Easier Said than Done: Fundraising in the Age of Cynicism
You might be amazed at how cynical a lot of donors are. I saw that cynicism up close a few years ago: I was assigned to interview donors who were sponsoring third-world children through a well-known religious organization. Again and again, those sponsors told me that the most wonderful thing about being sponsors was discovering that the children they sponsored were real people.
Think about that: These folks weren't habitual criminals or bomb-tossing nihilists. They were ordinary people with strong charitable impulses. And they assumed that the well-reputed organization they were sending checks to was connecting them to "composite" children or making them share their children with many others — either of which directly contradicted what the organization claimed about the one sponsor/one child relationship. In other words, they assumed the organization was lying to them. They were surprised, even amazed, when they saw proof that the organization was being truthful.
That's what we're up against. No wonder fundraising is so hard! You can't make donors forget past scandals, when nonprofits used money poorly, even criminally. Or marketed untruthfully. You'll just have to create conditions that help donors get past that nagging fear that they're being taken. Here are a few steps you can take:
Ask like you mean it
Too many fundraising offers are vague. They do little more than wave a brand in people's faces and hope that motivates them to give. That old, snake-oil marketing assumption plays right into cynicism. It inadvertently says, "We don't really need your money for anything ?specific. It just goes in a giant pot, and we'll use it to ?pay our princely executive salaries. Unless we use it ?frivolously or fraudulently."
Instead, treat donors as partners. Or investors. Tell them about specific dollar amounts that will accomplish specific goals. That shows donors you need their dollars to accomplish specific things.
I realize that means you're raising restricted funds, something many nonprofits are terrified of doing. It might be time to count the cost of this old-marketing practice. In a cynical marketplace, it might be more than you can afford.
Give donors choices
Specificity is good. And more specificity is better. Letting donors direct their giving sends a clear signal that what they're doing is real.
Have credentials and show them
Make sure you qualify for credentials from watchdogs like the Better Business Bureau, Charity Navigator, Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, or other local or niche groups. Then make their logos visible. It doesn't matter what you or I might think of the usefulness or completeness of such ratings. Donors look for these things, so bite the bullet and put them ?out there.
And watchdogs aren't the only source of credentials that can help donors trust you. Other types include:
• Endorsements from respected celebrities. (Careful: The wrong celebrity can do more harm than good.)
• Endorsements from other organizations.
• Ratings or reviews from trusted publications or sites.
Let donors speak for you
People trust other people more than they trust organizations and institutions. Study after study shows that most people make buying decisions only after reading user reviews. It's this social proof that helps overcome distrust of sellers, who, after all, have no interest in giving unbiased views of what they sell.
It's becoming the same with charity. Donors will look for social proof that it is what it says it is. Give donors a voice in your fundraising. This is easiest to do online, but even in noninteractive media, you can have donors talking, sharing their good experiences and why they give.
Be open about your finances and governance
Freely sharing information says a lot to donors about your trustworthiness. Make it easy for them to see your financial statement, annual report and IRS 990 forms. Post them, and publicize where they can be found.
Better yet, go beyond just posting general financial information. Make it clear to donors how you intend to spend the money they send you. What's the cost breakdown of this offer? Why is it so cheap (or expensive)? How much goes to overhead? Pie charts make it easy.
The fact that you share the information is the ?important thing. Don't be discouraged if "nobody's reading it." For many donors, probably most, its availability is more important than what it actually says.
Use the Donor Bill of Rights
Unless your organization is a little bit skeevy or a lot out-?of-date, you already adhere to this excellent and important document from the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Google it; you'll find it. Post the Donor Bill of Rights online and what it means specifically for donors. ?Or create a special version for your particular donors.
Ignore your lawyers
If you must have disclaimers, write them in plain English, not in the obfuscatory jargon of lawyers. Legal-speak is inherently hostile and feels untrustworthy. Don't cover your butt at the cost of coming across as evil.
The battle for a donor's trust isn't over once you have a gift in your hand. It continues as long as the relationship does. So make sure you keep doing all the above things, plus handle those who give with complete respect.
Do receipts right
A good receipt is about the same topic as the message that motivated the gift. Typical nonprofit receipts are generic and don't connect to the gift. Getting a receipt like that is like talking to someone with multiple personalities.
A receipt should use the same language, with the same level of emotion and urgency, that motivated the response. That makes it clear the need was, indeed, real, and it reinforces the donor's decision to give.
And while you're making those receipts relevant, send them out quickly. Nothing says "sloppy, disengaged, possibly fraudulent organization" like a receipt that takes weeks to arrive. If you don't have your receipting down to 24-hour turnaround, you aren't where you need to be.
Open the doors with a donor newsletter
You do have a newsletter, don't you? It's the one type of communication donors actually want from you.
A good newsletter is about donors and the impact of their giving. Secondary content can be about other opportunities to get involved. Don't send a newsletter that's about how efficient, cutting-edge, famous and cool you are. None of that matters. The donor is the story.
A newsletter isn't the only way to report back. Consider special progress reports about ongoing projects they support. Surprise donors with information about their impact. Lavish them with thanks and updates.
These things give evidence that your work is real, that the donor hasn't been tricked. They show her that her support matters and is appreciated.
That's how you fight cynicism. You'll know it's working when you see better donor retention, more upgrading and great word-of-mouth in the marketplace.
Jeff Brooks ?is creative director at TrueSense Marketing (truesense.com) and keeper of the Future Fundraising Now blog (futurefundraising?now.com). Reach him at ?email@example.com