You’ve heard it a thousand times: Fundraising isn’t really about money—it’s about relationships with donors. But does your organization have programs in place that truly reflect this perspective? If your approach is like hundreds of others I’ve observed firsthand, probably not.
In your major gift program, for example, the byword is bonding. Yet how many hours per week do your major gift officers spend meeting face-to-face with donors and prospects? How many of your board members or senior managers are personally acquainted with your top donors? In what ways do you keep your biggest donors up to date on the principal programs and issues that affect your work? If you have good answers to these questions, go to the head of the class. You’re not alone—but the space up there isn’t crowded.
Now, when money is tight, you can’t worry just about your major givers. It’s doubly important that you operate as though all your donors are your best friends in the world. (In more ways than one, they are.) To survive tough times and thrive when the economic storm clouds lighten, you need to devote a great deal of attention to thinking about how you can make your donors’ experience with your organization more meaningful.
In recent years, there has been an increasing amount of research into donor motivation both by practitioners and by academics. As a profession, we fundraisers have begun to learn a lot about what moves donors, and what doesn’t. Researchers have plumbed the depths of a hundred questions or more. But one fact does seem to emerge clearly from almost all of what I’ve read: Donors crave appreciation for their gifts—and they’re liable to become downright cranky if they’re not thanked promptly and warmly.
No doubt you’re attentive to the need for acknowledging major gifts. But how about gifts in smaller denominations?
In direct mail circles, many fundraisers lament the low rates of conversion from one-time to multiple givers, and the higher but still sobering rates of renewal of multi-year donors. Yet so many direct mail fundraising programs skimp on—or entirely avoid—donor acknowledgments. I know this is the case, because for a great many years I conducted an annual test of thank-you practices by major American mailers (what’s called “mystery shopping” in other countries). I was truly appalled by how many sent gift acknowledgments only weeks, or even months, after the fact—or failed to send any at all. I’m certain, without any doubt whatsoever, that the poor renewal rates that plague so many direct mail fundraising programs are partly the result of this cavalier treatment.
What do donors want the most? They want to be treated as human beings, not statistics! Yet is this the message you deliver when you mail generic thank-you notes by bulk mail . . . when donors receive them weeks after sending their gifts . . . when all you get after giving online is an instant email acknowledgment with no follow-up . . . when your gift acknowledgments include not a hint of the appeal that gave rise to the donors’ gifts . . . or when (to make matters even worse) your thank-you is a postcard rather than a letter?
Sure, times are tough. Your budget has been cut, and cut some more. Yet this is not the time to economize on gift acknowledgments. In fact, to gain a sorely needed competitive advantage in this era of tight money, you would be well advised to spend more, not less, on expressing appreciation to your donors.
If you’re laughing now—or groaning; the difference is immaterial—I suggest you consider taking another look at the preceding chapter on segmentation. Spending more on gift acknowledgments to a smaller number of donors can still save you money. Think about it!
Give your donors that warm and fuzzy feeling
Prompt, personalized thank-you notes won’t do the trick alone. It’s important that your donors—especially your most generous and responsive donors—get the feeling that you care about them more than just as sources of cold, hard cash. This is the impression they’re likely to get if you:
Never communicate with your donors except to ask for money.
Ask for an additional gift as soon as you receive the last one.
Include a postage-paid reply envelope with every gift acknowledgment.
I’m well aware that many direct marketing specialists heartily recommend such practices. I think they’re wrong.
Three decades ago, when I began my career in fundraising, it made perfectly good sense to undertake a consistently aggressive solicitation program. Competition, at least by today’s standards, was slight. Most direct marketing donors were less sophisticated and less demanding. But times have changed, and so have donor attitudes.
Today, donors demand heartfelt appreciation, considerate and responsive treatment, and information that inspires their trust. It’s not enough to ask them for money. You’ll need to keep them well informed about your organization’s work in general—and about the specific projects and programs they’ve supported.
This article is excerpted from Mal Warwick’s newest book, Fundraising When Money Is Tight: A Strategic and Practical Guide to Surviving Tough Times and Thriving in the Future (Jossey-Bass, April 2009). Copyright © 2009 by Mal Warwick. All rights reserved.