A Walk Around the Track With an Event Donor
On most weekends in the spring and summer in Atlanta, there is at least one walk, run or ride happening to support a fantastic charity and raise money for a fantastic cause. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be elbow to elbow with some of the fine folks participating in an event this weekend. And me being the ever-curious blog writer, I decided to do a little "research" while hanging out with these folks post-event.
So, I have good news and bad news — but let me set the scene.
- Medium to large event
- Big brand
- Lots of awareness stuff around the event area
- Roads blocked for the event for the safety of the walkers
Can't figure out which organization it is? Good. I'm specifically trying to be vague because, in reality, this is not about the charity. Why? Because I think this is a common situation where we all can probably do a little better. In other words, let's not focus on who this was — let's focus on what I learned from a few team leaders and members who were participating as a group.
I wanted to know a few things from these people, and I'm going to give you the highlights of our conversation and my thoughts on how we can all learn to do things differently. Here's how the conversation unfolded.
'So, tell me about the organization ...'
This was an interesting discussion, but the event planners would have been proud. The participants were able to really tell me the basics of the organization's mission and even about the goals of the event. There was a sense of pride in them because they were really happy to talk about their fundraising and how their team was one of the top teams. I'm not sure I've ever really just sat down and talked with folks right after they participated in an event — it was really uplifting. That moment in time was electrified. They were finished with the "hard part" — the fundraising, the activity itself, etc. So I commend the event planners and marketing/communications teams because the track signs and other awareness content and materials really did drive home the key messages for these folks. And I cannot state it enough — the sense of accomplishment and pride was something you could feel with this group of people.
One thought I immediately had was how much do we, as marketers and fundraisers, take advantage of that "high" these people have right after the event? I'm not talking about just shoving a pre-registration form in their hands for next year's event. I'm talking about real engagement to capitalize on the sense of being connected to something big and feeling good about their connection.
'How is the organization doing? I mean, what progress is it making in XXXX (the mission)?'
This was when the conversation fell apart, but I was really surprised about how it ended. At first, my question didn't seem to make sense. I explained that I wanted to know if they knew what kind of progress was being made in the specific area supported by this charity. I got some more blank stares. But since this was only my second question, I didn't want to upset them and have them walk away. So I started to answer the question for them. We talked about the specific mission. We talked about how tough the situation is. This got them talking about the topic of progress.
The conversation landed around the key metrics for progress. I gave the example of when I worked for the American Cancer Society — it was around how many lives had been saved, it was around how many people were diagnosed with cancer that year, it was around what kind of progress was being made in new drugs, types of treatment, etc. This is all I had to say to get them started.
What the group members realized is that they were really informed at the surface level of the charity. They said they had spent months raising money from their friends and families but had never really stopped to understand anything deeper about the organization. What excited me the most was their interest in finding out more about the progress being made. And, no, I do not believe this was to just make me feel good. You would have had the same opinion if you had listened to them share information that they knew and talk about what they wish they did know.
I'm sure you can guess where I took the conversation next ...
'What kind of information have you received from the organization? Have you been on its website? Gotten anything through the mail? '
Now, let me say, yes, I was one of those people in the nonprofit world who really disliked when the event people wanted to keep their constituents under lock and key so no one else would touch them. But I promise I was not in any way biased in my conversation with these folks.
The answers that I got to my questions about what they've received from the organization were not completely unexpected. Overall, none of them had really engaged with the organization outside of the event fundraising site and the meetings around the event. I knew that the website they were referencing was just about the event, but they actually thought they had been on the website for the organization. I didn't really point this out, but once I figured that out it made me think through the concept of online engagement with event constituents. If they really believe the event website (the fundraising platform for the event) is the organization's website, we either have to bring the important content to that website or we need to create opportunities for them to visit the organization's site.
This is an important issue because the event is not the same thing as the organization. As fundraisers, we often talk about event constituents not being as connected to the organization. What if we're helping create this dynamic? What if, in our desire to protect these folks from other marketing and fundraising, we are limiting their understanding of the organization as a whole?
Once we finished with the self-realization that they, in fact, did not know a lot about the organization, I decided to keep diving in on some specific topics. Can you guess what I brought up next?
'So, sometimes organizations get highlighted for spending too much money on management and fundraising vs. how much money they spend on their missions. Not sure if you have ever seen some of those stories, but do you know how much XXXX (organization) spends on its mission?'
