The Futility of Educating Donors
This fall, I’m starting 10th grade. It’s my third time. Sadly, only the first time through was recorded on my own transcript — I’m doing a lot better at high school than I did when I was in high school. These recent runs at 10th grade are as a shadow to my kids. You see, I’m kind of into education. It’s important. And it’s cool. It’s even fun, at times.
But there’s one kind of education I’m wary of: educating donors.
A lot of nonprofits put tons of energy into educating their donors. They make it a priority right next to raising funds.
For the most part, educating donors is a futile and money-wasting exercise. Not only does it squander resources and opportunities — but it nearly always fails to educate.
Here’s why it doesn’t work
I see two reasons educating donors is such a losing proposition:
1. Most folks don’t really want to be educated. Let me clarify that: Pretty much everybody would rather eat a bug than have more facts crammed into their heads.
I know this because I used to be a teacher.
I thought I was a pretty good teacher, but one thing always deflated me: The coolest, most popular thing I could do for my students — something that would literally make them break out into applause — was to cancel a class. To tell them, in effect, “Tomorrow, you won’t get your education — the thing you’ve dedicated this period of your life to and that’s costing you (well, someone) a pile of money.”
Can you think of any other business (other than death-and-dismemberment insurance) from which people so earnestly don’t want their money’s worth?
It’s not just college students, either. Most people, most of the time, actively avoid being educated.
I don’t want to give you the impression that people in general are dull-witted, Philistine troglodytes with no intellectual curiosity or interest in the world around them.
Far from it. Nearly everyone has a set of interests that they know a lot about, pursue with passion and give meaningful effort to educate themselves about.
In my own circle of friends, there are people who are uncommonly educated about Thai cooking, church vestments, 19th-century string quartets, stadium architecture and the history of golf. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I’m a sucker for geographic curiosities. (There’s an enclave of India that’s inside an enclave of Bangladesh that’s inside an enclave of India that’s inside Bangladesh. That is just super cool, as far as I’m concerned.)
But my smart, lively, curious Thai-cooking friend would rather make pad thai with elbow macaroni and ketchup than be instructed about geographical curiosities.
Think about it: What’s relevant, interesting and worthwhile comes from within. After childhood — when we’re forced to learn what adults tell us is important — each of us sets our own learning agenda. According to that agenda, things that might seem like critical knowledge to a well-meaning nonprofit likely are just random, unattached (and largely boring) facts that we can happily live without.
Learning is hard work. And the payoff tends to be indirect and long-term. People are busy. They have to be choosy about where they use their energy. Anything that’s not necessary or fun (or best, both) isn’t going to trigger much engagement.
You can educate until you’re blue in the larynx, but it’s not going to get through to people who aren’t already interested.
2. Fundraising media are terrible teaching venues. What does it look like when a donor receives a piece of direct-mail fundraising? It’s not pretty. Picture a mailbox stuffed with bills, catalogs, useless credit card offers, maybe a personal letter — and half a dozen or so fundraising appeals. Every single day, more stuff arrives than she can possibly read in a day. Faced with this avalanche, she stands over the recycle bin and quickly sorts it into categories:
● Things she has to deal with.
● Things she wants to deal with.
● Things she can safely ignore.
When something says (or even seems to say), “You need to learn something,” she can breathe a sigh of relief and let it fall into the recycle bin.
If your attempt at education gets through that merciless screen, it still faces an uphill battle: Learning takes concentration and dedication. These are traits direct-response media don’t encourage. Like all marketing, they excel at motivating quick, right-brain decisions. They’re built for skimming and are meant to stand out among the 1,500-plus marketing messages Americans see each day. Direct mail isn’t good at promoting contemplation, internalizing, memorizing — nor any of the other struggles we go through to learn.
What to do
So do you just give up? Is educating donors a bad thing? Not at all. It’s very good. The more a donor understands your cause, the better donor she’ll be. The better advocate, volunteer, thinker, voter and prayer she’ll be. She’ll even be a more well-rounded human being.
But education has to happen on the donor’s agenda — not yours. Before education can happen, someone has to care in an active, intentional way. And charitable giving is a huge step toward deeper caring. If you concentrate on raising funds (that is your job, after all), you’ll help more donors get educated than you ever will by hitting them over the head with your attempts to teach them on your agenda.
In this time of free-flowing digital information, you can simply make all the important stuff available on your Web site — at almost no cost to anyone.
There’s a Zen saying: When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears. Reach their minds through their pocketbooks. Then you can be the teacher they want. When they’re ready. FS
Jeff Brooks is creative director at Columbia, Md.-based database marketing agency Merkle.