How to Revolutionize Your Nonprofit Culture to Stop Losing Your Donors
It's common for retail businesses to adopt the mantra: "The customer is always right." But when's the last time you heard "The donor is always right?" Too often, the opposite is true.
I hear a lot of complaining about donors. They should do this (e.g., give because it's the "right" thing to do; be compliant and not make us work so hard); they shouldn't do that (e.g., give any way other than "unrestricted"; require reports that take staff hours to complete). I don't hear enough of "What can we do to delight our donors today?"
What can you do to delight your donors?
In What is customer service for? Seth Godin reminds us that customer service succeeds when it accomplishes what the organization sets out to accomplish.
Aha! That may be the reason so many nonprofits do such a poor job delighting their donors. They've made no commitment to do so. In fact, they think it's the donors who should be delighting them (with nice fat checks)!
Why you must commit to a customer service culture.
Donors make your mission possible. Without them, your organization has no raison d'etre. Similarly, without you, your donors can't find the meaning they seek. They want to see wrongs righted ... find cures for diseases ... keep people from starving ... but they don't have a clue how to do it on their own. They can only do it through you.
The nonprofit customer service culture is about gratitude.
I implore you to shift your thinking—and the culture of your organization—in the direction of gratitude, rather than greediness, toward your donors. What's important about making this philosophical shift is that it forces you to think very specifically about what you're grateful for.
You aren't simply asking your donors for money. Similarly, you aren't thanking your donors for money.
You thank Nancy because she helped you save a grove of trees. You thank Liam because he helped you put food on a hungry family's table. You thank Tom, Dick and Harry because they make your mission possible.
It is because you are so grateful that customer service becomes a breeze. You want to serve these wonderful heroes—these philanthropists who demonstrate their love of humankind with every gift. These miraculous people who voluntarily give of themselves to assure that every single one of your nonprofit stories has a happy ending.
It's a really good thing when you want to do something that turns out to be the very best thing you can do. Because we know from research (see Blackbaud benchmarking report, Donor-Centered Fundraising, and Donor Retention and Loyalty) that donor service is the single biggest driver of donor loyalty toward your organization.
It Takes a Village
Everyone must get on board. Which means you need buy-in, from the top down. Your donors only know one organization. They don't care which department you work in. If the fundraiser treats the donor well, but the receptionist treats them rudely, then your hard work is destroyed.
Make the practice of customer service part of your new employee orientation. Make it part of everyone's job description to interact with donors. Include the daily practice of gratitude in your employee handbook. If you want your donors to stay uplifted by their philanthropy then you've got to practice gratitude as a way of life.
And it takes a village, because gratitude must be repeated in order to stick.
Here's why: Psychological research on gratitude by Seligman and Steen indicates that one-time acts of gratitude quickly lose their effect. They found that a one-time act of thoughtful gratitude produced an immediate 10 percent increase in happiness for folks who were the gratitude recipients, but the effect was cut in half within a week and was completely gone within six months.
Devote a portion of every day to gratitude.
You can't simply pay gratitude lip service. You need a regimen. Ask everyone on your staff to participate. Ask your volunteers too. Show them the way. Here are a few ideas:
5 Actionable Tips to Instill a Gratitude Culture
- Keep a stack of five note cards on your desk. Each day, write a little thank you to someone who did you a kindness that week. At the end of the week, replenish your stock
- Set aside 15 minutes each day for thank you calls or texts or tweets (depending on the communication preference of your recipient). You don't have to call just major donors. Call anyone who strikes you as deserving of a little hug that week.
- Give your board members assignments to call and thank donors. I've found they love doing this, and it has the added benefit of getting them comfortable talking with donors (and on a path to becoming more comfortable with fundraising). When I did this, after a while folks actually asked me to give them these calls!
- Give your program staff assignments to call and thank donors. This helps them to understand the importance of stewardship as they, too, begin to see that donors are just people. Nice folks. Caring human beings who aren't stuffy or "above them" or anything else negative they may have imagined.
- Institute a practice of "TYIF" (Thank You It's Friday). Set aside some time every Friday for "TYIF" note-writing, thank you calls, texts, tweets, emails or whatever medium you think will do the job with your particular intended recipients. Imagine someone coming over the loudspeaker every Friday at 4:00 p.m. and saying "It's TYIF time!" You could even have some music piped in to set the proper mood.
The nonprofit/donor relationship is symbiotic.
You serve them; they serve you. Ad infinitum. If you drop the ball, so will they. There are plenty of other organizations out there ready, willing and able to serve them.
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of Clairification. A sought-after coach and consultant, Claire is a frequent contributor to leading nonprofit resources including 4GOOD, Nonprofit Hub, Nonprofit.about.com, npENGAGE Experts, 3rd Sector, the Foundation Center and Guidestar. Claire writes a bi-monthly column, "Charity Clairity" for NonProfit PRO and a monthly nonprofit social media feature for Maximize Social Business and is a "Top 100 Content Marketing Influencer" on Twitter. Clairification was named "Best Fundraising Blog of 2013" by FundRaising Success Magazine. A member of the California State Bar and a graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco. Connect with Claire on Twitter, Pinterest or LinkedIn.
If you like craft fairs, baseball games, art openings, vocal and guitar, and political conversation, you’ll like to hang out with Claire Axelrad. Claire, J.D., CFRE, will inspire you through her philosophy of philanthropy, not fundraising. After a 30-year development career that earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award, Claire left the trenches to begin her coaching/teaching practice, Clairification. Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, She’ll be your guide, so you can be your donor’s guide on their philanthropic journey. A member of the California State Bar and graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco.