying behavioral motivation.... [This] shift isn't a generational thing, it's a developmental thing. Reach age 50 and beyond, and one's motivation for many decisions in life shifts." Fundraising blogger Jeff Brooks explains:
  • Success-motivated fundraising would be full of facts and proof. It would say, This is going to work! We can prove it.
  • Significance-motivated fundraising would be emotional, story-driven, and highly focused on the donor. It would say, This is how you make a difference. This matters!
  • It's an important difference, and the fundraiser who grasps it always does better.


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