How to Turn a Donor Into a Stranger
When my business partner Jeff sent me this letter, I took a little trip in my mind. I went to this lady’s home and sat beside her as she was writing. It was a very sad experience. Take a moment to read what she wrote. I have faithfully reproduced it here with slight edits for clarity:
I’m writing to let you know that I will no longer be able to support your charity. It’s not because I don’t think it’s a worthy cause—I do. You provided a fantastic service to my dearly departed husband 12 years ago at a time of greatest need. I have been supporting you ever since.
I am now in my declining years and energy prices are rocketing. Like many people my age, I have been relatively frugal in the run up to my retirement and have a few dollars set aside. But I am stopping my contributions to your organization.
So, why you may ask am I stopping my support? It’s not because I can’t afford to continue with a small regular donation. The answer is because you don’t know me. I feel like a stranger.
We’ve been dating for the last 12 years, but we’re not on first-name terms. Sometimes, you even forget my name. I do enjoy the occasional magazine you send me, but it always comes with a request for an extra donation. I also acknowledge the fact that you write to me a couple of times per year, usually at Christmas and Easter, with a warm thank you—along with a very polite suggestion that I may wish to support your seasonal appeal. That’s OK, I don’t mind. What I do find upsetting, though, is that you don’t seem to be aware of the deep fondness I have of the charity. I feel like I’m just a cash cow.
Do you know that I’ve been running a monthly coffee group to raise funds for the charity for the last four years? I’m not too sure how much money it’s raised, but I think it must be getting on close to $5,000. I used to do collections for you by visiting all the shops, but my arthritis was playing havoc with my right knee during the winter months. Are you aware that I regularly donate my unwanted clothes to one of your shops and that I buy all my Christmas cards from you? Don’t tell anyone, but I often buy quite a few stocking fillers as well! Yes, I do make a regular gift by standing order, and that’s how I like to make my donation.
I’m now very old, set in my ways and, to be perfectly frank, sick of getting your direct debit forms. I’ve had several in the last three years. Surely you must realize by now that I don’t want to switch? I’ve been supporting the charity for 12 years. I don’t want my name in lights and I’m not after a medal. I just don’t want to feel like I’m "supporter reference number 5439," which I’m told I should quote if I ever call you up.
Come to think of it, maybe it would be really nice for you to give me a call every now and then? I wouldn’t want to take up too much of your time, and while I may be retired, I do keep myself busy. Nevertheless, a short chat to keep me in the loop—maybe as an alternative to one of the 40-page quarterly supporter magazines you send me would be a good idea?
Anyway, I’ve had enough, so I’ve decided to call it a day.
[Name of Donor]
(Supporter reference number 5439)
P.S Awfully sorry if it’s a lady who is reading this letter. I would have liked to have addressed the letter personally, but unfortunately you’ve never given me your name.
I had one overarching impression when I finished this letter: “It didn’t have to be this way.” This lady—this good donor—did not have to be a stranger. But she had become one for one simple reason.
She was just a source of cash rather than a partner in the cause.
Jeff and I find that this is happening far to often in nonprofits around the world. And the key way to know if it is happening in your organization is to do a little research. If it takes longer to thank the donor than it does to bank the money, you have a problem.
Let me explain.
In many nonprofits that have allowed me to look on the inside, I find elaborate systems to bank the money regardless of how it comes in or what form it is in—cash, check, credit, debit, etc. The money hits the organization, and bam, it’s in the bank and ready to be used. Meanwhile, the donor data sits on a desk somewhere waiting to be processed, sometimes taking days, weeks and even months.
Several months ago, I sat in a meeting talking about donor value attrition with some executives of a leading nonprofit. We were processing the reality that more than $9 million had been lost from good donors over the last two years, and that the two reasons for the 60 percent value attrition they were experiencing was (1) they were not telling the donor that their gift made a difference, and (2) they were not handling the thank-you process in a donor-centered way.
After I got done saying my bit, one of the executives reached into his briefcase, pulled out a receipt and said, “And here is an example of what Richard is saying. It is now October and just yesterday I got this receipt and thank you letter for a gift I made back in August!"
I about fell out of my chair. There it was—the smoking gun. Proof of how they had failed the donor. Evidence for the case on why $9 million went away. When are we going to learn that treating donors as sources of cash just does not work? I just do not understand it. I really don’t.
The scary part of all of this is that more donors than you know are thinking these kind of thoughts. They are having the feeling that they have become strangers, only valued for what they can give and not valued for the dreams they have for a hurting world that they care so much about.
Take some time to audit how the donors on your caseload are treated. Here is a short list:
- Do you know their name and is that reality reflected in your communication with them?
- Do you know what their interest and passion is?
- Do you know their communication preference?
- Are they thanked within 24 hours of receiving their gift?
- Are you sincerely interested in and nurturing what they want to do with their money vs. what you want to do with it?
If you answered “no” to any of my questions above, your donor is on a path to becoming a stranger. And that is not good.
You know what it feels like to be treated as a means to an end—to be used as a tool to accomplish someone else’s purpose. It does not feel good. So stop whatever is happening in your organization that is pushing your good donors into "stranger" status. It will honor them and also help you reach your financial goals.
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.