30 Ways to Lose Your Donor
Keeping a good donor is hard. Losing one is as easy. People do it every day, even when they have the best intentions. Here, for example, are a few surefire ways to drive away a donor who once cared enough to give you a generous amount of her hard-earned resources:
- Ask for too much. She's not a cash machine; she's a person with feelings. Getting greedy in the short run costs you in the long run … and in the not-so-long run.
- Ask for too little. On the other hand, don't insult her or make her feel unimportant by treating her as less than the generous person she is. Testing ask strings is just as important as testing messages.
- Marry her for her money. Whether you ask for a lot or a little, the relationship won't work if she feels used. Let her know she's valuable for more than just her gifts.
- Don't say thanks. Acknowledge every gift right away. Sincerely. Reference the appeal she gave to, and make a soft ask for another gift.
- Don't pay attention. Notice what she's doing for you, and make sure she knows you noticed. Send acknowledgments, of course, but mention her vital contribution in your appeal letters too.
- Hide your feelings. It can't be overstated: Emotion drives giving. Emotion drives giving. Emotion drives giving. Got it?
- Be too aggressive. She wants to be asked, but kindly and with respect. Don't push.
- Be too passive. It isn't how many donors you acquire that matters; it's how many you keep. A donor's not really a donor until she makes a second gift. So tell her how much she means to you and ask for support again right away.
- Talk too much. She wants to hear from you, but when you ramble on and on about how great you are, her eyes glaze over and she tunes you out.
- Talk too little. On the other hand, don't leave her with nothing to hold on to. Don't ramble, but tell her enough to make sure she knows how much you care and why you need her. As the old saw goes, a fundraising letter should be exactly as long as it needs to be. Not one word more, not one word less.
- Overlook her needs. She's helping because you need it, but she's also doing it because there's an emotional reward for her. Ask yourself, "What can I do to tell her how important she is to me?"
- Be fickle. Good relationships take time and devotion. "Attention must be paid," as Willy Loman's wife said in "Death of a Salesman." If you're an on-again-off-again suitor, she'll be an on-again-off-again donor. Until someone else eventually woos her away.
- Be too needy. A relationship is a partnership. Give back as much emotional satisfaction as you receive in gifts. And more.
- Be too aloof. Don't be distant, cool or corporate. Soft language and third-person narrative make for soft appeals. See No. 6 above.
- Assume she's yours for life. Nobody will put up with being taken for granted. Don't let your appeals fall into a boring sameness.
- Leave her on the sidelines. There are other ways she can be involved than just giving you money. Find other ways for her to make a difference: Send her a petition, ask her to attend a rally, whatever.
- Let her just click away. Direct mail requires active involvement. Online relationships demand less, so they inspire less commitment. So even if you met in the cloud, send her a letter now and then.
- Lack stability. You don't want to bore her. But you do need to be dependable. Pick a few appeals each year that are always the same: an annual fund, a certificate of appreciation, a membership card, things that she can come to count on.
- Forget her name. Data drives everything. If you call her Jane instead of Joan or don't know her new address, she'll find someone else who never forgets who she is.
- Sound all high and mighty. The best communication is the simplest. Complicated words and long sentences are boring.
- Talk in abstracts. "The situation is urgent, and every gift is needed," doesn't have half the impact as, "This is an emergency. I need your help." See No. 6 above.
- Be too analytical. "Why" matters, but donors give to "who." And "how." And sometimes "when." See No. 6 above.
- Write by committee. Your mother was right: Too many cooks spoil the broth. The more hands that touch a letter, the less it's going to sound like one person talking to another. Some kind of approval process is necessary, but do everything you can to keep it to the absolute minimum number of essential people.
- Be too perfect. Nobody likes that smarty-pants kid who makes everyone else feel dumb. Make a little mistake once in a while. Say "me" instead of "I" when you shouldn't. Use sentence fragments. Carefully placed little human errors like this breathe life into your letters.
- Be too imperfect. The tactical use of little mistakes can make your communications more dynamic. But beware: Just like humor, it's not for amateurs. Remember that you have to know the rules before you can break them effectively.
- Make her wonder what you're talking about. People often worry that direct-marketing language is too juvenile. That's rarely the case. Strong, simple copy doesn't talk down to donors. It just makes reading easy.
- Use a lot of statistics. Numbers work on the left side of the brain. Empathy and trust work on the right side. And there can be a wide gap in between. Statistics are very powerful to program and development people, who live or die by them. But that's not the way donors think, and it's not how they feel. Too many statistics suppress giving. Pure and simple. See No. 6 above.
- Assume she remembers all about you. Reinforcement and repetition are more powerful than you think. You spend your life thinking about your organization. Your average donor thinks about you a few seconds a month. Just about the time you're getting sick and tired of an idea, or a copy theme or a piece of art, your donor is just starting to notice it.
- Change for the sake of change. Again, what may be old hat to you is just starting to get through to your donor. If something works, stick with it.
- See No. 6 above.
Staying on your donor's good side can be a dicey proposition. People and relationships are full of paradoxes and contradictions. And that's doubly true of donor relationships, which are complicated by the fact that you'll spend a lot more time talking at your supporter than with her.
So be honest, sincere and attentive. If you assume your donors will think, feel and respond the way you do, you'll almost certainly head down the road to low results. If, on the other hand, you test and retest everything you do, and stick to best practices and principles that have been consistently proven over decades, you'll almost certainly find donors who support you year in and year out.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.