Your Secret Donor Hates You
I have a friend named Tim. He’s an investment banker in Manhattan, makes a ton of money and likes to give to those who are less fortunate than himself.
Tim loves the concept of charity. Unfortunately, after 15 years of writing checks to New York’s nonprofit organizations, Tim hates charities.
He’s tired of having his name sold to groups similar to the one to which he donated. He’s tired of getting phone calls on his private line from charities he’s never heard of. And he’s tired of writing a healthy check to a nonprofit, only to get a solicitation letter from it a mere month later.
So, what’s a guy like Tim to do? Stop giving altogether? No. Thankfully, Tim still sees the needs in his community and is imbued with a philanthropic spirit his parents taught him. He hasn’t put his money back in his pocket and gone home — yet. But he has taken the first step down that path.
Tim gives to charities anonymously.
This is an unnatural act for a man of Tim’s age (late 30s) and profession. It wouldn’t hurt his career to be seen on donor lists in annual reports reviewed by his superiors. Tim doesn’t give anonymously like The Atlantic Philanthropies founder Charles Feeney did — because he’s publicity-shy and wants to conceal his identity from the press. Tim does it because he’s sick of charities and their customer-unfriendly tactics.
And Tim is not alone.
The online-giving portal Network for Good states that 20 percent of the people that use its service do so anonymously. A donor that uses the site to make a charitable gift gets a receipt from Network for Good, and the charity gets the donation. But Network for Good can conceal the donor’s identity from the recipient group.
In 2006, anonymous giving accounted for more than $7 million in donations made through the popular online site; at an average gift of $100, this is a ton of people who have no interest in their charity of choice having the opportunity to thank them.
According to a March 2006 study Network for Good did of its donors, the opportunity to give anonymously was one of the primary reasons why people chose the Web site to process their gift. The Internet allows this to happen, but the behavior of charities has made it necessary.
This should scare the hell out of those nonprofits that do it the right way, and that have respect for their donors.
What does it mean?
First of all, the rise of anonymous online giving keeps reputable charities from ever having the opportunity to cultivate donors like Tim as he ages and becomes wealthier. A charity will never have the chance to convince him to concentrate his giving on its particular ambitious goals and plans for measuring them, because it will have no idea who he is.
Even more ominous: The next step for exasperated donors, after they’ve decided to give anonymously because they feel disrespected by their charities, is to simply stop giving. Tim has sent them a warning. He’s already revoked their right to know who he, their donor, is. If that doesn’t satisfy him, he’ll begin to revoke his gifts, because the things that led Tim to the anonymous sanctuary of online giving are the same factors that eventually cause donors to stop giving altogether. According to Penelope Burke, president of Cygnus Applied Research, the majority of American donors who stopped supporting a particular charity did so because they no longer received prompt acknowledgments of their gifts, they received no confirmation that the contributions were used as they intended, and they were given no evidence of measurable results as to what their donations had achieved.
These are the same reasons people elect to give anonymously. Don’t kid yourself into believing that donors are choosing this route as a result of some sort of higher calling; they’re doing it because they’re sick of being treated like pieces of meat.
What do we do now?
According to Katya Andresen, vice president of marketing at Network for Good, nonprofits have a problem with the simple skill we all were taught in first grade: just being polite. Andresen argues that nonprofits should do the following, before they worry about fancy messages or marketing plans:
- Ask donors how and how often they want to hear from you, and then honor those preferences.
- Thank donors nicely.
- Tell donors the difference they made.
I would add that charities should stop sending marketing packages camouflaged as newsletters. I don’t know how many donors I’ve talked to who have no interest in reading a 20-page piece of propaganda on how great the charity is, with little detail or data about how it’s attaining (or even measuring) success. And I must again plead with America’s charities to stop selling donors’ names without their permission; it’s the No. 1 complaint we hear at Charity Navigator from donors, and it eventually will turn off an entire generation of them.
These suggestions seem so embarrassingly simple. Is it possible that we as a sector really aren’t doing these things for the people who allow us to pursue our missions? After talking to people like my friend Tim, it’s clear that we’re not. And that’s a shame. Because Tim shouldn’t be skulking around in the shadows, giving in a manner roughly equivalent to dropping a sack of money on a charity’s doorstep in the dark of night. And yet, by forcing him to use an online portal to remain anonymous, that’s exactly what he’s doing.
If your donor doesn’t want you to know who he is, how much trust could he possibly have in you?
Trent Stamp is president of Charity Navigator.