As a fundraiser, I can't tell you how excited I was about their answers. The first thing out of their mouths was that they assumed (since this was a large organization) the organization was using its best judgment on how to spend money. But in reality, they did not know the actual percentage of funds that would go to the mission. They said they used a number in their fundraising appeals, but they were now questioning whether that was for the event vs. the organization overall. I didn't provide any answers — just listened to them talk.
But I didn't let them off the hook. We went deep into the conversation and touched on the difference between fundraising costs for an event vs. the overall organization. We talked about the watchdogs out there (did I mention that by this point they knew I was in the industry?) and what they knew about them. Here's the net of our conversation:
- They absolutely understood that it costs more money to do some things. But their overall opinion was that it mattered what the organization did overall, not what it did each and every day or at one event vs. another event.
- They had opinions about how much was "too much" to spend on fundraising and what they referred to as "other stuff" (salaries, operating expenses, etc.). In reality, they felt that if the organization was between 25 percent and 30 percent for those expenses so 70 percent to 75 percent was going to the mission, they were comfortable. This is an important point because when they talked about the "other stuff" expenses, they were looking at it from the perspective of being young professionals (they were in the mid-40s). They even said things like, "Nonprofits can't succeed if they don't have money to hire good people to manage things."
- Since they hovered around the 30 percent, that gave me a chance to bring up the watchdog situation. I told them that the Better Business Bureau has a special group that is focused on nonprofits (Wise Giving Alliance). I also told them of the others such as Charity Navigator and CharityWatch. This was news to them. These folks were average professionals, supporting charities and obviously participating in community events. But they had no idea there were "watchdogs." In fact, they wanted to understand why I called them watchdogs. (Oops — I might have introduced a little bias into the conversation. But, hey, I'm not in market research for my day job, so what do I care?)
- I explained to them that there were actually bad apples in the industry. We talked about scams and shams and everything in between. So I opened their eyes to the fact that not all nonprofit organizations really do the right thing. They still felt that the "larger, more well-known organizations" were probably doing just fine. But they said they could see how smaller organizations may have higher cost ratios. I can't stress enough how they approached the conversation from a business perspective. It was not an emotional conversation — it was more of a math problem to them. They bantered back and forth about what would be acceptable and what would not.
- They did have a big question — they wondered why the IRS was not monitoring nonprofits. They couldn't figure out what the watchdogs were doing that the IRS couldn't do. Again, it became about transparency, and they actually questioned whether the watchdogs were looking at information other than revenue and expenses from a nonprofit's financial statement or if they were looking at things differently. So, they went through a little bit of a "do the watchdogs know something that the IRS doesn't" paranoid conversation. But after all that, they continued to come back to one place. They feel like the organizations need to be transparent with their donors and share their true expenses and explain them. But they also feel that organizations should be allowed to manage their companies and missions the way they feel is most effective. Agreeing that some scams make it difficult, they feel most organizations are doing the right thing.
I loved these people. We bonded over the topic, they didn't mind me asking some crazy questions and they even bought me a beer as the conversation expanded. I attend conferences, consult with many nonprofits and have worked for some major nonprofits. But sometimes I realize how much we use internal information to drive decisions and develop "professional" opinions.
Granted, I know that a group of eight people does not represent an entire audience segment, but this is not the first time I've interviewed a group of donors and supporters to find that opinions and expectations do not always line up with what we believe within our own walls.
But one thing is for sure. As event managers, event volunteers, marketers and communicators, we need to put more emphasis on a balanced view of the organization. In other words, we need to understand that these folks are very excited about the event but are equally curious about the organization behind it.
We have a tendency to believe they are less interested in the organization. No. 1 — why are we even accepting that they might not be interested in the organization? And No. 2 — perhaps they are not interested because we don't show them anything to be interested in. The ball is in our court to make this happen.
Vice President, Strategy & Development
Eleventy Marketing Group
Angie is ridiculously passionate about EVERYTHING she’s involved in — including the future and success of our nonprofit industry.
Angie is a senior exec with 25 years of experience in direct and relationship marketing. She is a C-suite consultant with experience over the years at both nonprofits and agencies. She currently leads strategy and development for marketing intelligence agency Eleventy Marketing Group. Previously she has worked at the innovative startup DonorVoice and as general manager of Merkle’s Nonprofit Group, as well as serving as that firm’s CRM officer charged with driving change within the industry. She also spent more 14 years leading the marketing, fundraising and CRM areas for two nationwide charities, The Arthritis Foundation and the American Cancer Society. Angie is a thought leader in the industry and is frequent speaker at events, and author of articles and whitepapers on the nonprofit industry. She also has received recognition for innovation and influence over the years.